By Aradhya Kurup
One of the leading questions posed to heroines in Malayalam cinema in every interview is about the “experience of working with Mohanlal and Mammootty?”
“Oh, it was amazing, Lalettan (rolling the ‘L’ and ‘T’ if the heroine is from outside Kerala) is so cool and Mammukka (here it’s ‘M’) helped me with dialogues. I am so lucky to act with them. It’s a dream come true,” all of them repeated. And they lived happily ever after!
Recently actor Anna Rajan (Angamaly Diaries) came under attack from Mammootty’s fans when she said she could play his daughter. From being called ‘aunty’ to accusing her of being a Mohanlal fan to getting too big for her boots, her FB page turned into a battlefield. On another timeline, actor-singer-director Vineeth Sreenivasan faced the brunt of fangiri when he innocently called Mohanlal 'Lal Uncle.' Lal fans didn’t spare him either.
So what’s so unbearable about an actor expressing her desire to play daughter to a 66-year-old actor, you might ask. Or about a 30-year-old referring to a 57-year-old superstar as uncle?
A couple of indicators emerge out of this a) blind mad fandom b) the petty Mohanlal v/s Mammootty fan fight c) the rooted misogyny prevalent in our society that makes us believe women actors come with an expiry date while male actors are ageless and beyond censure and d) the reaction is also directly proportional to the roles they have been playing on screen.
Refusing to play age and roping in young heroines
In the recent Mammootty starrer Pullikkaran Staraa, there are two heroines for the 66-year-old actor—a 20 something Modern woman (Deepti Sati) and another in her mid-30s, his childhood sweetheart (Asha Sharath). Unsurprisingly, the megastar who is also apparently a virgin in the film, ends up with the younger one. The one in the 30s is conveniently reunited with her husband by the noble hero himself. But before this honourable expedition is carried out, there are enough scenes to highlight the “glamour” of the ageing hero and how she “simply cannot get enough of him.”
In Mohanlal’s Velipadinte Pusthakam released during the same time, we have a young unmarried college lecturer who instantly falls for the charm of the newly appointed principal who is in his late 40s (or early 50s maybe). Even The Great Father, a story about a father taking on his daughter’s rapist, finally ends up as a megastar designer fashion show—the father struts in Diesel denims, Louis Vuitton jackets and Tom Ford glares to hunt down the perpetrator. Pulimurugan has a young woman lusting after Mohanlal’s much-married character Murugan, to convince the viewer of his alpha male charms.
Misogyny on and off the sets
This also explains the heroine’s place in the patriarchal order of Malayalam cinema. Passion for acting is very gender specific, especially down South. Nobody talks about the craft of women actors or the method behind the madness. Male actors talk about rehearsals, homework, the Stanislavski or the Lee Strasberg method and so on; with women actors, it’s about looking good, costumes, make-up, being in awe of their male co-star, and finding the whole unit like a family.
This in turn translates on screen too. After all, the film industry is ruled by men. They occupy the top ladder in every stream of work, right from spot boys to direction. The female actors/technicians who enter cinema see this delineation right from day one and typically fall in line with the setup. That’s probably one reason why women actors to this day maintain a stoic silence about the prejudices and sexism they encounter on a day-to-day basis on the sets. Because they know they are in queue, waiting to be replaced at the slightest hint of trouble, unlike their male counterparts.
Probably it is this fear that reduced Anna Rajan to tears. Check out the docile Facebook post a day later where she gushes over Mammootty’s phone call to console her—"I am grateful to him for showing the magnanimity to call someone like me who is just 2 films old.”
Age-old Superstar model and widening age gap
Malayalam superstars are following in the footsteps of their contemporaries in Tamil and Telugu cinema. The pattern is worryingly similar—play characters half their age, rope in heroines more than half their age, and let the story and characters revolve around their demi-god persona.
Every superstar worth his salt has been doing this, right from NTR, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, MGR, Rajinikant, Kamal Haasan, Rajkumar, Shiva Rajkumar to the younger lot. Meanwhile the heroines who have run around trees with them in the 70s, 80s and 90s have either retired to domesticity or have been consigned to play their moms or sisters.
