Saraswathy has not watched a film in a theatre in five years, but here she is for a matinee show of the Mohanlal-starrer Pulimurugan. The grandmother has accompanied her family of seven for first row seats at New Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram on a working day. The theatre is brimming even though it has been over two weeks since Pulimurugan was released. In the same row as Saraswathy are a young couple and their six year-old daughter and a group of college bunkers. The 161-minute film, about a lorry driver and expert hunter of tigers, has been a critical flop and a resounding commercial success.
The Rs 25-crore production budget, extravagant by Malayalam cinema standards, has been more than earned back after 10,000 houseful shows over a fortnight since the October 7 release. Among the draws are the sequences using a real tiger (shot in Thailand because Indian laws restrict the use of live animals in films) and elaborate fight sequences. “Ever since I did Pokkiri Raja, which turned out to be a hit, I had wanted to make a high-budget film with Mohanlal,” said Tomichan Mulakkupadam, whose first film as a producer was Flash (2007), also starring Mohanlal. “This is the first Malayalam film with a live tiger and the success is solely because of the novelty we have brought on screen and the films quality – the colour tones and fight sequences.”
Pulimurugan, directed by Vyshakh, is a career high for 56-year-old matinee idol Mohanlal, but for some blasphemous viewers, the real hero is Peter Hein, the highest paid action director in India who keeps coming up with innovative ways to pulp criminals in film after film. The plot, about man versus beast and good versus evil, might be passé, and the dialogue might border on distasteful, and yet, collections have crossed Rs 50 crore. The satellite rights alone went for Rs seven crore.
The movie is Mohanlal’s third consecutive blockbuster after Oppam and the Telugu language Janatha Garage in 2016, and his massive base has been quick to pounce upon anybody who does not agree that Pulimurugan is a masterpiece. When Nisha Menon Chembakkassery, a resident of Thrissur, dared to criticise the movie on her Facebook page, she was massively trolled and threatened by Mohanlal devotees. Chembakkassery’s comment, “Shikar + Naran + spices… 5 gm each. Jeeps=10, Dialogues praising Murukan = sky is the limit. Goondas= 100,” was followed by close to 5,000 abusive comments. The same wrath was showered on a reporter with The Hindu when he called the film “a mammoth disappointment”. Among the angry comments was the taunt about Mohanlal’s rival, “So you are a Mammootty fan?”
Tomichan doesn’t care for the bad reviews – he can afford not to. “There are superstar films that do not fare well at the box office,” the producer pointed out. “The support of the fan associations for Pulimurugan is strong, but the film has also found a place in the hearts of the common man. To see the film rated with one star in a prominent newspaper like The Hindu irks them, and they are right in feeling that way.”
Pulimurugan was released on the same day as the Mammooty starrer Thoppil Joppan, which opened to a lukewarm response. “The clash of superstars has contributed positively to Pulimurugan, and I do not feel it was unhealthy in any way,” said Vyshakh, who has directed seven populist entertainers. “Besides, Pulimurugan isn’t an accidental hit. It is designed to fare well. It is Uday Krishna’s scriptwriting expertise, he knows the formula – what works and what doesn’t. Pulimurugan was his dream project, and he convinced us that it was worth the excitement.”
Pulimurugan is in the vein of mass entertainers featuring aging A-list actors as reckless and insouciant superheroes. Such films have stock elements – spectacular fight sequences, punchy dialogue, submissive female characters, simple and basic emotions, and comedy subplots. In Pulimurugan, Suraj Venjaramood plays a voyeur who gleefully peeps into the bathrooms and bedrooms of women. Pulimurugan is, in many ways, designed for the Malayali equivalent of the fan whowakes up at 3am to stand in a queue for an early morning special show of a Rajinikanth starrer.
Among the fans who thronged one of the 300 screens in Thiruvananthapuram on which the movie played was Harikrishnan, a 12th standard student. “I thought Pulimurugan was an entertainer, and that is what I want films to do for me,” Harikrishnan said. “This vulgarity is reality too, there are men who talk like that. All the comedy reality shows on television are equally obscene, but most families watch these shows together during their daily dinner.”
Other borrowings from Tamil and Telugu film cinema are the good luck charms Namitha and Jagapathi Babu. Namitha, who is known for her vamp roles, walks down a bridge in the forest as though it were a ramp. The background score in the scenes featuring Namitha have been nicked from the popular Tamil movie Khushi, in which a similar role was played by Mumtaj.
“Violence and vulgarity are here, put against a false morality enabling the film to reach out to our sexually repressed society,” said GB Ramachandran, a National Film Award winning critic. “It is a celebration of stock characters, much inspired from Tamil and Kannada superhits.”
The producers of Pulimurugan left nothing to chance – they ensured that it was heavily publicised and marketed. “Its high budget and fancy names did the work, and instead of just drawing the usual young crowds, the film has managed to lure the so-called lost audience – the sort of people who don’t frequent theatres and watch just one film in a year,” Ramachandran added. That and the tiger – India’s endangered animal, which has been brought to its knees by the mighty Mohanlal.