Mohanlal Gets Meta!

This was a fascinating movie. And I learned so much about the film industry! And, also, it actually had a non-tragic ending.

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!


2 thoughts on “Mohanlal Gets Meta!

  1. You have seen a lot of Mohanlal movies some of which are his most rememberd movies, favourites of our generation.i would like to point several movies that seems to be missed out here.Some of them were way ahead their time.
    Vellanakaludde nadu
    TP balagopalan M.A
    Sanmanasullavarkku samadhanam
    Kanmadam(best by Manju Warrier )
    And many more
    I have been a regular reader ,but this is my first comment
    It’s always inspiring to see a fresh take on movies about which I thought I knew everything there is to know about.Thank you


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