They go back a long way. In the early eighties, two moony-eyed young men, fresh out of college decide to carve out a career on celluloid. One, Priyadarshan develops a keen interest in scriptwriting and direction, while the other, Mohanlal, prefers to get in front of the camera, as an actor. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. Priyadarshan, the director has wielded the megaphone for more than ninety films, including twenty-six Hindi films - a rare achievement in an industry where even a prolific filmmaker is lucky if he can direct one film in five years.
Mohanlal has worked in over three hundred films, the majority of them in Malayalam and a few in the other South Indian languages as well as Hindi. Along with his illustrious counterpart Mammootty with whom he shares a good camaraderie, he has held sway over Malayalam cinema for over three decades now. They have also won awards galore in their individual capacities and for their combined efforts as well at the national level.
The Priyan (as Priyadarshan is affectionately called) – Mohanlal combination has been an enduring one and has seen many highs and lows, having worked together in more than forty odd films. They have given the industry some of its all-time hits like ‘Boeing Boeing, Thalavattam, Vellanakalude Naadu, Chithram, Kaalapani, Thenmavin Kombathu etc. But it has not always been hunky dory and they have also been a part of colossal flops as well.
But now the duo is back with a bang with the thriller ‘Oppam’ which has stormed the box office and which they are confident will break all their previous records. The last venture ‘Geethanjali’ - a psychological thriller - had bombed and Priyan’s gamble of picking up a few characters, including that of Mohanlal from the highly successful Fazil film ‘Manichithrathazhu’ failed to pay off. Even Mohanlal who reprised the role of the psychiatrist Sunny Joseph in ‘Manichtithrathazhu’ could not salvage the film despite the overwhelming popularity of the character in the original film.
‘Oppam’ tells the story of a blind caretaker-cum-lift operator in an apartment who is framed for a murder that he did not commit. Jayaraman, the eldest son of the family who has to scrape the barrel to find money to get his sister married off, is endowed with an uncanny sense of smell and touch that almost compensates for his visual impairment, and he is also trained in martial arts and kalaripayattu.
How he fends off the charges against him and helps in nailing the real culprit is what ‘Oppam’ is all about. A taut screenplay, a good storyline by Govind Vijayan, the deft Priyan touch and above all a towering performance by Mohanlal have turned the film into an edge-of-the-seat thriller. While Priyan has not been entirely able to stave off the influence of his earlier rollicking comedy hit ‘Kilukkam’ and the more recent Jeetu Joseph’s Mohanlal starrer ‘Drishyam’, especially the scenes where the protagonist is tortured in a police station, he has succeeded in making a powerful film, replete with emotions, action and chills.
It is gratifying to see a veteran like Priyadarshan join hands with a matinee idol like Mohanlal and successfully match up to the expectations of a present day audience that cheers for the likes of Dulquer Salman and Nivin Pauly and gives the thumbs up to films like ‘Charlie’ and ‘Premam’. With ‘Oppam’, they have proved that they are still a formidable team and that with the right kind of story and script to back them, they can still give the younger directors a run for their money.
The Priyadarshan-Mohanlal combo often concentrated on comedy and films like ‘Chithram’ ‘Kilukkam’ and ‘Thenmavin Kombathu belonged to that genre where the intention of the filmmaker was to treat audiences to films that dealt with subjects in a lighter vein. Priyan adopted this tactic in most of the Hindi films, often remaking his own Malayalam hits or those by Fazil and others and tasting box office success. It should be said to his credit that unlike the puerile comedy films in Bollywood that specialised in skin show or dialogues with double-entendre, Priyan’s comedies were always wholesome entertainers.
But as if to prove that comedy was not their only forte and they could make movies on serious subjects as well, Mohanlal and Priyadarshan also made films like ‘Thalavattam’ based on a storyline where a young man turns mentally ill after watching his girlfriend die an untimely death. But easily one of the outstanding films of the duo has been ‘Kalapani’ – a story set in pre-independence times which sketched in vivid and graphic detail, the torture undergone by Indian prisoners in an Andaman jail. In one of the more brutal scenes of the film, Amrish Puri playing the role of a sadistic jailor orders Mohanlal, a convict, to lick his boots clean. Even a newcomer might have balked at being told to enact the scene but Mohanlal’s sincerity and his devotion to his craft and more than anything else his faith in his director made him do the scene exactly as it was meant to be picturized.
To a critic who has been keeping himself abreast of the progress made by Piryadarshan and Mohanlal over the decades, one striking factor that could well be the raison d'etre for their success is the implicit trust that they place on each other and their joint commitment to good cinema. Their mutual admiration for their abilities too has kept them going and Mohanlal has been on record to say that he considers Priyan’s grasp of cinema to be complete and that when they do a film together, he just has to flow with the tide and perform as the director wills him too.
Piryan on his part often quotes the late director K Balachander (KB) who once drew a distinction between his protégé Kamal Haasan and Mohanlal. He quotes KB as observing that while Kamal can be classified as a method actor who knows that the camera is capturing his every moment, where Mohanlal is concerned, he emotes without even an awareness that he is being filmed. This makes him a natural actor in the mould of someone like the late Malayalam hero Sathyan who could convey a whole gamut of emotions with just a raised eyebrow. The success of ‘Oppam’ having set the adrenaline flowing again, the old firm of Priyadarshan and Mohanlal is back in business and that is good news for their fans. They can expect the pair to come up with even better films in the days ahead.
(The views expressed in the article are the personal opinions of the author.)