In 2016, Vysakh’s Pulimurugan, starring Mohanlal in the lead, became the first Malayalam film to earn Rs 100 crore at the box office. The action thriller saw Mohanlal play a truck driver who hunts man-eating tigers. Not only was it a massive hit in Kerala, it also did well in the Telugu states where it opened in 500 screens. Six years down the line, however, the same director-actor combination has delivered a colossal dud. Monster, which released in October this year, has barely made Rs 5.5 crore. Yet even the superstar’s fans aren’t surprised.
Monster follows the same template as previous Mohanlal films that have turned out to be disasters. A larger-than-life hero is presented as irresistible to women, despite his misogynistic double entendres, bombastic action sequences and punch dialogues — all of which contain innumerable nods to the actor’s earlier films. These films present a bored Mohanlal going through the motions in an uninspired script. In Monster, he is also disguised as a Sikh man – with bhangra music underlining his smarts to make the proceedings even more unbearable.
Mohanlal, a five-time National Award winner, is undoubtedly one of the most versatile stars to have emerged from the Malayalam film industry. However, his films in recent years have gone from bad to worse. In fact, after the political thriller Lucifer (2019), Mohanlal has not managed to deliver any theatrical hit. It’s possible that the success of the Prithviraj directorial – currently the highest-grossing Malayalam film ever – spawned similar films in which Mohanlal has a larger-than-life avatar. Lucifer had several slow-mo shots of the actor folding and unfolding his mundu, references to his old blockbusters, and ‘mass’ action scenes in which Mohanlal dispensed goons to space. Though it was formulaic in many ways, Lucifer worked with the audience because there was more to the plot than just showcasing Mohanlal’s masculinity. However, with flop after flop, there is now concern that the film’s upcoming sequel, Empuraan, may not fare well either.
Film critic Neelima Menon said Monster was the “last straw” for Mohanlal fans who have been extremely loyal to the star despite his poor script selection. “You take some of his recent films – Drama (2018), Ittymaani: Made in China (2019), Big Brother (2020), Neerali (2021), Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham (2021), 12th Man (2022) or Aarattu (2022) – and clearly, the actor seems to be in no hurry to update himself. He would rather play multiple versions of the alpha male, larger-than-life hero who also endorses his virility in every film,” she pointed out.
Menon added that these poorly made, regressive films were coming out at a time when Malayalam cinema was making waves outside the state for its sensitive, realistic and experimental storytelling. The only exception in this period has been Jeethu Joseph’s mystery thriller Drishyam 2 (2021) which was released directly on Amazon Prime Video during the pandemic. The film, a sequel to the blockbuster Drishyam (2013), received positive reviews but to retain his position as a top star, Mohanlal sorely needs a theatrical hit.
Maneesh Narayanan, founder and editor of the digital portal The Cue, said audiences expected Monster to be a mass entertainer since it came from the same team that made Pulimurugan. But even a mass entertainer needs to offer something new and cannot hope to get away with repeating the same gimmicks.
“If we look at theatre or satellite value and the rest of India rights, the market value of other superstars is much lower than that of Mohanlal. It hasn’t changed in 10-15 years. But after Lucifer, all films except Drishyam 2, tried to exploit Mohanlal’s pre-release and post-release market. His movie selection after Pulimurugan has been inclined to mass action entertainers, most of them formula films,” said Narayanan.
While the directors who make these lazy, formulaic films deserve a part of the blame, the fault also lies with the superstar who hasn’t reached out to the new generation of filmmakers who became game-changers in the industry after 2010. In fact, if Barroz screenplay writer Jijo Punnoose is to be believed, it is Mohanlal who is insistent on keeping his macho man image intact. The disgruntled writer, famous for making India’s first 3D film My Dear Kuttichathan (1984), recently alleged that Mohanlal had completely rewritten the screenplay for the upcoming children’s fantasy film Barroz (also his directorial debut) to pander to his fan base.
A senior entertainment journalist who has followed Mohanlal’s career since his early years, said that the actor is surrounded by a sycophant circle, and that he only works with directors with whom he shares a comfort level. “Mohanlal never reads the full script of the films he signs. He has always maintained that his comfort level with a director is of utmost importance to him. He trusts directors he has worked with to showcase him in the best possible way. That’s why he does films like Aarattu with B Unnikrishnan,” he said.
During the promos for Aarattu, Mohanlal’s frustration with his repeated failures at the box office was apparent. His period drama Marakkar: Arabikadlinte Simham (2021), with veteran director Priyadarshan, reportedly made less than Rs 40 crore at the box office. The multi-starrer was made on a budget of Rs 100 crore and was released in five languages, including Hindi. However, the obvious ‘inspirations’ in the script from Hollywood films like Braveheart (1995) and Troy (2004) proved to be its undoing.
But rather than learn from the failure of the film, Mohanlal chose to blame the Kerala audience for rejecting the movie. He claimed Telugu audiences are far more ‘supportive’ of their cinema and that this is why Telugu films do well commercially. Perhaps that’s why Aarattu had the superstar valiantly reeling off punch dialogues in Telugu. But the film, which pays one fanboy tribute after another to Mohanlal’s filmography in a loud and crass script, also bombed at the box office.
Unfortunately, Mohanlal’s insistence on only working with directors he considers tried and tested has meant he has failed to keep up with changing times. “People are no longer interested in watching these elaborate introductory scenes or scenes with women falling all over him. It has become so stale. His fans can keep celebrating it but it doesn’t appeal to the general audience any more,” the senior journalist said.
In contrast, Mammootty, Mohanlal’s contemporary in the industry, has managed to reinvent himself. The star might be 71 years old, but not only did he score a Rs 100 crore film with the action entertainer Bheeshma Parvam (2022), he has also done experimental films like Puzhu (2022) and Rorschach (2022) that have won him critical acclaim.
Veteran journalist Sreedhar Pillai noted that Mammootty, too, had gone through a phase when he did several bad films, but he’s now picked up his game when it comes to script selection. He’s done a slew of films with new and young directors who have presented him in a fresh manner, exploring grey shades in his characters. Mohanlal, however, has boxed himself into an image trap. “Mohanlal has to focus on doing content-driven films. Only that will work with the audience in the post-pandemic era. The OTTs have changed how the audience looks at going to theatres. They’re not going to sit through films like Monster in the theatre. They’d rather wait for it to come on OTT,” Pillai said. The success of a small film on domestic violence like Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, which has made over Rs 4 crore in just three days at the Kerala box office, is testament to the fact that the audience isn’t going to settle for star power alone, he added.
A positive outcome from Monster’s failure is that Mohanlal appears to be shaking out of his stupor. Days after Monster’s dismal performance at the box office, the actor confirmed a new project with maverick director Lijo Jose Pellissery who has made unusual films like the gangster drama Angamaly Diaries (2017) and the philosophical thriller Jallikattu (2019). While rumours of the two of them teaming up had been floating around for a long time, it’s only now that Mohanlal seems to have been convinced to do the film. Neelima Menon said it’s high time Mohanlal tried to unravel newer facets of the actor rather than roles that only exploit his stardom.
“I never understood the logic behind expecting ‘vintage Lalettan’ in every film. If you look at some of his recent ones, that also worked against him. What is needed is an actor who will surprise you. At least, he owes it to his fans now,” she said.