Monday Malayalam: Udayananu Tharam Asks Does the Film Create the Star or the Star Create the Film?

What a fascinating movie!  Oh my goodness, SO INTERESTING!!!!!  Starting from the opening shot, which sent me down a whole mental wormhole of film history.  But mostly, I am SO GLAD I watched this film the same week I saw Angamaly Diaries!  Because this film makes the hypothetical argument that Angamaly Diaries proved in reality.

The central question of this film is if stars really matter.  Is this all a shared illusion of the film industry, that stars are why the audience comes to see a movie?  Or is it really the script and the directing that brings them in?  This film argues that yes, it is the director who does the heavy lifting.  And I was all set to argue against that, because, for instance, Mohanlal is actually starring in this movie!  And Sreenivisan, who plays the other lead, helped write it and make sure it got made!

But then Angamaly Diaries came out and proved that you really don’t need actors to make a great film.  Pellisery took 86 completely untrained and inexperienced people and built a whole world with them.  Not only that, I have now seen two of his other movies that had stars (reviews of those going up over the next few Mondays), and I can confirm that the starless one is the better one.  Sometimes it really is all about the script and direction and nothing else.

But not most of the time.  And in the end, this film supports that idea as well.  There is eventually a reckoning, stars can’t coast forever on goodwill alone.  There has to be talent and judgement as well.

What I wish the film had time to show was how that talent and judgement can end up being a boon to the industry.  Stars have such unlimited power that they can make things happen which otherwise would never be thought of.  Just last year, in Hindi film, we had Fan, Dangal, Airlift, Neerja, even Pink.  None of which would have happened if a star hadn’t been smart enough to recognize the quality of the idea and throw their weight behind making it happen.

It is that kind of involvement which, I suspect, was Mohanlal’s greatest contribution to this particular film.  He did a good job, but it wasn’t a role which really required an actor of his caliber necessarily.  Sreenivasan’s part was much more difficult.  And yet, the film probably wouldn’t have gotten released, or had such a dream run at the box office, if Mohanlal’s name hadn’t been there to drive people in.

It almost feels like an in joke, to cast Mohanlal as the great unappreciated scriptwriter struggling in anonymity.  And Sreenivasan, who isn’t exactly unappreciated, but certainly has to struggle more to get good roles than Mohanlal and actually contributed to this script, as the spoiled untalented major star.

Image result for Udayananu Tharam poster

(Oh, and it’s also obviously slightly inspired by Bowfinger.  But just barely, besides a few small moments at the end, there really isn’t anything in common)

And I really want to dig more into the themes and morals than this, but I can’t!  Because there is, not exactly a plot twist, but a major plot point that it feels like it would be wrong to SPOIL which sets all of this up and happens pretty much immediately after the basic characters are introduced.  So for the big discussion part of the review, I will have to go into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS










Let me start with the first shot, which took me down a strange film history wormhole that was probably unintended.  We start with a shot of Sreenivasan walking down steps in front of huge blow up pictures of the fathers of film.  And I immediately start thinking about why these particularly fathers of film were chosen and if there is a deeper meaning to it.

Because it’s Lumiere, Edwin S. Porter, and Edison.  Now, as of course all film history people know, Edison was a bully and a thief who doesn’t deserve his place in film history because he stole it from people like the Lumiere’s (whose invention he ripped off) and Edwin S. Porter (whose technical achievements he took credit for).  So, is this just an accident?  Or is it subtle foreshadowing of THE WHOLE PLOT!?!?!?!  Probably just an accident.

Right, plot!  As I say over and over and over again, Malayalam films spend a lot of time setting up stuff before actually getting into the plot.  Which can be confusing, because sometimes the things that are just set up feel like they are actually plot.  For instance, in this film, we are introduced to Sreenivisan, a struggling junior actor who believes he can be a star, and to Mohanlal, a dedicated scriptwriter who is lighting incense to Kurosawa and Chaplin and various other international geniuses before attempting to finish his latest script.  Sreenivisan and Mohanlal are friends, and when Sreenivisan is thrown out of his lodgings, he goes to move in with Mohanlal.

