By Shobha Warrier
When I asked for an interview from Mohanlalfor this special, the first thing he asked was, "Is there anything more to say?"
That was what I wondered, too. Was there anything more to ask?
Let me explain. I dread interviewing Mohanlal. He is a man of few words; he tends to get very philosophical about everything in life. And that always acts as a dead end to all the questions. One has to prod, prod and prod to get answers from him.
It was no different this time, too. The intention was to make him analyse his 20 years in the film industry. To which he replied, "My memory is very poor. And, more important, I don't believe in looking back."
Nonetheless, a little jolt to the memory was called for. And look back he did. Excerpts:
You have been part of the film industry for the last twenty years. What do you think you have gained?
It's 22 years. I acted in my first film while in my second year of degree college, in 1978.
But that film remained in the can. Your first film, Manjil Virinja Pookal was released only in 1980, was it not?
True. Nonetheless, my association with films started 22 years ago. My first film was Thiranottam. I cannot discount that film because I got initiated into films with it.
Twenty-two years in films! What have I gained? I don't know whether I can describe what I have gained as achievements or not. But I have gained some things: the chance to be part of several films. I have been lucky enough to portray many, many characters. Met some really great people, some of whom were very down-to-earth and simple. Became popular. Won some awards. Got married. Had children.
You would have got married even otherwise too!
Yes, but I am talking about what's happened in the last 22 years of my life. Oh I missed this: Gave innumerable interviews, too! (laughs). What else can I say?
How has your association with films helped you grow as an individual?
See, I am still associated with the same people. All of us got together in 1978. We are still together. Most people who I work with -- Priyan or Suresh -- were with me in 1978, too. Sibi Malayil, Fazil, Satyan Anthikad and me got together in 1980.
We are all still a part of the industry; still the same. All of us grew together. Even now, when we are shooting a film, we feel we are still the same college students! We don’t behave as if we have grown old or mature.
We still enjoy when we shoot a film. It is like a picnic for all of us, even now.
I don’t have any worries. Neither do I have any expectations. So, I have no perfect answer to your question. Life just goes on…
What satisfies you the most -- material possessions, the awards or like you said, meeting different kinds of people?
My roles have given me a lot of satisfaction. I became many individuals who were so different from me, and whose experiences were so different from mine. I could experience all their emotions, their pains, their worries, their happiness...
But once I come out of a character, I forget him. He doesn't remain in me at all.
I also don't know how long I'll go on acting.
So you are like a log of wood floating in a vast ocean?
Yes, something like that. I am just floating with the current, with the events. I do not want to reach any island and stop floating. I prefer floating.
You said you don't like looking back. Why not?
What's the point in looking back? What is past is past. Why should we gloat over what we did, say, during the last ten years? Similarly, there is no point in feeling sad about unpleasant things that happened in the past.
You can't change or correct the past. It's just like making a film. You cannot correct anything once it appears on the screen.
Life is also like that. I believe those who bask in past glory are fools. Of course, we may think about certain incidents or people that have touched us. I'll never, for instance, be able to write a book about my past experiences.
But the world is full of people who are nostalgic. Whatever happened yesterday is beautiful for several people.
Not for me. I live in the present. I don’t feel nostalgic about anything. For example, I don’t feel nostalgic about Kerala, my home. As a child, I used to swim in the river with my cousins. Should I feel sad and nostalgic because I cannot do it now?
I should be realistic and be happy about what life has given me, rather than ponder over the impossible. To a large extent, I get to satisfy many of my longings through films. I have swum and bathed in not one, but many, many rivers. I have been to many jungles, even stayed in them. I would not have experienced any of these things had I not come into films.
Do you have roots anywhere?
I have no roots. I was not part of the film industry at all. I come from an educated, middle class educated family. The association with films started with me.
What then attracted you to films?
I wasn't attracted to films at all. I used to act in plays when I was in school. When I was in the sixth standard, I was chosen best actor. Until then, only a student from the tenth standard had won that prize.
I won it in the tenth standard, too, and was adjudged best actor in college productions. Then, I got a role in a film made by some of my friends. But it never saw the light of day. They tried in vain to make another film but it did not happen.
When my friends saw an advertisement by Navodaya (the production firm), inviting youngsters to act in a film of theirs, they sent in my photo and biodata. That's how I was selected.
So now you know. Nothing was planned in my life. It just happened.
Didn't you have any strong ambition to act in films then?
A: No, I had no such ambition. Only those who had this burning desire to act in films, and who had to struggle hard to get a break in films would have experiences to recollect. My life wasn't like that at all.
So your being in films was just luck?
Hundred per cent. I have no other explanation to offer. Somebody is helping me from somewhere. Somebody has planned things for me. Some power is looking after me.
I have said earlier also that an actor’s career depends solely on luck. There are so many gifted people who never had luck on their side.
