Devasuram and Manichitrathazhu, two of the most popular and iconic films in Malayalam film history were both released in the year 1993. In the years succeeding their release, they have achieved mythic status in pop culture and solidified forever Mohanlal’s reputation of being one of of the greatest and most versatile star actors in the country .
So the myth goes that, in the search of the Holy nectar, Gods and Demons were engaged in the churning of the sea. Both of them were prompted by the desire to get nectar and be immortal. But as it happens, if you churn things, you will get both good and bad products. This is what happened with this Palazhi madhanam too. A vicious poison named Halahala emerged. It seemed fatal enough to destroy the universe.. . Lord Shiva decided to gulp the poison to protect the universe from destruction. He took the poison to his mouth and poured it in. Goddess Parvathi, his wife, seeing this held his neck so tightly that the poison never went down to his stomach. It got stuck in his neck turning it blue, thus earning the lord the sobriquet of Neelakandan.
Neelakandan or rather Mangalasseri Neelakandan is also the name of the protagonist played by Mohanlal in Devasuram . It’s a modern version of Lord siva. As the title of the film signifies, it encapsulates both the Deva(benefactor) and Asura(destroyer) aspect of Siva. The film proved to be a major change for Mohanlal , who was till then playing more real life characters, more boy next door type . Not that he hasn’t played larger than life roles before. Just a year before he had played Lord Siva equivalent in Rajashilpi, a very underrated film by R. Sukumaran. His siva tandavam from that film is very famous
But that was more an art film which didn’t get much love from the audience. Devasuram was a full blown masala film with a mythical narrative arc that was something new in Mohanlal’s career .A real life character named Mulasseri Raju was also an inspiration for writer Renjith in molding the character of Neelakandan. So there is both Mythical and real life dimensions to the character that Mohanlal brings out brilliantly.
Neelakandan, in the film, is an arrogant, racist, sexist ,feudal lord who, through the course of the film, has a character transformation due to the influence of Bhanumathi , the classical dancer . The film’s 3 acts deal with the zenith, the fall and resurgence of Neelakandan. He loses his wealth, power and his own physical self, the poison he is forced to drink as a result of his bad karma – of feudal excesses, tribal rivalries, misogynistic insults- that’s until Bhanumathi, played by Revathi, take hold of him and nurses him back to life. His feudal rival, Mundakkal Shekharan, who destroys him physically and leaves him handicapped for life, is the physical representation of the demon residing in him that is continuously eating away his soul. But Bhanumathi, Like parvathy in the myth , intervenes to stop the demonic poison from spreading into his soul and spirit and destroying him completely. She slays the demon inside him through a mixture of her art and affection, which subsequently brings out the god inside Neelakandan, enabling him to slay his rival Shekharan in an mythic climax that takes place in a temple. The act of cutting of Shekharan’s hands at the end is symbolic of cutting out the demon residing inside him.
If the inspiration for the protagonist in Devasuram was Lord Siva, then Mohanlal’s character Dr. Sunny Joseph in Manichitrathazhu seems to be modeled after Lord Krishna and the film plays out as a modern version of Poothana moksham. In that mythical tale, Poothana , the demoness takes the form of a beautiful women and comes to kill the baby Lord Krishna by breastfeeding him. Krishna ,in turn sucks the poison out of her breasts and kills the women and sets the demoness free, thus providing her Moksha. The story formed the basis of one of the most famous Kathakali performances and in an ironic twist Mohanal himself would play poothana as part of his national award winning film Vanaprastham.
The film, on the surface, feels like a psychological thriller but at its core, it’s almost a masala film, where the basic theme is again about God slaying the demon in a apocalyptic climax. Unlike in Devasuram , where the the male protagonist possesses a dual personality, here it’s the female protagonist who possesses one: Ganga , played by Shobhana (in a national award winning performance), who comes from Kolkata with her husband Nakulan to his ancestral house Madampally (in Kerala), appears to be a regular modern Malayali women. But events reveal that there is more to her than meets the eye. Madampally has been surrounded with rumors: of ghostly spirits and witchcraft. Legend is that once upon a time, Nagavalli, a Tamil danseuse was ruthlessly murdered by the feudal lord of the house in an act of crime of passion and her spirit wanders around the premises seeking revenge. Her spirit was finally captured through witchcraft and forever put away to the southern part of the house- referred to as thekkini. Ganga opens the Manichitrathazhu -ornate lock – that had locked out thekkini . Once it is unlocked, She begins to transform into Nagavalli from the inside as if she has been possessed by her spirit, and she starts terrorizing the members of the house.
