As Shaji Kailas’ Mohanlal starrer Alone hits theatres, a look at the duo’s illustrious journey over the years

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January 26 is a special day for both director Shaji Kailas and Malayalam superstar Mohanlal. It was on January 26, 23 years ago, that their Narasimham hit screens in Kerala.

After smashing numerous box office records, Narasimham went on to become one of the most successful movies in both their individual careers and Malayalam cinema history. Even today, the movie has a unique place in Kerala’s pop culture.

Now, after a gap of over 13 years, the duo is back with yet another film – Alone which releases in theatres on January 26.

The film Alone marks Shaji Kailas and Mohanlal’s eighth collaboration. A partnership that began with the 1997 action drama Aaraam Thampuran, the 2009 crime thriller Red Chillies was their last work together.

Arguably one of the most successful director-actor duos in Malayalam cinema, most of their movies did extremely well at the box office.

Aaraam Thampuran (1997)

After collaborating on hits like Devaasuram, Orkkappurathu, and Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal, screenwriter Ranjith had already become Mohanlal’s lucky charm by 1997. Despite the fact that their fourth film together, Maya Mayooram (directed by Sibi Malayil), did poorly at the box office, Ranjith was at the time one of Malayalam film industry’s most sought-after writers; thus Mohanlal’s decision to work with him again must have been simple.

The director whom the team found this time was Shaji Kailas. Known for his action blockbusters like Thalasthanam, Mafia, Rudraksham, Mahathma, Commissioner, and Ekalavyan—which helped actor Suresh Gopi become a superstar—Kailas previously collaborated with Ranjith on two occasions, in the films Rudraksham and Asuravamsam.

Aaraam Thampuran follows the journey of Jagannadhan, Mumbai-based business tycoon Nandakumar’s right-hand man. After Jagan assists him in securing a sizable business agreement, Nandakumar enquires as to what he expects in return. Jagan requests that Nandakumar purchase a royal manor in the Kerala village of Kanimangalam so that he could temporarily reside there. Even though Nandakumar is perplexed by Jagan’s strange demand, he agrees to it, and Jagan departs for Kerala.

But at Kanimangalam, Jagan gets caught in the midst of a power struggle between two groups: one comprising commoners, and the other, a feudal family headed by the notorious overlord Kulappully Appan. The villagers start calling Jagan “Aaraam Thampuran” (The Sixth Ruler) because of the way he uses his unwavering willpower and tenacity to support them as they oppose Appan and fight for what is rightfully theirs.

Released on 25 December, 1997, Aaraam Thampuran, produced by G Suresh Kumar, went on to become the highest-grossing Malayalam film of 1997. Ranjith’s protracted explosive dialogues, particularly the one where Jagan narrates how he evicted all those living in a street in Mumbai’s Dharavi, garnered an iconic status over the years, with fans quoting them even today.

Manju Warrier’s portrayal of the character Unnimaya is widely recognised as one of her best roles to date. She received her second consecutive Filmfare Award for Best Actress – Malayalam for her performance in this film.

The performances by all major actors in the film, including Narendra Prasad, who played the antagonist Kulappully Appan, Sai Kumar, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Srividya, Cochin Haneefa, Sankaradi and Kuthiravattam Pappu, also received appreciation from all quarters.

Major parts of the film were shot at Varikkasseri Mana, one of the oldest traditional aristocratic Namboothiri family houses in Kerala, which also served as the main location for Devaasuram.

The songs composed by Raveendran and penned by lyricist Gireesh Puthenchery were instant chartbusters, especially “Harimuraleeravam”, which gained a lot of popularity and became one of the most iconic songs sung by playback singer K J Yesudas.

Shaji Kailas, in a recent interview with Manorama Online, revealed that filmmaker Priyadarshan directed a few shots of the song “Harimuraleeravam”, while Kailas was away from the sets as his wife had just given birth to their baby.

The film won two Kerala State Film Awards—Best Background Music for Rajamani and Best Singer for Yesudas.

Aaram Thampuran, however, has drawn a lot of criticism over the years due to its glorification of Brahmin pride, savarna symbols, and hypermasculinity.

Narasimham (2000)

Three years later, Shaji Kailas, Mohanlal, and Ranjith teamed up once more to create a new movie.

“I went to see K S Ravikumar’s Rajinikanth-starrer Padayappa while Ranjith was penning the script for Narasimham. Families occupied the whole theatre. However, the entire cinema hall echoed with cheers every time Rajinikanth even moved. My first reaction was, ‘Shouldn’t we make a movie like this?’ Not exactly the same, but I thought we should do a Malayalam film with a similar attitude. I requested Ranjith to infuse our new script with the same enthusiasm. Padayappa had a significant influence on me when I was making Narasimham,” Kailas stated in one of his interviews with the radio station Club FM.

