IN DUBAI, WHILE promoting his next release, Salman Khan, asked about Malayalam movies, said that he was keen on watching Pulimurugan. Released last year, it is the biggest blockbuster in that language, the first to cross Rs 100 crore, about a man in a tribal village who has a grudge against tigers. He hunts and kills man-eaters on demand and then gets embroiled in the criminal underworld of the city where he puts the same skills to use. The absurdity of the story is heightened using the tools of filmmaking, like special effects. The movie stars Mohanlal, who in keeping with the general trend of south Indian superstars, is acting his age with more salt than pepper in his hair and becoming ever more popular, despite considerably diminished emoting. The previous biggest Malayalam blockbuster, Drishyam, had him middle-aged with a teenage daughter. It was a cleverly plotted thriller of a man outwitting the police to hide a murder by his wife. Its Hindi avatar bombed partly because any movie that requires patience on the part of the audience is a gamble. Pulimurugan, if Salman decides to remake it as is the speculation now, will be a blockbuster precisely because it is senseless and superhuman (or superhumanly senseless).
Mohanlal’s golden creative period was in the 1990s, when he assayed roles that he is still remembered by. In the new millennium, he began to dumb down and for a long while, was punished with a series of flops. In most of them, he was slick, styled and looking like a 45-year- old teenager. Giving up that image for a middle-aged deglamourised family man seemed to turn the switch on again in his fans. The movies could still have the daftness of the commercial entertainer but it was enough that he added a touch of honesty to it in his own person.
If you remember Salman’s last movie, Sultan, there is a scene in which he is before a mirror looking at the flab in his stomach, and ruminating (with great effort because he is really not the type) on the vagaries of age. Contrast that with a recent interview of Anurag Kashyap in which he recounted how, when shortlisted to direct Tere Naam, he had suggested to Salman that he grow some hair on his chest to look rural and was promptly thrown out of the project. It might be tempting to think that the wisdom of age has caught up with Salman but more probably it is a commercial insight gleaned from the superstars down south who keep their appeal going. That the Indian audience, blinkered as they are by star dust, had evolved just a little to the point that they want some fake frailty in supermen. It just makes it more entertaining for them.
But, of course, to go all the way would be suicide. There are exceptions like Aamir Khan who is thrashed by his own teenage daughter in a wrestling bout in Dangal. His paunch is a real one in the movie. Whereas while Salman looks at the mirror with great anguish, it is just a not-so-flat-stomach. Nothing worth crying over, you want to tell him.