Getting two superstars at the peak of their game to act in your movie? That’s the easy part. The harder bit is making sure neither of them feels shortchanged, and more importantly, that their vocal fans are pleased. That was the quandary Malayalam director Fazil found himself in when he convinced Mohanlal and Mammootty to play the lead roles in his 1998 movie Harikrishnans. The struggle shows: in the movie, if Mammootty’s Hari began a sentence, Mohanlal’s Krishnan would finish it. The two stars, playing hotshot lawyers, dominated the screen for a large part of the movie, with almost equal screen time.
But Fazil’s biggest challenge was solving who would end up with the heroine Meera (Juhi Chawla in her only Malayalam movie so far) in a way that would make everyone happy—so instead of giving her the agency to choose one, or even neither, of the two heroes the director shot two endings. The story doing the rounds was that viewers in South Kerala, between Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam, saw Meera choose Mohanlal, while Mammootty was the lucky man in other districts, though the makers have maintained that the experiment was random, and not targeted at geographies. The move backfired when the Censor Board stepped in to object.
This is one of the more bizarre examples of the way the Mammootty-Mohanlal star show has played out in Kerala over the decades. No other actors in Malayalam cinema have commanded the kind of fan following and loyalty that the two have had, and for years, they have dominated public imagination with their embodiment of the Malayali man on screen. Their films were seen as a reliable barometer of the trends in the film industry, and perhaps in Kerala’s social life as well.
There are many similarities between the two men, who get along well, unlike some of their more raucous ‘fans’. Both are terrific actors, and a truly neutral observer would find it hard to choose between them in their best roles. They have rarely been outspoken about their views on important subjects (though Mammootty has never hidden his Leftist affiliations), and both have been criticised for their wishy-washy stand when one colleague was accused of planning the sexual assault of another. Alongside their many great, author-backed roles that can undoubtedly be included in any film studies class, they have also portrayed misogynist, communal, casteist characters that have set back the discourse around gender and discrimination in the industry. And most significantly, they have survived and held onto their No. 1 position.
But Malayalam cinema itself has changed a lot in this century. A new generation of actors, writers and directors have been slowly expanding the limits of the industry, which had been collapsing under the collective weight of its two stars and their larger-than-life characters. These so-called “new generation” films made a mark with younger viewers who craved stories that rang closer to the ordinary person’s life, one that the superstars seemed to have lost touch with.
As films like Kumbalangi Nights and Angamaly Diaries find new viewers on streaming platforms, and neighbouring film industries remake popular hits such as Premam and Bangalore Days, a younger Malayali viewer, or a non-Malayali, is more likely to watch out for Fahadh Faasil and Dulquer Salmaan, rather than the two big Ms.
Can the two superstars navigate the shifting sands in an industry that has been at their beck and call for years?
The rise of the superstars
Mohanlal and Mammootty established themselves in the Malayalam film industry during the late ’80s and early ’90s, a period which coincided with the emergence of a number of talented scriptwriters and directors, some of whom made their mark with funny, accessible movies about the struggles of the middle-class Malayali man. At the time, there was no one star ruling the roost—Prem Nazir, arguably Malayalam cinema’s first superstar, had graduated to playing roles nearer his age (he died in 1989), and the macho Jayan had tragically died in 1980, while shooting a helicopter stunt.
Mohanlal’s path to stardom finds parallels in Rajinikanth’s. His first big-screen appearance as a villain in Manjil Virinja Pookkal (1980), and he played a variety of supporting roles and was part of several multi-starrers before turning hero. But, unlike Rajini, who did many off-beat roles before getting boxed in, Lal’s roles aligned closer to his middle-class, boy-next-door image. He was a regular in Sathyan Anthikad and Priyadarshan films as he organically carved an indelible mark for himself in Malayalam cinema, often finding himself sharing the screen with Mammootty, who had begun his career a decade earlier.
It was a film originally written for Mammootty that catapulted Mohanlal as Malayalam cinema’s emerging superstar. In 1986, roughly 100 films after his debut, Mohanlal got bumped up from playing the boy-next-door to a crown prince in Rajavinte Makan (The King’s Son). Loosely based on the Sidney Sheldon bestseller Rage of Angels, he played Vincent Gomes, a calm, formidable underworld don. The film, a huge box-office success, also marked the actor’s switch to an action hero.
Mammootty, on the other hand, began his career playing roles much older than his actual age, often getting stuck in the image of a dutiful husband, father and son. Two films released in different years are credited for his emergence as a star. Some point to PG Vishwambaran’s revenge action thriller Ee Sabdam Innathe Sabdam (1985), said to be the actor’s first big solo hit. Others think that Avanazhi (1986), an action-packed police story, propelled him to superstardom.
“Till then he was trapped in the image of a suitcase-bearing father travelling in a Premier Padmini, but these films were a big shift,” said Mukesh Kumar, a social media film critic.
