With Oppam, Pulimurugan, Mohanlal establishes hold over south Indian box office
The verdict is out — Pulimurugan’s roar at the box-office continues well into its third week after breaking all sorts of collection-records.
The main draw of the film is its concept of man-animal conflict and its leading man Mohanlal who gives us action sequences like never before. India’s ace stunt choreographer Peter Hein embellishes each stunt-scenario with a storyboard of its own. The age-old setting of a fictitious village seemed like a visual drawback but it soon became a tarzan-like world of its own with its sole guardian Murugan, whose feisty encounters with man and animal makes the film an urban legend of some kind.
With little to call for a story – the one scene that nails Pulimurugan for me comes in the second half.
Murugan goes with his brother and family to the villain’s den and his lorry is usurped by the villain’s enemy. Murugan is refused his lorry but he stands his ground. The key henchman decides to send his two menacing dogs to lunge and scare Murugan off. As convoluted as the plot sounds, the scene however stands tall because of the mass-hero legacy of Mohanlal, whose not-so-arty films like Spadikam, Narasimham, Aaraam Thamburaan and Devasuram, still remain fresh in any movie buff’s memory.
Even before the camera veers towards Murugan, the theatre erupts in whistles and applause in anticipation of their hero’s reaction. What match are these two Rottweilers to a man who tackles a 400 kilo tiger? Murugan merely sits down and gently whistles at the dogs and looks them in the eye. The two dogs become kittens in front of the Hunter and kneel down in obedience to their new Master. When the henchman sends his goons to fight Murugan, he first asks the dogs to step aside, which they do, like meek lambs.
The opening of Pulimurugan during three days in Kerala brought the roof down in every theatre. The new record was close to Rs 5 crore. The collection has now touched the magical Rs 50 crore, as the film gears to release in Telugu and Tamil.
Drishyam (2013) was the first iconic Malayalam film to rake in Rs 42.5 crores worldwide and was remade in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi with Kamal haasan, Venkatesh and Ajay Devgn. Mohanlal’s Oppam, directed by Priyadarshan, released in September 2016 and crossed Drishyam’s record collection in less than a month. And now Pulimurugan follows suit. Written off as disinterested and ageing in 2015, Mohanlal’s phenomenal comeback has left the industry naysayers in a tizzy spell.
The naturally gifted actor’s first two hits this year were in Telugu. Manamantha and Janatha Garage were two different genres even for a Telugu audience and given his age difference with Junior NTR, it was expected that Mohanlal would move on to character roles here on.
But Oppam and Pulimurugan firmly establish his supremacy over the Southern box-office and much like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal has now become a universally marketable star with an enviable track record of super-hits.
How was this even possible for an actor who was staring at the same questions of hit/flop and how to play roles that justify his age much like his peers? The answer possibly lies in his ability to submit himself to a director’s vision and deliver what the role demands without much ado.
Manamantha’s Sairam was a middle-class departmental store owner who was beset with money problems. Janatha Garage was a regular commercial pot-boiler and the pre-release hype was on Junior NTR and director Koratala Siva’s combination but the interval block on Mohanlal’s godfather-like character Sathyam has made him an icon in Andhra Pradesh.
Oppam was a medley of stories but Mohanlal’s blind Jayaraman builds the film’s path as he moves from one plot-point to another, sometimes singing to a 12-year-old girl and at other times engaging with a cold-blooded murderer.
All that subtle acting gave way to a heroic avatar Pulimurugan, where Mohanlal’s innate sense of performing stunts came to the fore with most of the fights shot in dead close-ups and no body doubles. This success spree underlines a few things in bold red – that despite being a superstar Mohanlal is an actor first, who lends authenticity to the roles he takes up. He puts in the required effort to try out new characters in any language and is willing to work with younger teams and projects a sensibility to ‘submit-to-the-script’ without insisting on changes to suit his image.
The last few years have been golden for Malayalam cinema.
Like Drishyam, Prithviraj Sukumaran’s Ennu Ninnte Moideen and Nivin Pauly’s Premam crossed the Rs 40 crore mark and ran in theatres outside of Kerala also, for over three months. Mohanlal beats not just his own record but also that of these younger stars with not one but two of his films running to packed houses even in Mumbai and Delhi.
While due credit goes to the makers of such films (in Pulimurugan’s opening titles, director Vysakh dedicates the film to all filmmakers who have made super-heroes out of actors), it is star-actors like Mohanlal who give their might to the opening day and justify the hype created by fans with the way they enact their role.
Whether such hero-worshipping films propel or push back Malayalam cinema by a few yards is a debate for another day. Right now what matters is that the entertainment world is looking intently at this small state in the western-ghat of India for stories to remake, with Mohanlal’s films providing the perfect fodder for other stars to bid for his place.