Did you watch films when you were younger?
Yes, just like anyone else. Nothing less, nothing more. But films were not a passion.
What according to you is good cinema?
A film which can convey a message to the audience, can make them think at least for a while, is a good film. The audience should identify with the character at least in one scene. For example, people would tell me after seeing some of my films that they felt we were talking about their problems.
Or else, a film can be a total fantasy, too. Some people like realistic films but some prefer fantasies. There should be some magic in films so that people like it.
But nobody knows what that magic formula is.
Narasimham and Vaanaprastham hit the theatres at the same time. The former is considered one of the worst films made in Kerala, but it is the biggest hit in the history of Malayalam cinema. But Vaanaprastham, considered an artistic film, failed at the box office...
See, Narasimham became the biggest hit because people saw it and liked it. They might have felt entertained when they saw it. That does not mean that if we make another film like Narasimham, it will run.
Personally, which kinds of films do you like? A film like Narasimham or a film like Vaanaprastham?
As an actor, I am supposed to do both kinds. Do I have a choice? Acting is my profession.
As a film lover, which type do you like?
I can't talk as a film lover because acting is my profession. You see, I want all films to run and be commercially successful -- not only mine but others', too.
There are hundreds and hundreds of people involved in this business, whose lives depend on the success of a film. I feel sad when a film, any film made in Kerala, flops.
I can tell you this: As a film lover, I like all kinds of films, and I see all of them. Even in the worst of films, I can find something interesting. I find even the most absurd or foolish things interesting.
Do you watch films even now?
Whenever I get time, I watch films on television. Even the old ones.
See, you have to understand that no director or actor thinks he is making a bad film. Everybody is hundred per cent involved in what he does. There is no point in crying because your film didn't run. You can only put it down to bad luck.
A film like Narasimham is liked by the majority, but only a minority likes Vaanaprastham. What kind of films do you think should be made?
Definitely the ones that cater to the majority. Film-making is a business. Everybody tries to sattract the maximum number of people to the theatres.
But is it not also an art form?
A film can never be a pure art form. Do people look at films as an art form? No. For them, it is only a medium of entertainment. Do people watch films like they watch Kathakali? No.
People watch films to unwind. When they see the poster of a film like Vaanaprastham, they know it is not an entertainer. But when they see me with my twirled moustache, coming out fighting, in the poster of Narasimham, they understand it is made to entertain them. So, they go to see Narasimham and avoid Vaanaprastham.
People like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shaji look at films as a creative medium. To them, it is as creative as a painting.
Is that not their personal opinion? But a majority of the people do not agree with them and are not interested in such films.
What about you?
I like films like Vaanaprastham. That is why I produced it.
And just because I like it I can't say that everyone should see the film and like it. Those who are interested will see it. We can't say it is like a painting, and that we have made it painstakingly... So all of you should come and watch it. Only if they are interested will they come and watch it.
Similarly, we can't ask people to come and see Narasimham because there is a lot of action in it. We make a product and give it to them. If they like it, they accept it. If not, they reject it.
You worked hard in Vaanaprastham but many Keralites did not get to see your acting in the film. Don't you feel sad about it?
Not at all. What is the point in feeling sad? Right from the beginning, we didn't expect it to be a commercial success. I was prepared for this. So I am not unhappy.
A producer or director would be a fool to expect a film like Vaanaprastham to run for 100 days. You’d be lucky if it ran for a week or two.
Quite a few Kerala film-makers blame the superstars -- I know you don’t like the adjective -- for the crisis that the Malayalam film industry is facing now. What do you have to say about it?
I have done only three films last year. Of those, Vaanaprastham is my own production. Olympian Antony is my film. (Narasimham was produced by Mohanlal’s driver, Antony). So I have acted only in the films produced by me.
If Vaanaprastham doesn't run, it affects only the producer. That's me. I haven’t asked anyone to make a film with me. So how can anyone blame me?
Did they tell you in what way we (superstars) are responsible for the crisis?
Yes, they did. One thing they mentioned was the cost.
That is a foolish allegation. A producer willing to work with me knows my fees, and how costly the film would be. If a film doesn't run, how can you blame me alone?
And most of these film-makers do not even have a proper script to work on. They don't plan things at all. It is the duty of the producer, director and the scriptwriter to write a good story and produce and direct a good film, not the artist's. We are only a part of the project.
An allegation goes that these days, stories are written with stars in mind.
Is that not happening all over the world? Okay, then, let all the producers decide they won’t make any films with us. What else can I say?
Do you feel Malayalam cinema has grown from Chemmeen to Vaanaprastham?
Can you compare Chemmeen with any other film? It is an exceptional film. I don't think there will be another like it in Malayalam. All those who worked in Chemmeen were so great. I don’t think such a combination has happened again or will happen again.
Will you continue acting even when you grow old?
What else? I don't know any other job.