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July 12, 2000

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'Life itself is a daily celebration'

Mohanlal's six year old daughter Vismaya is tired. Very tired.

Mohanlal
Mohanlal
'My hands are aching,' she complains. 'Do you know how many times I've picked up the phone today? Everybody asks, may I speak to Mohanlal, please! You know, he is my father, and everybody wants to talk to him.'

The perfect little hostess, Vismaya keeps me company while we wait for her father, national award-winning actor Mohanlal, to join us. Unlike her elder brother Appu who sits quietly in a corner, listening -- 'He has a fever, he is taking medicines,' Vismaya helpfully informs me -- the young lady is uninhibited, a tireless conversationalist. She takes me through the gamut of her friends and her cousins, and the fun they all had playing with her collection of coloured stones.

Mohanlal joins us. And looks surprised, and pleased, at the bouquet of flowers I hand him. 'For me?', he asks, as he looks for a likely place to set the bouquet down -- a tough ask, given that his home is already full of floral tributes.

Mohanlal
'This will have to be a short interview,' he smiles. That is easy to understand -- as we talk, the phone rings incessantly, callers eager to talk to the star, congratulate him on his award-winning performance in the Shaji Karun-helmed movie
Vaanaprastham.

Lal takes each call personally, and is unfailingly courteous, polite. And in between calls, there are the walk-in visitors -- people he knows, people he doesn't, all come to share in his moment of glory. He treats them all alike, with an unfailing, unflagging courtesy -- and that, coupled with his unpretentious nature, is to my mind his most endearing trait.

This year, Lal has scored a double triumph -- besides his award for acting, he will also receive, as Vaanaprastham's producer, the award for best film. Interestingly, this is Lal 's second national award for acting -- and Bharatam, for which he won his earlier award, was also his own production. And if anyone's keeping score, Lal also has a special jury award for his performance in Kireedam.

We had met, off and on, during the making of Vaanaprastham, and I remember how excited he was, then. We next met after he returned from Cannes, where the film was screened to universal plaudits.

Lal is generally undemonstrative, unlikely to get up in the air about anything. But Vaanaprastham, to him, is obviously special -- so special, that in his new home, he has set aside a room just for that film, lining its walls with the posters of the film that were displayed at Cannes , and other memorabilia.

In between fielding calls and greeting visitors, Lal took a few minutes to share with Shobha Warrier his thoughts on the film, and his hour of glory. Excerpts:

You told me, the first time we met, that awards did not excite you. Now, your production has won the best film award, and you personally have been named best actor. Can you still say there is no excitement?

Excitement is not the feeling! Yes, I do feel a sense of acceptance. First, the Kerala government gave me the best actor award, now the central government has given me the same honour, and it shows that our project has been accepted.

Lal applies makeup
I think that more than anything else, it is the prayers of the many, many people who assisted us in this project that helped us win the award. After we had finished shooting , all those who were associated with Kathakali in some way or the other, including the great Kathakali masters, told us that their prayers were with us for the success of the film. I firmly believe that if our film is accepted today, it is because of the prayers of those very genuine and simple people. So, I dedicate this award to themÖ

You know, the feeling I experience now is not excitement, it is something more than that.

Did you expect to receive this award?

The mask of the man
Tell me, how can you? So many films come for the competition, and you have no idea how good they are. When you have seen only your film, you tend to feel that yours is the best film ( *laughs* ). But there can be many, many good films from other languages too. Do we know anything about them? No. So, it is foolish to think that ours is the best project, and that we will win the award.

Yes, it is true that our film was selected for many international festivals including Cannes, which I consider our good fortune. But no, I did not think, expect, that we would get the award.

Just a while ago, I saw Kiron Kher, on television, talking of her best actress award, she said it was the desire of every artist to win this award, as it was the ultimate in India. You have won it for the second time, what are your thoughts?

It is her opinion, but it cannot be the same for everyone. Actually, I have won this for the third time, the first was the special jury award for Kireedam, then the best actor award for Bharatam, and now for Vaanaprastham. But this time, I will collect two awards , because Vaanaprastham is the best film, and I am the producer of the film. I can only thank God for all this.

