The Malayali audience knows Antony Perumbavoor as the producer of some of the biggest blockbusters in Malayalam cinema. However, his colleagues in the industry see him as superstar Mohanlal’s closest friend, aide and confidante. He has, in fact, been the screen icon’s ‘Man Friday’ for the last 30 years. Antony Perumbavoor gets candid to Onmanorama about the special relationship that he shares with Mohanlal.
“I am Mohanlal’s driver and would love to be known like that forever,” began Antony. “I work for Mohanlal, and we indeed share a very special bond. However, I still like and respect the position of his driver,” admitted the producer.
Antony who completed his education from Iringal UP School at Perumbavoor and Karunagapally MGM Higher Secondary School, bought himself a brand new four-wheeler jeep, when he turned 18 years old. The vehicle which had the registration number KLO 2403 soon became his means of livelihood. It was Boban Varghese, whom Antony respects as his elder brother, who told him that his jeep was needed for a day’s filming, at a movie set. Later producer Sajan called Antony up and asked whether he could drive his car during the filming days. It was for the location of the 1988 movie 'Pattanapravesham', directed by Sathyan Anthikad.
While Antony was driving many vehicles at the location, one day, he was asked to pick Mohanlal up from his residence at Ambalamugal. “That was when I saw Lal sir for the first time,” recalled Antony. “We didn’t speak anything during the journey. It was the time when movies like 'Rajavinte Makan', 'Namukku Paarkkan Munthiri Thoppukal', 'Thalavattom' and 'Thoovanathumbikal' had all become superhits. I didn’t turn and look at him even once. After reaching the location, when I rushed to open the car’s door for him, he had already opened it and left by the time. From that day on, it was my responsibility to bring him to the sets. The truth is that I had requested Sathyan Anthikad to give me that opportunity.
The next day, while getting off at his home, he asked, ‘Antony, did you had food? If not, you can have it from my house’. I replied that I would have it from the sets. Those were the first words that we spoke to each other,” Antony explained about his first meeting with the actor.
Antony said that he was stunned to realise that the superstar knew his name. A while later, when Mohanlal was shooting for the action thriller 'Moonam Mura', at Ambalamedu, Antony had taken a few of his friends to meet the actor. He, however, confessed that he had done that just to impress his friends, though was sure that he wouldn’t be allowed even near the sets. They waited outside for hours, and to their utter surprise, Mohanlal recognised Antony from inside a building where he was shooting and called him in. Antony, who couldn’t hide his excitement, ran through the crowd to reach near the actor.
Seeing Antony, the screen icon asked whether he had brought his vehicle with him. When he said ‘no’ Mohanlal asked him to bring it the next day, and requested 'Seven Arts' Mohan, the producer, to allow Antony’s vehicle too on the sets. “Before the filming wrapped up, Lal sir asked me whether I would like to accompany him. I just replied, ‘yes sir’. I didn’t share the matter to anyone. I couldn’t believe that someone like me, who hailed from a small village, could actually be Mohanlal’s driver. I used to watch the first shows of all his movies, and that man has asked me to accompany him. I told it even at my home only two days before I joined as his driver,” said the producer.
Antony’s father Melekudy Joseph was a contractor at the timber mills in Perumbavoor and his mother Elsamma is a homemaker. Baby, Pappachan and Celeena are his siblings. His father and eldest brother Baby are no more.
Antony said that his father had wished for him to land a government job. However, when he said that he was going to drive Mohanlal’s car, his late father advised him to be respectful to 'the great man'. Antony revealed that he had, until now, held the actor with great respect, keeping his father’s words in mind. It was his brother Pappachan who helped Antony to buy the jeep which changed his fortune forever.