And I totally thought that was going to be the plot of the movie!  Odd couple roommates, learning from each other, etc. etc.  But no, that is just like the first ten minutes of the film.  And then we move on.

The only reason to get Sreenivisan into Mohanlal’s apartment is so he can steal and photocopy the script, and then use it to convince a director to cast him as the lead in the film to be able to become a star.  And the only reason to do that, is to set up the conflict between the writer and the star.

Really, this whole movie could have started around an hour in with just a few lines of exposition to fill in the gaps.  But exposition is so boring!  It was more fun to actually see it happen.

And it was super super fun for me to get these little glimpses into the film industry and how it functions.  Sreenivisan has enormous power immediately, but Mohanlal has hard won respect which lasts longer.  We see throughout the film all of these old contacts, directors, producers, even event organizers.  They all know him and trust his word and want him to succeed.

And we get little glimpses of how Mohanlal reached this point.  He was an assistant director back years ago, which is when he got to know the man who is now an event organizer.  The he started writing scripts, and got to be known for his high quality sensitive writing.  He wasn’t rich, but he had enough money to live in a tiny apartment and write full time, probably left over from his last script sale.  And after having reached this point, now he can write and prepare his best possible script, and convince a producer who trusts him to sponsor his first film as a director.

Mohanlal did it the hard way, working his way up on talent.  But Sreenivisan is taking a shortcut.  He steals an idea and forces a producer to make him a star.  And once he is a star, he just coasts.  We catch glimpses of him on the way up as Mohanlal is on the way down.  On talk shows, riding roughshod over his directors, gathering a group of sycophants around him who will only tell him good things.  And meanwhile Mohanlal is surviving by getting the benefit of his past good actions.  Everyone immediately believes his statement that the script was his because they know his honesty and his quality.  Everyone is eager to make things work out somehow, to give him credit onscreen, to pay him for his work.  And Mohanlal’s pride which makes him reject all of this only serves to make them like him more.

And meanwhile, there’s a romance!  I like the romance, because it feels like the kind of romance Mohanlal’s character would actually have.  He isn’t someone who would fall in love with a beautiful woman, or even go out searching for a woman.  He is obsessed with his art, to the point that he won’t ever notice or think about anything else.  And he isn’t someone who a beautiful woman would normally even notice.

But Meena isn’t the usual beautiful woman!  While this film gives us soooooo much backstory on the beginning of the Sreenivisan and Mohanlal feud, we get almost no backstory on the Meena Mohanlal romance.  We are thrown into the middle of it, they are already old friends, he discovered her and helped her get her first role.  She respects him because he believes in art and good films, and he respects her because she does as well.

Image result for Meena Malayalam actress udayananu

(Here she is.  A child actress who I really really hope never acted opposite Mohanlal as a child.  Because that would be gross.  Oh, and I saw her before in Drishyam!  Opposite Mohanlal again)

Just the idea of an actress who is really about acting, not just about being beautiful and sexy, is kind of revolutionary!  And I love that, this vision of a film industry where a heroine and a scriptwriter can bond over shared belief in the beauty of film.  And the idea of a man and woman who are truly just friends and respectful fellow artists despite being opposite genders.

I would have been happy with a whole stretched out romance about two fellow artists who are rumored to be in love just because they bond over their work.  But it happens pretty quick, squished in with the rest of  Mohanlal’s troubles.  Meena is constantly tormented in her home by her relatives who want her to do terrible films just for money.  She feels Mohanlal is the only one who can understand her misery.  And finally, she shows up on her doorstep and asks him to marry her, because if everyone thinks they are having an affair anyway, why not get married?  He is the only one who can understand her and she can understand him.

But again, this is just set up!  Set-up for another conflict, now that they are married, and Mohanlal doesn’t want her to work, and can’t bring himself to work on another script, and they are running out of money.  Until she finally takes a job and he knows it is just for the money, not because she wants to be part of this particular film, and their marriage breaks up.

