Off-screen rivalries of the Malayalam film industry are out in the open. Associations of actors and technicians, instead of trying to solve the problem amicably, are threatening to excommunicate gifted actor Thilakan, who has challenged the institution of superstardom.
Two factors have contributed to the emergence of superstars since the time of Sathyan and Prem Nazir, who ruled the hearts of movie-goers for long as mere stars. One is imitation of the ways of Tamil cinema. The other is use of fans associations by actors to boost their image.
Mammootty and Mohanlal, talented actors who have won many awards, are the two widely acknowledged superstars. There are other lead actors like Suresh Gopi, Jayaram and Dileep at the top, but they are not in the same league.
Mollywood is a male bastion where actresses have to be content with a subordinate role. There is, therefore, no female superstar.
Mammootty, who is in his mid-50s, and Mohanlal, who will be 50 this year, have invited criticism for their apparent reluctance to move from romantic leads to roles that are appropriate for their age and for demanding high remunerations that upset the producer's budget.
They are said to be in a position to dictate terms to directors by virtue of their awesome power as superstars. Thilakan has brought this aspect into focus.
Fans associations are now a big factor at the box office. Industry sources attribute the phenomenal success of Mammootty's 2005 comedy Rajamanikyam to a vociferous campaign by his fans and a periodical named Mammootty Times. Fans of some older stars have been reportedly booing in theatres when films of 27-year-old Prithviraj, the most promising actor of the new generation, are released.
Thilakan, who turned 74 last month, has said he was dropped from the cast of a movie under production at the instance of a superstar. The industry, he alleges, is in the clutches of a mafia backed by the superstars and a few persons from the Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA), comprising several trade unions, and the Association of Malayalam Movie Actors (AMMA).
This is not the first time that Thilakan has railed against superstars. In an interview two years ago he had accused the superstars of trying to keep him away from films, using every trick in the book including verbal assaults, character assassination and mental torture.
Attributing their hostility to a sense of insecurity, he said, "They will not -- and they can't -- take the slightest competition. I have outperformed them in many films, which obviously has not gone down well with them."
Tracing the hostility back to 1986, he said he had kept quiet for a long time but his patience had run out. He alleged a caste lobby had a big role in it.
Although he clubbed the superstars together in earlier statements and named another prominent actor Nedumudi Venu while talking of caste discrimination, Mammootty appears to be his sole target now. Mohanlal, who is general secretary of AMMA, has said they would not allow Mammootty to be singled out for attack.
There is nothing to indicate that caste, religion or region influences movie-goers' appreciation of the performance of actors. However, some movie makers seem to think otherwise. When the 1998 film Harikrishnans starring both the superstars was released, two different versions were made. In the version released in the north Mammootty won the girl. In the version released in the south Mohanlal won her.
Mutual jealousies are a part of artistic life the world over. However, the Thilakan-Mammootty standoff cannot be dismissed as a mere manifestation of professional rivalry.
The issue of superstardom which Thilakan has raised is one that has a direct bearing on the health of the film industry and needs to be addressed squarely.
FEFKA has already decided not to cooperate with Thilakan. AMMA has asked him to appear before its disciplinary committee on March 1 failing which action will follow. Both the organisations believe in barring non-members from work.
Vinayan, who directed several successful movies without superstars, had earned their ire earlier. Thilakan's current troubles began after he worked on a film of his. He said on Saturday he and Vinayan would produce movies with public support.
There has been a spontaneous outburst of sympathy for Thilakan, whose sterling performance in a host of movies has endeared him to film-goers. Several groups have come forward to defend his right to practise his profession. Sukumar Azhikode, who often gives voice to the sentiments of the silent majority, has also spoken up for him.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 22, 2010