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'Mike' Mohan: The unsung phenomenon

After heaping accolades upon Ilaiyaraja at the recent felicitation not only for the torrent of melodious tunes but also the speed with which he recorded the background score without compromising on quality, Rajni teased him about producing better tunes for Kamal’s films. “He complains about the same where your films are concerned,” retorted a smiling Raja before adding, “Why don’t you mention Ramarajan and ‘Mike’ Mohan?” Well Raja’s songs and background score were the exquisite garnishing, the backbone of many a film in the eighties, irrespective of the quality of the content. It was one of the factors but not the only reason for a film’s success. No single factor or person ever is. If just the songs could catapult a movie to box-office success then ‘Kadhal Oviyum’, ‘Ninaivellam Nitya and ‘Idhaya Koil’, a film Mani Ratnam wants to forget should have been blockbusters. Cinema is the coalition of creative minds. Success makes participants selfish while failure ends in a bitter blame game. It is in this context that I cannot fathom S.N. Surender still whining about Mohan not thanking him for being his long time screen voice. Sadly, that’s the only way he can get noticed. For the uninitiated, Surender is superstar Vijay’s maternal uncle who feels the industry has not given him his due and Mohan hasn’t even thanked him. It’s like Mohammed Rafi complaining that Rajendra Kumar never thanked him and Kishoreda claiming he was the reason for Rajesh Khanna’s success. In that sense, Mohan has Ilaiyaraja and SPB to thank more than Surender but fact is there was some mysterious reason Mohan endeared himself to audiences, especially women.

Rajnikanth was not the only Kannadiga to make it big in Madras. ‘Kokila’ Mohan was a phenomenon too and ruled the second rung of Tamil stars for a decade. At the peak of his career three of his starrers were released on the same Friday and all of them were hits which I don’t think any actor anywhere can claim. I first met Mohan at New Modern Hotel, Bangalore in the aftermath of ‘Nenjathai Killadhey’ when stardom had not yet struck him. He would be hanging out with his pals from theatre group ‘Benaka’ like Sunderraj, Nagabharana and TS Ranga. He was on the verge of shifting to Madras and I was too, to pursue writing. We forged a friendship because I was the only Kannada speaking friend he had. He stayed in an ordinary room in Palmgrove hotel for a few years and insisted I visit him often. I’ve spent quality time with him marvelling at the equipoise with which he handled fame and failure.

‘Kilinjalgal’ was under production and Mohan endeared himself to anyone he met with his amiable nature. The film was a big hit followed by the blockbuster ‘Payanangal Mudiyuvadhillai’. He was a star overnight with offers pouring in and news was that he posed a threat to Rajni and Kamal. Truth is that he never was. He was easily approachable, did not throw his weight around and encouraged a new crop of directors who were mostly Bharathi Rajaa’s protégés like Manivannan, Manobala and Rangarajan. Each director who worked with him wanted to sign him again. Mohan was not flamboyant, had a close clique of friends and devoid of vices. There was an innocuous quality about the characters he portrayed which appealed to women. Many made brazen overtures and you could not blame him for not resisting some. He worked tirelessly which most producers took advantage of. The money was not great and there were very few producers who paid what they promised. Versatility was not his forte but he never shied away from playing characters with negative shades. He needed a strong director and his performance in ‘Mouna Raagam’ proved that. He was excited after we watched the preview and the film was a runaway hit. The cream of directors like Mahendran, Balu Mahendra, Bapu and Mani cast him unhesitatingly. He did turn down ‘Anjali’ because he thought his fans would not accept him as the father of two kids and Mani was hurt. Directors egos are as fragile as a star’s. I remember K. Balachander was keen on remaking ‘Maro Charitra’ in Tamil, but Kamal found the exercise pointless since half the film was in Tamil and was a super success in Madras. A livid KB approached Mohan to reprise the role, but he had shaved his pate for another film and the director had cooled down before Mohan’s mane grew. Balu Mahendra too made a mess of ‘Kokila’ in Malayalam with YG Mahendran when Kamal refused. Anyway, Mohan was the busiest Tamil actor in the eighties with eight releases in 1983 and 20 in ’84. There was not a single actress who did not want to work with him because they saw him as caring, charming and harmless. In fact, their mothers who would chaperone them would egg them on to court him and propose marriage.

Times were different. Mohan’s proud possession was an air conditioned white Fiat with tinted glass. He did not have a driver. When he shifted to a relative’s house after a few years, Arjun Sarja insisted on staying in the same room that Mohan occupied at Palmgrove for luck. Fans would wait for him to emerge in the morning and he would oblige with a smile, a kind word and an autograph. Outdoors meant Ooty or Kodaikanal. He would not turn down a relative or friend in need and showered the family he lived with love and laughter. I would accompany him to shoots and song recordings but never once did we drop in on a dubbing studio where Surender was recording. Surender should be thankful because he’s dubbed for most other heroes of that era but is known as Mohan’s voice. It’s his sole calling card to fame. I found his voice squeaky and lacking modulation, but it’s only because Mohan’s films were successful that he was constantly employed. It’s just that producers are sentimental and resist change when the going is good. Let me assure you Mohan’s Tamil was better than Rajni’s. The success or failure of a film or a star is best left undissected.

For Mohan the fall was as swift as the rise was meteoric. Offers just dried up overnight. As always various reasons were bandied like a rumour that he was suffering from AIDS. Apparently, a co-star whose marriage proposal he declined, spread the rumour out of spite. Some blamed it on the ‘Vasthu’ of his newly built bungalow while others felt his success was too good to last. Directors he’d helped during their fledgling days deserted him. Mohan accepted it gracefully, withdrawing into a shell and limiting his public appearances. He did not have one bitter word for anybody. The one question a star out of work dreads is, ‘Which is your next film?’ His dazzling screen innings is still fondly remembered by fans who were flabbergasted by his sudden failure. Any tome on Tamil cinema will be incomplete without an exhaustive chapter about ‘Mike’ Mohan. There may only be a passing mention about Surender.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 9:33:04 PM |

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