Mohanlal may be the Amitabh Bachchan of the south, but his presence in Hindi films has been limited. And even though his iconic role as the police commissioner in ‘Company’ will be remembered by many, in the national media he would still be that Malayalam actor who had a flash in the pan brush with Bollywood.
At the end of the day, though, how many Indian actors can boast of being SRK's guide to Kerala or having performed an action sequence with Jackie Chan? And that makes us wonder how the south Indian film industry co-exists as a parallel universe, and how a superstar down south can roam about freely in the streets of Mumbai without being stormed by fans. Kunal Guha caught up with the National-Award-winning actor when he was in Mumbai to talk about his small but crucial cameo in Priyadarshan's action thriller ‘Tezz’.
With limited knowledge of his Malayalam legacy, the only visual I could conjure up on meeting the superstar, clad in a simple checked shirt, was that of a police commissioner on a day off. So my first question was obvious, “You’ve been branded as a dependable cop in Hindi films, does this work for you or against you?”
He smiled. “Am I? The branding has already been done? I don’t know about that.” I insisted that it was the opinion of the national media. Finally, trying to carefully gather his words, he said, “This branding wasn’t done purposely. It’s just that I’ve played a cop in three films and it just happened. But here (in Tezz) I play a London cop so it’s a bit different.”
I wanted to ask him why he thinks he makes for a good cop but he began talking before I could speak. “This is my 43rd film with Priyan (Priyadarshan) and I keep joking about wanting to work in a Hindi film with him. So suddenly, he called me and said he’s doing this film and I asked him if he had a role for me, I’d like to do it and he offered me this special role which is of a British police officer in the film. It wasn’t a planned thing, and it began as a joke and a casual conversation that led to my role in this film.”
How come we don’t see him more often in Hindi films, where his last recorded experience was in RGV’s ‘Aag’ in 2007? This time, there is no smile accompanying his response. “There is no why. When I get a good role, I would want to do it. ‘Company’ was a cult film. Following my performance, whenever I would meet police officers while travelling, they would call me ‘Company-wala’. So it’s not the role but how the role is placed in the film that is critical.”
Still and all, I wonder as I ponder that non-answer, with the flurry of south Indian films being remade in Hindi these days, how does he not want to be a part of the boom, more so given his good friend Priyadarshan remakes so many of them? “Why should I come and work in them? There are so many wonderful actors here. Priyan remakes the films to adjust in this market, which is way larger market than the Kerala market,” he said.
Since they’re being modified to suit a different industry, does it risk any loss in translation? “You have to sacrifice the emotional part and put in more action, dances and songs. Remaking films is not a new thing. When I do a good film in Malayalam, only a portion of the population will watch it. If the same film is made in Hindi, the entire nation will watch it. It’s a good thing, and it’s all about how you conceive it. It’s nice to watch your baby doing well in all languages. Sometimes if you make an exact remake, the soul could be missing and hence modifications need to be made,” he responds.
So how does one keep the soul of a film intact in a remake, considering that the original is being made in a milieu that cannot be transplanted? “It has a distinct effect in production,” he says, speaking with the knowledge of one who has also donned the producer’s hat and even won a national award in that role (Vanaprastham, directed by Shaji N Karun). “When you’re shooting a song sequence for a Malayalam film, you have to understand what the Kerala audience would like. But when you’re doing an international film, you have to sacrifice a lot of things, since there are many norms that determine the success of each kind of film. So when a Malayalam film is remade in Tamil with say Rajnikanth, there would be song and fight sequences that go with his kind of films, since that is what the audience would want. Hindi films and even Tamil films are made for international market. Malayalam films have a fairly smaller market. At the most, it might be marketed in the Middle-East, US and Europe. The important thing is that every film has a soul and conveys something.”
That brings us back to Mohanlal’s non-presence in Bollywood, especially given that so many south Indian stars make no bones about their craving for the big break in B Town. “I am not a newcomer,” he says, reacting to the suggestion that he might need a ‘break’. “I’ve been working for the last 35 years. I don’t need to prove anything by working in Hindi films. I am very content with the work I am doing and happy in my own language. If I get a very good irresistible role, I would surely want to do it. Many actresses who’re newcomers start off in Malayalam or Tamil films and try to prove themselves there since they get a good reach, and then try to score in-roads into Hindi films. For actors like me, just working in a film like ‘Company’ is enough. If I have to do another film, it has to be better than 'Company'.”
The conversation skews to the question of the similarities and differences between the various industries he has worked in – Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi to name just five. “We use the same camera, lights and so on and it’s only the language that differs. You are the deciding factor for your life. It has to do with the interest and integrity that you have towards your profession. The emotion and the soul of the movies is the same. I have done Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films. I can write in Hindi also but my fluency is not very good. People don’t speak in Hindi in Kerala. They watch Hindi films but they don’t speak it.” His preferred way, he says, when working in an unfamiliar language is to write the dialogues down phonetically in his own tongue, and then to memorize the words.
Across all these languages, which filmmakers have offered him the most fulfilling projects? After a brief reflective pause, he says “I’ve done Mani Ratnam films which have offered me the kind of roles I have really enjoyed doing. When RGV approached me for ‘Company’, he had only seen a single film of mine and he said that was enough for him to know that I was the character in his film, and I liked his vision. Then obviously Priyan and I have been friends and share a special chemistry. I like his style of film making and the fact that he is constantly working. When a director takes a break for a couple of years and comes back to direct a film, he can be a bit rusty. It’s very simple with him, he describes the scene to me and I act.”
One thing that strikes you about the actor is how unchanged he has been, physically, for most of his career – even in these modern times when Bollywood heroes go through dramatic physical transformations for their roles. Would he tinker with his body for the sake of a role? “I will also gain weight,” he laughs, jesting at his own considerable bulk. “Whatever the role demands, I will lose or gain weight to suit the character.”
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