Till the mid-90s, despite being established stars, both Mammooty and Mohanlal chose to showcase their acting chops in the films they did. Mammootty, in particular, was the first superstar to blur the boundaries between mainstream and parallel cinema, acting in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal and TS Suresh Babu’s Kottayam Kunjachan (1990) in the same year.
Slowly, the alpha male
As the two established their dominance over the industry, the star began to take precedence over the actor.
Mohanlal of the 80s was the quintessential middle-class hero, usually in Sathyan Anthikad films such as TP Balagopalan MA (1986) or Nadodikattu (1987), as well as the charming, boyish lover in Kilukkam (1991), Vandanam (1989) or Yodha (1992). But in these movies, there was the scope for a few interesting characters for women as well—be it Karthika in Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam (1986), Sumalatha in Thoovanathumbikal (1987) or Shobana in Nadodikattu (1987), they were all part of his character’s coming-of-age arc. The actor’s turn as Solomon in Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986) was radical for its times, one that challenged puranitical notions of love and romance. In Manichithrathazhu (1993), his psychiatrist character, Dr Sunny, only enters the story right before the interval, and he wisely underplays the role, becoming a perfect foil for Shobana’s phenomenal performance as Ganga/Nagavalli.
These were not the sort of roles you would see Mammooty play. His hero was rarely the mild romantic lover but had much more responsibility on his shoulders. In many movies, he played a stern husband, brother or dutiful son, which also explains why youngsters preferred Mohanlal over Mammootty back then. Be it Sangam (1988), Nirakoottu (1985), Aavanazhi (1986), Inspector Balram (1991) or Dinarathrangal (1988), the heroines of these films were rarely memorable and depended on him to save them. Fittingly, one of Mammootty’s most memorable heroines in this period was Narayani in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal (1990), a woman we only hear, never see on screen.
Meanwhile, Mohanlal’s masculine avatar had slowly been taking shape in movies such as Devasuram (1993) and Aaram Thamburan (1997), which both dealt, in different ways, with the crisis of the upper-caste Hindu man as the foundations of a feudal society slowly crumbled.
In 2000 came Narasimham’s Induchoodan, possibly the most larger-than-life alpha male that Malayalam cinema had witnessed until then. If in Devasuram, Mohanlal’s Mangalasseri Neelakandan was a flawed hero, Narasimham’s Induchoodan smothered all those chinks.
Of course, the tone of these roles was not new to Malayali viewers, who were already familiar with Mammootty’s turn as the foul-tongued, patronising district collector in Renji Panicker’s The King and Suresh Gopi’s pompous cop outings in Commissioner and Ekalavyan.
Mohanlal’s Induchoodan was writer Ranjith’s ultimate tribute to machismo. He was brash, had great exit lines, beat up the bad guys and was treated as a demi-god. Induchoodan’s relationship with his heroine was even more problematic—despite having a double post-graduate degree, she is treated with wink-wink-nudge-nudge irreverence. In fact, when he suggests a marriage where her primary role will be that of lover and child producer, not an equal partner, she eagerly accepts it.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the toxic male character dovetailed with the shrinking space for women. While until mid-career, Mammootty and Mohanlal shared screen space with actors such as Shobana and Urvashi (and later, for some time, Manju Warrier)—who had commanded significant screen space and played a variety of complex roles—this new breed of movies starred much younger women, whose primary requirement was looking pretty.
Meanwhile, Induchoodan became the template of a hero we would see over and over again—as Zakir Hussain (Praja, 2001), Velayudhan (Naran, 2005), Karthikeyan (Ravanaprabhu, 2001), Kashinathan (Thandavam, 2012) or Sagar (Sagar Alias Jacky Reloaded, 2009). Though Mohanlal occasionally shined as an actor (Udayananu Tharam, 2005; Thanmathra, 2005; Pranayam, 2011, Bhramaram, 2009), by the mid-2000s, the alpha male persona had taken over the actor.
Mammootty, on the other hand, preferred to mix things up. For every Dubai (2001), Rakshasa Rajavu (2001), Chronic Bachelor (2003) or Phantom (2002), he balanced it with a Kazhcha (2004), Palunku (2006), Ore Kadal (2007), Paleri Manikyam (2009) or Kaiyoppu (2007). For the actor, 2005 was a significant year as he tried a huge image shift with Rajamanikyam. Unlike Mohanlal, Mammootty had always been mocked for his inability to pull off comedy. But he changed that with Bellari Raja—an uneducated buffalo seller who spouts chaste Thiruvananthapuram slang, he stunned even the harshest of critics with an effortlessly comic act backed up by a powerfully funny accent. It did, however, lead to a series of distasteful comedy films that, while often box-office hits, didn’t really add anything to his career.