Mammootty as Ambedkar
Yes, it is a national recognition, and I agree that this is a very prestigious award. To get such an award is no mean achievement. But I donít think I have to be overjoyed about it. I am happy, yes, because for the last three years in succession, Malayalam actors have walked away with this award. Two years ago, Suresh Gopi and Balachandra Menon shared it, last year it was Mammootty, now it is me. And Kalabhavan Mani has won the special jury award for acting this year. So yes, I feel proud that it is Malayalam actors who have won in successive years, I feel proud that Malayalam cinema has claimed over a dozen awards this year. That shows that we are doing something good.

Which of the two gives you more satisfaction -- the best film award, or the best actor award?

Come on, how do I differentiate between the two? I think I experience the same kind of happiness for both . I produced the film, and also acted in it. I donít know whether such a combination has happened before -- in any case, it is quite rare, isn't it? I guess I am happiest because a film I produced has been recognised, and it has also fetched me the best actor award!

Both your national acting awards have come through films you produced -- why is that? Is it because when you are producing, you get more freedom to experiment with your role, your performance?

Vaanaprastham director Shaji Karun
No, no. I produced those films because I was sure that no other producer would come forward to do so! You must remember that we do not do these things intentionally , it just happens. There is no other way I can explain the making of Vaanaprastham. How can one explain why a few Frenchmen decided to come to India with the idea of making a film? They did not come here with the conscious intention of making an award-winning film -- they had a story idea, they came to meet Shaji-sir... it just happened, one thing after another, all building towards this climax.

You became producer for this film by accident, didn't you?

That's right. Initially, the French were supposed to produce this, I don't know why but later, the offer came to me. I suppose it is some kind of unknown, some destiny, the peak of which is this award!

While doing the lead role of Kunjikkuttan, did you get the feeling that the character was somehow special?

Haven't we talked about him in the past? Now, Kunjikuttan is... dead! He is no more. I don't remember him. (*laughs*)

Your recent film, Narasimham, has been declared the biggest ever hit in the history of Malayalam cinema, and in it you play a larger than life character. Are you falling into the sort of trap that people like Rajnikanth, Chiranjeevi, are in, where you have to play superhero for the film has to be commercially successful ?

That is not true, really. The film that came after Narasimham, Life is Beautiful, has me playing a very ordinary man. Whether it was commercially successful or not is another matter.

Yes, but that is my point exactly -- Fazil's Life is Beautiful is the story of an ordinary man, but people apparently did not accept it...

So what can you do about it? All my films can't be like Narasimham. My latest film is Shraddha, which is different, then there is a Sibi Malayil film...

But your fans only want to see you as a superman, a Narasimham...

I want to change that , that is why I am acting in movies like Life is Beautiful and Shraddha.

Does this larger than life image that you are trapped in make you unhappy?

It was not a conscious effort on my part to be larger than life in my films! Sometimes, you fall into a ditch without knowing it is there, without seeing it, but you try to come out of it. If you fall again, you will jump out again. Or you can say that I seem to be jumping into and out of a frying pan. To tell you the truth, I don't know how to answer your question, these things just happen...

But you cannot compare me with Rajnikant or Chiranjeevi. They don't do films like Vaanaprastham or Life is Beautiful or Shraddha. It could be that because they only act in one kind of films, they begin to feel trapped. In my case, I keep trying to break out of that trap, so...

Is it on your own, through your own efforts, that you jump out of that ditch as you called it?

It is not my own effort, certainly not, there are so many people who help me get out. Certain things happen, without your knowing it. My next film is Raghunath Paleriís , you know he wrote the screenplay of Vaanaprastham, and in it, I am not an extraordinarily intelligent or extraordinarily strong and powerful man , I am just an ordinary guy. So these people, who write and make such movies, they all help me escape. Not all films are like Narasimham or Aaram Thampuran . Life is a collage of events, really...

