How and why Mohanlal is expanding his market beyond Kerala

Though he is the king of the box-office in Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal continues to play supporting yet substantial roles in films in other languages, what is the strategy behind it?
How and why Mohanlal is expanding his market beyond Kerala
How and why Mohanlal is expanding his market beyond Kerala
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Kaappaan, produced by Lyca, will release on September 20. The KV Anand film has Suriya, Mohanlal, Arya and Sayyeshha in the cast. While Suriya is the male lead, Mohanlal is playing the pivotal role of Prime Minister Chandrakanth Varma. The film is also releasing in Telugu as Bandobast.

Mohanlal is currently the highest paid actor in the Malayalam film industry. In 2018, he had three Malayalam releases where he played the lead role and he also did an extended cameo in Nivin Pauly's Kayamkulam Kochunni, stealing the thunder away from the younger star.

In 2019, he's had two releases so far, with the first one, Lucifer, shattering multiple records and becoming the highest grossing Malayalam film ever till date. In fact, in the list of top 10 highest grossing Malayalam films, six have Mohanlal in the lead (if we include Kayamkulam Kochunni, the total is seven out of 10). The makers of Lucifer have announced a sequel to the film, buoyed by the response from fans.

However, though he is undoubtedly the king of the box-office in Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal continues to play supporting (and always substantial) roles in films in other languages - something male stars are reluctant to do once they have established themselves, unless their career is flagging or they realise they're about to be replaced by the next generation.

Expanding the reach

Film critic Maneesh Narayanan views this as a smart strategy by the actor.

"I don't see this as him taking up supporting roles as such. The canvas for Malayalam cinema is quite small. Films here are released in around 200 to 250 screens. It's possible that they are looking at this as an expansion. For example, Nivin Pauly's Premam did very well in Malayalam in Tamil Nadu. Earlier, Mohanlal and Mammootty films used to be dubbed and released outside," he says.

Metro cities now have multiplex theatres that run films with subtitles, increasing the reach of a film outside its state boundaries. Making oneself visible and familiar to other state audiences through their own cinema could potentially expand the market for Malayalam films, too.

After Mani Ratnam's 1997 film Iruvar, in which his performance was critically acclaimed, Mohanlal did one more Tamil film where he played the lead - Popcorn with Simran as his heroine. But with the film flopping, it was in 2009 that he returned to Kollywood with Unnaipol Oruvan in a supporting role. It wasn't that his career in the Malayalam industry was slowing down; just the previous year, Mohanlal had a whopping eight releases in Mollywood. But the actor still chose to take up the role, playing a police officer who has to track down a supposed terrorist. While Kamal Haasan played the lead role, Mohanlal's Maraar was pivotal to the script.

Even before Unnaipol Oruvan, Mohanlal played a supporting role in a non-Malayalam film. In Company, a Hindi film directed by Ram Gopal Varma which released in 2002, the actor played a cop who takes on the Mumbai mafia. The film had Vivek Oberoi and Ajay Devgn in the lead.

However, Bollywood is much harder to crack for a south Indian male actor than the neighbouring industries for various reasons.

Film critic Neelima Menon points out that in Mohanlal's first Hindi film, he was cast as a Tamil man to make him believable for the audience.

"I'm not sure that Mohanlal has a pan-Indian appeal. That's why he was made a Tamilian in Ram Gopal Varma's Company and he could pull if off - it was easier for the audience to relate to him," she says.

Five years after Company, Mohanlal played a cop yet again in the same director's Aag, which also had Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgn in the cast. The film, however, was universally panned.

In 2014, Mohanlal was back to the Tamil industry with Jilla, starring Vijay in the lead. Vijay is a hugely popular star in Kerala, too, and casting Mohanlal ensured that the film enjoyed a wide release in both the neighbouring states. Directed by RT Neason, the film saw Vijay playing Shakti, the adopted son of gangster Sivan, played by Mohanlal. A mainstream masala film, Mohanlal's character had negative shades to it. The film was a huge hit and had a 100-day run.