Right behind Mammootty and Mohanlal was Suresh Gopi, who rose to fame with Ekalavyan (1993) and was regarded as the ‘third superstar’. Dileep also held steady with his brand of comedy (which later became problematically sexist and vulgar) to create a fanbase among the family audience. But none of them, it was clear, could match up to Mammootty and Mohanlal in terms of acting chops or popularity.
Over the past decade, as Malayalam cinema was going through a dip in quality, a fresh crop of writers and directors slowly began weaning audiences away from this formula. The trend, which started with Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic and Aashiq Abu’s Salt N Pepper in 2011, led to a new wave in Malayalam cinema. These films were often breezy, broke clichés (and sometimes winked at them) and featured a hero and heroine who looked and sounded ordinary in a way a new crop of viewers could identify with.
Audiences embraced these “new-generation” films as they played with ideas, technique and narratives. Young actors like Fahadh Faasil, Nivin Pauly, Dulquer Salmaan and Parvathy Thiruvothu were slowly finding their feet with roles that treated them as characters and not larger-than-life stars.
But the economics of cinema still lean heavily on superstar films, so the two actors continue to wield huge influence on the industry.
“Many stars have risen in between and then faded away in due course, but the value of the two big Ms has remained intact. There has been a shift in prominence during the past few years, with content proving the key factor, which has resulted in the emergence of some “unconventional” stars. But when it comes to ensuring initials at the box office, only these two have been successful in a consistent manner,” said Vijay George, a film critic.
The biggest change, however, has been off screen. As Malayalam films became more popular among a new audience, because of outward migration as well as subtitles, the public actions of actors and their roles were beginning to be scrutinised more closely. This came in large part due to the Women in Cinema Collective, formed by a group of women in the industry after a colleague was assaulted.
The case did not just expose the deep misogyny in the industry, it also threw light on where its biggest stars stood, and their responses were sharply criticised for being inadequate. Both Mohanlal, president of A.M.M.A, and Mammootty received severe public backlash for reinstating actor Dileep, accused of orchestrating the attack, into the industry body.
Another incident saw Mammootty’s fans viciously troll Parvathy, a talented actor who is also a member of WCC, for her criticism of his misogynist role in Kasaba.
But none of this has affected their standing among fans.
Earlier this year, Mohanlal’s Lucifer, an unabashed superstar vehicle, grossed over Rs 200 crore while Kumbalangi Nights, a relatively smaller film, staggered along, winning hearts at multiplexes. One celebrated the alpha male while the other made a villain out of him.
Mohanlal now packages himself as a brand in himself, investing in big-budget extravaganzas that work on his star power. His film announcements are planned with much fanfare, be it Pulimurugan (2016) or Lucifer.
“Mohanlal isn’t interested in getting out of his comfort zone. It’s one reason why he continues to give dates to (directors like) Major Ravi or B. Unnikrishnan. But for now, his strategy to just work in films that exploit his superstar image seems to be working well,” said Krishna Kumar, a film critic.
It is rumoured that for a cameo in last year’s Kayamkulam Kochunni, he pocketed a cool Rs 3 crore (considering that most of the middling reviews for the movie praised Mohanlal’s role and the movie made Rs 100 crore, it doesn’t seem like a bad investment).
Meanwhile, Mammootty, who keeps doing his share of middling superstar glorification vehicles, remains the more accessible superstar. He is prepared to step out of his comfort zone (like in the recent Peranbu or Unda—his first Malayalam movie in a while to work with both viewers and critics), work with new directors and strike a balance between films that satisfy both the actor and star in him.
Aswathy Gopalakrishnan, a film critic who works with silverscreen.in, says that superstar culture is alive and relevant even today.
“It’s the superstar actor, often male, who calls the shots on a film set. And the satellite rights business has boosted his power. Mohanlal has reinvented himself into a brand, thus smoothly fitting into every field within the show business. He is on TV selling retail products and hosting reality shows, and has narrowed down his work in feature films to big-budget projects helmed by high-profile names. Mammootty has taken more risks as an actor by working with new directors and associating in films like Unda, which have a sturdy political voice. What is more significant about their movies is their transformation into a device of Malayali nostalgia. In recent years, a number of stage shows, television programmes and feature films have paid tributes to Mammootty and Mohanlal, although they are far from being retired from acting business,” she said.
The big-budget star vehicles continue to co-exist with the new generation films. Lucifer was so popular its makers have announced a sequel. Unda played in theatres at the same time as the small-budget Thamaasha, a gentle, witty take on body-shaming.
“In Malayalam cinema, we have always cohabited. We can’t exist in isolation,” Mammootty had said in an interview some years ago.
Over four decades, 400 films and several awards later, Mammootty and Mohanlal continue to be spoken of in the same breath, though their journeys have been vastly different. But some observers are watching closely to see how the two negotiate their future path.
“I think unless the content is king, the star cannot do it today. A star can probably bring day one opening, nothing more than that,” said Pillai.