Resume of a superstar: 30 years of Mohanlal from Rajavinte Makan to Pulimurugan

While there seems to be general agreement that Mohanlal is plateauing as a performer, Mohanlal the superstar is another deal altogether.
Resume of a superstar: 30 years of Mohanlal from Rajavinte Makan to Pulimurugan
Resume of a superstar: 30 years of Mohanlal from Rajavinte Makan to Pulimurugan
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What happens over 30 years? What could happen over 30 years? Nations disintegrate, new world leaders emerge, fashion trends become passé (and return), political novices become messiahs of the masses, football heroes become angry-old coaches, generations meet, counter-cultures emerge.

It’s a period long enough to debunk anything that we have embraced as familiar. Mohanlal has been more than familiar to Kerala for 36 years. It’s almost unwieldy analysing, again, the abilities of a 56-year-old actor who has remained one of the country’s finest for a good part of his career. Especially when there seems to be general agreement (even criticism) that he is plateauing as a performer and is now only required to be present for the faithful to admire and proclaim allegiance.

But Mohanlal, the superstar, is another deal altogether. And, as he winds down 2016 on the high of Pulimurugan, Malayalam cinema’s first Rs 100-crore film, a rewind on his box office dominance that spans 30 years – from Rajavinte Makan (1986), widely considered his breakout superstar film – seems in order.

Has anyone done it better? Rajinikanth has, with greater consistency and without formidable challengers – Mohanlal’s box office sway, after all, was often tested by his equally illustrious contemporary, Mammootty. But the Tamil superstar has, among other things, used his exclusivity to build and extend his career since the 1990s. In the last 10 years, Mohanlal had about 45 releases in the lead; Rajinikanth had five.

The trade has celebrated at least five of Mohanlal's box office comebacks that followed strings of underwhelming films – Aryan (1988), Varnapakittu (1997), Balettan (2003),  Drishyam (2013) and Oppam (2016) – but he was never really away to make a comeback. Mohanlal’s consistency in delivering hits in the 1990s was unmatched, and his industry hits often beat the next biggest by a big margin. The superstar continues to get it right at the box office, despite some baffling career choices, a disastrous musical detour called Lalism, his self-acknowledged reluctance to work toward goals (“good films just happen”) and his apparent endorsement of a particular brand of nationalism.

Scene from Drishyam

He seems to hold that inexplicable extra something that can push a potential hit into industry-defining blockbuster territory. It could be goodwill, adulation for a supremely gifted actor carried over through generations, or mere acceptance of a familiar, everyday presence. Whatever it is, he has been a habit hard to kick.

Rise and Rise of the Actor-Star (1987-1996)

The period saw Mohanlal balance compulsions of the box office with performances that redefined acting in our popular cinema. With filmmaker Priyadarshan (Vellanakalude Naadu, Chithram, Kilukkam and Thenmavin Kombathu), he did physical comedy that our heroes had never attempted. With the director-writer combination of Sibi Malayil and Lohithadas (KireedamDasaradham and  Bharatham), he hit the high notes as an actor who could consistently be intense without being dramatic.

The range was diverse – he did ThoovanathumpikalNadodikattu Amrutham Gamaya and Irupathaam Noottaanduin the same year (1987). In 1988, he did R Sukumaran’s art-house Padamudra, played a Mumbai gangster in Priyadarshan’s Aryan and was a spoofy crime investigator in Sathyan Anthikkad’s Pattanapravesham. The actor was peaking as a star; a string of successes in 1992 and 1993 – AdvaithamVietnam Colony, Devasuram, Butterflies and Manichitrathazhu – was followed by what appeared to be a slowdown in the number of films. Thenmavin Kombathu (1994) and Sphadikam (1995) did keep him on top but in 1996, Suresh Krissna’s The Prince, an underwhelming gangland actioner, bombed.


BO Highs: ChithramKilukkamManichitrathazhu

Key Film: Devasuram piloted a character prototype – a brash, feudal anti-hero – that defined most of his next decade.

The Man-Lion and the Moustache (1997-2006)

In 2000, writer Ranjith and director Shaji Kailas presented the actor as Induchoodan in Narasimham, a meaner, Rajinikanth-ised update on their own Jagannathan in Aaraam Thampuran (1997). Narasimham is one of the most significant films in Mohanlal’s career for it placed him on a level of unprecedented stardom, but also doubled as a pointer to the aggressive star-branding of the accomplished actor.

He followed it up with similar mass-targeted films including Praja (2001) and Onnaman (2002) that tanked. The trend hit the lowest with Shaji Kailas’ Thandavam (2002). Interestingly, director Joshiy and writer Ranjan Pramod humanised this template, twirled-moustache superhero to good effect in their 2005 blockbuster Naran.

The criticism of his on-screen deification notwithstanding, Mohanlal continued to deliver super-hits across genres – Chandralekha (1997), Balettan (2003), Udayananu Thaaram (2005) and Keerthichakra (2006) among them – through the decade. For the actor, there was Shaji N Karun’s Vanaprastham (1999) that got him his second National Award, and Blessy’s Thanmatra (2005).

Mohanlal in Vanaprastham

BO Highs:  Aaraam ThampuranNarasimhamRavanaprabhu

Key Film: Narasimham set off clones on overkill, leading to desperate calls for a return of the Mohanlal of old.

Count the Crores, Please (2007-2016)

Two years in this phase (2009 and 2014) went without a major hit. These are rare blanks in his career. But the rise of younger stars and what the critics call a new viewer sensibility was cited to argue that Mohanlal, and Mammootty, should graduate to characters that don’t require them to look, well, silly.

After Chhota Mumbai and Hallo in 2007, Mohanlal had a few quieter years; moderate successes like Madampi (2008) and Shikkar (2010) were not enough to offset the damage from disasters including Alexander the GreatOru Naal Varum and Kandahar (all 2011) and Casanovva (2012). The Joshiy hit Run Baby Run (2012) was followed by another string of flops before Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam (2013) smashed all records.

Mohanlal in Spadikam

The year 2016 had him deliver back-to-back blockbusters in Oppam and Pulimurugan. The two films are diverse in their tone and leading men; one a blind man on the trail of a killer and the other, a force of nature – a hunter invincible. Though the actor often undermines processes that go into a successful film, there seems to be greater intent – he has cut down on films – and focus on choosing bigger projects with an appeal outside of the Malayalam-speaking audience.

BO Highs: PulimuruganDrishyamOppam

Key Film:  Pulimurugan announced Mohanlal’s undisputed box office reign but it comes with possibilities of a return to the mass mould. Not always a good thing, that.

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