The Mohanlal-Sreenivasan chemistry that has woven on-screen magic for years

Since the release of Sathyan Anthikad’s ‘Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam’ in 1986, Sreenivasan’s inherent goofiness and Mohanlal’s adorable naiveté have worked together to build an admirable synergy on screen.
The Mohanlal-Sreenivasan chemistry that has woven on-screen magic for years
The Mohanlal-Sreenivasan chemistry that has woven on-screen magic for years
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They last shared screen space in T K Rajeev Kumar’s satirical drama Oru Naal Varum (2010), which was also written by Sreenivasan. In the film, Mohanlal played a Vigilance officer who is trying to build a case against a corrupt town planner (Sreenivasan). Much water has flown under the bridge since then, including a spoof film deriding the superstars, with Mohanlal getting the maximum barbs. Though the superstar seemed to have chosen to brush it aside, they also never came together on screen again, much to the disappointment of Malayali cinephiles.

But last month, when the duo finally shared a stage after a decade, and Mohanlal planted a kiss on the frail cheeks of Sreenivasan, social media took a collective sigh. This was their Dasan and Vijayan, one of Malayalam cinema’s most loved collaborations on screen. As two ordinary, unemployed men who were trying to battle the world with wit, providence and hope, the actors’ chemistry on screen will remain one of the most comforting, nostalgic images in Malayalam cinema.

It was in Sathyan Anthikad’s Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam (1986) that the first flickers of the famous Mohanlal-Sreenivasan synergy was felt. Gopalakrishna Panicker (Mohanlal) is struggling to vacate his tenants so that he can sell the house and repay his debts, and that's when Sub-Inspector K Rajendran (Sreenivasan) makes a dramatic entry. Sreenivasan’s inherent goofiness and Mohanlal’s adorable and natural naiveté worked up an admirable chemistry on screen. Their upmanship had a rhythm of its own, coated with a hilarity that evokes irrepressible laughter. The scene where Panicker looks at Rajendran in awe is a popular meme sticker for a “Who- thought-you-had-it-in-you” moment.

Pic credit: Meme Zero

Interestingly, in the same year came another whacky Sreenivasan-Mohanlal jugalbandi with Priyadarshan’s Mazha Peyyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu. US-returned Madhavan aka MA Dhavan (considered one of Sreenivasan’s career-best acts), with freshly brewed scorn for anything non-American, isn’t amused by his schoolmate and chauffeur Shambhu’s display of familiarity. Though he puts Shambhu (Mohanlal) in his place at first, soon they are both vying for the same girl. If Dhavan never steps down from his high horse, ending up making a fool of himself, Shambhu is just making the most of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In a Shakespearean comedy of errors, some of the best scenes in the film feature Madhavan and Shambu trying to one-up each other in a bid to preserve their own identities.

Then came Gandhinagar Second Street, which follows an unemployed Sethu (Mohanlal), who seeks shelter in his friend Madhavan’s home. Madhavan (Sreenivasan), in turn, convinces him to don the garb of a Nepali Gurkha at a housing colony for subsistence. But in the process of helping Sethu, with the hope that he will be off his back, he finds himself in a soup.

The scenes between these ‘friends’ are a laugh riot on their own. Look out for the scene where Sethu is having lunch at Madhavan’s house, while the latter tries to delicately let Sethu know that he isn’t welcome in the house. But Sethu feigns ignorance and plays along, resulting in a hilarious give-and-take.

So it seems destined that this partnership evolved through Sathyan Anthikad’s Nadodikattu (1987), and reached its zenith in Akkare Akkare Akkare. The king of self-deprecatory humour, Sreenivasan was among the writers of Nadodikattu, and he tailored Dasan and Vijayan like yin and yang. Both are relatively on the same page, except for one’s slight superiority in educational qualification (Dasan has graduated BCom, while Vijayan is a pre-degree pass), they are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.

There are hints that Dasan hails from a waning Nair family, while Vijayan talks about running away from home after stealing his sister-in-law’s thaali (sacred marital necklace). But between Dasan (Mohanlal) and Vijayan (Sreenivasan), it is the latter who seems more grounded and self-assured. Dasan, who tries to show off his educational degree to anyone who cares to listen, seems like he is grappling with many insecurities of his own.

When the duo reunites in Pattanapravesham, with a fairly updated resume, what remained steady was their personalities. Dasan pretends to be superior to Vijayan, who refuses to take it lying down. Their “playful banter” continues when Dasan makes fun of Vijayan’s colour and looks. So Vijayan is made to go undercover as a domestic help as part of an investigation, because Dasan feels that “makeup can’t hide his own obvious good looks, unlike Vijayan”.

Sethu, Gopalakrishna Panicker and Dasan can be categorised as various versions of the same character. Impoverished and desperately unemployed, grasping at straws for survival. But K Rajendran, Madhavan and Vijayan, except for their physicality, share nothing in common. Rajendran is a police officer who thinks far too highly about himself. While Madhavan’s only focal point is his family and himself, Vijayan is willing to take life as it comes.

