It’s a perfectly calculated crime and he leaves no traces. It’s all done effortlessly. Minus the crime, the film Drishyam could be a metaphor for Mohanlal. Clear vision, no false steps.The jury is still out on the motivations of the Mohanlal’s character in Drishyam, yet after the film the actor makes you reassess your own motivations. That’s the ultimate sign of a good actor. He makes you question your own belief systems and at other times gently nudges you not to take sides. Besides good and bad, grey is okay too. A good actor is the sum of many parts. And that’s what the hero of our essay is. You cannot pin him down to a stereotype. Watch his bumbling contractor act in a Sathyan Anthikad’s TP Balagopalan MA or Sanmanasavallurka Samadhanam. He’s your Everyman. You may meet him on your ride home. He will be self- righteous, he will con you, he may loan you money and he may even see you home safe. Like Mohanlal does in Gandhinagar Second street or Nadodikaatu.
One of Mohanlal’s greatest strength is that he beguiles you into believing that he’s just like you. And you will meet many like him on your journey. Nothing better to hook an audience than intimacy or immediacy. So the unemployed young man in Sibi Malayil’s Kireedom or Sathyan Antikad’s films caught your attention because he articulated the frustrations of the unemployed youth. It was a real problem and here was a real man who we identified with. When an audience identifies with the hero, it’s half the job done.He performs with his eyes. His mobile face. His body language. As the defeated Kathakali dancer in Shaji Karun’s Vanaprastham or the Alzheimer’s afflicted gentleman in Thanmathra, Mohanlal’s suffering is your suffering. He makes it immediate because of the connection. Good actors connect with you, they become you.
And that’s why they can also make you laugh. Like he did in Priyadarshan’s films like Kilukkam, Chitram, Vandanam, Poochekya Oru mookuthi. He zoomed into simple everyday foibles and encouraged us to laugh at ourselves. Just like he did in Sathyan Anthikad’s films. It was almost a comfort that seemed to say–“hey life is tough, deal with it and smile”. And while you are at it, settle down with the girl-next-door like Shobhana in Nadodikaatu or Karthika in Sanmanasavallurka Samadhanam. His film showed us that failure could be noble too. If you wanted to go on a guilt trip, there was Sibi Malayil’s Bharatam where his family holds him responsible for his brother’s death. Mohanlal’s delicacy of performance overwhelms especially in the final breakdown scene with his sister in law Lakshmi.
For some more more brooding and psychological bashing, there was Sadayam where he had to kill the poor, helpless kids with his bare hands or he has to take his own life to give the living a better life in Bharat Gopy’s Ulsavapittenu. If there was light in him, his soul could take you to the dark side as well. While Bollywood audiences got a taste of Mohanlal’s seamlessness with Ram Gopal Varma’s Company, he truly cut across Pan Asian boundaries with Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar. Playing a character loosely modelled on MGR, this is vintage Mohanlal. As husband, lover, actor, politician, Iruvar is one of his most accomplished works. Which perhaps prompted Ratnam to call him India’s Gerard Depardieu.
But no mistake, seriousness wasn’t only his thing. He could make you fall in love as evidenced in the magical Mohanlal- Padmarajan combination in films like Tuvanatumbikal and Namakka Parkaan Munthiri Toppukal. He finds his identity in love. Love makes the self-willed man rooted. Love makes him come home. No one does romance like Mohanlal. It’s his heartline just as acting is. Got a turgid script? No problem, Mohanlal will whip up the requisite magic be it in a His Highness Abdullah, Aye auto or Devaasuram. The trick is to dissemble without effort. Close to forty years in the business he springs magical surprises time and again. Like his performance on stage as Karna in Kavalam’s Karnabharam or G Aravidan’s Vastuhara. There is an intellectual understanding of nuance and subtext. You can see it in the performance which often rises above the call of the script.
You again see that intensity on low simmer as the dance teacher in Kamaladalam. He just gets it. The rhythm of the scene. His is not an easy frame to navigate, but when Mohanlal sings or dances, he’s to the manner born. He was born to it. Not a step out of place. Geographical locations, history or chemistry are the tools an actor plays with to supplement his art. As the doctor away in Andamans separated from his wife during the freedom struggle, Mohanlal’s performance in Priyadarshan’s Kaala Pani was a knockout. And despite the length and the beautiful songs, there was again truth which shone through. The same truth sparkled in Fazil’s Manichitratazhu. As the psychiatrist who cures the unhinged Shobhana with this unorthodox way, Mohanlal adds wit and humour to alleviate the overall sense of impending doom.
So how do you encapsulate the oeuvre of an actor who’s probably lost count of the films he’s done. Perhaps through our love, through our appreciation. And finally through a sense of identity. His struggle is ours, his despair is ours. In his redemption at the movies, lies ours outside it.