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March 11, 1999


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Payback time!

Mohanlal Click for bigger pic!
Shobha Warrier

It was in 1987 that I first interviewed Mohanlal. What was most striking then about him was his friendly, caring and calm nature. Even after all these years, even after so many successful films, super stardom and awards, he still remains the same; gentle, likeable and friendly. Also unflappable.

Unlike in the past, his answers were not short and to the point. In fact, he was extremely articulate and expressive about his role as the Kathakali artist in Shaji N Karun's new film Vaanaprastham. In fact, he appeared very excited too, at the completion of this Indo-French production in which he is the Indian producer.

He wasn't willing to admit that he was excited though he has even kept aside a personal album on the various Kathakali costumes he donned for Vaanaprastham. Shobha Warrier met him at the Prasad Color Lab where Zakir Hussain was composing the background score for the film. Excerpts from the interview:

Let me ask you first about Vaanaprastham. The protagonist of the film is a Kathakali artist. What kind of preparations did you do for the role?

To be very frank, I didn't do any preparation at all. It was like doing any other role.

But this role is different from all the other roles that you had done so far. You had to perform Kathakali in the film.

Yes, it is true. I had to perform Kathakali in the film. I did a few rehearsals, of course. But Kathakali is such a great art form that you cannot master the art just by rehearsing for ten or fifteen days. I had seen and enjoyed Kathakali before, as I love all the ancient art forms. But till I began this film, I didn't know that this art had such depth. I didn't even know it was so difficult to learn Kathakali. I will only say that I was lucky, I was fortunate, to perform Kathakali for the film.

Facial expressions are very important in Kathakali. How did you manage all that?

I can only say that I just did it. That's the truth. I just did it. Do you think I'll be able to learn in a few days what the great artists have done in eight years? God was kind to me, that's all I can say. Of course, one Kathakali asan, Balasubramaniam, was with me to help me with my expressions and mudras.

Can you believe, all the great Kathakali artists, the masters, Kalamandalam Gopi, Kudamaloor, Keezhpatham, all of them were there to help me out. I did only small portions but all of them said I did a good job. I had to perform in front of these great masters. So you can imagine my condition.

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I have heard that once they adorn the dress of, say, Krishna, Duryodhana, Bheema or Arjuna, Kathakali artists undergo a transformation. Did you feel that away?

Yes, the artists become Arjuna, Bheema and Krishna in all senses. I did feel a spark when I wore the kireedam in my head. For a second, everything used to fade and then suddenly I used to wake up. I used to feel a charge passing through my body. It was an unexplainable feeling, a strange state of mind.

One of the greatest compliments I received was from Sethu Nair who dressed me up. He told me he had not seen in his life a Kathakali asan who was as patient as myself. Almost everyday I used to sit in the costume for six to seven hours and on the last day of shooting, I had to sit for nearly nine hours. And you had to get ready at least 3-4 hours before the shooting.

I was suffering from a very bad case of sinusitis then. The previous day, I'd vomited a lot and almost fainted. But we had to finish the shooting that day. Somehow we finished it successfully. I will only say that it was my good fortune that I got a chance to adorn the costume.

When you sat there for so many hours dressed up as another character, did you feel like the character?

No, not at all. In whatever costume you dress up, you know who you are. Your identity will not change. But, yes, others might look at me as the character. I'll tell you one instance. When you are in the Kathakali costume, you develop a certain kind of thalam [rhythm] and grace in your movements. The way you turn your head, even the way you walk, will be like the Kathakali dance.

But I used to joke with the others even when I was in costume. But all of them said they just could not retaliate since they saw me as the character and not as the real me. Kujikkuttan also experiences the same thing. Subhadra, the heroine of the film, is fascinated only by the character of Arjuna he plays. The tragedy for him is that she does not feel the same when he is out of the costume.

Do you go through this kind of an identity crisis?

See, only when you go deep into the philosophy of life and start thinking about what life is, what you work is and what your expectations are, you experience all such problems. If you are a very ordinary human being, nothing affects you, nothing bothers you, and nothing troubles you. That's how I live my life.

But I feel this kind of an identity crisis can happen to anybody; a football player, a singer, a cricketer, for that matter it can happen to any celebrity.

In my case, I have never thought about such crises and I am least worried about such problems because I live the life of a very ordinary human being.

