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It just happens to Lal ettan!

A tete-a-tete up with Mohanlal on the set of his Kannada film.

MOHANLAL strides out of his room at The Club, Mysore Road, onto the sets of Kannada film director Rajendra Singh Babu's, `Love'. Whiskers obscure his chubby face, and he wears a black suit, red shirt, and black turban. Is he playing a Sikh in the film? "No, this is a disguise," he says, adding with a gentle laugh, "For love, you sometimes have to disguise yourself."

In the film, Lal plays a Malayali taxi-driver in Dubai who brings two lovers together. In the scene about to be shot, he takes on another identity in order to rescue the heroine.

He is wearing disguise upon disguise, really, for his screen persona is itself a camouflage. Life `just happens' to Mohan Lal. Speak to him long enough and you're bound to hear the refrain: "It just happened." He takes on assignments `because of friendship' rather than as a challenge. His role in Love came his way because the director approached him. Ramgopal Varma sought him out for a brief but compelling part in Company. He didn't plan to act in a Hindi or a Kannada film. "It just happened."

Similarly, when he went to Delhi to collect a National Award, he visited the National School of Drama, and its director, Ramgopal Bajaj, asked him if he would act in an English-language play. He confessed that he had absolutely no experience in theatre. "From English, it became Malayalam, and then Sanskrit! It just came to be."

When Kavalam Narayana Panicker offered to direct him if he would enact Bhasa's `Karnabharam', he could not refuse, although he knew no Sanskrit. Getting such an opportunity was "a blessing for an actor", although it was also "like a trapeze without the net" since he had to memorise pages of Sanskrit verse and hold his own on stage.

There's more on the "it just happened" front. As part of Malayala Manorama's ongoing `Ente Malayalam' project for preserving Kerala's language and culture, film director T. K. Rajeev Kumar conceived `Kathayattam', a travelogue, and thought of none better than Mohan Lal to enact it. The stage, he has come to realise, requires sustained involvement. "For two hours, you become that character." The role remains with you when you go off-stage, in a way that it never does in cinema. "The instant I get off the set, I'm back to normal." Such is the nature of the medium, he explains. Emotions are fleeting and disconnected, and scenes are shot in random order.

A film shoot is a series of interruptions. He vanishes intermittently and then reappears to complete his reply. Steeped in cinema, when is he truly himself? With family or friends, perhaps? "With friends," he says without hesitation. "I have a closer relationship with the technicians, with my driver, than my family. I don't feel suddenly homesick or say, `Oh, I want to see my children now'." He remains detached from personal bonds and focussed on work. "If I miss my family so much, I should quit cinema."

Why does every male Malayalam actor, lean when he enters cinema, swell up in no time like a pappadam in hot oil? He seriously ponders all possible reasons: irregular eating habits due to hectic schedules, "something in our genes, being Indian", one's constitution ("If I drink a glass of water, I put on weight"), fans being "ready to accept us although we put on weight", and the absence of a health club culture. He finally stops sounding apologetic and declaims, "The Indian concept of beauty is flesh!" Er — that's only for women, isn't it?

A man walks into the room to give Lal his lines in Hindi for the next shot. He copies them out, transliterating in Malayalam. The first of the seven sentences reads: "Mujhe paanch biwi hain... " He reads out the dialogue twice and comments: "This is unusual." The lines being in Hindi? No, the situation — his having five wives! He is answering my next question when he is interrupted yet again. He gets up, checks his beard in the mirror, and as he reaches the doorway he says aloud: "Mujhe paanch biwi hain... "

When he returns, I ask if he has contemplated the end of his career. "It's very strange," he muses, "but no planning has been done." Once again, he explains how "things happen" to him. He was just helping out friends who wanted to export Kerala cuisine, and he got so involved in the venture that there is now a restaurant in Dubai which bears his name: Mohan Lal's Tastebuds.

One comes away with the feeling that if, one day, Lal loses all he has, he will simply open a paan shop and manage to survive. With sanity intact. As Mohan Lal, Everyman.


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