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Why I have a grouse against Mohanlal

Rakesh Nair | August 28, 2003 22:23 IST

MohanlalOver time, movies have becomeápart of my identity.

A second generation Indo-American, I have relied (perhaps too much) on Indian cinema to keep me culturally anchored to the subcontinent, specifically Kerala.

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I remember watching films from different parts of the country as a child (mostly Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi movies) and, coupled with growing up in the heart of New York City, I found myself drawn into a storm of languages. I admit that I have almost always preferred the cinema of the West to what I have encountered in India, at least on the level of cinematic grammar.

Growing up between two cultures, comparisons cannot be helped sometimes. Iágrew up paying more attention to the performances of actors in Indian cinema than to the actual productions.

Among my favourite actors are Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Soumitra Chatterjee, Mammootty, Karthik and Kamal Haasan.

But of every regional language I was exposed to, Malayalam films became regular fare for me not only because I spoke it with the greatest amount of fluency but also because the actor who most captivated my attention: Mohanlal.

Mohanlal is now celebrating his 25th year as an actor. For nearly 20 years, I have been enthralled by his magnificent talent. I can easily say it is solely because of his ability as an actor that I began to take note of Malayalam and, in the long run, Indian cinema.

This is my humble tribute to his lasting contribution and his influence on this viewer.

First, I actually have a bit of a grouse against Mohanlal. I believe he has brought me as close to tears as I have ever been watching a performer. Barring some of the best in the West.

I remember after watching Kireedam, I was left wondering when the queasy sensation in my stomach would subside and when the lump in my throat would ease its swell. The same effect came over me after watching movies like Sadhayam, Kamaladalam, Bharatham and Chenkol.

I suppose I forgave him for hitting me so hard with these performances because of his lighter work in movies like the sidesplitting Chitram, Kilukkam, Gandhi Nagar Second Street, Sanmanasullavarku Samadhanam and Naadodikattu.

MohanlalThe greatest thing about Lal is not how much he can move you to tears or how many laughs he can score, but the marvellous balancing act he achieves by combining both the tragic and comic. The result - as seen in movies like Dasharatham, Varavelppu, Thalavattom and T P Balagopalan M.A. - is nothing short of a multifaceted, brilliant performance.

In whatever manner Lal hasámoved me over the years, I knewáit did not have so much to do with the filmmakers behind the production but moreáwith the actor's tremendous presence and utterly natural portrayals.

I mean no disrespect towards the countless Malayalam filmmakers who have hung in with Lal over the years and given him decent material to work with.

Often, I watch a Mohanlal film and marvel at how the subtlety of his craft helps blunt the edge of the melodramatic elements a filmmaker would throw into the picture. He could literally lift a film out of the depths of mediocrity.

Of course, there are several progressive filmmakers who have exploited his ability with Úlan. Among them are Hariharan (Panchagni, Amruthamgamaya), G Aravindan (Vasthuhara), Mani Ratnam (Unaroo, Iruvar), Shaji N Karun (Vaanaprastham) and Ram Gopal Varma (Company). His performances in these films have earned him the right to be compared with the likes of Robert De Niro.

I, however, think of him more as the Gene Hackman or Jack Nicholson of India. Take your pick.

No matter whose league you choose to place him in, nowadays, Mohanlal is on the ropes. In his home stateáKerala, Lal is seen playing roles with about as little variety as any other moustache-twirling, villain-thrashing, Southern action star. Lal is now either playing the roguish hero (a role he already perfected in Devasuram) or the youth in search of a love and/or a livelihood.

Perhaps the scale that symbolises Lal's career -- balancing crass commercial on one end and meaningful cinema on the other -- has been tipped in favour of the masses.

Whatever the reason, the trutháis clear: as sentimental as it sounds, I miss the Mohanlal who experimented with a plethora of roles and looked like he was having fun doing it.

Last year, I noticed that fire in him when he enacted the role he was given in Varma's Company. His first role in ages with any serious amount of depth and dimension. No one can tell me that this actor has seen his day, especially since every time he seems to be down and out, he comes out with an Iruvar or a Vaanaprastham or a Company.

Talent cannot be contained. So long as a master like Mohanlal exists, there will be a reason to keep going to the movies for another 25 years.

My favourite Mohanlal films:

  • Iruvar (based on Tamil movie legend M G Ramachandran's life)
  • Vaanaprastham (a Kathakali dancer)
  • Dasharatham (a tragicomic rich man)
  • Kireedam (a brutalised youth)
  • Chithram (a husband for hire)

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