Amitabh Bachchan in Don and Mohanlal in Chithram: Two Superstars, Two seminal Films, Two Iconic roles

Amitabh Bachchan’s Don and Mohanlal’s Chithram, 2 Iconic films of  the 2 most beloved superstars as well as the greatest actors of the country celebrate their 40th and 30th anniversary respectively this year. Here is a look back

Amitabh Bachchan and Mohanlal made their debut in movies almost a decade apart. Bachchan in 1969 with K.A. Abbass’ Saat Hindustani and Lal with Manjil virinja pookkal in 1980. Bachchan’s was a supporting part while Lal was the villain- Not an auspicious beginning for aspiring movie stars. Neither of them were what could be considered conventionally good looking. Both of them would start out in the shadow of the reigning superstars of the industry and wouldn’t be considered as contenders for the top slot  by any stretch of imagination. But, Within a decade of making their debut , they would attain preeminence in their respective film industries. It would be a slow climb for both as they go through a similar iteration of villainous parts, supporting parts, second hero roles, Hero roles and star hero roles that would cement their position as not just the doyens of their industry, but the kind of star heroes who have never graced the screen before and would most probably never grace the screen again , both in terms of  causing a significant shift in the nature of heroism portrayed as well as change in cinematic zeitgeist.

Up until the emergence of Bachchan, the Hindi film hero was predominantly  the romantic hero. There would be darker  shades too, but  his main image will be that of the squeaky clean morally upright character in love stories or socials. Bachchan’s star making roles in Zanjeer and Deewaar would be a big change in showing the hero as a morally ambiguous angry young man who has no scruples in killing or indulging in what could be perceived as immoral acts so that justice would prevail. His image will change again by the end of 70’s when he will become a kind of all rounder , a one-man variety entertainment all to himself ,who was competent enough to portray every emotion that an actor is capable of.

1978 can be called a dream year for Bachchan. All his films, about half a dozen of them, released that year became super hits, an extraordinary achievement. Not only that, his films like Dewaar and Sholay which had been released as early as 1975 were still running in several parts of the country. In short 1978 is the year that made Bachchan the unassailable Megastar. Don was not his biggest film that year. There was Muqaddar ka sikandar, Trishul and so on that were far more successful and in many ways greater films, but Don represents the epitome of Bachchan as a versatile and widely appealing screen performer. If one has to show a film of Bachchan’s to explain his pan Indian appeal and his lengthy stint as an all conquering megastar, then this is the perfect example

Don has Amitabh in dual roles. the first is that of the cool sophisticated international smuggler named Don. The second character is that of Vijay, a rustic immigrant to the big city from the shores of Ganges – ganga kinare wala chora – as the famous song from the film testifies. The main plot of the film deals with Vijay being hired by the cops to impersonate his lookalike Don – who is dead – for breaking his criminal empire.  This mixing of western cool and the salt-of-the-Indian-soil earthiness would become not only the USP of the film, but also of the Bachchan  persona.

The film is also a very interesting meta exercise and can be considered  self referential on many different levels- on the nature of filmmaking as well was with the real self of Bachchan. Amitabh himself is a guy from the shores of Ganges, (he is  from Allahabad), Bachchan’s real life persona is closer to that of the cool, discreet , sophisticated Don than the more extroverted, rustic vijay, Which presents an interesting contrast in the screen characters. The film would  be copied across time and languages , with different actors playing the title character, but never with the same success, underlying the importance of Bachchan’s presence\performance in the success of the film

Mohanlal had a slow and steady climb to the top . From 1980 to 1986, he stayed under the shadows of  all the reigning stars, first it was Prem Nazeer, then the more macho guys like Sukumaran , soman , Ratheesh etc and finally under Mammootty, who by 1984 thereabouts became the top  star of the industry. Mohanlal by then had graduated to the level of parallel hero. He did almost 50 odd films with Mammootty at the time in an array of wide ranging films , but always in a subservient capacity to Mammootty

