Mohanlal in ‘Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea’ Image Credit: Supplied

“You are not alone, we are waiting eagerly too,” declares Malayalam superstar Mohanlal while talking about his period saga ‘Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham/ Lion of the Arabian Sea’ and its multiple delays in release owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rarely has a South Indian film garnered so much publicity, hype and anxiety before public viewing.

Mohanlal in ‘Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea’ Image Credit: Supplied

Will the makers of Malayalam cinema’s most expensive production, made on a whopping budget of Rs1 billion, bow down to pressures from the pandemic and bypass theatrical release entirely, only to opt for a web streaming premiere?

The would-be blockbuster’s release blueprint played out like a dramatic thriller with will-they-or-won’t-they debates about the makers’ future exhibition plans for this ancient naval warfare saga.

And, just like how the James Bond film recently shouldered the responsibility of reviving ticket sales in cinemas in the post COVID-19 era in the United Kingdom, Malayalam cinema’s beloved Lalettan (as he’s fondly called by his army of fans) has also been reluctantly thrust with that onus of bringing people back into the cinemas. But if there’s one hero that can draw viewers back into cinema halls in Kerala and make them cough up money for tickets and some nachos, it’s Mohanlal and his star-power that has endured over four decades.

So it’s not entirely hyperbolic that his star-studded spectacle, out on December 2 in the UAE during the National Day weekend, and featuring actors including Manju Warrier, Keerthy Suresh, Suniel Shetty, Prabhu, and his own son Pranav Mohanlal is being pegged as a watershed moment in Malayalam movie history.

“Even though every movie is important for us, this National Award-winning film that has been made on a big canvas. It has already fetched three prestigious National awards including the Best Costume, the Best Film, and Best Special Effects. This movie is very close to our heart and we have all been waiting for this moment,” said Mohanlal over the phone.

“But trust me, we were planning this film for the longest time,” said the actor.

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Mohanlal in 'Marakkar'

Directed by Priyadarshan, ‘Marakkar’ is a 16th century period saga that chronicles the legendary exploits of Kunjali Marakkar IV, the naval chief of the Zamorin who ruled Kozhikode in South Kerala. Marakkar and his men were on call to defend the Malabar Coast against Portuguese forces. His escapades and naval supremacy is now the stuff of legends in Kerala.

“There are lot of emotions attached to this legendary real-life historical figure. His adventures and travails have been lionised and have reached mythical proportions. Nobody really knows him really … But this story was made with a lot of vision,” said Mohanlal.

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Keerthy Suresh in 'Marakkar: The Lion Of The Arabian Sea' Image Credit: Supplied

And who better than his college buddy and consummate director Priyadarshan to bring alive this ambitious pageantry of courage and grit? Their union usually means sure-fire blockbusters such as ‘Chithram’, ‘Vandanam’ and ‘Kalaapani’.

A still from 'Marakkar: The Lion Of The Arabian Sea'

“This is my 46th film with Priyan and we are an example of how certain combination clicks right away. Priyan is very close to me. He knows what I can do and I know what he will demand from me. There’s a lot of give and take between us,” said Mohanlal. He even credits this director for propelling him to take bold choices in his prolific acting career.

Director Priyadarshan Image Credit: Supplied

During the interview, the actor took the example of their 1996 award-winning cult classic ‘Kaalapaani’, which saw him play the staunch patriot Govardhan languishing in a colonial prison.

It was one of the costliest Malayalam films made at that time and courted awards glory. But more than the awards, the film has gained cult status for its delicate handling of a theme like patriotism and martyrdom.

“We have done some brave films together even at a time where there were no computer graphics … Back then ‘Kaalapaani’ was still our biggest and most ambitious film and we made it happen back then. We couldn’t do anything much compared to what we pulled off in this one, but we hope to create the same magic here. There’s a certain uniqueness to our films,” said Mohanlal. True to his observation, their films aren’t only about a swashbuckling hero, but it’s a hero with substance and soul.

Mohanlal in Priyadarshan's 'Kaalapani'
Mohanlal in Priyadarshan's 'Kaalapani' Image Credit: IMdB

And it’s not often that Mohanlal, who has acted in over 170 films, can claim that he’s doing something for the first time in his career. But for ‘Marakkar’, he can. It’s the first time in his robust career where he’s sharing the screen with his son and actor Pranav. His son plays his younger version in this valiant epic.

“Having Pranav in this film is pure coincidence. There are very few films in world cinema where an actor’s son plays his on-screen younger version in a film and I have to tell you that he has done good job. The ones who have seen the film have loved his striking performance,” said Mohanlal, a UAE golden-visa holder.

Mohalal's son and actor Pranav Mohanlal plays his younger self in the movie Image Credit: Supplied

Director Priyadarshan’s daughter and actress Kalyani Priyadarshan also plays a pivotal role in this epic.

But casting diverse principal actors — who have been plucked from Bollywood, Tamil Cinema, and beyond — were the least of their worries.

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Priyadarshan's daughter and actress Kalyani also plays a pivotal role in this film Image Credit: Supplied

“Releasing this film out into the theatres was our biggest challenge, although shooting a film completely in water was not easy. It was difficult to create that ambience and it took us a year to work on the CG [compute graphics] alone … But it has all been worth it,” said Mohanlal.

Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty tries his hand in this Malayalam period saga Image Credit: Supplied

Don’t miss it!

‘Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea’ is out in UAE cinemas on December 2.

“I don’t want to say anything about that issue … Several people claimed a lot of things and I don’t want to add to that noise. So whatever I say about it will not help,” said Mohanlal in Malayalam. (There was a clash between producers and theatre owners in Kerala when the makers leaned towards releasing this epic on a web streaming platform. But the Kerala Minister for Culture Saji Cherian intervened and smoothened things out)

- Mohanlal