‘Chitram’ to ‘Pulimurugan’, Growing Up With Superstar Mohanlal

A screenwriter and a die-hard Mohanlal fan looks back on the superstar’s journey on his 61st birthday.

Indian Cinema
5 min read
Mohanlal poses for the camera for the festival of Vishu.

While watching the Malayalam blockbuster Chitram (1988) on a borrowed VCR, at the age of 3, I didn’t realize that it would be a turning point in my life. I fell in love with the movie and instantly became a fan of its leading man, Mr Mohanlal, who made me laugh and cry at a time when I hadn’t even begun to understand what those emotions are!

I learnt to read and write Malayalam alphabets looking at Mohanlal’s movie posters on newspapers and on roads even before they started teaching Malayalam at school. I went into depression thinking he actually died at the end of Unnikale Oru Kadha Parayaam (1987) and refused to eat food until I was convinced that he was still alive.

I wrote fan mail to him while I was just 5 or 6 and even got a reply in the form of an autographed photograph from the sets of Ulladakkam (1991), thanks to a friend of my father. I was ecstatic and went around showing it off to all my classmates in kindergarten.

I started writing stories keeping him in mind along with other comic book and cartoon heroes in my notebooks; learnt his songs by heart; and all this was much before I realised what an accomplished actor he was.

A newspaper ad for Mohanlal’s mega hit <i>Chitram </i>as it completed one year in theatres in Kerala.
A newspaper ad for Mohanlal’s mega hit Chitram as it completed one year in theatres in Kerala.

I am sure almost all the Malayali kids who were born in the late 80s or early 90s would have many similar instances to share about the influence Mohanlal had on our growing up years. And this is not just about them. At 61, he is still a rage among babies and kids; and they just absolutely adore him even today. That’s his inexplicable charm, which makes him likeable to every single Malayali and makes them feel that he is our own; apart from his legendary acting skills.

Growing up, I realised that there was much more about him than that inexplicable charm. And like every Malayali who grew up during the early 90s; I had the chance to watch the best of the movies made in the country featuring the best actor in the country at the top of his game.

Every year, he would do at least 7 or 8 movies in many different genres, displaying a fantastic range of performances; without a single false note. It was the best phase of Mohanlal’s career. He was along with us in every emotion in our lives - from agony to joy, from love to heartbreak, from revenge to redemption, from humour to violence; and much more.

Transforming from a villain to a supporting actor, then a hero and finally a superstar, who was also a mind blowing actor - within a span of five or six years was no mean task. The movies that I grew up on were the result of this marvellous transformation.

My all time favourite performances of Mohanlal, also happened during this period – Spadikam (1995), Dasharatham (1989), Devasuram (1993), Chitram (1988), and of course his career-best performance, in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997).

Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai in a still from <i>Iruvar</i>.&nbsp;
Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai in a still from Iruvar
(Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

As I said earlier, ever since I watched Chitram, I knew I had to be part of this dream-world called cinema, and began working towards that. The first feature film that I got to be a part of, Innathe Chinthavishayam (2008), as an assistant to its cinematographer Alagappan, had Mohanlal in the lead role. What more could I ask for? My first ever stint with a feature film, with my hero! And instead of working well as an assistant cinematographer, all I did was observe this man in awe.

It wasn’t the best of his films, but it was a golden opportunity for me to witness his magic, standing right next to him. He would sing and joke around until the camera rolled, and would suddenly transform so easily into his character when the director said ‘action!’ and immediately after the shot was cut, he would go back to being his playful self. I worked for 30 days on the film, but not once did I have the courage to go up to him, and talk to him.

I finally managed that on my last day on the sets; and he called me as ‘mone’ (son); which is how he fondly addresses everyone younger to him, and the tone that he uses when he says that word is legendary among the Malayalam film fraternity.
The writer Vivek Ranjit with Mohanlal over the years.&nbsp;
The writer Vivek Ranjit with Mohanlal over the years. 
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

I was over the moon with joy.

In 2013, I made my debut as a screenwriter for a movie called Kili Poyi (2013), with my best friends; all of us who are die-hard fans of Mohanlal. The film had clear influences of the superstar and his films all over, which involuntarily came to us while writing and making it.

After joining the industry, I began hearing and knowing much more about the man from people around me, which only increased my awe and admiration for him. My friends even make fun of me, saying that I walk with a slanted shoulder and talk like Lalettan (which is what we Keralites lovingly call Mohanlal) all the time, which happens quite unknowingly to me.

I have worked with him in several capacities – as an assistant cinematographer, as an assistant producer for a TV show which featured him and as a subtitler of his latest release, 1971 Beyond Borders; but I don’t think I have achieved enough to be recognised by him, despite meeting him on several occasions over all these years. I hope I can achieve that very soon and some day, write or direct a movie for him, that would meet my expectations as a fanboy!

Mohanlal in a still from <i>1971: Beyond Borders</i>.&nbsp;
Mohanlal in a still from 1971: Beyond Borders
(Photo courtesy: Facebook)

Even though he has had historic highs and terrible lows in his career post 2000, he has always bounced back with the biggest blockbusters whenever he was about to be written off. One example being the hat-trick success of the blockbusters Oppam, Pulimuguran & Munthirivallikal Thalirukkumbol, all within a span of 5 months.

Mohanlal in a still from <i>Oppam</i>.&nbsp;
Mohanlal in a still from Oppam
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

With Pulimurugan grossing close to 150 crores, which was a first for Malayalam cinema; he has widened the reach and market of Malayalam cinema. Many massive projects are still being planned with Mohanlal in the lead – such as the Rs 1000 crore Randamoozham - an adaptation of The Mahabharata, a fantasy thriller called Odiyan and actor Prithviraj’s directorial debut – Lucifer. All this while he is ageing gracefully, opening up to many more challenges in his illustrious career. So it will be exciting times ahead for the crores of fans of this marvellous actor, including me.

(Vivek Ranjit is a screenwriting graduate from FTII, currently working as a screenwriter in Malayalam cinema and also does English subtitles for Malayalam films. For cinephiles, he is the guy who also subtitled the current cult hit Angamaly Diaries.)

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark the actor’s birthday.)

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