If popularity could be adjusted for inflation, how would you describe who Suresh Krissna was back in 1996? He had just directed Superstar Rajinikanth's Baasha, one of the biggest hits of the year (not just in Tamil). In today's terms, this would lead to being spotted at football games with Shah Rukh Khan himself. But, at the height of his powers, Krissna curiously wanted to make a small Malayalam film, that too with an actor-star like Mohanlal. Translating that situation into 2019 terms, it's like SS Rajamouli wanting to make a Malayalam film after his Baahubali-an success.
And this was not going to be just any other film for Mohanlal either. The Prince was touted to be his comeback after what was being spoken about as a near career-ending health situation. Kaalapani released in April, and The Prince was only his second film in 1996, which remains his leanest year till date in terms of the number of films released. For the average Malayali film fans used to seeing their star in an average of five films a year, this gap seemed huge. Understandably, the hype was at another level. If VA Shrikumar Menon had directed The Prince, he may have proclaimed that the film had a pre-release business of Rs. 100 crore (not adjusted for inflation).
I, for one, found the title rather strange back then. Why would a Mohanlal film be called The Prince when Mammootty had starred in a particularly verbose blockbuster titled The King just a year earlier. In today's terms (okay, last one) it's not like Ajith would ever follow Vijay's Jilla with a film titled Moffusil, right? Not that the title affected the film in any way. It got a major opening, but nothing else. It flopped spectacularly, with several theatres refusing to play the film beyond the first two weeks.
A dubbed film?
Watching the film again today is a fascinating exercise in understanding why audiences rejected this film the way they did. I'd call The Prince the least Malayali Malayalam film of all time. For one, the only major character played by a Malayali in the film is Mohanlal's. The film is set in Chennai and I remember even the character names sounding odd. Mohanlal was Jeeva (short for Jeevan), Prakash Raj was Surya and the heroine Prema was Swarna.
Now I'm not sure if this was originally written for another hero in another language, but the film becomes extremely alienating when it feels like only one character has dubbed for himself (even though Prakash Raj too had dubbed). This problem became even bigger when Mohanlal's new nasal voice didn't sound like Mohanlal at all. Suresh Krissna himself admitted in an interview later that people didn't believe it when the team said that Mohanlal's voice had changed, following a surgery.
One can call it a vague reinterpretation of The Godfather (are all Malayalam iterations of The Godfather flops?) with the film starting with a series of hitjobs, cut like the climax of Coppola's classic.
The 'silliness' of it all really gets to you even today. We're told that we're smack in the middle of two warring clans — the Rajasekharan Clan (Spadikam George) and the Vishwanath Clan (Girish Karnad) — fighting for a piece of Tamil Nadu territory. The henchmen of the former can be seen dressed in grey Pathan suits with big belts while the latter are in black Safari suits. Also, for a film set in Chennai, people are dressed far too often in trench coats (including a red one!).
As a kid, I loved the idea of Mohanlal travelling in a self-sufficient Tempo Traveller as his steed (he later repeated this in Ustad). On closer look today, it's weirdly cool to see Jeeva watching Rowan Atkinson's standup gig as he waits for his ambush. And, long before the Amal Neerads got there, we saw a Malayalam star get an intro scene where we saw his feet way before his face. And, this was before the film's iconic "he walks like a Prince" number.
Years later, when you could set songs as ringtones in mobile phones, this song would become the go-to track for Mammootty fans to make fun of Mohanlal fans. And, like in Bashsha, any movements of Mohanlal's character were accompanied by an air-whoosh, another first in Malayalam. There's not a lot one can talk about in terms of plot and storyline; two generations of the Mafia fight each other to get a piece of the same territory. The only angle that felt slightly fresh is how Jeeva has to hide his true criminal identity from his own wife (there are two separate scenes where the wife is shocked seeing her husband's gun).
The fight scenes have aged terribly; one of them set in a bar seems extremely wasteful given how he didn't use his gun throughout and how it ends with the bad guys saying their leader Surya is away on business in Bombay.
But what the film lacks in terms of substance, it makes up with its absolute disregard for subtlety. Like that hilarious 'love at first sight' moment when Jeeva mistakes Swarna for an assassin. We then get Swarna singing Deva's lovely 'Shyamayam Radhika' as the visuals shift to a faraway land. The song isn't the problem here, but the voiceover that describes this new 'deep' feeling is. He says, 'There is something enchanting, something divine in your music. I feel I'm wandering in the infinite space…What is the meaning of this? I wish I knew. I wish I knew'.
The 'I Love You' scene is even funnier. Jeeva, after proclaiming his arrogance, looks at Swarna and says, 'Aye, bloody shit! I love you. Do you love me? Do you love me?' Of course, she does and we get another song. Back then, shooting a song abroad was very fancy for Malayalam cinema, so we not only get beautiful landscape shots but also a map of Mauritius as they fly away…just to make sure we notice.
The death scenes too are equally bombastic. For people professionally living a life of crime, they are terrible shooters. A million shots are fired at Mohanlal's car, but not one hits him. In fact, Prakash Raj actually hits his target only when the story has to move forward. Given how Prakash Raj was considered the next big thing, one wishes he'd dug in a little to his subtler side. His acting in The Prince is so loud, it'd be quieter to pick your ears with a Concorde.
With actors such as Mohanlal, Girish Karnad and Prakash Raj at the director's disposal, shouldn't we have gotten a much better film? The film even gets an showy single shot climax, with Jeeva convincing his father to throw away their life in crime. It's an example of how ordinary a great actor can look in the wrong film film because the next film which saw Prakash Raj and Mohanlal act together was…
Usually, people seem to divide Mohnalal's career as before and after Narasimham, but I'd argue that it was always before and after The Prince. Was The Prince a premonition given how he repeatedly chooses the star before the actor? Why was he wandering in this infinite space so early on? I wish I knew, I wish I knew…