5 Roles that Birthday Boy Mohanlal Excelled In
For a quarter century, Malayalam cinema has been ruled by two superstars — Mohanlal and Mammootty, unquestionably gifted and enigmatic in popular imagination. It’s been an eternal debate for the legion of fans to decide who the better actor is, but legendary actor Thilakan sealed it with his statement. “I have high regard for Mohanlal. He is a brilliant, natural, flexible actor. And Mammooty is a ‘made actor’.”
Mohanlal’s formidable career is a tale of an actor, intellectual in approach, and passionate in delivery, a student who honed his craft over the years by playing characters with little style and in a manner that mocks stereotypes. Tragedy, comedy and everything in between, his gifts as an actor made sure we felt for the character with each breath, laughed and cried along with him.
On the occasion of his 59th birthday, we revisit some cinematic gems where we witnessed his effortlessness as an actor.
1. Vanaprastham (1999)
Set in the pre-independence era, it is the story of a lower-caste Kathakali artist Kunhikuttan who is stuck in a loveless marriage, but grows popular on stage, and falls in love with a higher-caste woman Subhadra, who is clearly in love with the character he plays on stage. Shaji N Karun’s evocative film takes a cue from the Arjuna-Subhadra episode in the epic, the Mahabharata and refurbishes it with genteel wisdom. With the exception of Mohanlal, most of the actors are professional Kathakali artists, and the actor’s craft is in full display with exemplary manipulation of face muscles, and eyes that speak infinite emotions. In a film riddled with symbolism, Mohanlal playing Kunhikuttan becomes the symbol of dormant, but overwhelming sorrow.
2. Bharatham (1991)
Sibi Malayil’s film tells the tale of a family where classical music runs as inheritance, the elder brother finds himself jealous of his younger brother, and in the grip of alcohol. Soon, it spirals into a tragedy. A modern day take on the Ramayana, the film depicts the story from Bharat’s perspective, and how he tackles the bitter truth for the family. Mohanlal playing the modern day Bharat, sings and acts with a quiet restraint, merging life and art into one seamless thread.
3. Manichitrathazhu (1993)
Remember Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007)? Well, it was the remake of a Malayalam classic Manichitrathazhu where Mohanlal played the psychiatrist character. About Mohanlal , almost every actor of the new generation of south Indian actors say that even his fingers and fingernails can act. Always top notch when it comes to emotional or drunk scenes, Mohanlal shows his quirky comic side here, galloping from the playful to the calm demeanour with great alacrity, cementing his versatility in a vastly entertaining film.
4. Iruvar (1997)
Mohanlal did very few films in Tamil, but his turn as Anandan in Mani Ratnam’s personal favourite, Iruvar (1997) was the work of a man at the pinnacle of his game. The film fictionalised the larger-than-life relationship of MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi and how it had a sweeping influence from cinema to politics. Mohanlal shows such effortless ease in the film that he vanishes into the character and you are led to believe that you’re watching MGR, not a mimicry of him. Even Adoor Gopalakrishnan once told Mani Ratnam that Mohanlal’s finest performance was in Iruvar.
5. Company (2002)
The list would be incomplete without a single Hindi film, and Mohanlal’s appearance in Ram Gopal Varma’s influential crime thriller, Company (2002), was nothing short of phenomenal. Playing a character loosely based on D Sivanandan, the Joint Commissioner of Mumbai Police, he delivered some of the coolest one liners without the stagey feeling of dialogues. The character being south Indian only added to the charm.
(The writer is a journalist and screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark the actor’s birth anniversary.)