Dr Sunny, a famous psychiatrist from America is summoned by his good friend Nakulan to remedy the situation. But unlike in the myth, before Dr Sunny’s ‘Krishna’ can slay the demoness, he has to first identify who poothana is in the midst of several members of the Madampalli family. Ganga who, in her Nagavalli avatar, is haunting the place has successfully managed to keep her identity secret.. Like Krishna, Sunny adopts the most unconventional and even questionable ways for achieving his goals. He lies, distorts, misrepresents, frolics, and seduces his way through the maze of the ancestral family until he zeroes in on Ganga as the demoness stalking the family. But in his typical style, he uses Sreedevi, Nakulan’s cousin, as the decoy to divert attention away from Ganga till he can find a solution for her affliction. In the end, he uses a mixture of modern science and the traditional tantric practices to cast the ‘demon’ out of Ganga forever. It’s not just Ganga he provides with eternal salvation, but also Sreedevi. Sreedevi is considered a cursed spirit and damaged goods within the family , since she has been abandoned by her husband due to astrological reasons. Sunny’s promise to marry her at the end in a way is akin to lifting her ‘curse’ as well
It would take one hell of an actor to pull of these 2 diverse roles within a calendar year and Mohanlal, in the year 1993, was exactly that actor. He was at the height of his powers at the time and effortlessly pulled off both the ferocious masculinity of Neelakandan as well as the effete intellectualism & tact of Dr. Sunny. Both these films\Performances came practically at the end of the golden period of Malayalam mainstream commercial cinema, which extended approximately from 1986 to 1995. These 2 films, released for the festival seasons of Vishu and Christmas respectively, was perhaps the final bolt of artistic lightning as Malayalam cinema would soon fall into a period of darkness where ambitious mainstream cinema would disappear , in turn replaced by cheap imitations of old or other language films. Mohanlal had about half a dozen releases that year , but these 2 are the ones that became crown jewels in his career.
Both the films share a lot of similarities as well as some contrasts. Both deals with events taking place around an upper caste ancestral House, in Devasuram its Mangalasseri, in Manichitrathazhu, its Madampally. Both deals with dual personas residing inside the lead protagonists. In Devasuram it’s a male and the duality is on an emotional level. In Manichitrathazhu, its the female and the duality is psychological. Both films deal with the conflict between modern and traditional, The feudal power structure immersed in superstition, patriarchy and caste supremacy being questioned or refined by a new force rooted in art and science. Both films had very strong female characters who in some way is out to question and refine the male dominance prevalent in the Kerala society. The films offered the best of characters for both Revathi and Shobhana . Showcasing not just their acting prowess , but also their skills at classical dancing.
Both can also be looked on as some kind of spiritual time travel films. The characters makes journey from past to present and vice versa. Neelakandan is a man living in the past: The feudal Kerala of class and caste hierarchies; Where a man’s worth is valued based on his bloodline and the family he is born into; where women are nothing more than instruments of pleasure; Where he has a group of vassals who is there to serve him and execute his every command; Where every conflict is resolved through violence. His insulting of Bhanumathi and her standing up to his bullying becomes the catalyst for his change. Neelakandan being stripped of his illustrious bloodline followed by the defeat and handicapping at the hands of his arch rival Shekharan in a violent skirmish is akin to his death- The death of both his proud , egotistical persona as well as the old world he inhabited. From then on, film deals with his torturous journey from past to the present. Its practically a rebirth that happens to him, as he learns new life lessons while recuperating from his lifeless state. He slowly transforms into the modern man who learns to value the worth of women and the pointlessness of violent conflicts. Its only when he is provoked at the end, when his women’s life is in danger, that he is forced to resort to violence again.
