Magic on the wane
The onslaught of television and the invasion of young heroes have relegated the uncrowned kings of Malayalam filmdom, Mohanlal and Mammootty, to a slot where their charisma works no more, says SREEDHAR PILLAI.
MAMMOOTTY AND Mohanlal have been the two great icons of Malayalam cinema for the past decade and a half. They were the first real superstars of a State where hero worship is treated with contempt. The kind of sway that Mammootty and Mohanlal had over Malayalam speaking audience worldwide for the past 15 years has been phenomenal.
In terms of acting calibre, they are as good as the best in the world. And as far as Kerala's 652-km length box-office was concerned, they had a fantastic draw. Seven out of 10 all time super hit films in Malayalam featured either one of them. And in the past 14 years one or the other has walked away with the National Award seven times!
The two Ms spun magic at the box-office and had critics in India and abroad eating out of their hands. All this was due to their hard work, amazing screen presence and the level of perfection that they brought into the characters they played on screen.
However in the past one year their mega-star wattage looks dimmed, as their films have started crashing at the box-office. Suddenly both of them look vulnerable and seem to have realised that an actor's success is not forever. Mammootty is yet to recover from that Rs. 5 crore big-budget flop "Dubai", which was a total washout. Mohanlal's much-hyped Rs. 4 crore "Onnaman" released in May, was a disaster of epic proportions. Both the stars seem to be losing their grip over the box-office.
Now the successive flops merit the question Is it the end of the road for the superstars in Malayalam? The audience profile in Kerala has changed in the past three years. The satellite channels and Doordarshan, Thiruvananthapuram, are dishing out nearly 32 serials a day on prime time, which has kept women audience away from the theatres. The serial "Jwalayay" on Doordarshan, produced by Mammootty, is said to have stolen the matinee crowd from the theatres. Other serials like "Stree", "Swayamvaram", "Vatsalyam", " Pavakoothu", and "Innale" produced by Mohanlal, are a few of the soaps telecast from 7 p.m. to 11p.m. every day, which provide free entertainment.
The deluge of soft porn or "Shakeela films", made on a shoestring budget of Rs. 20-25 lakhs, has ravaged the star system. These films have eaten into the collection of big budget Rs. 3 crores and above superstar movies. Last year out of the 89 films released, 57 were such soft-porn sizzlers! This virtually sounded the death knell of the small hero films. The most affected among the stars were Suresh Gopi and Jayaram.
With the production of films dwindling, many character artistes like Murali, Innocent, Jagadish, Srividya, Jayabharathi, K. P. A. C. Lalitha and Thilakan have been forced to migrate to the small screen where income is steady and they are busy throughout the year.
Some cinema halls in Kerala also had a tough time, as they refused to screen porn films. But they were forced to switch over to smut in the long run as these porn films proved more profitable than screening a Mammootty or a Mohanlal film!
In fact Mammootty spearheaded a movement against soft porn films, which woke up the sleeping Censor Board and the Antony Government. After the State Government's crackdown on soft porn, many theatres were caught and their licence revoked. It was only a temporary lull as some of these theatres in rural areas are still screening interpolated soft porn films. But more alarming is the number of theatres that has closed down or has been converted into marriage halls. In Ponkunnam, a small rubber town near Kottayam, all the theatres have disappeared. But coming back to the factors of the decline of superstars, the single biggest factor is the audience of today. The new generation in Kerala (16-26 age group), which visits the theatres regularly, prefers younger and more vibrant heroes from other languages.
In Malappuram district, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan are the pin up boys, while in Southern Kerala Tamil heroes like Ajit and Vijay are also hot property. The satellite channels have been beaming songs and action scenes of these heroes, making them more popular in the State.
Says Nandita Thomas, a student at the St. Theresa's College in Ernakulam, "We can't stand these 50 plus heroes jump and fly, defying Newton's theory of gravity and romancing and dancing with heroines half their age. We rather prefer to watch Shah Rukh or Hrithik." This explains why Toby Maguire's "Spider Man" had better collection in Ernakulam than Mammootty's "Phantom"!
Today's audience in Kerala prefers light-hearted comedies to the action films with superstars mouthing lengthy dialogue and doing stale dance numbers in outdated sets. Compare this with the song picturisation in Tamil and Hindi films in exotic locales and lavish settings, seen throughout the day on channels.
Now heroes who can make people laugh, rule the roost. And stars like Dileep and Kalabhavan Mani have become hot property overnight. The trade feels that making a film with them is financially more viable than the high-risk superstars. Remember, all these new merrymakers are from mimicry troupes. They cater for the youth and the working class in Kerala.
No genuine actor, however, has broken into the ranks of stars in Malayalam films after Mammootty and Mohanlal. Take the case of Biju Menon who has not been accepted by the audience, as he cannot do comedy. While Dileep who was earlier mimicking superstars at wayside temples, churches and festivals is today himself a superstar! The rise of Dileep is the last nail on Mammootty's superstardom because even during his peak the actor could never dance or do comedy roles.
According to director Priyadarshan, "Mohanlal is the complete actor who can excel in both action and comedy. But it is a pity that the actor fell into an image trap after "Narasimham", when he became the one-man entertainer who could dance, fight, and sing!"
And writers like Ranjit and director Shaji Kailas gave him a larger than life image, which was double-edged. The audience rejected his comedy film "Kakkakuyil", in which he was an ordinary man, while they lapped up his "Ravana Prabhu" where they saw him as a Kerala Rajnikanth. So the finest actor in the country has been straitjacketed in the action-hero routine where people flock to the theatres to see him mouthing one-liners like "Eda Mone Dinesha.." and "Savari Giri Giri... "
Says Shaji Kailas: " The viewers in Kerala are tired of the ordinary. Mohanlal is an actor with a rich repertoire. He is beyond scripts now. Roles will have to be written keeping his `image' in mind." Shaji is sure that he will live up to the high audience expectation in Mohanlal's forthcoming Onam release, "Thandavam," where the hero always says "Strong Alle."
The economics of filmmaking has also worked against the superstars. It is no longer viable to make big budget, Rs. 3 crores upward, movies. Earlier the superstar films were made with advances from the cinema theatres in Kerala. Recently after a couple of their films bombed, theatres have found that the distributors of these films are not capable of paying back the deficit. On the other hand a Dileep or a Kalabhavan Mani film can be made on a shoestring budget of Rs. 1to1.25 crores. Dileep's films have become viable because for an investment of Rs. 1.25 to 1.5 crores the returns come at a faster rate. Dileep's new mega hit, "Meesha Madhavan", cost Rs 1.45 crores including prints and publicity. The film would become profitable in releasing stations alone after 35 days. So why pay the superstars exorbitant amounts when they cannot guarantee the success of a film?
The message is clear the superstars cannot hold movies together anymore. They have also begun to realise it and have moved over to Tamil and Hindi films.
In other languages they do not have any `image' and can stay afloat doing various kinds of roles.
But one has to admit. Malayalam cinema will never be the same again and the sad part is that there are no replacements the cupboard looks bare!
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