NOW the movie starts!  Mohanlal has nothing left and is finally willing to listen to his producer friend who says that he should try to direct again.  And he ends up having to work with Sreenivisan, who is now the biggest most powerful star and the other producers insist on him.  And Meena is coincidentally working on the same film lot, and Mohanlal has to avoid her, at the same time the Sreenivisan is wooing her.

In a Hollywood movie, we would have started here.  With everyone arriving on the lot and all the complicated relationship interactions mixing in together.  But we would have lost so much that way!  Not just in the character background, although that is pretty important to.  I mean, I love it that we don’t just hear about Sreenivisan being a pitiful junior artist desperate for roles, we get to see him.  And we get to see his transformation, his moment of weakness and evil in stealing the script, the way he suffered and struggled to get through the first film, and the why he immediately started believing his own hype.  And we also get to see Mohanlal transform from a dedicated artist, cheerful and confident that his hardwork was about to be rewarded, to an increasingly sad and slightly bitter man.  Even Meena, to see her go from a young actress just happy to talk with Mohanlal, someone who can understand her art, to a wife who is happy to stay home and spend time with her husband, to a woman who has no family, no husband, and is working because it is all she has left.  Yes yes, all that is nice, but the industry background!  That’s the great bit!

I already talked about how we get these little glimpses of Mohanlal’s backstory from before the film even started.  How he had been an AD, then a scriptwriter, finally making enough to spend time writing and planning his directorial debut.  But it’s in all the other little stuff too.  The way his producer isn’t just a moneyman, but a close friend who has faith in him.  Because you have to have faith in your scriptwriter/director, otherwise you would be a fool to waste money on the incredibly risky business of Indian film.  The way the team that Sreenivisan sold his script to feels so bad.  Not because they are worried about law suits and libel, but because the film industry is a family, and they have done wrong to a family member by accidentally taking from Mohanlal.  And how Mohanlal realizes he has to let them keep the script, because he would have to do purposeful (not accidental as they were) wrong to his family if he insisted on taking it away when they were so far into production.

Even the details of how a script is put together!  Mohanlal isn’t just writing dialogue (although he is doing that too), he is scouting locations, putting in every detail of the film into his work.  I don’t think every script in the industry is like that, but I think some are.  And I think that is why it is so common for directors to write their own scripts.  Because the writing of a script is also the creating of the film, you can’t separate the two.  Honestly, I think that’s part of the reason that Indian films feel so much more filmic than most Western ones.  If a script is all about dialogue and words, not images, than your film will be more about dialogue than images.  You need that perfect marrying of the writer with the director to bring them both together.  And you have to understand that concept of script writing for this particular story to make sense, Sreenivisan’s movie is hit only because of the script.  Not “script” meaning lines of dialogue or story ideas, but every camera angle, every edit, every moment on screen that Mohanlal had written out planning to direct it himself.  Only instead, someone else came in and just followed his guidelines.

Moving back to the idea of the script making the star.  I was getting a little frustrated with the first two thirds of this film.  Because it seemed to be saying that anyone could become a star if they just lucked into a good script.  And I don’t believe that.  But then, THANK GOODNESS, the last third started to problematize this.  Yes, you can become a star just because you get one hit film and producers decide you are “lucky” and the fans love you, not the script.  We see that all the time.  And it’s frustrating to watch for people who care about film and can’t understand why this undeserving person is rising so high and so fast.

Only, it doesn’t last.  Not this kind of artificial high.  Vivek Oboroi, Sidharth Malhotra, Rahul Roy, Randhir Kapoor, and dozens of others.  They got amazing films at the start of their career and gave great performances.  Well, what seemed like great performances.  But a star isn’t made out of one or two films, no matter how it seems.  You need to prove you’ve got what it takes in your 4th film and your 5th and your 6th.  Not just acting talent, but hard work and good sense and humility.  And most of all, good judgement.

