He is not called "the complete actor" for nothing. Preparing himself well for his foray into Tollywood, Malayalam superstar Mohanlal learnt Telugu and even dubbed for himself in Manamantha (All of us) that released on Friday.
The world got a glimpse of Mohanlal's effort to learn a new language at 56 when he posted a photograph with his Telugu notes on Facebook in December. That drew a response from another superstar in Telugu, Venkatesh who wrote: "Welcome to the Telugu film industry, Mr Mohanlal.''
Given that Lalettan, as Mohanlal is fondly referred to in Malayalam, is doing two films in Telugu in 2016, most believe that he has invested in the language for good reason. Mohanlal has his own distinct identity and his voice a unique flavour.
Manmantha sees Mohanlal returning to Telugu cinema after 1994, when he appeared in a cameo role in Gandeevam. This time, he seems to have come with a plan. Next month, he will be seen in Janatha Garage with NTR, whose 34-second teaser has been viewed over 5.2 million times. The film has already set a record for being sold for Rs 7 crore, the highest ever for a Telugu dubbed film in the Kerala market.
The movie is being released in Malayalam as Vismayam and as Namadhu in Tamil, to tap the popularity of Tamil actor Gautami, who plays the lead role in the film. "It is interesting that a crossover of this kind is taking place between actors of different industries within south India,'' says Mahesh Koneru, a film publicist who watches the Telugu film industry closely.
Malayalam actors are more known to act in Tamil movies, the two languages being more close to each other than Malayalam and Telugu.
In 2014, Mohanlal's Jilla along with Tamil superstar Vijay did well not just in Tamil but also in the dubbed versions in Malayalam and Telugu. Earlier in 1997, he had played the pivotal role resembling MGR in Mani Ratnam's Iruvar and made a brief foray into Hindi with Ram Gopal Varma's Company.
While Tamil actors like Suriya, Karthi and Vishal take the effort of promoting the Telugu dubbed versions of their movies in Telangana and Andhra markets, Telugu actors have not quite been able to breach the Andhra-Tamil Nadu border. The exception to this has been Baahubali whose second installment has reportedly been sold in Tamil for Rs 45 crore.
In the past many years, two actors who have been popular in each other's territory are Telugu actor Allu Arjun and Malayalam actor Suresh Gopi. Chiranjeevi's nephew Allu Arjun's dubbed movies do such phenomenal business in Kerala that he is referred to as 'Mallu' Arjun. And Suresh Gopi's fiery police roles have found acceptability in the Telugu market.
But Mohanlal's presence in Hyderabad promises to take this interest to the next level.
Producer D Suresh Babu says, "Mohanlal presents to the Telugu filmmakers an actor superior to a Prakash Raj and a Sathyaraj. It also helps develop a market for Telugu films in Kerala. Having actors in important roles, helps sell the movie both in Telangana-Andhra and Kerala.''
Interestingly, Mohanlal's superhit Drishyam was remade in all south Indian languages and even Hindi. His decision to embrace Telugu will mean the film-goers will get to see the master's craft in a familiar language.
The fact that actors across the south Indian film industry are putting in an effort to collaborate, is good news for everyone. Mohanlal bought the rights to Rajinikanth's Kabali and the trailer of his Onam release Oppam, a murder mystery thriller in which Mohanlal plays a blind man with a heightened sense of sound and smell, was released along with it.
Mohanlal's Telugu avatar has filmmakers salivating, excited at the prospect of working with an actor of his calibre. Already unit members of both Manamantha and Janatha Garage are full of awe, telling stories of how Mohanlal would give most shots in one take, with perfect Telugu diction and voice modulation.
Immediately after the teaser of Manamantha was out in June, Baahubali director SS Rajamouli thanked director Chandrasekhar Yeleti for bringing God's own Mohanlal into Tollywood. It is not everyday that you see a veteran of 36 years under the arclights get such a rousing reception.