My hero?

Warning: This is a very long read and might not make too much sense to non-malayalis….well, malayalis read at your own peril…

Its not often that I write about men in my journal, that too Malayali men. My opinion about men is poor, malayali men even poorer, and so why burden my journal with the their weighty, arrogant presence? Its unfair on the journal and me and just adds another cap to the ideal Malayali fantasy of well-read, moustached men who thought that a sense of humor allowed them the luxury of being assholes.

But some men, some deserve a mention – if not anywhere, in my hallowed journal. One such man is called MohanLal, otherwise known by all Malayalees as Lalettan. But then if you are Malayali, and reading this post, you would obviously know that. Duh! It strikes me at this Notepad moment that any Malayali who is reading this, knows all that I am saying, and so whats the point. No point. No point at all. But write I must.

You see I grew up with Lalettan. In Devlali. No, we are not next door neighbors, but you already know that. You also grew up with him. But this is my journal, and I have to give you my version of the story. Yours can wait.

I am a Malayali, one of those fanatics who realised pretty late in life what it is to be Malayali. There’s a reason. You see if you live in Kerala, and you live with other Malayalis, you turn out to be a sane Malayali (I have insane Malayali friends who argue that there is no such thing). But if you live in a small town in Maharashtra, with a Kerala Samajam, and an Aiyappa temple, and Malayali parents who have other Malayali parents as friends, you turn out to be …well, a Malayali who is quite convinced that she is not Malayali. And who screams out the fact to other Malayalis who scream back, with the end result that nobody hears anything. Which is probably why after two decades I have finally come to terms with it – that I am Malayali.

Anyway, back to growing up with Mohanlal. I dont remember when I first met him. It could do with the fact that I am growing old or it could do with the fact that he has always been part of our lives. Devlali has one Malayali shop, well, one shop with a Malayali shopkeeper, who sold jackfruit chips, gingelly oil, Malayala Manorma, and did NOT sell Malayalam movies. But right opposite this shop, is another one which is quite important to the scheme of life, or if you insist on absolute honesty, one which is quite relevant to this story. You see its a shop which rented video cassettes – no, not DVDS, not even VCDs. Video cassettes, if you are old as I am, you would know are things you play in a Video Cassette Recorder. It rented video cassettes of Shiva, and Silsila, and Saudagar, and Sanam Bewafa, and Jackie Chan movies. It also rented Sanmanas Ollavarkku Samadhanam, and Mukendetta, Sumitra Villikennu. I can almost sympathise at the plight of poor non-malayalis who are attempting to pronounce those names. But considering the amount of people who read my last post, I neednt worry – I dont have a vast audience. Sigh! Yes, getting back to VCR shop as it will be called for this story, it was where it all began.

As a teenager when you are told that Malayalam cinema is the best in the world, you think its part of the parents grand plan of having untainted Malayali blood in the family for the next fifty years. I know – I will add ‘demented’ to the list of adjectives I use to describe myself. The late eighties was the time when Doordarshan showed one Hindi movie every Saturday; the early nineties was the period when Chitrahaar gave way to things called as countdown shows. It was also the time popular kids in school participated in Antaakshari with Hindi songs (naay, not Bollywood songs, Hindi songs); also the time when everybody thought you were hip if you had seen “Honey, I Just Shrunk the Kids” or knew Michael Jackson songs. I was a popular kid. A hip one too. As an additional FYI, I have to also add that my other hobbies included reading Screen and Filmfare and gossiping about Sangeeta Bijlani and Salman Khan. I can see a few people cringing, but what the heck, I still do it.

A tumultuous childhood. I agree. My poor desperate parents were torn between two choices – me growing up as an American English-speaking, jean-clad, tattooed rebel who sang songs with unpronounceable lyrics. Or a loud North Indian who wore pink lipstick and who danced to “Mera Dil Gayega Zubi Zubi Zubi..” at weddings. Yes, some choice that. Desperation called for drastic measures, and thats when my dad finally made friends with the Sindhi owner of VCR shop. The pattern changed – every weekend we now took one Hindi movie, one English one (which Sindhi uncle certified was ‘clean’), and two Malayalam movies. And thats how it all began.

I wish I could claim it was love as first sight. Or second sight. It wasnt. I pretty much didnt understand the first malayalam movies I saw, but that could be a indication of just how slow I was. I thought the next few movies were funny – I didnt know what satire meant then. A few more movies, and I thought that malayalis sure know how to poke fun at themselves – I didnt know what sense of humor meant. Then there were some movies which were so natural..and yet intense. I didnt know what to say except that they made me uncomfortable in a weird way. They were good movies, I agreed, but I still thought that Aamir Khan IN QSQT was the ‘bestest’ actor ever. My parents talked about art movies and commercial movies and tried to explain the difference. My conclusion was that not-so good looking actors like Om Puri and Naseerudin Shah acted in art movies and good looking ones like Aamir acted in commercial ones. There – one more adjective for me – shallow. They gave up.

