The trailer of Aaraattu, Mohanlal’s upcoming film with B Unnikrishnan, dropped on February 4, and it appears to be yet another “mass” film that projects the superstar as a demi-god. “I’m not a gangster, I’m not a monster, I’m sinister, I’m Lucifer,” he says, even as other characters in the video are asking curious questions about him to set up the viewers’ expectations. He is also shown beating up other men heroically. While many Mohanlal fans are enthused by this macho man display, several are disappointed by the star’s script selection that has gone downhill in recent years.
The last Mohanlal film to release was Bro Daddy, directed by Prithviraj. The film came out on Disney+Hotstar, and received lukewarm reviews from critics. Mohanlal plays John Chacko Kattadi, businessman and father to Eesho (Prithviraj), an advertising professional. The premise of the film is that John’s wife (Meena) and Eesho’s live-in partner (Kalyani Priyadarshan) become pregnant at the same time, and the plot is on the confusions and misunderstandings that come up because of the development. Compared to Mohanlal’s body of work, the film is a mediocre comedy that tries to capture the actor’s mannerisms from the films he did in his prime. Throughout the film, we’re also not allowed to forget that John is actually very young and the only reason he has a son as old as Eesho is because he married young. This is a common phenomenon in films with aging superstars, be it Mammootty, Nagarjuna or Rajinikanth, and has become a recurring theme in Mohanlal’s recent work too.
Bro Daddy came on the heels of Priyadarshan’s theatrical release Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, which won two National Awards, including Best Feature Film. The film, however, ended up being a huge disappointment because of the imitative script and badly written dialogues. Mohanlal’s performance also came under criticism, particularly the fight scenes where his lack of agility came as a surprise. The film laboured to showcase his masculinity and heroism but failed due to the unconvincing writing, and ended up bombing at the box office despite the hype with which it arrived.
In 2016, Mohanlal broke box-office records with Pulimurugan, which became the first Malayalam film to earn Rs 100 crore. He followed it up with Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, which is about a middle-aged man rediscovering romance in his marital relationship. In the five years since though, Mohanlal films have mostly been duds or received with middling enthusiasm, with the exception of the well-reviewed Drishyam 2 and the blockbuster Lucifer (which broke Pulimurugan’s record and amassed over Rs 200 crore, becoming the first Malayalam film to do so). This includes widely marketed films like Odiyan that opened to high expectations but were panned by critics and ended up generating memes on social media. Several other films like Neerali, Drama and Big Brother also came and went, barely making an impact.
This is not to say that the actor has lost his grip over the box office — he continues to be the highest-paid Malayalam star, and his name on any cast list is enough to ensure a massive opening across the state. But among Mohanlal fans who want more than just “mass”, there is concern that the actor is doing fewer quality films that will stand the test of time, and is giving in instead to star vehicles that are imitative of Tamil and Telugu films of the same variety. The trailer for Aaraattu is closely modelled on such star vehicle films where a lot of adjectives are thrown around about the hero before he makes his arrival. In contrast to this, the younger male stars in the Malayalam film industry, be it Fahadh, Nivin Pauly, Dulquer or Tovino, have been experimental in their approach, dabbling in different genres and characters. They play roles with negative shades, roles that expose their vulnerabilities, and don’t necessarily project their masculinity as desirable.
The problem is not unique to Mohanlal. His contemporary, Mammootty, has also struggled to find scripts that utilise his talent. The actor is still capable of sensitive performances like Peranbu and Unda, but finds himself dumped with “mass” films that invest more effort into underlining his “youth” and good looks than building a proper storyline. In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, Rajinikanth is weighed down by similar problems, though he does not do as many films as the Malayalam superstars in a year; and to be fair, tried to reinvent himself with Kabali and Kaala.
Since the budget of a film automatically goes up when a superstar is signed, it appears that filmmakers believe only a “mass” storyline can draw in audiences from across the states to ensure a profitable run. Mohanlal has been trying to build an audience in the Telugu states and Tamil Nadu, and the “mass” sensibility in his film choices appear to be a reflection of this ambition. But this also means that filmmakers fall back too much on punch dialogues and superman stunts to make the film work rather than investing in a well-written script. They want Mohanlal from Spadikam but without working enough on the context in which Aadu Thoma emerged; they also don’t want to account for how the star has aged and evolved over the years, preferring instead to project that he’s the same. Amitabh Bachchan’s career path, transforming from the Angry Young Man to a veteran, who plays interesting characters his age, has sadly eluded the southern superstars. It is as if filmmakers don’t believe the Mohanlal from a Kireedam or Bharatham exists anymore, and he’s only capable of reeling off punch lines and throwing people in the air. Since many of Mohanlal’s recent films have been produced by his close friend Antony Perumbavoor, and the star himself is closely involved in the making of these films, a part of the blame is also at his door.
One is not sure if Mohanlal’s ‘sinister’ role in Aaraattu will be a hit or miss, but one certainly hopes that at least once in a while, he continues to do roles where he isn’t a youngster, gangster, monster or Lucifer, but just a mister on the road that we can relate to.
Watch: Trailer of Aaraattu