Remember when action thrillers in Malayalam cinema paid equal attention to the content and the stars' image? Somewhere along the line, the grip on substance was lost and style took over, resulting in substandard and unimpactful products. Back then the writers and the filmmakers allowed the characters' personalities to dictate their films' styles.
We go back and look at three iconic male characters who didn't need excessively flashy editing and slow motion to appear cool. Incidentally, these three characters came from the imagination of the immensely successful director-screenwriter duo of K Madhu and S N Swamy, who set the template for many subsequent action thrillers in Malayalam. But none of them came close to replicating the impact created by these films.
Sagar Alias Jacky in Irupatham Noottandu
When K Madhu and S N Swamy introduces Mohanlal's Sagar Alias Jacky for the first time in Irupatham Noottandu (1987), there is not much fanfare. We see him at a car rally, which we later learn is a front for an ongoing smuggling operation spearheaded by Jacky.
Sagar/Jacky, the underworld don with a heart of gold, evokes Vito Corleone from Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Like Don Corleone, Jacky detests those who make an income out of drugs. Sagar/Jacky is a three-dimensional character with some relatable qualities. The fallout between him and an ally -- the film's central conflict -- happens as a result of their opposing principles.
In comparison, the film's sequel Sagar Alias Jacky Reloaded looks like a completely different movie. It carried none of the subtlety and restraint that made the original a highly regarded classic. If Irupatham Noottandu is a quiet and disciplined father, Sagar Alias Jacky Reloaded is his wayward son.
Sethurama Iyer in Oru CBI Diary Kurippu
Whenever Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (1988) comes on TV, it's impossible to switch the channel. Sethurama Iyer is our own Sherlock Holmes. His dressing style and habits may be too old-fashioned for some, but has Mammootty ever looked uncool, regardless of what he is doing/wearing? And let's not forget that this character happens to be a vegetarian and a teetotaler. A super sleuth without a cigarette on his lips? Impressive, very impressive.
The scenes featuring Sethurama Iyer are a masterclass on how to deal with people of various temperaments. Observe the way he responds to rude people. He is always cool as a cucumber, not impulsive like his fellow officers. He is not ego-driven; he is reasonable and open to suggestions -- essential qualities for every professional. And Mammootty's portrayal of Sethurama Iyer is as close as it gets to how most CBI officers look and behave in real life.
Ali Imran in Moonnam Mura
Apart from the now iconic character of Ali Imran played by Mohanlal, one of the most surprising things about Moonnam Mura (1988) is the fact that the hero doesn't show up until after the 60-min mark -- a bold and unprecedented move for a film featuring a big star who has already achieved demigod status, especially after the release of Thoovanathumbikal and Irupatham Noottaandu the previous year.
Would a similar approach be welcomed by audiences if attempted today? And just like Sagar/Jacky, Imran doesn't get a fancy intro scene. All we see is a visual of Imran at a quarry supervising an explosion. He is an ordinary guy wearing sunglasses and a jacket. There is nothing extraordinary about this shot; it doesn't call attention to itself. And there are no gundas around to beat up.
What is extraordinary, however, is Shyam's background score which shows up at all the appropriate moments in the film. Unlike today's superstar-driven action films where the hero's arrival is hyped up by the supporting characters' anecdotes about his bravado, the 80s' action films didn't need them. Moonnam Mura is a superior example.