Narasimham narrates the story of Poovalli Induchoodan, an ex-convict who is out of prison after serving six years for alleged murder. Son of an idealistic and strict father, High Court Justice Maranchery Karunakara Menon, Induchoodan aspired to become an IAS officer. But he becomes a pawn in a game plotted by his father’s rivals. Seeking revenge against Karunakara Menon for ruling against one of their men in an earlier case, his enemies falsely accuse Induchoodan of murdering his classmate. As Menon’s rivals fabricated all evidence with utmost attention, the court awards a jail term to Induchoodan.

Once out of prison, Induchoodan becomes the locals’ go-to person for all their woes. He also starts wearing down his opponents one by one.

Narasimham, the first production of Antony Perumbavoor’s Aashirvad Cinemas, ran in several theatres for over 200 days. According to various news reports, the film was made on a budget of about Rs 2 crore and reportedly collected more than Rs 22 crore back then, making it the highest-grossing film in Malayalam cinema at that time.

From Mohanlal’s iconic dialogue “Po mone Dinesha” and the way he kept his moustache twirled all the time to the type of mundu he wore in the film, everything associated with Narasimham became a trendsetter.

Despite using a tired plot, the audience enjoyed Mohanlal’s portrayal of the hypermasculine Induchoodan. Narasimham still enjoys a cult following in the state.

Superstar Mammootty also made a cameo appearance in the film.

The soundtrack of the film, composed by M G Radhakrishnan, was a huge hit, with the song “Pazhanimala” still enjoying a mass following.

Narasimham too received a lot of flak for celebrating toxic masculinity, misogyny, and upper-caste heroes.

Thandavam (2002)

Following the release of Narasimham, Malayalam filmmakers began to think that all the audience needed was a mundu-clad Mohanlal delivering punchy dialogues. Therefore, a number of Mohanlal movies from this time period, including Ranjith’s Raavanaprabhu, Joshiy’s Praja, Thampi Kannanthanam’s Onnaman, K Madhu’s Chathurangam, and Thulasidas’ Mr Brahmachari, shared more or less the same themes.

Thandavam was no exception. Written by S Suresh Babu, Thandavam arrived with a huge baggage of expectations, as it marked yet another collaboration between Shaji Kailas and Mohanlal.

Mohanlal’s character Kasinathan is the younger brother of Swaminathan, played by Nedumudi Venu, who is the leader of the Midhilapuri village and the heir to the Valiyamangalam Malika. In Midhilapuri, a picturesque region where farming provides the majority of the population’s income, Swaminathan always has the last word. Unlike his brother, Kasinathan is a businessman; yet he is equally beloved by the locals and a devoted sibling to Swaminathan and his family.

However, things change when Swaminathan is killed by unidentified assailants, forcing Kasinathan to assume leadership of Midhilapuri. The remainder of the movie concentrates on Kasinathan’s attempts to exact revenge for his brother’s murder.

Though Thandavam had one of the largest openings at the box office, it was unable to sustain its success and ended up being a box-office bomb. This was primarily caused by the lack of a compelling script or story, among other things. The plot of Thandavam was eerily identical to nearly every Tamil revenge drama from the 1980s and 1990s.

The audience decided against the movie in part because of the shoddy double-meaning dialogues and the shameless objectification of women simply to make Kasinathan look like a “hunk”. The unnecessary (and overuse of) Dutch angle shots too did more harm to the film than expected. Not an exaggeration, but every second shot in Thandavam is a canted angle one.

Natturajavu (2004)

After Thandavam’s unexpected failure, Shaji Kailas and Mohanlal reunited two years later, but this time with T A Shahid, the scriptwriter of Mohanlal’s blockbuster hit film Balettan from the year before.

In contrast to their past works that relied on Hindu upper-caste heroes born to ‘righteous’ fathers, Natturajavu centres on the story of a guy who is fighting to pay the price, literally and figuratively, for his harsh and cold-blooded late father’s wrongdoings.

There were many parallels between Mohanlal’s Pulikkattil Charlie in this movie and his character Aadu Thoma from Spadikam, including the hypermasculine elements.

Charlie in Natturajavu is a revered people’s “leader” who is battling to maintain his family’s base while assisting everyone who formerly suffered the wrath of his father, Pulikkattil Mathachan, a merciless landlord, serial rapist, murderer, and whatnot.

The fourth production venture of Aashirvad Cinemas, Natturajavu released during the Onam season that year and had a solid opening weekend. Not only was Natturajavu a box-office success, but it emerged as one of the highest-grossing Malayalam films of the year. The movie was one of the only two hits—the other being Mampazhakkalam—Mohanlal had in 2004, though he did a total of five films.

Natturajavu was also one of the earliest works of actor Nayanthara, who later went on to become a South Indian superstar.

Baba Kalyani (2006)

Riding on the back of Natturajavu’s success, Shaji Kailas and Mohanlal decided to team up for the fifth time in 2006. It was S N Swami, one of the most noted mystery-thriller screenwriters in Malayalam cinema, that the makers got on board for Baba Kalyani.

The movie tells the story of an Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) officer. Based on a tip-off, Kalyani and his crew conduct a search at a small lodge, where they discover some strange items that they believe were used to make explosives. Kalyani and the group travel to Kochi in an effort to follow it up. They discover during the investigation that the individuals who manufactured the explosives are also distributing counterfeit currencies in the state and plotting “something major”. The film then narrates the pursuit of the suspects.

