Monday, August 06, 2007

Sreenivasan: An Underrated Genius, But Past His Prime?

Recently, I made the mistake of watching a Mallu version of 'Analyze That', 'Bhargava Charitham 4-am Ghandam' starring Sreenivasan and Mammootty. To say that the move was terrible would be an understatement. Although the dialogues did bear a passing resemblance to the Sreenivasan of yore, most often they were not even remotely funny. One fears that in his zeal to show off his newfound comic skills, Mammooty is descending into alarming levels of mediocrity. Though he does try to top it off with a handful of sensible movies every year, doing such roles affects not only his image, but also his stature as an actor. As for Sreenivasan, he's become too old to carry off his unique brand of comedy any longer. And - why doesn't anyone get this - we DO NOT want to see 50-year old men dressed up in shorts, sleeveless shirts, and designer outfits - and this is not directed just at Mammootty either. Stuff the opulence, and give us a decent story, for chrissake!

Its really a pity that intelligent, 'thinking' cine-people like Sreenivasan fail to keep up with time, and come out with such nonsense. His screenplays were responsible for some of the landmark films of the 1980s, the golden period of Malayalam cinema. Indeed, looking back, Sreenivasan was pretty much to Malayalm cinema, what Hrishikesh Mukherjee was to Bollywood. Looking forward to better cinema from this underrated genius, here's a list of the movies why I regard him as one of the best talents of Malayalam cinema.

Varavelpu (Welcome): Notwithstanding other popular movies from the Sathyan Anthikkad - Mohanlal - Sreenivasan trio, this is most probably their best collaboration IMO. The script by Sreenivasan traces the journey of a Gulf-returned Mohanlal who tries hard to eke out a living in a Communist-infested Kerala by running a private bus. Laced with subtle humor, great all-round performances, and a tight screenplay that never veers too far from reality, this was a gem of a movie. Sadly, it is shortly to be remade in Hindi (read destroyed) by a Priyadarsan crony, with Govinda in the lead.

Vadakku Nokki Yanthram marked the directorial debut of Sreenivasan. Although the movie was interspersed with his characteristic self-effacing wit and deadpan dialogs, the tale of an average-looking guy with an inferiority complex getting married to a beautiful girl was Malayalam cinema's first intentional black comedy, and hit a chord with audiences everywhere. Sreenivasan, through his penchant for self-directed sarcasm and ridiculous situations, depicted the misgivings of an average man beautifully here. Main, Meri Pathni Aur Woh was directly inspired from this movie, and it boasted of a terrific performance by another supremely talented actor, Rajpal Yadav.

Nadodikattu (The Wandering Wind): When one talks of the Mohanlal-Sreenivasan combination, this would in all probability be the first movie that one remembers. The characters of this hilarious rags-to-riches tale - be it the innocent Dasan-Vijayan duo, the paranoid villain Ananthan Nambiar, Gafoorkka who runs a 'yatch' to the 'Gulf', or the hired killer Pavanayi - are still fresh in our minds, despite the movie being almost 3 decades old. This has Sreenivasan at his vintage best - the acerbic wit, the social commentary, and the dig at the typical Malayalee egotism are all there.

Sandesham (Message) was political satire at its best. Apart from the recent Vadivelu-starrer 'Imsai Arasan...' and the Kundan Shah classic 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron', I cannot recall a single political satire in our cinema (forgive me if I am not conversant with regional language cinema apart from Malayalam and Tamil). On the pretext of displaying oneupmanship between two brothers (who belong to rival political parties), Sreenivasan launches a scathing indictment on both the political parties of Kerala. Its a tremendously funny film, but nonetheless accurate and socially relevant too.

Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala (Thoughtful Shyamala) was Sreenivasan's second attempt at direction. Audience expectations were high after his acclaimed previous outing, and he didn't let them down either. The opening scene of the movie, where in a scathing indictment of Kerala's electricity board, the dialogue likens electricity to a stray cat, set the mood of the movie. It would perhaps be irreverent to suggest that the irresponsible husband is a manifestation of Lord Rama's inability/refusal to fulfil his responsibilities toward his wife, but the title of the movie certainly seems to slyly suggest so. The movie's harsh indictment of ashram-life at the expense of familiar responsibilities was another hint in this direction, IMO. Once again, the movie was a tremendous success at the BO, and critically acclaimed as well.

Thalayanamanthram (Feminine Wile) saw Sreenivasan take on the universal topic of envy and feminine wile. Urvashi puts in one of her best performances as the middle-class wife. It was to her credit that a character who could have easily come off as a shrew, was instead portrayed as a normal woman with her share of aspirations and failings. Urvashi displayed razor-edge control in not letting her character slip into farce. Unfortunately, it is this control that Urvashi seems to have lost, as can be seen in her recent outings like Achuvinte Amma, and more noticeably in Madhuchandralekha.

Vellanakalude Naadu (The Land of White Elephants) was directed by Priyadarsan at a time when he was still a competent director. Devoid of frills (save the hilarious crowd-pleasing bulldozer sequence), the movie narrates the plight of a road contractor (superbly enacted by Mohanlal) in Kerala. For a change, Sreenivasan plays a serious role - that of the diligent social worker whose family has been killed due to a bridge collapsing - and excels in it too. The Priyan - Mohanlal - Sreenivasan combo duplicated pretty much the same formula in Midhunam, but could not recreate the same magic.

Oru Maravathoor Kanavu (A Maravathoor Dream) had debutante director Lal Jose riding on the front of a powerful screenplay by Sreenivasan, and a bravura performance by Mammootty. However, it was evident that here was a skilled director who showed promise. In a departure from his earlier screenplays, Sreenivsan stepped away from the traditional Malayalam milieu, and built characters based on the TN-Kerala border. He also had Mammootty enact one his most successful comedic roles - his dialogues, with a sarcastic Christian tinge, were outstanding.

Udayananu Tharam (Udayan is the Star) does not hold a candle to the best works of Sreenivasan. However, the sarcasm here was directed at the bigwigs of the Malayalam film industry, and once again, that was a first. Sreenivsan took open digs at our superstars, be it at Mohanlal's business ventures, or Mammootty's penchant for dressing up in designer clothes. Most of his barbs, however, were directed at self-proclaimed superstar Dileep. This was venomous, and the audiences lapped it up. The movie is being remade in Tamil, and Hindi - how successful these remakes would be remain to be seen.


E Pradeep said...

"Pachavadi Paalam" by K G George is the ultimate political satire..You forgot that movie????

Ranjit Nair said...

@Pradeep: Ashamed to say, don't remember much of the movie at all. Probably saw it when I was in school, and never after that. One more to my queue, then!

Anonymous said...

Dont know if the script was written by Sreenivasan, but Sanmansullavarku Samadhanam is an excellent movie. Though there is not much of a story, superb acting by Mohanlal is the highlight if the movie.The other 2 names that comes into my mind are Mazhayethum Munpe and Azhakiya Ravanan.