I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that nothing can stop a Malayali in her tracks like the opening refrain of ‘Oru Murai Vanthu’. We’ve watched the movie (and especially the song) hundreds of times, but the second we hear the chilanka (anklet bells) chiming in rhythm to the dancer’s footsteps, we drop everything and sit down so that we can let Shobana mesmerise us for the umpteenth time. We know it and we say it out loud. Manichitrathazhu is brilliant.
This film has given Malayalis internal jokes like few other movies have. It has spawned remakes that made our allegiance to the original stronger and has, as a result, bound us together as a community better than our politicians can ever hope to. It is the kind of movie that we wish we could see for the first time, for none of us remember being shocked by the fact that Ganga, and not Sreedevi, was the patient all along.
Apart from all this, Manichitrathazhu is a film that has benefited from stellar performances by the main and supporting cast. Shobana won the National Award. Mimicry artistes have generated hours of content with their takes on the characters played by Mohanlal, Innocent, Thilakan, Sudheesh and Kuthiravattam Pappu. Amidst these memorable performances, there is also Suresh Gopi’s Nakulan, the loving husband, the progressive who calls for a psychiatrist when others see the need for a psychic.
Unlike the people he is surrounded by, Nakulan does not have an eccentricity. He speaks his mind clearly and gets things done without any theatrics. Suresh Gopi played Nakulan with great sensitivity. He was aware that this man is not easily rattled, which is why it is a big deal when he does get scared.
There are two confrontational scenes that follow each other in the second half of the movie that most of us can recite from memory. The first of these opens with Nakulan telling Ganga that she may not go jewellery shopping for the upcoming family wedding. The second is where Nakulan confronts Dr Sunny after getting a taste of Ganga’s illness and then breaks down before his friend helplessly.
In both these scenes, Suresh Gopi transitions from determination to vulnerability smoothly. His contribution to both scenes is immense and helps hold up the others so well that in both, the other actor seems to have walked away with public adulation. The first of these scenes has the unforgettable sequence of Shobana as Ganga unleashing Nagavalli (her ‘possessed’ avatar) for the first time before Nakulan and then repenting her actions when she realises that she has said something awful to her husband. The second has Mohanlal as Sunny telling Nakulan that he wants Ganga to return to being Nakulan’s wife and not just an emotionless body that happens to be free of Nagavalli.
Suresh Gopi did Manichitrathazhu before he became a superstar, which means that he was not yet a solo hero belting out cringe-inducing English dialogue. So it isn’t really a surprise that he was able to play Nakulan with such authenticity: the spotlight was not on him. He did not have an image to maintain; he was not expected to give us humour and bravado and intensity like a conventional movie hero should. Unlike Mohanlal, whose character’s entrance has a forced humour that stands out oddly in an otherwise excellent movie and who utters big dialogues about breaking all conventional methods of psychiatry, Nakulan was allowed to just be the well-meaning family man he was.
I don’t know if it is accurate to say that Suresh Gopi has not received the accolades he deserves for Manichitrathazhu, but I will say to whoever is reading this: if you haven’t yet paid a lot of attention to his character, please do the next time you watch the movie (because we all know there will be a next time; and possibly several next times after). While a fearsome Ganga/Nagavalli dazzles us in ‘Oru Murai Vanthu’, there is a helpless Nakulan watching his wife from the viewing gallery, his heartbreak writ large in his tearful eyes. And you will agree with me that while Manichitrathazhu is brilliant, in his own quiet way, so is Suresh Gopi’s Nakulan.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.