Larger-than-life heroes | 20 years of Sphadikam

Image courtesy: Saina Videos

A hit movie is one that immerses the audience in the story and makes them root for the protagonist/hero. A movie with a larger-than-life hero at the centre of the plot needs to pander to the audience’s perception of the star and their expectation. These are the movies that are extremely difficult to make in terms of a bankable screenplay. Because the plot devices are too familiar to the audience. In other words, there are just one or two stories universally that suits the hero mythology (read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces if you can).

There have been stories about heroes and then there have been stories about superheroes. Most superheroes are vigilantes who fight crime and the decadence the society around them has downgraded into. In most cases, every superhero is pitted against an arch villain – Batman Vs Joker, Batman Vs Bane or Spiderman Vs Green Goblin, etc.

Essentially every other movie produced in India is a variation of this theme and that is exactly the reason indigenous superhero movies do not enjoy a huge fan following like in the west. We have a rich archive of mythology which has hardly been used in terms of visual storytelling. The closest we came to showing mythology on screen was Ramanand Sagar’s Mahabharat.

Marvel and DC Comics made heroes who save the day and the world from power hungry megalomaniacs who want the world to function exactly as they please. When cinema became a source of popular entertainment in India, the country was reeling under economic hardships, unemployment, license raj, corruption and the implications of taking a socialist stand towards development. Bollywood movies in the 70s came up with their version of larger-than-life. The Angry Young Man phenomenon that gave rise to India’s biggest superstar Amitabh Bachchan. The Angry Young Man is a vigilante, the destroyer of all evil, the protector of mother and sister, and the role model for brothers and sisters. It’s no surprise that he became larger than life and people readily bought into the idea.

Soon after, there has been a spate of larger-than-life heroes in Bollywood and elsewhere in India. Rajnikanth, Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh, Vijayakanth, Vijay, Vikram enjoy their superstardom because of the larger-than-life heroes they have played and the fans that we are, identify them with the characters they have played on screen! Well, let’s brush that aside by saying that that’s the magic of cinema.

Closer home, Mammotty achieved stardom through New Delhi and Mohanlal with Rajavinte Makan. Yet, no movie caught the fancy of the audience like ‘Devasuram.’ Released in 1993, this blockbuster started the trend of larger-than-life hero movies in Kerala. The movie was successful because it went way beyond hero-worshiping sidekicks, tacky mother-sister sentiments and stunts 10 meters above the ground. It followed a solid plot line. It’s not a rag to riches story as most of these stories are. You could say that this is a larger-than-life story in reverse. It is the fall from grace of a larger-than-life figure, his disillusionment when he finds out the truth about his father and complete a breakdown both physically and mentally thereafter. The story takes a natural course and follows a completely believable and gradual rise of the hero for the second time. I don’t know how IV Sasi and Ranjith did it, but it is one of the best movies in this genre. There is always some magic when you see this movie again. 🙂

I am tempted to believe that the Bhadran-Mohanlal team wanted to emulate the success of Devasuram with a template similar to Devasuram. Of course, they did lock in on a great story that every kid and father can identify with. In one line you could say that if you curtail a child’s creativity and preferences as a parent, he will be scarred for the rest of life and could even turn out to be Public Enemy No. 1!

I still remember the time this movie was being shot in Changanassery Market where the late Silk Smita and Mohanlal had a scene together (the one where they are handcuffed together with the police shouting abuses and ordering them to get into the jeep). I saw this movie on the 84th day of release and the balcony was full on the day! Had this movie been released today, it would have created a flutter on the social media channels. This movie scores high on sentiments and family drama. I could very well relate to the family dynamics and it felt closer home with rubber trees, rock quarries, the market, boat jetty and various other places in and around Changanassery as the backdrop.

The portrayal of father-son relationships is really beautiful in this movie and in the first half, Mohanlal gets more than a dozen whistles and claps. I don’t have to tell that he is one of the best actors the world have ever seen. He is a chameleon and that is an understatement. He can be this adorable rascal one minute, the anarchist the next and then the vulnerable child whose eyes well up when a childhood trauma comes back to haunt him all over again.

So why did Devasuram (1993) and Sphadikam (1995) become cult classics and gave rise to a trend of larger-than-life movies for the next few years? Because they had excellent storylines and somehow managed to add a different dimension to the hero mythology. They did provide us something to chew on after we leave the movie halls.

But why aren’t these kind of movies clicking now? Probably the only reason is that there is more employment, opportunities and prosperity in India across various strata of the society. Though we still are often angered by politicians, injustice, casteism, etc, we now have avenues to vent our frustrations. Social media channels have played a huge role in this regard. Cinema is not the only avenue where we identify with a just hero and bash up all the villains that stand in the way of employment, development and life in general!


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