In contrast to their earlier films, Mohanlal played an ATS officer/cop in this film. This was the first time Kailas did a cop movie with Mohanlal, though the director rose to fame by making such films, particularly with actor Suresh Gopi.

Baba Kalyani, which was released on December 15, 2006, was one of the highest-grossing Malayalam films of the year, despite not performing as well as Shaji Kailas and Mohanlal’s other movies.

Alibhai (2007)

One of the most anticipated films in Mohanlal and Shaji Kailas’ respective careers, Alibhai started making headlines as soon as its first-look photos were out. Almost all Malayalam film magazines of that period published at least one article or photograph of Alibhai every week.

After writing the scripts for several successful movies, including Maampazhakkaalam, Ben Johnson, Rajamanikyam, and Pachakuthira with various directors, Natturajavu-writer T A Shahid once again collaborated with Kailas to develop the script for Alibhai.

The film revolves around Anwar Ali alias Alibhai, the leader of the Palayam market in Kozhikode. Reminding the viewers of late superstar Jayan’s character in the 1980 blockbuster Angadi, Alibhai is the ‘Dada’ of the poor and working class in Palayam market.

In his childhood, Anwar Ali was falsely accused of stealing his father’s money, as a result of which he fled from his home and began living in Palayam. Now a powerhouse figure who is always there for the people, no outsider can even set foot in the market without Alibhai’s permission. But soon, a group of people with vested interests arrive in Kozhikode to oust Alibhai from the market and build a shopping mall there. The film then focuses on Ali’s attempts to save his people and the market from the clutches of these villains.

Mohanlal’s character in this movie was based on the real-life person Ali Bappu, who lived in Kondotty. Gopika, Navya Nair, Innocent, Cochin Haneefa, Sai Kumar, Rajan P Dev, Shamna Kasim, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Siddique, Jagadish, and Shammi Thilakan were among the ensemble cast members of the movie.

Produced by Antony Perumbavoor through Aashirvad Cinemas, Alibhai was released on August 15, 2007, on the occasion of Independence Day and during that year’s Onam season. According to news reports from back then, the film was released on over 80 screens in Kerala, a record figure at the time.

Even though the movie generated a lot of money during the first few days and the first weekend, it struggled to pull additional viewers in the days that followed since even Mohanlal’s ardent supporters were unimpressed with the plot and the making.

Red Chillies (2009)

After experiencing a few setbacks following Baba Kalyani, Shaji Kailas joined forces with Mohanlal for the eighth time for Red Chillies. In a bid to break himself free from the difficult time, Kailas got writer A K Sajan on board this time, with whom he previously worked in the 2007 blockbuster Chinthamani Kolacase.

Mohanlal plays the role of OMR, a business mogul based in Singapore. OMR also owns a FM radio station in Kochi. On New Year’s Eve, Kochi witnesses a series of murders and the radio jockeys of OMR FM are suspected of committing them. The latter portion of the movie depicts OMR’s efforts to save his jockeys and track out the real criminals.

The movie, which was produced on a large scale by M Renjith under the banner of Rajaputhra Visual Media, shared many characteristics with Chinthamani Kolacase. First of all, both movies share the same plot: a group of young women who appear to be “spoiled” are charged with murder, and a strong man comes to their defence. Second, in both movies, the strong man has a legal degree. Third, the investigation phase of the relevant cases is intimately linked to the real offenders. The list keeps on.

Red Chillies, which was released on February 14, 2009, also had a very successful opening. While many people praised Mohanlal’s ravishing appearance, the movie as a whole was vile and couldn’t keep the audience’s interest. As a result, it lost its momentum. Red Chillies was just a modest box office success despite a lot of buzz and promotion.

The film was also Shaji Kailas’ final hit before he began going through a rough patch that lasted over 12 years. He made a comeback with Kaduva, one of the highest-grossing Malayalam movies of 2022, starring Prithviraj, and followed it up with Kaapa.

Alone (2023)

As per reports, Alone, written by Rajesh Jayaraman, is a thriller film set during the Covid-induced lockdown. It was entirely filmed during the pandemic era within a flat.

Reportedly, Mohanlal’s character Kalidas is the only character that would appear on-screen in the film, while actors Prithviraj Sukumaran, Manju Warrier, Siddique, Renji Panicker and Mallika Sukumaran will star in voice roles.

The first teaser of the film started with a dialogue by Mohanlal that goes, “The real heroes are always alone.”

While the trailer of the movie that dropped on January 1 provides only a brief glimpse into Kalidas’ world as he attempts to examine a pretty mysterious flat, the 115-second clip succeeds in creating a feeling of bewilderment in the audience.

Although the producers had intended for a direct OTT release, they ultimately chose to go with a theatrical release instead.

While Mohanlal fans eagerly await a good film from the actor, whose flicks released last year were either massive disappointments or failed to live up to expectations, Shaji Kailas is aiming for a hat trick with Alone.