It’s always a good time to revisit old Mohanlal films and the iconic roles he’s played in Malayalam cinema.
Featured in this short list are ten stellar performances that define the actor’s work, particularly in the ’80s and early ’90s. Whether you’re looking for comic roles, dramatic performances or dialogues that have become commonplace in Malayali conversations— you’ll find them here.
If you haven’t watched all of these films at least 5000 times, now is the time to catch up.
1. Kireedam (1989)
A father builds dreams around his son becoming a policeman but is left traumatised when he is jailed for felony. Written by AK Lohitadas and directed by Sibi Malayil, Kireedam must be seen as a companion piece to the writer’s earlier work, Thaniyavarthanam, where the society victimises a man for no fault of his, thereby turning his life into a hell hole. Considered one of the finest screenplays of Malayalam cinema, the film is a battle between acting giants Mohanlal and Thilakan, which the former wins with his spellbinding climactic performance as his anger, helplessness and insanity reach a maddening crescendo, allowing us to witness the character’s heartwrenching submission to his wretched fate. Result? One of the finest performances in Indian cinema.
(Amazon prime (with subtitles), Hotstar (without subtitles))
2. Chithram (1988)
A young man (Mohanlal) agrees to pretend to be the husband of a wealthy woman (Ranjini) in exchange for money. Despite all the hijinks and deception, when love sneaks into their life, the reality of the man’s existence turns out to be a macabre joke. Written and directed by Priyadarshan, featuring his favourite actors, Chithram was the first of the several films in the late 80s, which celebrated the effortlessness of Mohanlal, the actor. It ushered in mannerisms, now considered staples in his repertoire (that bashful grin, the cartwheels and his cute shenanigans). The young Mohanlal was adorable. Chithram was remade in Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil, but none of the adaptations could hold a candle to the original, as it was difficult to replicate the brilliance of the original cast.
3. Dasharatham (1989)
Rajiv is a young, irreverent, spoilt man born to riches. He lives a largely aimless single life, till a visit from a friend and his family makes him think of having a child of his own from a surrogate mother. Written by AK Lohitadas and directed by Sibi Malayil, it is the first film to address surrogacy in Malayalam. With quite an ensemble fronted by Mohanlal, Dasharatham vacillates between goofy fun, impromptu humour, and totally unexpected moments of despondency. It primarily works because it’s lead actor goes out of his way to charm the socks off you—whether is the little nuances he lends to the indecisiveness of being Rajiv, those trademark ‘Mohanlalisms’ which makes him one of the most endearing actors in Malayalam cinema and that hell of a poignant last scene. Vintage stuff!
4. Nadodikattu (1987)
Dasan and Vijayan will remain one of the most popular duos of Malayalam cinema’s golden 80s. They were middle-class young men who battled job loss and poverty with a cheeky irreverence, dreamt of greener pastures, found themselves in odd situations, and still managed to retain their sense of humour. The film, written by Sreenivasan and directed by Sathyan Anthikad, is about two young men who find themselves in Chennai after being duped into believing that they were headed for jobs in the Gulf. The humorous narrative follows their struggles, resulting in one of the classics comedies in Malayalam cinema. If Priyadarshan created the goofy, delectable manifestation of the actor called Mohanlal, Sathyan Anthikad channelised that goofiness into a more rooted and relatable milieu. He became the boy-next-door, who was flawed, gullible, always lived a hand-to-mouth existence and was hung up on white collar jobs. In a way the film was the first of the many which catapulted the actor into the hearts of the Malayali audience. It is also where Mohanlal seems to have begun leaving traces of himself in every character.
(Youtube, Sony Liv)
5. Kilukkam (1991)
Directed by Priyadarshan, written by Venu Nagavally, the film’s narrative revolves around a thin one-liner about a woman, who seems mentally ill and finds refuge in the home of a tourist guide.
Kilukkam is filled with all the Priyadarshan tropes. A terrific ensemble of actors, irreverent, impromptu humour, loads of songs, and this uncanny balance of humour with enough emotional scenes. Then there were those combinations—Mohanlal-Jagathy being the best, followed by Thilakan-Innocent and Mohanlal-Revathy. It’s no wonder, 29 years after its release, the film continues to have a cult following cutting across generations and despite knowing every line of the film by-heart, the laughs never stop.
