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It 'just happens' to Lalettan!

C.K. MEENA catches up with Mohanlal on his Kannada film set.


MOHAN LAL strides out of his room in The Club, Mysore Road, onto the sets of Kannada film director Rajendra Singh Babu's Love. Whiskers obscure his chubby face, and he wears a black suit, red shirt, and black turban. Is he playing a Sardarji? "No, this is a disguise," he says, and adds with a gentle laugh, "For love you sometimes have to wear a disguise." He is a Malayali taxi-driver in Dubai who brings two lovers together, and in the scene he is about to shoot, he takes on another identity in order to rescue the heroine.

He is wearing disguise upon disguise, really, for his screen persona is itself a camouflage. or Life `just happens' to Mohan Lal. Speak to him long enough and you're bound to hear the refrain: "It just happened." He takes on assignments `because of friendship' rather than as a challenge. His role in Love came his way because the director approached him. Ramgopal Varma sought him out for a brief but compelling part in Company. He didn't plan to act in a Hindi or a Kannada film. "It just happened."

Similarly, when he went to Delhi to collect a national award he visited the National School of Drama, and its director Ramgopal Bajaj asked him if he would act in an English-language play. He confessed that he had absolutely no experience in theatre. "From English, it became Malayalam, and then Sanskrit! It just came to be."

When Kavalam Narayana Panickar offered to direct him if he would enact Bhasa's Karnabharam he could not refuse, although he knew no Sanskrit. Getting such an opportunity was "a blessing for an actor", although it was also "like a trapeze without the net" since he had to memorise pages of Sanskrit verse and hold his own on stage.

There's more on the "it just happened" front. As part of Malayala Manorama's on-going Ente Malayalam project of preserving Kerala's language and culture, film director T.K. Rajeev Kumar conceived Kathayattam, and thought of none better than Mohan Lal to enact it. The stage, he has come to realise, requires sustained involvement. "For two hours you become that character." The role sticks to you when you go off-stage, in a way that it never does in cinema. "The instant I get off the set I'm back to normal." The nature of the medium is such, he explains. Emotions are fleeting and disconnected, and scenes are shot in random order.

A film shoot is a series of interruptions. As he waits to be periodically called onto the sets, he vanishes intermittently and reappears to complete his reply. Steeped in cinema, when is he truly himself? With family or friends, perhaps? "With friends," he says without hesitation. "I have a closer relationship with the technicians, with my driver, even, than my family. I don't feel suddenly homesick or say, oh, I want to see my children now. I have developed an attitude." And this attitude entails remaining detached from personal bonds and focussed on work. "If I miss my family so much then I should quit cinema."

Why does every male Malayalam actor, lean when he enters cinema, swell up in no time like a pappadam in hot oil? He seriously ponders all possible reasons: irregular eating habits due to hectic schedules, "something in our genes, being Indian", one's constitution, fans being "ready to accept us although we put on weight", and the absence of a health club culture. He finally stops sounding apologetic and declaims, "The Indian concept of beauty is flesh!" Er — that's only for women, isn't it?

A man walks into the room to give Lal his lines in Hindi for the next shot. He copies them out, transliterating in Malayalam. The first of the seven sentences reads: "Mujhe paanch biwi hain... " He reads out the dialogue twice and comments: "This is unusual." The lines being in Hindi? No, the situation — his having five wives! He gets up, checks his beard in the mirror, and as he reaches the doorway he says aloud: "Mujhe paanch biwi hain... "

When he returns I ask if he has contemplated the end of his career. "It's very strange," he muses, "but planning is not there." Once again, he explains how "things happen" to him: He was just helping out friends who wanted to export Kerala cuisine, and he got so involved in the venture that there is now a restaurant in Dubai which bears his name: Mohan Lal's Tastebuds.

One comes away with the feeling that if, one day, Lal loses all he has, he will simply open a paan shop and manage to survive. With sanity intact. As Mohan Lal, Everyman.

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