Mohanlal’s first film released in 1980 and nearly four decades later, he remains Kerala’s biggest superstar.

Mohanlal king of box office How the actors smart moves have expanded his stardomFacebook/Mohanlal
Flix Mollywood Monday, May 21, 2018 - 13:26

Mohanlal, Kerala’s superstar, turns 58 on Monday. The actor is undoubtedly the state’s king of the box office, despite the younger generation of stars steadily establishing themselves with good cinema and blockbusters.

Mammootty, the actor’s contemporary, is still loved by the audiences and has a wide fanbase, much like Mohanlal. However, he has been struggling to find scripts that do more than tom-tom his star presence. Mohanlal, on the other hand, has been delivering films that vary from unapologetic action flicks to family dramas, remaining versatile and relevant.

The first Mohanlal film to release was the 1980 thriller Manjil Virinja Pookkal. Mohanlal played the antagonist in the film. Nearly four decades later, his Pulimurugan became the first Malayalam film to collect Rs 100 crore at the box office. He’s also the lead in two of Malayalam cinema’s most expensive upcoming films, Mahabharatha (based on the novel Randamoozham) and Odiyan (his transformation for the film created quite a sensation online), besides playing Kunjali Marakkar in the Priyadharshan historical Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham. He will also be seen in Ajoy Varma’s thriller Neerali.

For those who grew up on Mohanlal’s films from the ‘80s and '90s, the actor’s current choices may pale in comparison. The directors who cast him in their films are conscious that they have a legend among them and it shows in the script and direction. Attempts to turn him into a superhero include gravity defying action sequences and slow-mo shots, ‘punch’ dialogues and younger women shown to be fawning over him. 

But every once in a while, Mohanlal delivers films like Drishyam, Vismayam or Munthirivallikal Thalirkumbol which help him break out of the ‘invincible hero’ image. He does not say no to playing the ordinary man, caught in his small web of troubles, even now. As always, the character he’s playing remains important to him more than his image – a lesson the younger stars in the Malayalam film industry appear to have learnt from him.

Mohanlal’s partnership with Antony Perumbavoor, who used to be his driver, has meant that he also has a strong hold over production. Aashirvad Cinemas, owned by Perumbavoor, was established in 2000 and exclusively produces Mohanlal films. Perumbavoor also co-owns the distribution company Maxlab Cinemas and Entertainments, a theatre complex called Aashirvad Cineplexx, and is the president of the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK). His control over production has ensured that Mohanlal is the higest paid star in the Malayalam film industry. 

With Malayalam cinema gaining popularity in the other southern states, filmmakers outside Kerala, too, have turned to the actor. Typically, these films centre around a younger hero, with Mohanlal playing a “mass” mentor to him. His roles were similar in the Tamil film Jilla, in which he acted with Vijay, and the Telugu film Janatha Garage, starring Junior NTR.

His Malayalam film Vismayam also released in Telugu as Manamantha with a few changes to the cast. However, the Telugu version did not do as well as the Malayalam one. Villain, which had stars from other industries like Vishal, Raashi Khanna and Hansika in a bid to have a wider appeal, failed to meet expectations. Nevertheless, Mohanlal appears to be keen to continue exploring possibilities in other industries – he has recently signed a film with Tamil actor Suriya. 

Further, Mohanlal has kept himself open to collaborating with the younger generation of stars within his own industry. He will be acting in Prithviraj's debut directorial Lucifer and he's also playing a pivotal role in Nivin Pauly's Kayamkulam Kochunni.

And it’s not just cinema. Mohanlal recently made his debut on TV with the show Lal Salam, which is centred around the actor’s career and life. Clearly, he’s looking to diversify and ensure that he remains relevant in the entertainment industry, even as he’s on the verge of entering his sixties. He also has a prominent presence on social media, doing Facebook Lives and promoting his films as well as those of others.

There are many who have been quick to capitalise on the actor’s stardom. From filmmakers merely including Mohanlal references in their films to making entire films about the fandom surrounding him – Mohanlal and Suvarnapurushan – they recognise the currency he holds with audiences across generational lines. Discerning film lovers across the country have always made a beeline to the realistic films made in Kerala. However, with multiplexes playing subtitles and the Internet breaking boundaries, Malayalam cinema has a bigger audience now than ever before.

Many from the outside Kerala audience are new to the Lalettan magic that has been intrinsic to the lives of Malayalis world-over. Drishyam, which was remade in several languages, is probably their first introduction to Mohanlal and why he remains unconquerable in Kerala. But ask a real Mohanlal fan and they’ll tell them that they ain't seen nothing yet.

Happy birthday to Kerala’s superstar and thank you for all the memories.

Also read: 'Mahanati' wins big at US box office, mints 2 million USD

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