(Hotstar with subtitle)
6. Sadayam (1992)
The demons of the past continue to haunt Sathyanathan as he moved into a newly rented house, where two sex workers are his neighbours. Being bullied for being the son of a sex worker at his orphanage, Sathyanathan has only contempt for them. But when his plans to rescue the daughter of the sex worker fails, he ends up killing four people. Written by MT Vasudevan Nair, directed by Sibi Malayil, there is nothing cheery about the film, but it hits you hard, making us strangely empathise with Sathyan’s macabre sense of justice. Mohanlal is powerful as this unsmiling, aloof painter who is filled with compassion for a world that never showed him justice.
(Youtube no subtitle )
7. Gandhinagar 2nd Street (1986)
A young man struggling to make ends meet slips into the unlikely role of a Nepali gurkha at a middle-class locality in Central Kerala. Written by Sreenivasan (who also acts in it) and directed by Sathyan Anthikad, this film should be considered the second—after Sanmanasullavarkku Samadhanam (1986), before Nadodikattu (1987)—in the trilogy of their collaborations which thrived on the clueless middle-class, the debauched Nair tharavadu, unemployed sons and married daughters with their dowry woes (or how they were made to feel guilty about asking for their rightful share of properties). The film has Anthikad’s usual line-up of fabulous actors, an effortlessly funny Mohanlal who speaks unthinkably terrible Hindi, paired with the talented Karthika, brilliant, original characters like Sankaradi as the local pulp fiction writer, Sukumari as the colony president, KPAC Lalitha as the general nosey-body, Asokan as the local Romeo and a terrific cameo by Mammootty. It remains an enjoyable with every revisit.
(YouTube, no subtitles)
8. Namukku Parkaan Munthirithoppukal (1986)
Writer-director Padmarajan weaves a classic romance between Solomon and Sofiain in the backdrop of the sprawling vineyards of Mysore. It is during one of those weekend visits to his home that Solomon notices this girl slaving out in their neighbourhood through the window of his bedroom. Though he falls instantly in love, it takes time for Sofia who is trapped at a home where her stepfather’s intentions are not honourable. But when their mothers eventually reconcile to their relationship, Sofia is molested by her stepfather, leaving Solomon in an emotional and moral quandary. That Solomon eventually breaks the myopic conditioning attached to chastity in a bride (ironically fed by society, cinema, and books) and takes Sofia back to their haven, makes this film a revolutionary cinematic experience. Of course, no one can pull off Solomon quite like Mohanlal who blends charm, mischief, romance, anger, and pathos, even while crafting one of the finest proposal scenes (with a gem of a BGM from Johnson) in the history of Malayalam cinema.
(YouTube, no subtitles)
9. No. 20 Madras Mail (1990)
A mysterious murder aboard the Madras Mail triggers a chain of events, putting focus on the passengers, especially three aimless young men involved in drunken brawls inside the train. A Malayalam superstar (Mammootty playing himself), a businessman (MG Soman), his daughter who gets killed, her lover (Asokan) are others who find themselves drawn into this murder case. Directed by Joshiy, written by Dennis Joseph, the film is hailed as one of the most popular murder mysteries in Malayalam cinema. Its initial scenes also works as mindlessly fun entertainment, with Mohanlal’s Tony Kurishingal, a rich prodigal son of a planter providing wholesome laughs with his cracker of a drunken act. That they managed to bring Mammootty on board turns out to be the cherry on top of the iced cake. You have Mohanlal excelling in his irreverence towards Mammootty, who is casually playing himself. To this day, Lal’s first interaction with Mammootty on the train, where he professes his love for the actor and Mammootty’s spontaneous affection is a cinematic treasure.
10. Bharatham (1991)
Bharatham is set in the backdrop of a family of Carnatic musicians. Things are going smoothly till the eldest brother, who is an acclaimed singer, ruins a concert in a drunken stupor but is saved by the younger one who sings in place of him. Bharatham, written by AK Lohitadas and directed by Sibi Malayil, is a retelling of the Ramayana with Rama and Bharath taking centrestage. Typical of Lohitadas, the narrative emphasises dysfunctional relationships and the complexity of families. Though the brilliant music and dance bring in some respite, the narrative is largely wrapped in pathos, with several heart-wrenching scenes that make it a difficult film to revisit. Mohanlal aces the role of a younger brother who cannot mourn the death of his elder brother as responsibility towards his family holds him back. Watch out for a brilliant scene where his character must sing at a concert soon after his brother’s death.
(Amazon Prime with subtitles, Hostar with no subtitles)