In the ’80s, Sathyan Anthikkad breathed in new life into Malayalam cinema that was ailing from a bout of decadence.
But some two decades down the line, Neelima Menon finds that the filmmaker has fallen victim to his own craft it happened in the late 1980s — when even the typically cynical Malayali thought the heroes on screen could never put a wrong foot forward. In 1987, to be precise. When Nadodikkattu blew a fresh gush of wind into the Keralite’s cine sensibility and pitched a novel concept about the hero. In fact, there were two of them in that film directed by Sathyan Anthikkad. Dasan and Vijayan. One, a BCom from a waning Nair family striving to find a white-collar job, the other a lesser educated battling the world with his wry wit.
Together they breezed past redundancy, unemployment and undernourishment with an underplayed charm for the viewers. So much so, that for over a decade Malayalam cinema nursed a crushing affection for two of its most ordinary “heroes”. In hindsight, it could have been a tired rags-to-riches script. But then Sreenivasan — who penned the script and played Vijayan — knew better when it came to gauging the Malayali psyche.
The synergetic tie that grew steadily bet­ween Sreenivasan and him has since promp­ted Anthikkad to pride himself on being the average Malayali’s alter ego. And Mohanlal, who played Dasan in Nadodikkattu, virtually gave it the face — and physique (“He has the body language of my characters,” Anthikkad fam­ously said once.) Nadodikkattu got a sequel a year later, and the Anthikkad juggernaut rolled ahead — breezily.
Until, perhaps, the turn of the century. Well, millennium. From 2000. That’s when
Anthikkad’s own craft seemed to start trapping him. And the very newness he brought in started smelling stale. To tell the whole story, it isn’t exactly that Nadodikkattu was Anthikkad’s first portrayal of at-times-faltering, down-to-earth heroes. Mohanlal himself had donned such a role in his earlier films like Appunni (1984) and three films released in ’86: T P Balagopalan MA, Gandhinagar 2nd Street and Sanmanassullavarku Samadhanam.
Post-Nadodikkaattu too, Mohanlal was again bang on in the 1989 film Varavelppu as the Gulf-returned hero who hits a rough patch back home. Then there were family themes (Sasneham, Thalayanamanthram), to broader canvases like Kerala’s trite political scene (Sandesham). Stretch the trend to another five years, and we still get a fine-nick Anthikkad film profiling a wayward theatre-addicted Christian boy: the Jayaram-Thilakan starrer Veendum Chila Veettukaryangal. Ah, and we knew it was too much of a good thing.
Then came Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal, and the first chinks in his armour began showing. Poor boy meets rich girl, they get hitched and have a kid. Enter her stiff-necked dad who can’t wait to make her daughter the next Padma Subramanyam. Her low-profile husband is left in the background with the child. They take a bus to Goa, start life afresh. Only to be reunited with the full-of-remorse wife who dumps her ambitious plans. Cliched plot. Plus that moral: wives are better off chained to the family.
A year later, Anthikkad yearned to recreate the Lal-Sreeni heyday. Result: Narendran Makan Jayakanthan Vaka. And you see a
decidedly wishy-washy Kunchako Boban struggling to fit into the Lal mode. It was as if Anthikkad left the script at home and chose to carelessly pan the camera on some random village in Kerala. Benign critics shrugged the film off as “Oh, one of those bad days”.
But those “bad days” only got worse — with Yathrakkarude Shraddakku (2002): a watered-down version of Mani Ratnam’s Mouna
Ragam, with regulars Innocent and Sreeniva­san providing laughs. Forget the rundown first half about a homeless heroine coexisting with the hero; post-interval scenes take the cake for corniness. The disgruntled heroine marries the smitten hero, and goes on a moun vrat. The “good samaritan” hero is magnanimous and drags her “original” groom over and turns to leave. Her hand bleeds with her folly and voila they live happily ever after.
Jayaram, by now Anthikkad’s mainstay, got to play yet another groundbreaking role. And Manasikkare turned out to be yesteryear actr­ess Sheela’s second coming. The Anthikkad-boasted “role of a lifetime” turned out to be yet another chestnut of an ageing Christian woman getting disowned by her children and how she rediscovers her lost sonny in…you guessed it right….our lower- class Christian hero who bonds over her cow. Two years later, in 2005, came Achuvinte Amma. A tear-jerker that simply failed to tug at your hearts.
Of late, Anthikkad seems to be hopelessly in love with some of his actors. His mindless affection for Mohanlal reached its putrid stage in 2006 when he placed the overweight star on the top of a roof just to allow him a glimpse of a heroine in a shower (Rasathanthran).
A year later came Innethe Chinthavisha­yam, a study in machismo. Three strong women choose to stay away from their men who exhibit varying degrees of infidelity and chauvinism. Enter Mohanlal’s moderator (one of his most weakly-etched characters to date) who makes the women realise their follies and gets them reunited with their men. But what exactly was he thinking when he wove in a love angle to the plot? The ladies competing for the irresistibly podgy Mohanlal!
Meera Jasmine has been his golden girl for a while, resulting in half-baked characterisations till the interval in the four movies she has done with him. Remember her giving gyan to an awe-struck Dileep about grocery-shopping in Vinodayathtra? Anthikkad made sure she transformed into a hapless soul saved and financed by Dileep by the final reels. His women characters are never strong enough to support a man emotionally or financially. Even Urvashi’s greedy housewife in the 1990-hit Thalayanamanthram has to apologise for her spineless husband’s irresponsibility.
His latest, Bhagyadevatha, is keeping the Malayalis in a good mood. Though, evidently it’s another Anthikkad mish-mash against a Christian backdrop with a fresh middle-class bride, hassled dad, ambitious hero tossed in — classic encore. Apparently, Anthikkad only knew inventing — once upon a time — not
reinventing, for sure.