Mohanlal has also made in-roads in the Telugu industry. He made his Telugu debut with Manamantha in 2016 in a lead role (the film was shot simultaneously in Telugu and Malayalam) and followed it up with Junior NTR's Janatha Garage. As in Jilla, Mohanlal played an older mentor kind of role to the younger star in Janatha Garage. This film, too, was a blockbuster. And beyond the role, the film pushed the gates open in the Telugu states for his Malayalam films.

"In Janatha Garage, Mohanlal was not the hero of the film, but I wouldn't call his role a supporting character either. It was after Janatha Garage came out that Mohanlal's Malayalam film Pulimurugan was dubbed in Telugu and released in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Oppam also came out in Telugu after that," says Maneesh.

Titled Manyam Puli in Telugu, the dubbed version of Pulimurugan released in about 500 screens in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Oppam, which came out in Malayalam a week after Janatha Garage, found a Telugu release following the success of Janatha Garage and the dubbed version of Pulimurugan. Lucifer came out in Telugu in a matter of weeks after its Malayalam release, even before the Tamil version did.

In 2015, Mohanlal made his Kannada debut with Mythri where he played an extended cameo role along with Puneeth Rajkumar.

"There's great scope for market expansion. It's an opportunity for actors to get a new fanbase in another state. Tamil films with big stars often release in Telugu at the same time. There's a possibility that Malayalam stars will also be able to do that. Though Mohanlal did Iruvar and Popcorn in Tamil, there wasn't a demand as such for his films there. It was after Jilla that this changed. The same with Janatha Garage in Telugu," says Maneesh.

What about other Malayalam stars?

Mohanlal's strategy appears to be picking mass appeal films in other languages where the film has another star from the home state who will bring in the audience. Kaappaan too reflects this calculation. Contrast this with Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan from the Tamil industry, who played lead roles as well as supporting ones in other southern films and Bollywood in the '70s and '80s, but stopped after a point.

In the Malayalam industry itself, Mohanlal's contemporary and onscreen rival Mammootty has done films in other languages but mostly as the lead. 

"In Mammootty's case, he has done more direct Tamil films than Mohanlal and with leading filmmakers too. Even in Thalapathi, Mammootty had a near equal role to Rajinikanth. I feel when he picks roles in Tamil therefore, Mammootty will only go for performance-oriented ones like Peranbu. It's possible that he accepted to do Yatra in Telugu to see if he can expand his market there," says Maneesh.

Younger Malayalam stars are keenly aware of the potential for expansion and have met with varying success in their efforts. Prithviraj has done a handful of Tamil and Hindi films and has also made his debut in Telugu. Dulquer Salmaan has done a few Tamil films and recently starred in Mahanati, a Telugu film where he played actor Gemini Ganesan. He has already made his Hindi debut and will soon be seen in a big budget film along with Sonam Kapoor. Nivin Pauly's Neram (Tamil-Malayalam bilingual) and Premam found an audience in Tamil Nadu but his direct Tamil debut Richie flopped. The actor, however, is conscious of his fanbase in the neighbouring state - his latest release Love Action Drama, for instance, has Nayanthara as the heroine and has several dialogues in Tamil. Fahadh Faasil, who does not seem to be bothered by his screen time or image as long as he's in a good film, made his Tamil debut with Velaikkaran in 2017 where he played the villain, and was also part of the 2019 critically acclaimed multistarrer Super Deluxe. Tovino Thomas made his Tamil debut with Maari 2, a  Dhanush film where he played the villain.

With the success of Baahubali across the country, the south Indian industries are pushing more and more to expand their reach and widen the appeal of their cinema in different ways. And this is a good thing, feels Neelima.

"Across south Indian cinema, we have a bunch of leading young actors who sort of fit into other industries and aren't really worried about getting typecast. You have a Dulquer, Fahadh or Nivin from Malayalam who are more recognised across industries and they can fit into cinema of any language. It's important that we continue with this camaraderie here as the south Indian audiences at least need to be aware of the quality of cinema being made, and it eventually helps in taking our cinema to a larger audience," she says.

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