'Actors live between the two worlds of 'action' and 'cut''

T.V. Jayan meets Mohanlal, the Malayalam film superstar, magician and a fan of Calcutta, and learns that practice makes perfect

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 9.03.14
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I have been advised to keep an afternoon free for my appointment with Malayalam superstar Mohanlal. It is the first day of the shoot for a new film, and his aides are not sure how long it will take.

So I am ready for a long wait when I walk into the imposing Kalikotta Palace — a 19th century edifice where the Cochin royals once held classical dance and music performances — in Tripunithura, a Kochi suburb. And I am surprised when Mohanlal walks into the sprawling foyer, where I have been seated, with an apology on his lips.

Dapper in his dark grey shirt and cream trousers, he looks relatively trim. The month-long break that he took from his busy schedule to undergo traditional Ayurveda therapy seems to have done him some good.

Mohanlal, for those who came in late, is Kerala's most favourite actor, along with Mammootty. His films are almost always big hits — the last two, for instance, have been raking in big bucks. Drishyam in Malayalam, released before Christmas, and Jilla in Tamil, which hit the theatres in the second week of January, are still running.

Jilla, an action thriller which also features Tamil superstar Vijay, has so far collected over Rs 110 crore, while Drishyam is the biggest grosser in the history of Malayalam cinema (over Rs 50 crore and still counting) and is being remade in several languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

A Bengali version would have been nice, for Mohanlal is a fan of Calcutta, a city he visited in the late Eighties while shooting for G. Aravindan's last film, Vastuhara, released in 1991.

"I used to roam about the streets of Calcutta. I quite liked the anonymity it offered," he reminisces. Mohanlal recollects visiting the Kalighat temple and Belur Math and watching the immersion of idols after Durga Puja. He struck a chord with Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee and would often talk to him on the telephone. Mohanlal even sent him some of his films. "I want to go back to Calcutta and visit the Sunderbans," he now says.

He has to be prepared for the crowds then, for Mohanlal is no longer the unknown face that he was during his first and only visit to the city. For 35 years, the 53-year-old has been a reigning star of Malayalam cinema.

What's surprising, of course, is that Mohanlal is not your archetypal hero — he is plump, has chubby cheeks and a rueful look. No one really thought that the man who first appeared as an anti-hero in the critically acclaimed Manjil Virinja Pookkal in 1980 would rise to become a superstar.

The negative role he portrayed was so effective that he went on to act in 25 films over the next three years purely as a villain. Since then he has acted in over 300 films, mostly as the lead actor. He has won two national and nine state awards for best acting over the years.

It helps that he has a "natural" acting talent, film watchers maintain. "He is a born actor, unlike Mammootty, who is very hard working. Mohanlal's acting persona is something that most viewers can easily identify with," Malayalam film critic G.P. Ramachandran says.

But the actor doesn't believe that he has any inherent talent. "I feel that it is practice that has made me a successful actor," Mohanlal, who has had no formal training in acting, stresses. "I personally think that to do any job well, there should be a synchronisation of the trillions of cells in the human body. Be it acting, singing or playing football."

Mohanlal is also lauded by critics for the versatility of the roles he has portrayed. In the 1999 film Vanaprastham, he delivered some intricate steps as a Kathakali artiste. His portrayal of a patient of Alzheimer's in the 2005 film Tanmatra prompted the Kerala chapter of the Indian Medical Association to honour him.

"Actors live between the two worlds of 'action' and 'cut'," he says in his soft, modulated voice. "During a shoot, an actor has to breathe life into his character when the director says 'action' and get back to his normal self with the word 'cut'. I think it's some sort of parakayapravesham (leaving one human body for another), a high order meditation practised by accomplished yogis," Mohanlal stresses.

Luck, he insists, has done its bit too in catapulting him to centrestage. "I have been really lucky. I entered the industry during the golden era of Malayalam cinema. I could work with an incredible range of directors," he says, naming, among others, stalwarts such as the late Aravindan and Padmarajan and popular filmmakers Sasikumar and I.V. Sasi.

