The death of legendary Malayalam movie director IV Sasi truly marks the end of an era. The Calicut-born Sasi played a prominent part in shaping the destiny of the Malayalam film industry in the golden era of the eighties.
Having firmly established himself as a promising director in the Malayalam film firmament in the late seventies, he also went on to make successful films in other languages like Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Sasi started his career as an art director and after his first couple of films as director went uncredited, he finally debuted officially with Utsavam in 1975, at the age of 27. Soon, he established himself as the busiest and sought after director, averaging a dozen films a year during his prime.
What marked him out from the rest was his attention to detail and his ability to choose the right actors for particular roles. At a time when an aging Prem Nazir and Madhu were the reigning superstars in the industry, Sasi gave meaty parts to less established stars like Vincent, Soman, Sukumaran, Ravikumar, Jayan and a young Kamal Haasan. His 1977 film Itha Ivide Vare starring MG Soman in the lead and Madhu as the antagonist catapulted Soman briefly to superstardom till Jayan wrested that mantle away from him.
He also made Avalude Ravukal (1978), a film that was controversial in its theme and bold in presentation. It was also the first ‘A’ certified film in the Malayalam movie industry. Seema, who played the title character of a teenage sex worker in the film, was Sasi’s find and he would go on to marry her in 1980.
Sasi’s successful collaboration with Jayan saw many commercial successes though none of them managed critical acclaim. In the vacuum left by Jayan’s untimely death in late 1980, while most of the other directors persisted with Sukumaran and Soman, Sasi chose to give opportunities to the next generation of actors including Mammootty, Ratheesh and Mohanlal. This was the most fruitful period in his career as his films not only made moolah at the box office, but were also critically acclaimed.
The crucial factor that led to this transition was the taut screenplay written by the likes of MT Vasudevan Nair and T Damodaran. In fact, almost every film of that era directed by Sasi went on to become a blockbuster. These films went a long way in establishing Mammootty and Mohanlal as the reigning superstars of Mollywood.
The Mammootty-Mohanlal era
Sasi gave Mammootty his first break as a hero in Trishna (1981). He followed this up with Ee Nadu, John Jaffer Janardanan (1982) that established Mammootty as a hero. In the year 1984, Sasi gave Mammootty some of his best films in Aalkkoottathil Thaniye, Aksharangal (both written by MT) and Kanamarayathu (written by Padmarajan) that are considered to be among the finest films made in Malayalam.
The same year, Sasi made Athirathram, where Mammootty played a Charles Shobharaj-esque character ‘Tharadas’, which elevated him to superstardom. Athirathram also saw Mohanlal playing a cop on Tharadas’s chase that significantly elevated his status in the industry. Shankar, whose superstardom was on the wane by then, was reduced to playing an insignificant role as Mammootty’s sidekick in the film.
Sasi followed this film with Uyarangalil in the same year where Mohanlal played the main lead with dark shades that further consolidated the actor’s position. Sasi began 1985 with MT’s autobiographical Anubandham with Mammootty in the lead and Mohanlal in a very significant role. All these films also had Sasi’s wife Seema playing either the female lead or other important parts.
Mammootty and Mohanlal continued to act together in films till Sasi’s 1987 drama Adimakal Udamakal that saw both getting equal parts. It would take a gap of 11 years before the superstars joined hands again (Harikrishnans, 1998) if one were to not count Mammootty playing himself in an extended special appearance in Mohanlal-starrer No. 20 Madras Mail (1990).
Sasi continued to work individually with both Mammootty and Mohanlal and most of these films went on to become superhits. Sasi also collaborated with up and coming screenwriter AK Lohitadas in Mukthi (1988) and Mrigaya (1989), both Mammootty-starrers that are rated among the best movies made in Malayalam. His last big hit with Mammootty was Inspector Balram (1991) that saw the superstar repeating his hit character in Avanazhi (1986) directed by Sasi. In fact, Mammootty has done some of his finest work in Sasi’s films.
Ditto with Mohanlal. Devasuram (1993) went on to become a career defining character for Mohanlal. The film inspired a spate of others starring Lal in similar characters but none of them had the magic of the original. Writer Ranjith, who would go on to direct a sequel to the film in 2001 (Ravanaprabhu), made a hash of it despite the commercial success achieved by the film. Sasi’s last commercial success was also with Mohanlal in 1997 (Varnappakittu) written by Babu Janardhanan.
King of the box-office
What made Sasi stand out from the rest was his masterful and gripping storytelling ability. Other factors like (music director) Shyam’s background scores and brilliant writers like T Damodaran and MT Vasudevan Nair cannot be discounted but it would be eye-opening for a movie connoisseur to compare the films MT wrote for Sasi and Hariharan (a legend in his own right and a contemporary of Sasi) respectively to see how differently they eventually turned out.
Sasi’s films in his prime had that definitive stamp that stood out for their pace and effortless switching of scenes. But most importantly, he was one of the few directors who transcended the fine line that separated critically acclaimed films and mass movies. More than a 100 of his 150-plus films turned out to be hits.
In 2006, after overcoming a lot of obstacles, Sasi made an ambitious comeback with the Mammootty-Katrina Kaif-starrer Balram vs Taradas, where the mega star played both the title characters he played in earlier blockbusters made by Sasi. Unfortunately, the film was a huge disaster and Sasi would go on to remark that if he had stuck to Damodaran’s original screenplay (SN Swami was roped in to alter it), it would have turned out differently. It isn’t clear if Mammootty had some part in tinkering with the script though such rumours did the rounds back then.
Among Sasi’s notable Hindi films were Patita (1980) starring Mithun Chakraborthy and the Kanamarayathu-remake Anokha Rishta (1986) with Rajesh Khanna in the lead. Though he made many Tamil and Malayalam hits with Kamal Haasan, Aavuthinum Adbhuthavilakkum (1980), that starred Kamal Haasan in the title role along with Rajinikanth (his lone Malayalam film) and yesteryear Tamil superstar Gemini Ganeshan as villain was probably the most prominent among them. He made many such films with ensemble casts and worked with almost every hero and heroine of note in his heyday. Though it might sound clichéd, he was definitely an institution.