Take the heroines who played Mammootty and Mohanlal’s lead in the 80s—Lizzy, Ambica, Shari, Geetha, Urvashi, Shobana, Seema, Poornima Jayaram, Sumalatha or Saritha. They are either retired or playing character roles, or sighing over old film shooting stills on Facebook. In the next decade, the superstars continued their reign with the creamiest of roles, their stardom getting glossier and larger-than-life.
As they grew older, these mega stars also cherry-picked heroines who made them look younger—Sunitha, Suchithra, Heera, Meena, Aishwarya, Monisha, Ranjini—often looking north for inspiration. Since the role of the heroines never extended beyond lover or wife, they were also easily replaceable. Whenever the roles had to be dealt with a semblance of depth, they brought in an Urvashi, Shobana or Revathi.
Baby Anju first played Mammootty’s daughter in Aa Raathri (1982) and exactly a decade later she essayed his wife’s role in Kauravar. Baby Shalini who has played Mammootty’s on-screen daughter in countless films, later played his sister in Kaliyoonjal (1998). Shobana and Mohanlal were one of the most celebrated on-screen pairs in Malayalam cinema; they were last spotted together in Sagar Alias Jackie where she plays his friend’s wife, while Lal’s arm candy was the much younger Bhavana. “Obviously I cannot be the heroine in this film. I am not a 20-year-old,” Shobana was quoted in a magazine.
There are, of course, heroines who have subverted this on-screen age equation a long time ago. Sreedevi has played heroine to an NTR and his son Balakrishna, while Madhuri Dixit has romanced both Vinod Khanna and Akshay Khanna. In fact, Sreedevi has played love interest to heroes younger than her in many films.
Post the millennium, however, heroines in superstar films are all turning into mere props to pander to the male ego or just for an interim romance. Or they are browbeaten under misogyny, shady punch lines and ‘alpha male’-isms, till they finally prostrate before the greatness and magnificence of these men—come hell or high water.
Meanwhile, the age limit has also been alarmingly and steadily declining—Meera Jasmine, Nithya Menon, Bhavana, Padmapriya, Priya Mani, Kavya Madhavan, Manju Warrier, Mamta Mohandas, Amala Paul, Andrea Jeremiah, Nyla Usha, Nayanthara, Rima Kallingal or just any beautifully turned out glamourous woman from the other industries. In the superstars' last two films, one heroine was 25 and other was 26 (Pullikaran Stara and Velipadinte Pusthakam).
New-gen wave shows promise
Look at how Amitabh Bachchan turned the tide in his favour by sticking to roles that complemented his age. The aged lawyer in Pink, the grim, unsmiling patriarch in Sarkar, the old teacher in Black. or what Anant Nag did in Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, where he played an old man with Alzheimer’s.
The new generation of actors, thankfully, aren’t taking notes from their ageing predecessors—it’s not just about pairing with heroines their age, it’s also about embracing ordinary roles. About welcoming, flawed, failed, normal, emotionally fragile heroes, about being comfortable with women taking the centerstage, about being a “part” of the story and not insisting on being in every frame.
The Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan, Nivin Pauly trinity are part of that new hope. They are backed by a new crop of directors who are consciously trying to give female actors their due space, are mindful of their women audience, crave ordinary stories about ordinary folk and are ready to go against the tide.
Granted that Malayalam cinema for the longest time was identified through these exceptionally talented actors and superstars. Their contribution in putting Malayalam cinema on the world map cannot be discounted. But now Malayalam cinema has taken a 180 degree turn and still the superstar films continue to remain where they were—holding on to formulaic mass set-pieces and larger-than-life heroism. They should just step up their act, play their age and not fall back on their stardom.
Bring back the ordinary, rooted, flawed heroes. Let actors take over stars. That’s enough for another 180-degree turn.
Note: This article was first published on Fullpicture.in. The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.