BR: We started this series about a Telugu star (Prabhas) and we went on to discuss Tamil stardom (the Vijay/Ajith phenomenon), so this time I thought it would be interesting to visit the big heroes of Malayalam cinema and see how the star system works there. You're clearly the expert, but from what I've seen in the eighties and early nineties, even the big names (the 2 M's) were more like "character actors" than heroes. Why do you think the oversized stardom of Tamil and Telugu cinema did not make it to Kerala in a big way until the Narasimham era, the early 2000s?
VM: There are many reasons for that. For one, we've never really had MGR-NTR levels of stardom before Mammootty and Mohanlal. Our stars before that, Sathyan and Prem Nazir, created their niche in movies that may have been melodramatic, but never really over the top. They played real people in reasonably realistic movies. The main exception may have been Jayan, who was considered a legit action hero. Had his career been longer (he died during the filming of a movie) we may have seen some of those Narasimham-type "hero" films even before.
BR: So, in hindsight, is that a good thing? Because it allowed comedies and dramas and romances to flourish and I suppose it also kept budgets under control. But if I were to play devil's advocate, let me ask if there was a big audience that was waiting for these OTT (over the top, just to make it clear) films and was not getting them from Malayalam cinema. What were they watching in the 70s and 80s? Because when Narasimham happened, it was like a dam burst and satisfied a long pent-up demand…
VM: That shortage is one of the reasons why Tamil cinema was always very, very important to the Malayali audience. Listening to interviews of old Malayalam actors and directors, I learnt that even MGR films had a consistent run in Kerala back then. Rajinikanth became big in Kerala in the 90s, Kamal Haasan was big even before and then there was this excitement for Shankar's films since Gentleman and Indian. So, we've always had a side that was seduced by scale and maasu. The huge fandom for Vijay, Suriya and even Vikram is a result of that.
But, to be honest, we did have directors like Shaji Kailas, Thambi Kannanthanam, IV Sasi and Joshiy even before who kind of took care of that "big budget", "high on action" entertainment space. Narasimham was just the start of a very specific kind of trend where the hero repeated certain traits…feudal ancestors, mundu, meesa. As Ranjith (who wrote the film) says, it's the "dosage" of mass that made the difference later on.
BR: Right. I mean, the industry still had the "heroic" films like Spadikam, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, and so on. But these are still very character-driven, and they service the "story" more than they service the hero. But with Narasimham and Rajamanikyam and so on, it's more of hero-and fan-service, no? So, what really took this long, and why did the people concerned suddenly say, "It's time we began making these OTT films!"
VM: They kind of tested the waters with Aaram Thampuran, by Shaji Kailas, and that was a big hit. It's after that, that they started making "business plans" like Ustad, Narasimham, Thandavam and many many more. Honestly, Devasuram and even Aaram Thampuran were respected films with lots to like even if you were not a Mohanlal fan. But, by 2000, it looked like they had figured out a formula. And with that, we got scenes where Mohanlal would "speak" to the audience with a proper hero entry and everything. A lot of self-referencing and tributes also began, with films like Sagar Alias Jackie. That's when these films became fan service.
BR: I also find it interesting that the OTT-mode of heroism was inaugurated by the 2M's, who, by then, had proved themselves to be great actors. I don't think we have seen this in any other industry, where two performers who are working with the likes of Shaji N Karun (Vanaprastham) and Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Mathilukal, Vidheyan) are also going all-out 'mass'. In a strange way, I guess this proves how much more versatile they were than earlier thought.
VM: Yeah, that was truly a unique time. Back then, when Mohanlal produced (under Pranavam Arts) a movie, it was really considered a passion project. Something he just had to make. He, in fact, produced Vanaprastham and, apparently, lost a lot of money. The switch to mass happened almost around the same time when Mohanlal's right-hand man Antony Perumbavoor started Aashirwad Films and made Narasimham. Maybe after two to three National Awards each, they, perhaps, lost the interest to make "art" films. And when you see how lucrative your films can be, it's not easy to go back to films that don't even get a proper theatrical release.
BR: What is your opinion of the newer 2M "mass" films like Lucifer and Pulimurugan? They don't work much for me…
VM: I have never understood the deal with Pulimurugan. The biggest Malayalam blockbuster before that was Drishyam and it's generally been the tradition that a great film always goes on to do that kind of business. But with Pulimurugan, and with films like Pokiri Raja before that, things changed. It's almost like "See what Mohanlal does in terms of action" and "See what Mammotty does in terms of accent" became the formulae for their films.
When one talks of our Baahubali-an epics, it was always a film like Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, Kaalapani or a Pazhassi Raja, written by greats like MT Vasudevan Nair and T Damodaran. But now, that kind of money is being spent on making pure star vehicles, even though I enjoyed Lucifer as a fan.
BR: Maybe these films might have worked with younger heroes. But strangely, this generation seems more interested in properly scripted and well-fleshed-out films. Even an Action Hero Biju (with that fiery title) isn't exactly an empty fan-service "mass" film. That said, which new-gen actor would you like to see in one of these "mass" movies?
VM: That's an interesting question, because none of them has been able to pull off pure mass. Nivin tried it with Mikhael and Tovino with Kalki but they were both bombs. Fahadh Faasil has his own way of doing it, like in Amal Neerad's Iyobinte Pusthakam and Varathan (one of the most hip uses of the Baasha formula) where it's packaged very attractively. Dulquer Salmaan hasn't yet done one apart from a film like CIA, so it's too early to say. But I think Prithviraj can pull it off easily. It's just that he hasn't found his Atlee yet. For all the talk of Malayalam cinema's new generation of directors, it's sad that we haven't really found the next generation big masala guy.
BR: I'm going to go with Fahadh Faasil, simply because the image-clash in the mind is too much! Fahadh is in a golden phase of his career, acting-wise, but can he pull off the Mammootty/Suresh Gopi vibe? That will really be fun to see. Anyway, I'll sign off here. c u soon.