This would change drastically by the end of 1986. Lal who had till then shown very limited glimpses of his promise as an actor , suddenly burst out as a multifaceted talent showing a yen for mixing comedy , romance , pathos and action effortlessly in new brand of cinema made by a completely new generation of filmmakers. The new form of hero will be a middle-class character,  devoid of any super hero qualities, struggling to get through his life in films where his travails are treated in a humorous fashion . Actor\screenwriter Sreenivasan, who in collaboration with directors like Sathyan Anthikkad will be the chief  architect of these films. His success was so extraordinary  that for a moment there he completely eclipsed Mammootty – very similar to what Bachchan had done to then reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna – who at that period around 1987  appeared to be on his way out of the industry. It speaks volumes of Mammootty’s tenacity and talents as an actor  that he could make a comeback from that position enough to be counted as a star and actor in the same breath as Lal , even though Lal would  be the best actor and biggest star of  the industry from that point on.

Mohanlal-priyadarshan combo is like the Bachchan- Manmohan Desai combo of hindi films. except that Priyan’s films were not masala films. With the exception  of  a few, they were mainly in the romantic musical comedy genre , but with plots that are so  illogical and unreal that would have made  Desai proud. Chithram is the zenith of the Lal -Priyan combo, both for how effectively entertaining the film turned out in relation to the dubious illogical story line of the film, Priyan’s skill as a filmmaker to use the tools of our mainstream cinema to gloss over the flaws in the story and presenting an engaging narrative  and Lal’s multifaceted skills as a screen performer to pull off scenes that vary from extreme comedy to extreme pathos in a character, which if performed by any other actor would have been easily laughed off the screen

Like Don, this film is again about recruiting a person to act out a different character. Vishnu, Lal’s character, first appear in the film as a vagrant and an unscrupulous thief, Vishnu, it seems is in dire need of 10000 Rupees, and is willing to do anything to get it quickly. He is convinced by Kaimal, played by Nedumudi venu to act as the husband – for a daily salary – of Kalyani (played by Renjini). Renjini was ditched at the altar by her boyfriend, now she needs to pass off somebody as her husband in front of her father who is come visiting from America for a couple of weeks. Vishnu would be paid a daily wage of 1000 Rupees for 10 days .

Kalyani and Vishnu hate each other in the beginning , but would come to fall in love as the story progresses, but in  a final act twist, it is revealed that Vishnu is a convict , condemned to be hanged for his wife’s death. He had escaped from prison so that he can get the money required to conduct his child’s operation. The film ends in tragedy , with Lal being taken away by his jailor to be hanged with the love story between Vishnu and kalyani remaining unrequited

Pretty much like Don, this too is  sort of a meta movie. As the title Chithram , which means picture,  is an ode to motion pictures itself and the story being something that can take place only in movies. The genius of the film is that irrespective of its wildly changing tone – the film starting out as a hilarious comedy ending in tear jerking tragedy – to the glaring inconsistencies in the characterization of the protagonist Vishnu , the audience never pauses to ponder about these questions during the film. By judiciously mixing  comedy , great music  and an assortment of great supporting casting in colorful roles, Priyan creates a narrative whose pace never flags. But the real star of the show is undoubtedly Mohanlal, without  whom this film is impossible to imagine as he pulls of scenes of high comedy as seen in the above clips, or the more emotional ones as seen below , not to mention his performances in the song sequences, in his trademark subtle naturalistic style. The film has him in peak form as a screen actor\performer. Chitram  turned out be the biggest hit up until that time in Malayalam cinema, with the film running for almost 366 days in a single theater and spawning several imitations but no equals

Post Don and Chitram, the careers of both superstars will  go on to greater heights , while the quality of their output will  remain in flux. Bachchan, after a lengthy stint as a leading star hero, now  a septuagenarian , has successfully reinvented himself as a character actor who is still going strong when he is about to complete 50 years in the industry.

Mohanlal  remains the numero uno star of Malayalam cinema , and as prolific as ever. Doing almost 4 or 5 films every year , even at this age of 58, still setting records at the box office, even though the quality of his output as an actor has diminished considerably. But these 2 films that celebrates their 40th and 30th anniversaries respectively will forever remain as a signpost to the towering legacy of these two great superstar actors.


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