It was sometime in 2003 that I happened to meet Hemant Chaturvedi, an old student of mine. I knew that he was the cinematographer of ‘Company’, a hugely successful Hindi film by Ram Gopal Verma, released in the last month of 2002. I had seen the film which was a typical gangster story, in which Malayalam Superstar Mohanlal acted as a South Indian IPS officer Srinivasan with a slightly affected Hindi, his characteristic brilliance and elan. After renewing some old memories, my conversation with Hemant moved on to the film ‘Company’ and of course about his experience of working with Mohanlal. Hemant after talking about the Star’s humility said something which I always remember. “Sir, when Mohanlal entered the sets, we could feel a special kind of energy of the accomplished actor. Though I have shot with many stars, I never felt anything like this on the sets.’’ So that is Mohanlal for you, as the superstar celebrates his ‘Shashtiabdhapoorthi’ or 60th birthday today-humility, accomplishments, and that rare energy!
Mohanlal’s first film was ‘Thiranottam’ in 1978 the release of which was delayed for twenty-five years, reportedly for censorship problems. The film was produced by a group of his friends like Maniyanpilla Raju, Suresh Kumar, Unni, Ravi Kumar and Priya Darshan; Priya Darshan in later years became a much sought after film maker in Malayalam and Hindi. ‘Manjil Virinja Pookal’  is considered Mohanlal’s debut film in which he acted as the villain. It took a period of struggle for him to take up negative roles in films like Attakalasham, Ente Mohangal Poovirinju, Visa etc, and slowly got noticed.
His friend Priya Darshan cast him as the hero in a comedy called Poochakoru Mookuthi in 1984. It may be added here that the duo were later involved in 44 or so films till 2016, which were very successful. He became a hero in Sasikumar’s ‘Ivide Thudangunnu’.The name of the film translated into English roughly means ‘ Here it starts’ and actually turned out to be prophetic as the film was actually the starting of Mohanlal’s springboard to a successful career. His first major break was in ‘Rajavinte Makan’, a crime thriller produced and directed by Thambi Kannanthanam in 1986 and Mohanlal has not looked back hence and has established himself as a leading actor.
It is difficult to catalogue and critique or write about over 340 films of Mohanlal in a career spanning four decades. If I have to list his awards and honours, it may fill a number of pages and so am desisting from it. I however have to mention his Padma Awards -Padma Shri in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2019. He was also made an Honorary Lt. Colonel in the country’s Territorial Army.
I am highlighting his performance in some of the films that actually sear in one’s heart. ‘Kireedom’  and its sequel ‘Chenkol’  are such films of Mohanlal as Sethumadhavan, a creature of circumstances whose life is a veritable tragedy. He shatters the dream of his father, a police constable [the late character actor Thilakan] who did everything to make him a police officer. But instead of becoming a police officer Sethumadhavan becomes a criminaland is jailed for murder. The scenes and dialogues of Mohanlal and Thilakan are unforgettable. The same duo in the film ‘Spadikam’  essayed the roles of a President’s award-winning mathematics teacher and his estranged son Aadu Thoma, a promising talented boy a waster or goner because of the undue strictness of the father in his eagerness to make the son a genius. Here again Mohanlal as the son exhibits his histrionic prowess matching senior character actor Thilakan. Take another example of Mohanlal in the 2005 film ‘Thanmatra’ as father of a son whom he wanted to make an IAS officer. The affectionate and jovial father becomes a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. The film portrays his life and Mohanlal lives the role of an employee of the Kerala secretariat, a helpful and jovial colleague and friend, a doting father and husband and as someone who slowly loses his memory and eventually is in the final stages of the disease. Only a complete actor can do justice to such varied characterization.
Think of his performances in some of the much acclaimed and National Award-winning performances. The 1991 film ‘Bharatam’, as a Carnatic classical music vocalist who is tormented by his jealous Guru and elder brother and later falsely accused for his brother’s death even by his loving sister-in-law. One wonders how many actors can handle so deftly such a role. In the film ‘Vanaprastham’  he acted as a Kathakali artist. Not many actors can perform like Mohanlal as a Kathakali dancer, a skill that needs years of practice as it requires rhythmic movements, ‘Bhava’ or facial expressions and such other accomplishments. I think rhythm comes naturally to him, though he may not be a dancer like the late Rishi Kapoor, his uncle Shammi Kapoor or Mithun Chakravrati.
Mohanlal is a many-faceted personality. He has been a state level wrestling champion and has been conferred an honorary Blackbelt by the World Taekwondo Headquarters in South Korea. We have heard him singing in many films like ‘Manichitrathazhu’, ‘Vishnulokam’, ‘Aye Auto’, etc. Besides being a star, he has also been a successful producer, director and a distributor of films.
Mohanlal has acted in all south Indian language films and in Hindi. Though it turned out to be a box office failure, Ram Gopal Verma’s Aag , an alleged remake of the 1975 iconic Sholay, featured BigB and Mohanlal. While Amitabh Bachchan, the tragic hero Jai in the original, took the role of Gabbar almost immortalized by Amjad Khan, Mohanlal donned Sanjeev Kumar’s role. Instead of the scene in ‘Sholay’ of Gabbar chopping off the hands of Thakur, in this film fingers and not hands are chopped off. We see both the thespians performing together- a vengeful, boastful Gabbar and a restrained tormented Thakur. It was an opportunity for people to see the two giants performing together, despite the dismal failure of the film.
A number of my north Indian friends are avid fans of Mohanlal. A large number of them saw Mohanlal’s Malayalam film ‘Drishyam’  after they watched its Hindi version. My friends appreciated the Mohanlal starrer and opined that it is definitely better than the Hindi version. They commented that Mohanlal as a protective father showed his brilliance in saving his wife and two daughters from murder charges. Another north Indian friend who visited the South, a few months back, watched an out and out commercial Mohanlal film ‘Puli Murugan’ and said he enjoyed it.
I had gone to the South in the 1990s and there was Verma, a production assistant deputed by AIR to accompany me during that tour. We had returned from Rameshwaram to Trivandrum late one evening and after dinner Verma wanted to see a film in a theatre. I tried to escape saying that all films will be in Malayalam; I didn’t know that he was a fan of Mohanlal. So, we went to a nearby theatre and by the time we entered the auditorium for the last show, the film had started and it was Mohanlal starrer “Araam Thampuran”. This was different from the serious or realistic films of Mohanlal and a purely commercial one with a good storyline made quite realistic by Mohanlal. The film had all the standard ingredients of a blockbuster, but Mohanlal made it highly enjoyable even for the discerning. What stands out in memory is Mohanlal’s restrained acting and delivery of dialogue towards the end of the film. He had at his feet, the villain, a feudal lord who had done evil to everyone, whom he could easily kill; instead, he set him free with a very emotional warning, stern but not shouting.
Of course, besides critically acclaimed and award-winning films, Mohanlal, affectionately called ‘Lalettan’ by lakhs of his fans, has also acted in scores of other purely commercial films with the usual formulae for bringing in the moolah. Even in some of those films, however, he has kept up his standards of acting. Those films are not for high brow audience or those looking for realism and artistic merits but for all who want just entertainment for forgetting their worldly cares for a couple of hours or just as escapism.
As Mohanlal celebrates his 60th birthday, today, we join all his fans the world over in wishing him many more years of continued enrichment of Indian cinema!