Priyadharshan's fresh, energetic and irreverent cinema is unforgettable. Will he find his way back?

Never a dull moment Three decades of cinema with Priyadharshan
news Mollywood Monday, January 02, 2017 - 18:35

A Malayalam film historian would have marked 17 March, 1984 as a red-letter day on his calendar. A fresh, energetic, irreverent new-wave cinema was well on its way—a bespectacled young man had shown the world his first feature film. And suddenly, the average Malayalam cinema goer, who seemed to have taken himself rather seriously had just fallen off his seat laughing! The film was Poochakkoru Mookuthy. And the director was Priyadarshan. It was predictive of the kind of fun, refreshing themes that were soon going to take over the rather grim, literature-heavy, overbearing family chronicles in Malayalam cinema.

Re-defining absurdity! 

There is a touch of irony in the fact that Priyan, who later came to be crowned as the ‘King of remakes’,  made his debut inspired from a Charles Dickens’ play-The Strange Gentleman. The “Priyan patents” cannot be missed in that very debut film—the ensemble supporting cast, the side-splitting sitcoms, the colourful song sequences, the climax comedy of errors and Mohanlal!

Poochakkoru Mookuthy was a spectacular comedy of errors, which rode on a bunch of oddballs. A simpleton millionaire and his fascinated-with-city-life wife, a street singer who pretends to co-habit with a girl to dupe their landlord.  An ambitious young chap who falls for a girl thinking her to be the millionaire’s daughter. A smart talker who tricks a rich man’s daughter into marrying him.

Each piece of comedy is a keepsake—the scene where the older Revathy (superb Sukumari) breaks into a ‘twist dance’ in front of her gobsmacked husband (Nedumudi Venu) or their musical duel with Shyam (Shankar) or Jagathy’s fraudster Chellappan who hides his lungi and vest under a swanky bathrobe and smokes a pipe. 

Priyan followed it up with another comic caper—Odaruthammava Alariyam —an adaptation of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic- Chashme Buddoor.

Interestingly, most of his best comedy films are adaptations of either English plays or Hindi films. But they were so good, so hilarious and so ingeniously adapted that no one really cared a hoot about that piece of trivia.

So Boeing Boeing (1985), adapted from a French play of the same name, about a pair of fraudsters (the irrepressible Mohanlal-Mukesh combo) who wanted to upstage each other, is considered as one of the best known sit-coms in Malayalam cinema. Who else can think of that scene where Mohanlal attempts to make a chicken masala listening to a cookery show on radio only to end up in a hilarious mix-up when Mukesh switches the station to one giving a yoga class? Other interesting adaptations include—Aram +Aram=Kinnaram (Naram Garam and Pasand Apni Apni) and Dheem tharikida Thom (Happy go Lovely).

Then he surprised everyone by going for an original story—Mazhapeyyunnu Madhalam Kottunnu was actor Jagadish’s story written by Sreenivasan. Sreenivasan’s self-deprecating humour was beautifully placed by Priyan—it subtly mocked the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Malayalee. And you can’t miss the Priyan manifest of anti-intellectualism. GK got tested (“How many kilometres from Miami beach to Washington DC?”), modern art was smirked at and we went back to our English grammar books.

His crackling form with comedy continued—Kilukkam (1991), Vandanam (1989), Mukundetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu (1988), Chithram (1988) and Thenmavin Kombattu (1998).

Another of Priyan's skill was his ability to choose his cast of actors—never mind the length of the role, he won’t do with lesser actors. And that has often resulted in several comedy classic moments—Pappu’s “Thamarasheri churam” being the biggest shout-out!

Solemn issues on a lighter vein

Not that he only focussed on no-brainer comedies, he did meander into more pressing social and political issues. But he entwined them with generous doses of comedy. So Thalavattom, loosely based on the American novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had a mentally-derailed hero (Mohanlal), Midhunam had a debt-ridden hero who is struggling to start his business, Chithram’s hero was a convict on the run, Vellanakalude Naadu was a political satire on the municipal mafia and, Kilukkam’s heroine was an illegitimate child.   Strangely, their recall value is more for their hysterical comedy scenes than the gravity of the issue. That Vishnu (Mohanlal) is a killer-on-the run is the least of our problems in Chithram—we would rather gravitate towards the superb comical moments between Mohanlal, Nedumudi and Renjini. Weren’t we too busy laughing at the antics of Mohanlal and company to empathise with the former's Dakshayani Biscuit factory’s issues in Midhunam?

But then the same Priyan did hard-core action/crime dramas (Aryan, Abhimanyu), political crime thrillers (Adwaitham, Cheppu) and period classics (Kaalapani, Kadathanadan Ambadi, and Kanchipuram).

The Bollywood (dis) advantage

He is often regarded as one of the most successful South Indian directors in Bollywood. But that also meant, the man who gave a whole new dimension to comedy in Malayalam cinema, found himself at odds with the newly acquired Bollywood cinematic grammar. Yes, he made commercially and critically acclaimed films (Gardish, Hera Pheri, Virasat, Bhool Bhulayya, Garam Masala, and Hulchul), which were all remakes of famed Malayalam films. But the number of unpleasant remakes are more—a few his own and quite a few of other Malayalam directors. He made a superlative mess of his own well-made Vellanakalude Naadu and called it, tellingly—Khatta Meetha. The Siddique-Lal classic In Harihar Nagar was turned into an unpalatable Dhol.  Though a commercial success, his biggest misadventure would be the remake of the classic Manichithrathazhu—Bhool Bhulayya.

Among a lot of things, one major case in point is the bad casting. Who in their right mind would substitute Mohanlal with Sunil Shetty or Akshay Kumar? Or Mukesh with John Abraham? Or Shobana with Vidya Balan?

Significantly, his Malayalam films post the “Bollywoodisation” held traces of the Hindi film adulteration—pretty long-limbed Bombay heroines, lavish milieus, starry item dances and tepid comedy.  It seemed more like an irrational comedy of errors when he remade his own Hindi film into Malayalam (Amayum Muyalum) or attempted a ghastly spin off of Manichithrathazhu with Geetanjali, which in turn was an inspired remake of Tamil film, Charulatha. Strangely, he has been having a bad run in Bollywood as well—his last big hit seems like a long time ago (Bhool Bhulayya).

All said, Priyadarshan’s contribution to Malayalam cinema is far from over. Like a lot of his compatriots (Sibi Malayail, Sathyan Anthikad, Kamal, Fazil) we would like to think that he is just going through a temporary loss of form. At least, from what we saw in his last film Oppam, which was not brilliant but showed promise nevertheless, Priyan might be on his way to making the kind of cinema which made us fall in love with him. 

(This article first appeared in You can read the original article here. The News Minute has syndicated the content.)