But look at it this way, Narasimham was a superhit, so won't your producers insist on making more films like that?

If that was the case, how does a Fazil make a film like Life is Beautiful, or an I V Sasi make a Shraddha? Luckily, Malayalam producers are interested in making different kinds of films, they are willing to experiment.

To get back to Vaanaprastham, are there moments from its making that you still cherish?

Yes, there are some very strange experiences which I still cherish , but they are very personal. If I talk about them, your readers might think I am exaggerating. For instance, before I put on the Kathakali costume, before they applied the makeup, I used to mentally pray to the great masters of the art. I felt within me that I could not wear that costume, I could not play a Kathakali artiste, without paying them obeisance. And once I had prayed, internally, for a second it felt as though I were unconscious, floating free. I felt that every time I wore that costume, every time I donned the headgear, every time they applied chutti on my faceÖ.

It is like I was getting permission from the great masters to perform. Wasn't I doing something I didn't know how to do? It is after years of practise and training that those masters performed on stage, and here I was doing the same thing for a film, without any experience, any training. How could I do that without their blessings?

Did acting in the film teach you more about Kathakali?

Lal as Arjuna, in Vaanaprastham
It was only after I started acting in this role that I got an understanding of how difficult the life of a Kathakali artiste is, how hard they have to work. Just wearing the costume is difficult. It is a form of tapasya. Besides, you are portraying legendary characters from mythology, like Arjuna, Ravana, Rama... not many are fortunate to get such an opportunity.

I think the last time we met, I told you how once, I remained in costume without even removing the headgear, for more than ten hours at a stretch. At the time, I had a severe attack of sinusitis. From where did I get the strength? Where else, but from the blessings of the masters! I honestly believe some indefinable force, some unknown energy, helped me during those moments.

Did you at any point think you could not do it?

No, never. We had to stop shooting for some time , on the last day , because I vomited. I was very unwell then. Otherwise, I never had any problem.

Did you transform yourself into Kunjikkuttan , your character in the film?

I really do not know. ( *laughs* ) Once the director calls for action, we act, we stop when he says cut. It is sort of like meditation -- unknowingly, you are moving out of yourself, becoming someone else. That is why I consider acting a form of meditation. Our puranas talk of a soul moving from one body to another -- I think that is true of acting as well.

Twice -- no, thrice -- your acting abilities have been recognised at the national level. Do you consider yourself a great actor?

Come on, how can anyone think like that, feel like that?

But many actors do describe themselves as great actors...

I am getting this award for the third time. So am I expected to think I am great, to feel arrogant? I don't know. To tell you the truth, these things do not change my life, my perspective. You just carry on with your life. You have to...

How do you look at these accomplishments? You used to say you don't desire anything, yearn for anything, look forward to anything...

I donít know. I don't call it destiny, though I am not saying there is nothing called destiny. This is something that exists between two worlds, a kind of magic. You can't explain it, you can't explain certain feelings, you can't provide definitions either. These feelings differ from person to person -- some might say they expected it, I feel great, et cetera...

And what will you say?

What will I say? I feel the same. Today is like yesterday. All days are the same, I go to bed, I get up as the same person, with the same perspective, there is no difference to my attitudes, to my feelings.

Is it because you consider material accomplishments as very insignificant?

It could be that my body chemistry is like that, I don't get excited...

And your mind?

What is mind, but intelligence? My intelligence tells me I am the same person I was before I won the award, it tells me that today is just like yesterday. Yes, I am happy because a work of mine has been appreciated. But this feeling is momentary. How can you feel high all the time? Do we have to?

So you don't celebrate...?

Life itself is for me a daily celebration, I celebrate every day, so why do I need a special celebration? Everything in life is beautiful, everything gives you happiness... I guess it depends on your attitude. For me, I find it delightful to live, to be alive...

Related reading:

The story of Vaanaprastham

Also read:

Honour roll -- National awards 2000

The Shaji Karun interview

Mohanlal on Vaanaprastham and beyond

Mohanlal on Mohanlal

Do tell us what you think of this interview

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