At first, it’s frustrating to watch Sreenivisan’s character lie on talk shows and run after Meena and insist on script changes to make his hero look good.  But then we start to see the backlash.  His films flop, Meena doesn’t want to work with him ever again, and the public starts to turn away as well.  We saw all that bad behavior that he seemed to get away with, just so we can come back to it a little later and see that he didn’t get away with it at all.

To be a star who lasts, you need to be able to act, sure, but you also need to be able to work well with others.  And to encourage others to do good work.  Going back to the meta-level of this film. Mohanlal and Sreenivisan are both great actors.  And you can see, in this movie, how they are driving each other on to greater heights in their scenes together.  And you can see how Sreenivisan is rising to the challenge of this script, going from humiliated Junior Artiste to proud film star, to scared star about to lose everything.  And this is what makes people stars and what keeps a film industry healthy!  When even the biggest SuperStars are artists first.  And their primary goal is the perpetuation of good art.  Not the perpetuation of their own fame.

Oh, and also I loved this glimpse into one of those film cities.  To make the movie within the movie, they move the whole cast to a massive location in the middle of nowhere, big enough for their whole film to be shot in one half with another whole film being shot in the other.  It also goes back to all those interpersonal connections that are just woven into the fabric of the script.  If you work on one movie, you don’t just get to know the people on that film, you get to know the people on the other 3 films being shot on the same massive lot, who are staying at the same nearby hotel, and coming into work on the same shuttle.  This is how Mohanlal, when he was just a humble scriptwriter, still was able to introduce Meena to the right people and give her career advice, was able to find backers for his own film, was friends with actor Sreenivisan, was a well-known part of this whole widespread community.

(Here’s Sreenivisan, able to stalk and fantasize about Meena, because everyone is always bumping into each other in this filmcity)

What is really interesting, now that I look back on the film, is how this whole widespread community has so little connection to the people they are serving, the audience.  It reminds me of some of the chapters in Ganti’s book (the big academic one, not the little fun one), where she talks about the “imagined audience”.  All the producers and distributors and directors and writers she interviewed all talked about this concept of an audience they had created in their head based on no evidence at all!  “Oh, the audience won’t like that, we have to put this in for the audience, that sequence will never play in Bihar.”  In this film, we see the same thing.  Constant discussion first of how the audience loved the first movie within a movie because Sreenivisan starred in it.  And then how they will hate the second movie within a movie, because now Sreenivisan is over and no one likes him.  And, in contrast, Mohanlal’s character arguing that it is this very assumption which is driving the audience away!  No one is giving them stories and quality films any more, just star vehicles, until the very idea of a “good film” has been lost.  But do any of these people ever actually talk to the audience?  Do they talk to anyone outside of their insular realm of film?

I guess maybe Mohanlal does.  We saw at the beginning that he was living in a poor-ish neighborhood, joking with the neighbors.  While Sreenivisan was so obsessed with his desire for fame that he only spoke to those he thought could help him on the way up, and the wealthy producers were so insulated within their wealthy production community they never knew anyone else.  So it was only Mohanlal who was left to make the argument that he knows these people, and he knows that his film will work, just because of the quality of the film.

And then finally there is the bit that reminds me of Angamaly Diaries.  Only I think Angamaly Diaries did it better.  To get the final shot he needs for his film, Mohanlal decides to trick Sreenivisan, to convince him that it is all real, the actress co-starring with him really has killed herself, he really is being chased by the police.  And, finally, Mohanlal is able to get a true reaction from him, not a practiced movie star kind of performance.

Angamaly Diaries could have done this.  Pellisery cast all unknowns, he could have cast just local boys from the area and filmed them doing local things.  But instead they were clearly saying lines from the script, not improvised.  And they were raising their eyebrows and cocking their heads and doing things that they must have been directed to do, not just done natural (or else the camera angles wouldn’t work).  Honestly, I don’t know how he did it.

