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September 1, 1998


Clinic All Clear-Rahul Dravid

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Team of 48


Mohanlal in Kireedam. Click for bigger pic!
To those brought up on tales of the "intense rivalry" between Malayalam superstars Mohanlal and Mammootty, it comes as something of a surprise that Harikrishnas -- the ready-for-release film helmed by Fazil, pairing both of them opposite Juhi Chawla -- is their 48th film in tandem.

Come to think of it, the careers of the two have followed parallel courses right from the outset -- which outset, for those who like their history laced with dates -- was in 1980. It was in that year that the film Vilkanundu Swapnangal introduced to the Malayalam marquee a tall, fair, clean-cut guy with a deep voice and charismatic screen presence.

But even more than Mohammad Kutty -- Mammootty, to a generation of film buffs -- it was the roly-poly Mohanlal who, that same year, had the much more impressive debut. Accustomed as the average film buff was to villainy being defined by huge sidewhiskers, bloodshot eyes and a guttural style of dialogue delivery, the understated, easy-as-breathing villainy of Mohanlal in his screen debut, Manhil Virinja Pookal came as an eye-opener.

Mohanlal -- as Poornima Jayaram's abusive husband Narendran -- appears onscreen for a very brief while. But that cameo was enough to steal the film out from under the lead stars Jayaram and Shankar.

Trivia alert: Manhil Virinja Pookal was also the debut directorial venture of Fazil, the man who has brought the two superstars together now.

A year later, in 1981, director P K Joseph cast the two relative newcomers together in Oothikaachiya Ponnu -- with Mammotty playing hero to Lal's villain. That casting trend continued in Ahimsa and Enthino Pookunna Pookal.

And then -- just two years after the two had made their debuts -- Mammootty took on the role of Mohanlal's father in Jijo's 1982 film Padayottam, Malayalam cinema's first 70 mm venture.

If this comes as a surprise to cineastes who are more used to heroes who refuse to depart from their heroic mould, then there is more. In Padayottam, Mammootty went completely against type to play villain, while Mohanlal, till then a villain, came up with a positive role.

From that point, until 1990, when Joshi cast them together in the caper-thriller Number 20 Madras Mail, the two have spanned the spectrum of roles from black to white and every shade in between.

Mohanlal in Iruvar.
The dynamics of Malayalam cinema in the eighties was somewhat peculiar, and revolved almost exclusively around the two superstars. Each had their own camps, their own favourite directors and units. Thus, if childhood friend Priyadarshan preferred to cast Mohanlal in most of his films, then the likes of Joshi stayed loyal to Mammootty when it came to casting.

It was left to I V Sasi to straddle the casting fence -- as evidenced by the fact that he cast the two, together, in as many as 14 films. Coming a distant second to that record is P G Vishwambaran with four. Priyan and Joshi -- to underline the contrast -- have paired the two stars in one film apiece.

The year-wise breakup of their pairing is equally revealing. Two films in 1981, four in 1982, 13 in 1983, 10 in 1984, seven in 1985, and eight in 1986. We are talking, here, of that phase in Malayalam cinema when the ageing stars, Madhu and Prem Nazir, were gradually losing their lustre, and the two fresh-faced newcomers were carving their own identities and fan following.

The year 1986 marked the transition, for both Mammootty and Mohanlal, to superstardom. That year, the two, together or separately, appeared in 34 films -- and almost without exception, they ranged from the hit to the superhit position on the box office graph.

That year marked, too, a decline in their combined projects -- the next 12 years were to see the two come together in only three further films (I V Sasi's Adimagal Udamagal in 1987, Dennis Joseph's Manu Uncle in 1988 and Joshi's Number 20 Madras Mail in 1990).

It was this decline in their on-screen togetherness, coinciding with their individual rise to superstardom, that sparked tales of their rivalry (some even called it enmity). However, both stars have, in separate interviews, argued that if they didn't do more films together, it was because directors and producers didn't look too hard for subjects that could suit such casting, and not due to any reluctance on their own part.

In fact, insiders point out that far from being the bitter rivals they were projected to be by the media, the two actually teamed up with I V Sasi and his wife Seema, to launch an independent banner, Casino. Casino Films proved a very good monetary investment for both stars, as films such as Adiozhukkugal, Karimbin Poovinakkare and Gandhinagar Second Street stormed the box office and earned pots of money for the foursome.

And while on off-screen collaborations between the two, the audio cassette of the Mohanlal-starrer Guru has Mammootty playing presenter.

Studded in the career graphs of the two stars are enough coincidences, parallels and such to fill a book. For instance, in Manu Uncle, Mohanlal played himself, while Mammootty took on a character role. In Number 20 Madras Mail, it was the other way around with Mammootty playing the busy film star while Mohanlal and his scapegrace friends, out on an escapade, become involved in a murder and seek the star's help to get out of the jam.

Mammootty in Bhootakannadi. Click for bigger pic!
As early as 1981, Mammotty won his first award -- state award for best supporting actor. The film was Ahimsa -- which co-starred Mohanlal. His first 'best actor' award, again at state level, came for Adiozhukkugal -- and again, Mohanlal shared the credits. (In case you were wondering, Mohanlal's first best actor award at the state level came for the film Balagopalan M A, in 1986).

1990 saw the last time the two stars appeared together in one film. That year also saw Mammootty receive his first national award for acting -- for his performances in the 1989 films Mathilukal (helmed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan) and Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha.

Accompanying Mammootty to New Delhi to receive the award from the President, on that occasion, was none other than Mohanlal -- who, that same year, was named for the special jury award for excellence in acting, for the film Kireedam (directed by Priyadarshan).

A year later, Mohanlal was back in Delhi -- this time to receive the national best actor award for his performance in Bharatam.

And now it is Harikrishnas -- with the man who started it all, at least for Mohanlal. For Fazil -- who, with the likes of Priyadarshan and Joshi among directors, and Mohanlal and Mammotty among actors, were responsible for the sea change in Malayalam cinema in the eighties -- this is a first.

Interestingly, the pairing comes at a time when both actors appear to have crossed the boundary, beyond even stardom, and are now intent on exploring the extent of their range, and abilities. Thus, recent films have seen Mohanlal play a wrongly-accused convict incarcerated in the Andamans (in Priyadarshan's Kaalapaani) and also played matinee idol-turned-politician M G Ramachandran in Mani Ratnam's Iruvar) while Mammootty is busy giving final touches to his portrayal of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the eponymous film.

Why did it take so long for the two to come together again? Was it because it was next to impossible to find stories that could co-star the two together? The question was asked of them during the shooting of Harikrishnas.

"Why do roles have to be written for us?" was their answer. "If a story has the kind of roles that make the directors think of us, then we will act, it is as simple as that. Where is the question of Mammootty or Mohanlal in all this? There are only actors, and characters."

Harikrishnas is due to be released on Onam day (September 4, three days before Mammootty's birthday).

Perfect foils

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