“Good evening Mrs Prabha Narendran,” said Mohanlal's character Narendran in Manjil Virinja Pookal in the year 1980. This line was Mohanlal's first dialogue in his first movie and it has echoed across Kerala and its cinema loving population ever since. Today on his birthday, we take a look back at the phenomena that is Mohanlal—his career, his films, his success and the love that he evokes among his fans.
Mohanlal is an actor who has received both bouquets and brickbats. An artist being praised and criticised alike shows how close he is to the audience. Mohanlal is a feeling that has ruled the hearts of Malayalis for over three and a half decades.
Lal made his debut in early 80s when Malayalam cinema was passing through its golden era with a slew of talented directors and writers taking films out of the influence of drama and bringing realism into them. A new style of films was introduced. When most of the other-language films largely relied on soft porn, Malayalam cinema stood out with quality content and brought home several national and international acclaims. In the backdrop of all this we should consider why Malayalis love Lal a lot.
In the 80s and early 90s, Lal played the protagonist in a number of films which discussed a range of topics that prevailed in Kerala's society—transition from joint family to nuclear family, unemployment, gulf migration and the struggles of a middle-class family. Lal's versatility in portraying each of those roles distinguished him from his contemporaries. Films like T.P. Balagopalan MA, Gandhinagar Second Street and Varavelpu are a few to mention. The fact that many of the social issues remain the same even after two score years might be a major reason why we still enjoy those films. Lalettan's (Mohanlal is fondly called so by Malayalis) influence on the society is so big that he became a “nostalgia” for Kerala's cinephiles.
However, the artistic value of Lal's films took a hit after 2000. In an irony of sorts, Lal got typecast in a slew of movies as an upper-caste feudal hero and most of those characters were celebrated even by the marginalised class. Mammooty, another megastar who Malayalis equally revere, too, tread a similar path during this period.
While hero-oriented films became huge hits, ordinary movie-goers expected a comeback of the old Lal who had once surprised them on screen. That was a long wait. Because cinema underwent a tremendous transmutation over the years. People began to prefer comedy-oriented films, offering an easy street for mimicry artists. Though many of the superstars tried to follow suit, they blundered it.
In the meantime, emergence of fans and their unions forced many of the superstars to make films that wouldn't displease them. But such unrealistic flicks failed to be etched in public memory (though they might have been huge box office hits).
However, it shouldn't be forgotten that Lal did, though rarely, some good movies even during this period. Thanmatra, Bhramaram, Spirit and Drishyam are a few to name.
Mohanlal's success is that he has created a deep-rooted image in the conscience of Malayalis, thanks to his films in 80s and 90s. This could be the reason behind success of Pulimurugan and the trigger for his future magnum opera like Odiyan and Randamuzham.
Mohanlal is a cohort of records. The collections of Drishyam and Pulimurugan vindicate that. Those shining records eventually turned Lal, the actor, into a high value brand. That is apparent from his TV advertisements to reality shows. The Big Boss, too, picked up Lal as its anchor as the show is set to be launched in Malayalam.
Mohanlal knows well how to use his brand. But at times he has played Russian roulette. From the hullabaloo around the National Games to social media trolls on 'Lalism', the actor proved many of his decisions were misadventures. Controversy over 'Lalism' died down only after the actor decided to return the whole remuneration he received in connection with the programme.
Of late, Malayalam films are glutted with direct or indirect references to Lal. A plethora of films are being made using Lal's dialogues, his famous left-leaning walk and other mannerisms. Malayalam cinema itself became a field where the Lal brand is effectively used. The song Nenchinagathu Lalettan from Queen turned to be a huge hit even before the release of the movie. Even after its release, the song played a catalyst to the success of the film.
Malayalam film industry seems to be gripped by a notion (might be a wrong one) that symbols associated with Lal will bring success to their ventures. A movie titled Mohanlal, too, hit the screens recently, with Manju Warrier, the lady superstar, playing the lead role as an ardent Mohanlal fan. It may be noted that Warrier's former husband, Dileep, had also essayed a Mohanlal fan in his film Rasikan a few years ago. Though Rasikan didn't fare well at the box office, Warrier's Mohanlal is successfully running in cinemas.
Lal is a strong pillar of Malayalam cinema. Being active in production and distribution, Lal knows how to market his films better. His guest role in his son Pranav Mohanlal's debut Adi distinctly demonstrates his marketing skill. In one of the scenes, the character played by Pranav asks Mohanlal, who acts as himself in the movie, which his next film is. As Mohanlal replies Odiyan, theaters erupt in raptures.
Lal is not different from those who dream for the bigger canvas of cinema. He is also exploring new possibilities through his big-budget projects and films in other languages. But there is a considerable chunk of audience who still expect to see their old Lal. Not that thin young man, but the magic Lal had created on screen in those golden days.