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I'll tell you one thing, films are totally different from Kathakali, which is a great art form. In this film, we are portraying a period where Kathakali artists are not well off at all. The protagonist had parenthood problems, he had to undergo poverty, sorrows and also faces an identity crisis. Due to all these problems, all these traumatic experiences, Kunjikkuttan becomes a very complicated personality. Believe me, I experienced nothing of that sort. So I could joke, puff a cigarette and fool around once the shot was over. Mind you, I did all that when I was in the costume.

How do you feel when people see you only as the character you have portrayed on the screen and not as Mohanlal the real person?

It happens only that way and it can happen only that way. To them, I am Aaram Thampuran or Aadu Thoma. They call you only by the names of the characters. They do not know Mohanlal the person. Only those from your family, only those who are close to you know the real person. But then why should I share my personality with an unknown person?

Do they feel disappointed when they meet you in person because you may be totally different from the characters you portray?

They might have definitely felt disappointed. But what can I do? I can do nothing, absolutely nothing. But remember actors are not like other Kathakali artists or for that matter any artists. We live a different kind of life; we move around with a group of people protecting you all the time. Can you call this the life of an artist? But one gets used to such things after sometime.

Was the character in Vaanaprastham different from the other characters that you have portrayed so far? Did you feel more happy or satisfied or attached after finishing the work?

No, I cannot say this was different. Others may say so. Not me. I cannot say that the role was very difficult and I had to toil hard to attain perfection. Because I didn't toil hard! I treated it like all the other roles that I did earlier. Nothing less, nothing more. I don't want to lie about the efforts I made. I did it as casually as I did all the other roles. I joked with my unit as I always did. The enjoyment too also was the same.

But you look excited.

How can I tell you what my real feelings are? But tell me, will I produce a film with the intention of making a bad film? Will I act in a film with the intention of giving a bad performance? I've been thinking about this film for the last one-and-a-half years. I have invested all my earnings in this film. I didn't borrow money from anywhere. I invested all that I have in this.

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You can imagine why I have done that. Because I wanted to make a good film.

Don't you feel proud that good films are made in a small state like Kerala? We made the first 3D film. The only Indian film that was selected for the competitive section of the Cannes International film festival was from Kerala and that was Shaji sir's second film Swahm. And this is the first Indian film shot in Panavision.

Somebody has to make good artistic films. Somebody has to break open the doors so that others also will follow and make good and meaningful films. I have been in the film industry for the last 20 years.

Twenty years? I can't believe it.

You have to (laughs). Yes, I have been in the industry for the last 20 years. My first shot was in 1978 when I was 18 and in college. So, is it not my moral duty to give something back to the industry, especially when I have taken so much from it? But about the film, I attribute it to destiny.

Otherwise, how would you explain all these coincidences? Pierre, a man from France, wanted to make a film called Vaanaprastham, and it came to me through Shaji. And, in the end, I became the co-producer of the film... Don't you feel all this happened due to some unknown force called destiny?

How did it happen actually?

Long back, Shaji sir, a cinematographer then, said that that we would do a film together. Several stories were discussed over these years but it happened only now. I was not the producer of Vaanaprastham earlier. The first producers backed out when they became doubtful about the monetary benefits. I do not blame them. But as an actor, I wanted to make the film. So, I told Shaji sir that I would produce the film. It was only then we started shooting.

Many people dissuaded me, asking, 'Why do you want to take a risk like this? Why do you want to produce a film like this? Why do you want to waste your money?'

I had a face a whole lot of questions. But I told them, I was producing the film for my own satisfaction. See, I was not borrowing money from anyone. I was using only my own money, what I have earned.

I hope you can understand the pride the actor in me will have, the contentment the producer in me will have, say, after 10 years. Won't it be immense? I only want that satisfaction because I know that this is a very good film.

What gives you more pride, participating in this film as an actor or producing the film?

Acting is only my profession. What gives me immense pride is the fact that I am the producer of the film. Had somebody else been the producer of the film, we would have had to make a lot of compromises. As I am the producer and since I am also acting in the film, I have tried to shape it as beautifully as possible, without any compromises.

We wanted to submit it at the Cannes festival last year itself but couldn't. Now we are working really hard so that we can submit to the committee this year.

'Nothing, neither criticism nor compliment, affects me'

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