In the last and final outing in the series, Akkare Akkare Akkare (1990) directed by Priyadarshan and set in the USA, Dasan and Vijayan continue with their Shikari Shambu shenanigans, trying to find a gold crown and one Mr Paul Barber, once again succeeding by sheer stroke of luck. Perhaps the most hilarious scene in the film comes very early on, when Vijayan desperately tries to con Dasan into letting him accompany the latter to America, unaware of the fact that it was Dasan himself who torpedoed his chances in the first place. And it is the same Vijayan who convinces an already malleable Dasan to ditch the investigation and have a ball in America. Dasan, in reality, is a naïve, dumb, cowardly man who just got lucky, and he knows it.

In Priyadarshan’s Mukundetta Sumitra Vilikunnu (1988), Sreenivasan’s Viswanath is a con man who makes an absolute fool of the gullible Mukundan (Mohanlal). If one draws parallels with its original (Sai Paranjpye’s Hindi film Katha), Priyadarshan has clearly given a sly spin to their onscreen camaraderie. Unlike the Malayalam version, the hero, played by Naseeruddin Shah, has to compete with a charming, handsome adversary in Farooque Shaikh. But Priyadarshan plays it safe, bringing an ordinary, next-door man (Sreenivasan) to play the vile friend. If in Malayalam, all the sympathy cards are stacked in favour of Mohanlal’s Mukundan, who is naivete and cuteness personified, Shah’s Rajaram isn’t the kind of man one takes an instant liking to. Meanwhile, Vishwanath gets a stereotypical sketch self-designed by Sreenivasan, as for most of his popular characters till date.

In contemporary cinema, the Nivin Pauly-Aju Varghese equation in various films is similar to that of the legendary Dasan and Vijayan. It is the same recklessness, silliness, and artlessness. For instance, Aju’s Shaji in Oru Vadakkan Selfie reprimanding Umesh (Nivin Pauly) for calling his parents in the middle of the night with a wisecracker — “Thiricharivokke nallathanu, ennu vachu ardha rathri vilichinganey undaakkaruthu” (roughly translated to “Self-reflection is a good thing, but timing is important”) is evocative of Vijayan's various one-liners to Dasan. Fun fact: the film was written by Sreenivasan’s own son, Vineeth Sreenivasan.

Though Mohanlal and Sreenivasan never came together in that capacity again, they still had a lot of memorable collaborations, surprisingly in characters that always maintained that yin and yang element.

In Kamal’s Ayal Kadha Ezhuthukayanu (1998) Sreenivasan is a newly appointed Tahsildar who seeks the help of his friend and novelist Sagar Kottappuram during a crisis. And in His Highness Abdulla (1990), it is Ravi Varma (Sreenivasan) who brings Abdullah (Mohanlal) to the King’s Palace, though with evil intentions. Even in those brief collaborations, under unlikely circumstances, the duo has an undeniable chemistry.

Mohanlal-Sreenivasan continued to have a hysterical partnership going on in Priyadarshan’s Chandralekha (1997) and Midhunam (1993). In both films, Sreenivasan (as Nooru and Preman respectively) remains at the other end of the stick, but still anchors Mohanlal’s character at crucial stages of his life. Nooru is at the mercy of his uncle when Chandralekha’s Appu Kuttan seeks him out, while in Midhunam, Preman is a bystander as well as ally in most of the important events in Sethu’s life.

In Thenmavin Kombath (1994) and Kilichundan Mambazham (2003), they were at loggerheads with each other. If Sreenivasan’s Appakkala in Thenmavin Kombath tries to cause havoc in Manikyan (Mohanlal)’s life, Moidhooty Haji is married to Abdu’s sweetheart in Kilichundan Mambazham. After a prolonged and hilarious comedy of errors, eventually it is Haji who reunites the lovers.

During the 2000s, Mohanlal shifted his focus to alpha male characters, and Sreenivasan’s real-world problems perhaps no longer connected with Mohanlal’s escalating stardom or age.

So when they reached the brilliant Udayananu Tharam (2005), the character’s onscreen acrimony seemed to have affected their synergy. When aspiring director Udayan’s script is stolen by Rajappan (Sreenivasan), leading to his overnight stardom, Mohanlal’s Udayan is shattered. But at one point, he is forced to swallow his pride and collaborate with Rajappan, now Superstar Saroj Kumar, who makes him walk on eggshells.

Sreenivasan takes several digs at stardom, stars and their starry ways, all the while keeping a superstar in the frame, and gets away with it. But he stretched his luck too far when he opted for a sequel to the dignified Udayananu Tharam. Written by Sreenivasan, and directed by Sajin Raghavan, the film was a tasteless satire where the actor openly ridiculed Mohanlal, with whom he had some of his most memorable collaborations on screen. Understandably, they never united on screen again. What a tragic way to bring curtains down on one of the finest partnerships on screen.

There have been rumours about a Dasan-Vijayan reunion on screen, which given the current scenario seems doubtful. But perhaps, it is just as well. The young, comical, and adorable imagery of Dasan and Vijayan, plotting happily to build castles in the air, is a memory of a lifetime for a generation of Malayalis. Let it stay that way.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.
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