Ganga, on the other hand, is today’s woman. She is well educated and brought up in a modern metropolis like Calcutta. she appears to be happily married to her Engineer husband. She is the last person one would suspect to be swayed by superstitions and ghost stories. But She in a way symbolizes the modern Malayali women (and men), who on the surface appears to be reformists and progressive, but underneath are still wedded to the patriarchal, feudal past. In a way, She is opening the locks to a part of her own psyche that has remained hidden from herself. The act of entering the forbidden Thekkini has the same effect as getting into a time machine and traveling back in time to a Kerala mired in feudalism, casteism and superstition- The Kerala that Swami Vivekananda referred to as a lunatic asylum in the 1890’s . It’s interesting to note that when we first encounter Sunny, he is dressed in saffron robes and turban , almost a spitting image of Vivekananda. Sunny surveying Madampally, now no less a lunatic asylum with a psychotic women running amok, is no different than Vivekananda surveying the Kerala of the 1890’s. The fact that Sunny is a Christian, and a man of science trying to ‘reform’ an orthodox upper class Hindu household and his joining hands with a traditional tantric , Pullatupuram Brahmadattan Namboothirippad (played by Tilakan), could be a nod to the work of Christian missionaries, rationalists, and reformist giants from the Hindu community itself, coming together to reform the Kerala society and transform it into one of the most progressive societies in the country
Technically, Devasuram is a more classical film. It is evenly paced, Mohanlal’s acting style also complement the classical nature of the film: he takes a beat or two longer ,to say his dialogues and in his movements. Once Neelakandan becomes immobile, the pace of the film also slows down. The climactic battle between Neelakandan and Shekharan is one of the greatest masala moments in movie history- where mass and masala mix together seamlessly. Both Mohanlal, the actor and Neelakandan, the character earns the audience applause through their brilliant work up to that point.
In contrast Manichitrathazhu is more fast paced and more darker film. The screenplay is very economical , edgier, and very daring. Take the placement of the song Pazham thamizh pattizhayum, it just comes out of nowhere , but it works superbly in the context of the film. But the climax is as thrillingly as Devasuram, except Dr. Sunny is fighting with his intellect rather than his physique . Mohanlal’s performance is again keeping in with the daring nature of the film’s narrative. He pretty much skates on the edge of being real and over the top . It’s a genius performance where one feels he is going to fall over anytime, but he holds it back just enough for it to work brilliantly. He starts out behaving more as a lunatic than a psychiatrist, but we soon realize that, he is cooking up a theatrical performance to nail the psycho in the house; a very surreal performance to match the surreal nature of the film.
Speaking of songs, both films are also true musicals, were music forms an integral part of the narrative, both in plot & character development as well as setting the mood of the film. M.G.Radhakrishnan scored both films and each boasts of some of the all time popular songs
Both these films also marked the last milestone in the careers of its directors- I.V.Sasi and Fazil. Both were the superstar directors of 80’s who would fall by the way side in the 90’s . Sasi never made a good film after Devasuram and fell from grace pretty soon. Fazil continued producing and directing movies in the 90’s , but without the earlier success. Almost 10 years later, he would try to duplicate Manichitrathazhu with another Mohanlal starrer Vismayathumbathu, An atrocious film that is remembered only for being one of the debut vehicles of actress Nayanthara.
As for Mohanlal, the success of both films turned out to be a boon and bane, boon because he was able to explore and showcase a new facet of his talent. But he was forced to do umpteen iterations of these 2 characters in far inferior movies. Devasuram inspired a plethora of movies termed “Thampuran films”, like Aaram thampuran, narasimham, thaandavam etc., and with each one , the quality kept coming down. The writer, Renjith would go on to direct Raavanaprabhu, which he calls a sequel to Devasuram , but it is nothing more than an attempt to class up a very crass commercial film which had neither the depth or the subtext of the original. One can see the influence of these 2 films in MohanLal’s latest release Odiyan, where again he plays as a version of God-demon, and where it’s left to the audience to judge whether he is actually practicing a traditional skill or someone blessed with superpowers. His upcoming release Lucifer also looks like another version of the same character. But the constant imitation of these films have in no way lessened their impact and they still retains their freshness and greatness even after two and half decades.
P.S.: A link to my piece on Baradwaj Rangan’s blog