Mamukoya is Everyman, intensely local. He is an actor whose signature and success are defined by this very local element. At the double-storied house in Arakkinar near Beypore, Kozhikode, in a courtyard crisscrossed by cars and a jeep, Mamukoya is spotted shirtless, crouched on a chair, reading. He zips in and moments later appears at the front door, haphazardly buttoning a white shirt over his white lungi.
For a man characterised by a toothy grin on celluloid, Mamukoya is grave. He talks cinema, society, culture and community. Mamukoya considers himself a product of the cultural collective that thrived in Kozhikode in the past. “I am the only one in films from my family,” he says.
Theatre was for the evenings as mornings were spent measuring timber at the factories in Kallai. “I couldn’t do professional theatre as I had to keep my job at the timber factory,” remembers Mamukoya. Films were not much of a dream, he says. “I did not have the looks or the physique that characterised actors of the past. The atmosphere that marks cinema has changed today.”
Three decades in cinema
Over the past 35 years Mamukoya has often had us in splits in the 400 Malayalam movies in which he has appeared. “I acted in a French movie too, over a decade ago,” he chips in. The actor to whom most directors turn when they have a tea shop owner, a Muslim man, domestic help, a barber or a marriage broker in mind still remembers his punch line in the climax of Markus Imhoof’s Flames in Paradise, which was edited out by the time the film did the rounds.
As an actor whose most powerful lines are not in reel now, Mamukoya says, he doesn’t mind being the tea shop owner for the umpteenth time. “When the director tells me about a tea shop owner, I ask them, ‘Is it me again?’ and they tell me when they think of a man running a tea stall in the countryside they cannot think of any other,” says Mamukoya.
So does he even attempt to make his 40th or 50th tea stall owner any different? “When I am doing that role, I don’t see myself as an actor playing a tea man. I am the tea maker. My behaviour is that of one,” he explains.
Even if he feels a sense of repetition, the battle is won as long as the audience does not feel it. Mamukoya has had the audience’s favour for decades now. He arrived on the scene speaking in his inimitable Kozhikodan slang at a time when Malayalam cinema had only polished dialogues.
He views his success with detachment. “My slang clicked and it became a style.” Cinema, he says, is not run on artistic pretensions, but by a bare fact. “What people like. It is decided by the distributor’s feedback on what people clap to at theatres,” says Mamukoya.
As the applause lingers, Mamukoya sprints from set to set — in Ernakulam yesterday, Kozhikode today and Thalassery tomorrow. “I was shooting for a film called Call Me @ and then there is the Jayaram-starrer Lucky Star. I am also in Hariharan’s Ezhamathe Varavu.”
In an industry driven by heroes, Mamukoya says, the heroine and the supporting cast tend to be insignificant. “It is rarely that small characters in a film are fleshed out.” He can name some instances. “I would say Ranjith’s Paleri Manikyam : Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha, Indian Rupee and even Pranchiyettan and the Saint. Whatever roles I get, I play them. If I get roles with a difference I play them too, like the lawyer Salim in Molly Aunty Rocks, where I spoke without my slang creeping in. People called up to say the role was different. I said okay. It is okay with me when someone says something didn’t turn out well too. For nothing can be done about it now.”
Mamukoya took a different step recently when he appeared in a rap album, Native Bapa, narrating the life of a Muslim father whose son is branded a terrorist. “When the young boys came to me with the theme, I told them it is important that they respond to these things. I also had a personal experience when I went to Australia and was detained at the airport. I finally realised it was because my father’s name was Muhammad,” he says.
Of an era gone
Mamukoya is also one of the final links to Kozhikode’s once famous cultural collective, where literature, theatre, sports and arts flourished in an atmosphere of camaraderie. It was the time when writers like S.K. Pottekatt, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Thikodiyan, Uroob, and M.T. Vasudevan Nair and musicians like M.S. Baburaj soothed the soul of Kozhikode. Mamukoya joined in, a committed student. “That was the time everybody had a bit of everything in them. The daily wage labourer from the Kallai River would come in the evening and do his bit, maybe play the tabla. If we were staging a play we would rehearse before them and then it would be discussed thoroughly,” remembers Mamukoya.
A democratic ensemble like that is now rare in Kozhikode. “It appears nobody has the time for such get-togethers today,” he says. “I do feel a sense of loss, but I at least got to experience it. My grandchildren can never even imagine what kind of life it was.”
For Mamukoya, an artist bears the imprints of the place they come from. “We cannot have another Pottekkat, Basheer or Baburaj, for the society that nurtured them has changed.”