Watching Angamaly, as moviemavengal and I talked about in our podcast, it was so clear that the director was the star here.  Going back to what this film says about stars, that means he can’t just be enormously talented and popular and charismatic.  He also has to recognize and encourage talent.  And, most of all, he has to work hard and inspire others to work hard as well.  That may be the most impressive part of Angamaly, that he somehow inspired this greatness in all those around him.

(none of these people feel like debutantes in their first film, or neo-realist kind of just playing themselves actors)

And that’s the message I got from this film as well.  It’s not really about movies, it’s just about doing your best and creating your best no matter the obstacles.  And if you do that, do it sincerely, people will follow you.  Mohanlal took the hard path and Sreenivisan took the easy one, but in the end, Mohanlal found something a lot more lasting.  Oh, and Meena came back to him too!


32 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam: Udayananu Tharam Asks Does the Film Create the Star or the Star Create the Film?

    • Fascinating! The story is really good in all 3 of those, but the directing on its own didn’t blow me away. However, going back to the topic of the post, the director isn’t just about “directing” as in camera work and telling actors what to do. He’s also about picking the story and convincing the people to star in it and a million other things. And he deserves credit for really really interesting stories and great casting in all 3 of those.


  1. I didn’t find Meena’s excuse for leaving Mohanlal convincing.Her character who started out so well ultimately served as a foil to Mohanlal’s character.It’s amusing that Vineeth Sreenivasan sung Karale for his father in this movie.Probably the one and only time a son had to do this for his father.

    There’s a lacklustre sequel to this wonderful film -Padmasree Dr. Saroj Kumar with another director.It started a small cold war between Mohanlal and Sreenivasan.The former was not in the sequel and felt that the gags were a bit too personal in the sequel.And the sequel proved what you said that the director being the king.Without Rosshan Andrews at the helm it just fell apart.But the sequel got two things right.A leopard won’t change its spots (Saroj returned to his old ways with his sycophants) and an apology won’t fix everything(Saroj has this habit of apologizing profusely when he’s caught).


    • Huh. In this movie, it felt like Sreenivisan worked well as a foil for Mohanlal, but I wouldn’t have wanted to see a whole movie about his character. I needed that grounded storyline with Mohanlal to make it work, not just the comedy. I’m surprised they thought a sequel with just Sreenivisan’s character would be popular.

      And I agree that the marriage falling apart didn’t make sense! I also didn’t really buy Mohanlal’s character getting angry at her all of a sudden, for the rest of the movie he seemed like someone who would stay calm no matter what.


  2. Most of the actors were not new to film in angamally diaries they were doing short films before angamally diaries like Mohan Lal in this movie who assisted other directors


  3. “Not only that, I have now seen two of his other movies that had stars (reviews of those going up over the next few Mondays), and I can confirm that the starless one is the better one”
    >>> Really curious to know which ones… 🙂


  4. Totally agree!!! Angamaly Diaries is his best work till date.

    The film city they show is infact the largest in the world – Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad. Even a good portion of Bahubali got shot there.

    Meena the child never acted with Mohanlal. But it has happened with Mammootty – a film called Kauravar. A decent movie, but didn’t do well because of the same reason!

    Udayananu Tharam was famous more for the script. I’m sure you would’ve missed a lot of things. But essentially, the whole movie is making fun of the so called super stars in the Malayalam industry. And it was Mohanlal who got ripped the most. This is probably the reason why the remakes didn’t do well.


  5. my favourite part was ‘navarasa’ lessons from pachalam bhasi(jagathy sreekumar) and his 4 newly invented rasas.
    and it is always entertaining when srinivasan attempts dancing or romance.


    • It was funny seeing Sreenivasan playing an actor who dreams of being a star despite his appearance, because of course in real life Sreenivasan is dealing with the same handicap. That is, in the right role, he actually can be the lead of a film. But his appearance limits him in the kind of roles he can take, and he is aware enough of that to make fun of it in this part.


  6. Awesome review….

    Meena has acted as a child artist with Rajinikanth in the movie “Anbulla Ranjinikanth (Dear Rajinikanth)” and later on has acted as his heroine in the movie “Muthu” (a remake of Mohanlal – Shobhan Blockbuster “Thembavin Kombathu”).


