Fallen hero: Mohanlal's diminishing stardom in the times of Dileep

Mohanlal's upcoming film Neerali will prove to be a litmus test of his popularity

mohanlal-dileep Mohanlal faced public ire after Association of Malayalam Movie Artists reinstated expelled actor Dileep

In Namukku Paarkan Munthirithoppukal—a timeless masterpiece from Malayalam filmmaker P. Padmarajan—actor Mohanlal, as Solomon, tugged at our heartstrings. The film, with its heartbreaking climax, was an extremely bold attempt by Padmarajan that threw age-old ideas of chastity out of the window. And, Solomon was the perfect lover one could hope for.

In Thoovanathumbikal, another cult classic from Padmarajan, Mohanlal shone as Jayakrishnan, wedged in a love triangle, straining under the weight of the intricate, often unexplainable matters of the heart. Thoovanathumbikal also gave us an ethereal female character—Clara—immortalised by Sumalatha.

The list does not end there. Mohanlal gave us the feudal, womanising Neelakantan, who later turns over a new leaf, and fights for the love of his life, Bhanu (Revathy) in Devasuram. He essayed the passionate Kathakali artist Kunhikuttan, along with Subhadra (Suhasini), in Vanaprastham, and excelled as Chettachan with his selfless love for sister Meenakshi (Vinduja) in Pavithram.

Over three decades ago, Mohanlal's career took off with him playing a sadistic villain; he has since essayed complex, layered and memorable characters, as well as alpha-males spewing feudal ideals and unabashed misogny on screen. That said, some of his most memorable roles shared the screen with strong female characters. His versatility as an actor turned Mohanlal into a household name.

However, it looks like the warmth Malayalis felt for 'Lalettan', as he is fondly called, has taken a major hit. He faced public ire after Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) reinstated expelled actor Dileep, soon after the former took over as president. Four actresses resigned from AMMA, and Mohanlal was caught in the crossfire. It is not every day that the state women's commission chairperson lambasts an actor of this stature, and reminds him that such behaviour is not expected from him. The chairperson even went on to remind Mohanlal about the social significance of his honorary title—Lieutenant Colonel. Protests marches were staged outside his house, and his effigy was burnt.

The irony hits you when you remember this was the state that, just a few months ago, celebrated the veteran actor with two fan films—Lalettan and Suvarna Purushan—and danced to the anthem 'nenjinakathu lalettan' (Lalettan in my heart).

What can be called the final nail-of-sorts on the coffin, was a disaster of a press conference on Monday, where he addressed the ongoing controversy. This was literally when the star turned to dust. Admittedly, it seems foolish to expect the stars you adore to behave like the reel heroes in real life, but everybody hoped.

Mohanlal supported both Dileep and the survivor, equating the AMMA organisation to a 'family' that the actress could always depend on, angering many. Hitting a defensive note, he said the decision to expel Dileep was 'hastily taken', and that the decision to reinstate him was unanimous.

A casual look at social media or prime time television that day would be enough to gauge public response. Anger and disappointment were palpable. One of the speakers said, during a channel discussion, that it would have been better had Mohanlal kept silent.

Fan loyalty, however, is not completely lost. The actor's fan clubs have reiterated their support; on social media, supporters changed their profile pictures to that of the actor. This sparks a pertinent question—should art be separated from the artist? Can the love for an artist's work remain separate from his political and social stance? It is a fine line. This is a crucial period for Mohanlal, who has been steadily leveraging his brand value through multiple appearance in various advertisements, and hosting the first edition of Bigg Boss Malayalam. The actor also has quite a few big projects lined up—Odiyan, Kunjali Marakkar and Lucifer.

His next film Neerali, which releases on Friday, will prove to be a litmus test for the superstar. Expectations are high as this is Mohanlal's first film to release this year, and also features the comeback of his yesteryear co-star Nadhiya Moidu . The actor has a lot on his plate—he has to salvage his own reputation, as well as sort out the AMMA conundrum.

In the words of Vijayan, essayed by Mohanal in Nadodikkattu: “Ellathinum athintethaya samayam undu Daasa [Everything has its time]”. This clearly isn't your best time, Mr Vijayan.