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How Malayalam and Tamil cinemas exchanged actors

An iconic sequence from the 1991 Mani Ratnam classic, Thalapathi, is composed of two long tracking shots cutting back and forth, with the two central characters played by Rajinikanth and Mammooty approaching each other, walking through a long corridor. The shot is the key in the scene, in which Devaraj (Mammootty), a kingpin, had just pulled strings to release Surya (Rajinikanth), a common-man-turned-gangster from jail and they make their allegiance concrete. When Surya, overwhelmed, asks Devaraj to accept his life in return for the kind gesture, Devaraj holds him close to his heart. Later, he introduces Surya to his wife as his kooda porandhavan (blood brother). The beautifully directed sequence can be considered as a prologue for the warm relationship shared by Tamil and Malayalam cinema industries.

After a short break, Mammootty revisits Tamil cinema with two flicks, the bilingual Street Lights and Ram’s Peranbu. In the wake of the two releases, an air of nostalgia breezes by, calling one’s mind back to some evergreen crossover performances by actors on both sides. Even though this is not a list based on rank, the primary consideration is the long-lasting impact of the character in the actor’s career as well as in the respective industry. The first character which comes to mind is Raghuvaran’s once-in-a-lifetime performance in Daivathinte Vikrithikal, the 1992 Malayalam film directed by Lenin Rajendran.

The movie was an adaptation of writer M. Mukundan's Malayalam novel of the same name. Raghuvaran’s outstanding performance as the protagonist, magician Alphonso, the remaining member of an Indo-French society in a decolonized French colony called Mahe, earned him rave reviews. Magician Alphonso revealed an unknown face of Raghuvaran as a brilliant method actor. Unfortunately, both the movie and Alphonso sank into oblivion in the years that followed. Another power packed performance happened when Mohanlal was roped in by Mani Ratnam for his magnum opus, Iruvar. The movie, which dealt with the controversial camaraderie and enmity between two giants of Tamil Nadu politics, became a milestone not just in the Malayalam superstar’s career, but also in the history of Tamil cinema.

With the strong support of actor Prakash Raj as Tamizhselvan, a writer-politician, Mohanlal lived as Anandan, an actor-turned-politician. There are many moments in the movie that revealed why Mohanlal is considered as one of the finest actors in the country. The movie is still quoted by cinema pundits for its technical brilliance and marvellous performances. In fact, Mani Ratnam had joined hands with the other big M of Malayalam cinema, Mammootty, in as early as 1991 for Thalapathi. Mammootty’s measured rendering of emotions as Devaraj, the kingpin for whom Rajinikanth’s Surya worked for, is considered as one the best in his career and earned him accolades beyond borders.

On the other hand, Kamal Haasan is the only Tamil actor with a prolific career in Malayalam cinema with nearly forty films to his credit. While the actor is intimately considered as a Malayalee by Malayalee moviegoers as much as a Tamil actor by Tamil movie buffs, he wowed viewers with his extraordinary performances in Malayalam movies like Kanyakumari, Madanolsavam, Eeta, and Rasaleela. When the legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan joined hands with Mohanlal to play the central character in Pratap Pothen’s Malayalam movie, Oru Yathramozhi, another saga of crossover acting was born.

Revathy’s heartbreaking portrayal of the character Divya Chandramouli in the 1986 Tamil hit Mouna Ragam lingers in the minds of movie enthusiasts as another example of a successful crossover. Actor Prashanth’s unforgettable performance in the epic Malayalam movie Perumthachan, directed by Ajayan, also deserves a special mention. Actors like Vikram, Jayaram, R. Parthiepan, Thyagarajan, Kalabhavan Mani, Padmini, Shobana, Suhasini Maniratnam, and Urvashi also successfully established themselves as popular bilingual stars with their respective roles that still live in the minds of Tamil and Malayalam audiences alike.

Meanwhile, Malayalee fans of Rajinikanth are yet to see a full fledged Malayalam character of the Superstar as he had appeared only in two Malayalam movies in his long career. As the markets become more open and roads are cleared for thematic and formal experiments, a lot of new generation actors are successfully crossing over between the major industries in South. A new league of actors including Prithviraj, Dulquer Salman, Nivin Pauly, Tovino Thomas, Sasikumar, Arya, Asin, Nayanthara, Bhavana, Nithya Menen, and Priya Mani has emerged, defying the boundaries of languages and markets, and some breathtaking performances are on the horizon.

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