    • Oh ick! About Meena acting opposite Rajnikanth as an adult. Ick ick ick ick ick!

      And I’m glad you liked the review!

      On Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 10:25 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  7. Koratala Siva, the director of Mirchi and Srimanthudu, started out as a writer. He actually entered the industry as a writer and he said that he had no aspirations to become a director. The thing that motivated him to become a director was the lack of credits given to writers. Koratala Siva said that he would often get credited less than the work he did. For example if he did both the screenplay and dialogues, he would end up receiving credit for only the dialogues. These kinds of experiences in the industry drove him towards direction. Another interesting thing about Koratala Siva is that he often says that he’s just a writer and that he employs the best technicians and artists that understand his vision to make quality movies.


    • That is really fascinating!!!! I think I can understand what he is talking about. If it is a script that is really just an idea, and then the director takes control and insists on re-writes and changes who the characters are through how he films them and all that, that is one thing. But if it is a script that includes direction and images and specifics of everything (like it sounds like Karan Johar, for instance, pulls together before he starts shooting), then it would really be just a recipe for the director to follow and never need to add anything new.


      • Actually Koratala Siva mostly worked as a writer for one director, Boyapati Sreenu. His frustration seemed to be more that this director was taking credit for the actual work that he did. Actually, seeing a couple of Boyapati Sreenu’s movies, I could see similarities between the movies and Mirchi.


  8. Have to give props to Mohanlal for playing the lead in a movie that essentially rips him apart. You have to know a bit of malayalam movie history to get some of the pointed jabs at Lal. After Mohanlal’s commercial action movie “Narasimham” became a massive hit, all of his subsequent movies started to follow the same template. They became glorified star vehicles instead of actual movies. Eventually, the public started to reject these movies and Lal realized his mistake. A lot of this is reflected in Sreenivasan’s character.


    • I wish I knew more about Malayalam film! and there’s really no shortcut to learning it, I just have to keep blundering through and counting on you nice people to help me steer.


  9. Hi
    I do love your reviews and the detail that is presented in them. In this context, there is a large section of the Malayali audience (and surely in every part of the world) who ask when a new movie is released-WHO IS THE DIRECTOR?. Not the name of the actors. I am sure that your Malayali friends will agree to this. Happy to say that I am one of them


    • I am glad you like the reviews! Please keep reading and commenting. I am trying hard to learn as much as I can about Malayalam film (I’ve only been watching a year), and the best way is from what people can tell me in the comments.


  10. Sreenivasan makes fun of everyone and loves pricking egos-especially those of politicians.He had earlier leanings toward Communism and long parted with it once he realized that what political parties preach and practise are quite different.I guess we can call him a lapsed Communist.His best in my opinion is Sandhesam (Message) (1991).Both the Congress and Communist parties were mocked left and right in it.

    He does not spare even himself in his screenplays.For his directorial debut Vadakkunokkiyanthram (1989) the title character played by himself has an inferiority complex about his looks (short,dark) especially since he’s married to a fair tall beautiful girl.In Nadokikkattu (1987) Mohanlal’s character constantly mocks him because the former is college educated while Sreenivasan’s character has only completed school.


  11. It makes sense when you consider that Sreenivasan got into films via the ‘Starving on the streets of Kodambakkam (epicentre for filmmaking inTamil Nadu during the 80s)’ route. And all the movies which I mentioned above are comedies -albeit black comedies.His children came along after he became successful as an actor.Obviously their upbringing is different (more happy) which led to much happier films by his son on the screen.


  12. Pingback: Monday Malayalam: Notebook, The Spoken Lesson is Different From the Shown Lesson | dontcallitbollywood

  13. Pingback: Happy Blogaversary! Behind the Scenes Tour Part 3, Why Do I Write the Type of Posts I Write? | dontcallitbollywood

  14. Pingback: Film Reviews | dontcallitbollywood

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