Friends who knew him at Thiruvananthapurams MG College dismissed him as just another prankster and a young man with a penchant for humour. Mohanlal did not take any active interest in theatre or attend poetry recitals that were the rage in the city in the 70s. Recalls one collegemate: "There was nothing in him then to suggest that he had any acting talent. It came as a big surprise when we came to know he had hit big time in the movies."
Today he is not merely a commercial giant. Having bagged his fourth national award for best actor for his performance in Shaji Karuns Vaanaprastham, Mohanlal has done as much as anybody else to keep the "good cinema" movement alive. This veteran of 250 films has also produced more films in Malayalam than the NFDC. "If you want good cinema, you have to make good cinema. I do not believe in blaming others for the decline in the production of good films. Whenever I see a good script or hear a good idea, I produce that film. Its as simple as that," he says.
He never planned to be an actor, but became one by accident. Admitting that fact, he says: "Most things in my life have happened by chance. I like to go adrift on the river of life and see where it takes me. A friend of mine directed a film and cast me as a hero. That film hasnt been released till date. But I never carried the stigma of being unlucky. I got my break when some friends suggested my name to the Navodaya Film Company."
Mohanlal was cast as a villain in Manjil Virinja Pookal. The film did well at the box office and Mohanlals role came in for a fair amount of praise. And it wasnt because of his looks. "He is one actor who has survived on the strength of his acting alone," says director-producer Sangeeth Sivan who has known him for years. "Give him any role and he can do justice to it."
Yet, despite being the favourite of many directors, Mohanlal claims to be no Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri. He never talks about his method of acting, rarely ever attempts to theorise on the art of filmmaking. Nor does he like to project himself as a protagonist of the "other cinema". Even after his acting won widespread critical acclaim, he remains an actor candid enough to acknowledge that he does not understand the secret of his acting talent.
Strange, since Vaanaprastham, which got him his fourth national award, received great acclaim at Cannes. It is an Indo-French co-production with Mohanlal as the Indian producer. Filmed by Renato Berta and Santhosh Sivan, it follows the tragic course of a Kathakali artiste Kunhikuttan (played by Mohanlal). Set in the Malabar of the 1950s, the film also explores the complex nature of a man-woman relationship. If the film blurs the line between life and art, Mohanlal succeeds in blurring the line between performance and reality. After the films screening at the French Riviera, the actor, according to Shaji, was in great demand among autograph hunters.
Mohanlal wasnt expecting this latest award. "This is my fourth national award and my sweetest one too. I am excited because its a hat-trick for Malayalam films. Suresh Gopi won the national award the year before last, Mammooty won it last year and I am the recipient this year. Id be happy to keep the awards within Kerala for some more time," says he.
Ask him about his life story and hell assure you its nothing so dramatic as his films. It has been no saga of intense struggle. "Nobody can write an interesting biography of me," hell tell you. "I am successful because I realise the role of others in my life. Directors, co-stars, script writers, music directors, the timing of the release of my films and a host of other factors make me successful."
These could also be reason why Mohanlal refuses to emerge out of Malayalam cinema. Producers from the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu industry have approached him, but to no avail. "I know Malayalam and I am comfortable with it. I do not know most of the other languages. I do not want to do anything with which I am not really comfortable," he says. Only once did he break the rule. That was in 1996, when he acted in Mani Ratnams Iruvar, a Tamil film. "That was an irresistible offer," he recalls. "I wanted to work with Mani and the storyline was impressive. But such things do not happen every other day. I really do not want to rule out anything. Who knows what will happen in the future?"
How does he choose a film? Does he lay any premium on the director, the story, or the producer? What is his yardstick for accepting or rejecting an offer? "The question of yardstick is for professionals. I go by my personal commitments. Issues like friendship determine my choice. If I try to be a strict professional, therell be no harmony in my life and relationship. I realise my profession is just a part of my life and I would like to keep it that way."
If hes not a professional, how does he manage his productions, his distribution network, his acting schedules? "Oh, thats no problem. I said I am not a professional. But I do respect professionals and have enough professionals to look after my business interests. I do not interfere with their work. I do have a complete infrastructure covering various aspects of filmmaking-recording studios, cameras, lights and outdoor units. People who know how to manage it manage them."
But why is he so reluctant to talk about his early days in films? What are the interesting anecdotes and incidents in his life? Who was his inspiration? "I have a very short memory. I do not remember most of my college days. You see only people who think about the future think a lot about the past. I do not think about my future or my past and I live in the present. I am not even in a position to tell you which film came first, about the chronological order of my career."
Success rests lightly on his shoulders. Thats probably the reason he has been able to act in 48 films with his arch-rival Mammootty. Are there no star wars in Malayalam films? "If the producer and the director feel we should act together and if we have dates, then we act together," he says. "Where is the question of rivalry? Films are not one-act plays. They need people. In fact, my first production company, called Casino, was a partnership with Mammootty, I.V. Sasi and his wife Seema. If people think there is a particular chemistry if we act together, then we should respect it."
What he also has deep respect for is friendship. Which is why his friends Priyadarshan, I.V. Sasi, Fazil, Bhadran and Sibi Malayil have directed more than 70 per cent of his films. He also produces most of his films for them. "When Priyan and I thought about filming the pre-Independence phase, particularly the grim one at Andaman Prisons, I decided to produce the film. When I produce a film I dont think in terms of returns at all. Its not that Im not bothered about money. But, I know that money is not everything. I can absorb the loss of making a good film." That loss is cinemas gain.