Recalling his initial days as Mohanlal’s driver, Antony said that the actor would shoot until late into the night, before rushing off to another location. There were countless times when the duo shuttled between Kannur, Kochi and Thiruvanathapuram within a short span of time. Antony would grab a sllep during the day and be ready to drive Mohanlal to his next location, at night. Meanwhile, the actor, who gets tired after a day of hard work, would fall asleep as soon as he gets inside the car. “Unlike now, there weren’t many good roads then. But he never asked me to drive slowly or cautioned me whenever we jumped a pot hole or hump. I used to keep black pepper corns or bird eye chilies in the car. I would just pop one of them into my mouth when I felt sleepy. I would sometimes park the car on the roadside and grab some sleep. But I allowed myself a short nap of just 20 minutes. I used to carry 2 or 3 time pieces as well, to set the alarm. If one do not work, then the alarm would go off in the next one,” said Antony laughingly.
“I have driven Lal sir to many places, travelling millions of kilometers together. We travelled to lots of cities and villages, and many of them later became our favourite places. We moved to Kochi when we thought we would settle down in Chennai. We have gone through many instances in life together,” smiled Antony.
It was a classic Contessa, with the registration number KLT 5544, owned by Mohanlal that Antony drove for the first time as the actor’s personal driver. He recalled that Mohanlal had offered a room at his own house in Thiruvanathapuram for Antony to stay.
“I didn’t have my own room even in my house. Here, Lal sir had offered me one at his house. Later, when he was planning to build a house, he had set apart a room called ‘Antony’s room’ in it as well. I thus began my journey with Mohanlal and have been continuing it for the last 30 years. I drove his car only for 10 years and later other drivers took over the wheels. However, Lal sir entrusted me with many other jobs. When some people ask me whether I am Mohanlal’s manager, I tell them that I am his driver. That indeed is the biggest position that I have achieved in my life,” noted Antony.
Antony revealed that Mohanlal’s wife Suchitra had played a crucial role in making him a part of their family. He used to drive Suchitra to her relatives’ houses. At Chennai, Suchitra’s father, noted film producer Balaji, used to take Antony to many places. He said, “Balaji sir liked me very much. He usually does not take anyone with him. Whenever I took Lal sir out in his car, his mother would say, ‘Antony, take good care of my son.’ There weren’t mobile phones during those days. It was not even possible to talk every day over the phone. When she calls once in 2 or 3 days, the first thing she would say would be to take care of Lal sir. May be amma knew very well that I would take care of her son. I believe that I have kept my promise to that mother and taken good care of her son,” explained Antony.
“I can proudly say that I am a member of that family. I have seen Lal sir’s kids growing up. I consider it extremely fortunate to have produced Pranav Mohanlal’s debut movie (Aadhi). There are countless producers who would be ready to make a movie with Appu (Pranav). But it was I who got the chance to produce that movie. More than I have held my own son, I held Appu in my arms. We played together and I had even put him to sleep as a kid. More than my own kids, I have watched Lal sir’s children grow up,” said Antony fondly.
Antony credited his wife Shanti for raising a family, without complaining at all about his prolonged absence. “Once Shanti asked me, ‘If the boat carrying me, you and Lal sir capsized, whom would you save?’ I said I would decide that when the boast actually capsizes,” smiled Antony. “I met Shanti after lots of alliances came my way. I am very fortunate to have her in my life. She raised our kids without bothering me in my job. I was not even with her when she was into labor. She never even complained about it. She knows that I am working for a great individual,” continued the producer.
Antony said that he wouldn’t have achieved so much in life had his wife not been supportive. “I don’t think many wives would approve if their husband is attached to another family more than his own. It’s only been 4 or 5 years since I began to come regularly to my own home. I was a husband who came to the house not even at least once in a month. Shanti deserves the credit for taking care of our kids so well,” Antony has nothing but praises for his wife.
Many say that Mohanlal would act in a movie only if the story is approved by Antony Perumbavoor. The highly successful producer admitted that he indeed listens to stories and scripts. If he thinks that the story has good potential, he would even persuade Mohanlal to listen to its narration. Antony said that the actor would say ‘no’ to some of the scripts recommended by him, while proceeding with some others which the former thinks wouldn’t work. “If he takes a decision, I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to it. This is the 25th movie that I am producing with Lal sir in the lead role. Most of them were turned out huge hits,” smiled the producer talking about 'Odiyan'.