Indeed, a spate of lucky breaks propelled Mohanlal towards cinema. In his middle-class Nair family, few would have thought that Mohanlal Vishwanathan Nair — born in 1960 in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district — would be an actor. He grew up in Thiruvananthapuram, where his father, Vishwanathan Nair, was an officer in the state law department (he was later Kerala's law secretary). His mother, Santhakumary, was a homemaker, who learnt classical music for many years. Mohanlal and his elder brother, Pyarelal, who died in the early 2000s, studied in the state capital.

He has his friends to thank for his debut film. The friends had come together to produce and direct Thiranottam, in which they cast Mohanlal. The 1978 film, however, did not see the light of day for 25 years. In 2003, Mohanlal launched it.

After Thiranottam, the friends — impressed by the talent that he had shown in school and college plays — sent his pictures to the producers of Manjil Virinja Pookkal, who were looking for fresh faces. He got the offer — and Mohanlal became a name.

But the long career span — longer than that of most other actors — is not just a combination of talent, hard work and luck.

C.S. Venkateswaran, a noted critic of Malayalam cinema, believes that Mohanlal and Mammootty's long reign is also a result of the advent of cable television in Kerala. "By the early 1990s, these stars were on the way out, but the sprouting of television channels extended their life on screen by another decade, if not more," he says. Local channels started airing their old films over and over again at a time when interest in them was waning, thereby resurrecting their careers.

But as far as the actor is concerned, his calling was always acting. His family is involved with the arts, too. His wife Suchitra is the daughter of Tamil film producer K. Balaji. They have two children — son Pranav acted in a few films as a child and is currently studying in the US, and daughter Vismaya is a student of theatre in Prague.

Vismaya may have inherited her theatre-loving gene from her father who has also acted in a number of plays, including Karnabharam, directed by K.N. Panicker. "Nothing compares with the joy and thrill of a live performance," says Mohanlal, who is also a trained magician and has held magic shows across the world.

Mohanlal points out that his acting career has also meant fruitful interactions with other actors. "Malayalam cinema of the Eighties and Nineties produced a number of brilliant movies. Many wanted to remake them in other regional languages. But they could not do so, not because they didn't have actors who could reprise the role of a Mohanlal or a Mammootty, but because they could not find replacements for actors who were in a supporting cast," he says.

Mohanlal has romanced many heroines in his films — including Juhi Chawla, Tabu and Aishwarya Rai. In fact, Rai's debut was opposite Mohanlal in Mani Ratnam's Iruvar (1997).

The actor's legion of fans never fails to point out that Mohanlal — with his typical man next door looks — is indeed a down-to-earth man. Among his many friendships, the most celebrated one is that between him and Antony Perumbavoor, a Kochi taxi driver who ferried Mohanlal around when the actor was struggling to get roles. As the actor's film career started to soar, Antony became his regular driver — and then his trusted confidant. He later became a film producer and is behind many of Mohanlal's films — including Drishyam.

Mohanlal too has financial stakes in film production, distribution and animation. And he owns a chain of restaurants called Taste Buds in Bangalore and in west Asia. In Kochi, he co-owns a hotel. A self-confessed foodie, he likes to try out new dishes when he travels.

"I wrote a recipe column for two years. Whenever I tried out some cuisine that was different and nice, I would collect its recipe — be it from a chef in a high-end restaurant or a simple housewife who fed us during a shoot — so that I could share the experience with others," he explains.

There is a new breed of actors coming in now, and it remains to be seen how long Mohanlal — or Mammootty, for that matter — will rule. "In the last few years, many low budget films with innovative plots with lesser known actors have begun to do well," says an actor who has also been an award-winning director. "They are now doing more realistic roles."

But for Mohanlal's legion of fans on Facebook, there is no one quite like him. A fan gushes on his page that has been endorsed by over two million "likes": "We asked you for a bunch of flowers, but you gave us spring".

Winter, clearly, is still at a distance.