The next few years passed without any obvious perils. I continued to watch movies – lots of Hindi, lot less English, and very little Malayalam. Somewhere down the line I fell for Deepti Naval. And Amol Palekar.  And then Hrishikesh Mukherjee. People then told me about ‘middle cinema’ and ‘light films’ and I watched them. I discoved it meant that the movie had awesome music, the heroine was believeably pretty, the hero was believably not-so pretty and was NOT a businessman’s son, they lived in actual houses and not sets, they had humour which didnt involve Kader Khan, and they showed women in nice cotton sarees and sleeveless blouses. I liked. A few more years and a middle aged man called Mahesh Bhatt replaced Aamir in my affections. We continued to rent malayalam movies from Sindhi uncle. I was now familiar with most Malayali actors – Mohanlal was one of them. Plump, thick curly hair, and a moustache – not my idea of a ‘hero’. He wasnt as per my obnoxious cousin – he was a ‘lead actor’ he explained with disdain frothing on his nostrils. I agreed because the cousin has promised to let me watch one of his raunchier movies(Mohan Lal’s, not my cousin’s, I have to clarify), and I didnt want to upset the delicate balance of power. Shallow? Absolutely.

Years later when I joined college in Kerala, people told me that the 80s and early 90s were supposed to be the best period in Malayalam cinema. I also started understanding the concept of directors and scriptwriters and discovered M T vasudevan Nair, Padmarajan, Hariharan and Bharathan. But back then, while we watched these malayalam movies on Saina Videos,  we didnt really focus on the director or the craft as they say. I dont think I could ever write a decent movie review – not now, not then.  But at that point, we were beginning to talk about the story, the characters, and Mohan Lal. I would never make it as a film critic. But yes, the stories..(not the scripts)..the stories – they appealed. The characters – they touched. Mohan Lal – he conquered.

I am not sure I can analyze why and when I got hooked – for two reasons – 1) digging deep into my childhood could bring up embarrassing secrets. 2) I simply dont remember a lot of things. Sure, I can list out my favourite movies, but that isnt it. As much as I hate to agree with the obnoxious cousin, it is the truth – Mohanlal was a actor – an actor who brought out the literal definition of acting. Any person in a story-telling medium who tells the story by portraying a character is an actor. Mohan Lal was just that. He introduced me to some of the best characters I have met – some of the most simple, most complex characters ever written. Oh yes, there are so many others actors who did that – in other Indian languages and international cinema as well. So why is he special? I almost typed “He taught me to be a Malayali”. Now that would be a big exaggeration; it is; maybe untrue too like all exaggerations. But the fact is that he did get me quite close to Kerala – malayali culture, malayali people, malayali sensibilities and ethos. Inspite of my best attempts to fight my roots, I coudnt help connecting to my land, my people. What began as a discovery, a reluctant admiration for something foreign has become a fanatical pride in my very own culture.

In Varavelpu – I saw the gulf malayalee’s desperation to come back home, his welcome being worn out, his dreams being shattered in a state unfriendly to entrepreneurs. In Panchangni, I stood by the helpless journalist as he fell in love with a strong lady who has suffered the system. In Kireedam, I watched a small town guy’s dreams to be a police officer fade into nothingness. In Nadodikattu, I laughed through the antics of the unemployed, educated ‘graduate’, who wades and kicks through life with desperate optimism. In Amrithamgamaya, I met a multitude of kids studying in medicine and engineering colleges in Kerala – their innocence, their camaraderie, their darkness, their guilt. In Thoovanathumbikal, I watched Jayakrishnan alternate between his rustic and sophisticated personas with equal ease and yet falter with the two loves in his life. The stories were many, the characters were lots more, the sensibilities lots more complex – and yet he breathed life into every single one of them. My later years in Kerala brought me into contact with the best in Malayalam literature, music, and cinema. I grew to appreciate the nuances, the art, the craft of cinema. As I dug deeper, I always had fellow enthusiasts along with me – arguing, agreeing, discussing – passionately, and that always led to new insights, new depths, new discoveries. Not just about cinema or literature, but about myself, my identity, my beliefs, my convictions.

But Mohan Lal was there before all this. He was there at a time when I coudnt enumerate, elaborate, or elucidate. He didnt have an aura, he didnt have charisma, he didnt even have a stage..he came and went without leaving a stamp of himself – but coloring landscapes, drawing characters, evoking emotions..on unacquainted palettes like mine. At a time when my sole bragging consisted of a theoretical knowledge of national awards and Aravindan, Adoor and Shaji Karun, he took me into unknown..nay..known familiar shores and helped me build castles of my own. 

In my journey/venture to be a cosmopolitan Indian, I have passed through stages where I have grabbed and let got of my heritage at the behest of convenience. I now claim to be Mallu (not malayali), I speak un-accented English, I speak better Hindi than a lot of North Indians,  I have a larger share of non-malayalis as friends, I have convinced my parents that I would never be able to live in Kerala, and on most days I live the life of the person I want to be. And yet today I am one of the most clannish people I know.I also have this fierce pride in something to which I am not even sure I have contributed to (other than the accident of birth of course). I know identity is one of of the most misrepresented words in the English dictionary, and yet I use my heritage to define a big part of it.

And thats why I take great pleasure in disagreeing with the obnoxious cousin. Mohan Lal is a great actor, one of the best the world has seen – but he is also a hero – my own personal hero. My very own Lalettan. And yes, with the moustache too.

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