Antony asked whether, as a leading producer in the industry, he doesn’t deserve to listen to scripts or narrations. He said, “The person who spends money for a movie definitely has the right to listen to the story. There is only one reason why someone can narrate in front of any other producer, but not before Antony Perumbavoor; and that is because I was a driver. As a person who clearly knows the successes and failures of Mohanlal, it is only him who has the right to tell me that I shouldn’t listen to stories or scripts anymore.
Noted writer NS Madhavan once said Antony Perumbavoor was like a text book to be studied in depth. Some said that the veteran writer had mocked Antony. However, some others told that the writer had in fact appreciated him. But Antony is of the opinion that he accepts appreciation or mockery with the same mind and attitude, and do not let either affect him too much. “I have, however, observed one thing. Those who say bad things about Mohanlal would later pretend as his right-hand people. People who bad-mouth him are actually the ones who are envious of Lal sir’s incredible growth as an artiste,” observed Antony.
“Lal sir acts in just 3 or 4 films in a year. But we would at least hear a thousand stories in the meantime. One cannot act in so many movies, no matter how good the scripts are. So those who didn’t get a chance to make a movie with Mohanlal would put the blame on me for ruining their opportunity. Why wouldn’t they narrate their stories to other actors and make them act in it. Antony won’t ‘create’ problems then. Many say that I am interested to make only commercial movies. Yes, that is true because I am a producer who is also a businessman,” Antony made his stand clear.
Antony revealed that Mohanlal hasn’t, until now, given him a fixed salary. However, in the early days, the actor used to give him Rs 2000-3000 whenever Antony went home. He said that it was a big amount then. Antony said, “Lal sir would never ask whether it was enough or if he wanted more. He doesn’t pay me a salary even now. I am free to take whatever I want. It was I who used to carry his wallet in the initial days. I would hand over whatever he asks from it. We never discussed remuneration for my movies in which he had acted. I would deposit an amount, in his account, which I believe, an actor of his caliber deserves. He never asked me how much I deposited. I am someone who wishes to pay Lal sir more money than any other producer. It was Lal sir’s mother who handed over Pranav Mohanlal’s advance remuneration for the movie 'Aadhi', which I produced. All the family members were witness for that amazing moment. We have never discussed anything about money or remuneration until now,” Antony disclosed.
He continued, “I cannot even fathom the love that Lal sir's family has shown me and my family. Once I too accompanied Lal sir to an ayurvedic spa for a treatment regimen. Only vegetarian food was allowed there. However it was difficult for me to have a meal without a non-vegetarian dish. One day, Lal sir's wife Suchithra sent a tiffin box with a person who came from Chennai. She had packed fish and chicken dishes for me, which I had in the outside. She understood how difficult it was for me to have only vegetarian food. She has great fondness for me.”
Antony vowed that he had given up consuming alcohol long back itself, though he cannot remember what exactly prompted him to take that decision. “If Lal sir was not available on the phone, people usually called me. So I thought if I talk to them in a drunken state, it would be embarrassing for him. Besides, I mostly drove at night. For me Lal sir’s happiness is important than the intoxication from alcohol. I sometimes feel that I wouldn’t have reached so far had I been an alcoholic,” Antony sets the matter straight.
Antony has no doubts when he said that Mohanlal and his wife love his children as their own. “Lal sir’s home is their home as well. I reached this far from a small hamlet in Perumbavoor. I added ‘Perumbavoor’ to my name for my people there to recognise me as their own. My journey from Antony to Antony Perumbavoor is in fact the gracious gift of Mohanlal. My belief that he is behind me, inside the car and in my life, gave me strength to achieve all these. I have always been on alert to reply ‘sir’ when Lal sir calls ‘Antony’ in his mellow voice,” said Antony with pride.
“No matter who says what, I will continue to live for that great man. I am proud to say that I am the shadow of a person who is greatly respected by the whole world. I am just driver Antony, and do not wish to be known as anything beyond that. I can swear that I have seen Lal sir’s face with Jesus’ when I pray. That is how I value Lal sir in my life, and I still am his personal driver,” concluded Antony Perumbavoor.