How Mammootty rewrote the rules of stardom yet again in 2023

With Mammootty having one of the best years of his extensive and long career, we dive deep into the roles he essayed in 2023 and why they aren’t particularly a flash in the plan for the legendary veteran actor

December 22, 2023 01:44 pm | Updated December 27, 2023 03:14 pm IST

Mammootty in 2023: ‘Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam,’ ‘Kaathal - The Core’ and ‘Kannur Squad’

Mammootty in 2023: ‘Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam,’ ‘Kaathal - The Core’ and ‘Kannur Squad’

At 72, with almost 50 years in the film industry; three National Awards for Best Actor, and the most number of (Kerala) State Film Awards for Best Actor (an honour he shares with Mohanlal) under his belt, the Malayalam film industry’s man of the year 2023, is, without a doubt, Mammootty.

Watching his films this year, we have been akin to the rapt audience in that scene from Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam listening to Mammootty’s Sundaram tell a story. We watched amazed as he shape-shifted from James to Sundaram and back in Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, became Kannur Squad’s ASI George Martin, and now, a closeted gay man, Mathew Devassy, in Jeo Baby’sKaathal - The Core.

But, here’s the thing about Mammootty; the way he chooses films is not a 2023 phenomenon. This has been his approach and MO all through his career.

A new generation discovering Mammootty

Kaathal - The Core happens to be one of those films that grabbed eyeballs and attention outside Kerala as much as it did at home because of the story it told. The sensitive portrayal of homosexuality and same-sex love is heartwarmingly hope-inducing. And when an actor of Mammootty’s heft, artistry and social stature essays the role, the usual hullabaloo around a film pegged on the topic is conspicuously absent.

ALSO READ: Jyotika interview: Diya and Dev were my first audience for ‘Kaathal - The Core’

The quiet, reserved Mathew Devassy tugs at our heartstrings especially when he breaks down, unable to take the scrutiny his sexuality is being subjected to. When he hugs his father in tears, one completely empathises with the helplessness of a closeted gay man forced to put up appearances. At that point, the audience forgets Mammootty, all we see is a vulnerable, heartbroken man. For a generation that has grown up watching his films, watching him as Mathew is a tectonic shift. While we have seen this Mammootty before, in films such as Pathemari, Vatsalyam, and Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, it was never like this. Even for him, this is a bold choice.

A gay character is not a first in mainstream Malayalam cinema; Prithviraj Sukumaran essayed a gay cop in Mumbai Police (2013) as did Nivin Pauly in Moothon (2019). However, to Jeo Baby and writers Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria’s credit, the treatment of the subject, without any stereotyping or cliches, is a first. We ‘get’ the internal conflict of a closeted gay person, and empathise with the impact of their sexuality on their relationships.

Thanks to Kaathal - The Core, Mammootty has been ‘discovered’ yet again thanks to the discussion around the film. A new generation now knows him thanks to his other films streaming on OTT platforms.

ALSO READ: Mammootty, Vijay help cinemas in Kerala stay afloat in tough times

Stepping out of his comfort zone

The Malayalam movie-watching audience has always known Mammootty. One of the original superstars of the industry, Mammootty has taken chances where ever possible. He experimented with films once he established himself as an actor in the 1980s. Be it mainstream, commercial films or arthouse cinema, he has been and continues to be malleable to the demands of both.

To give the uninitiated an idea of the thespian’s oeuvre and range: he won the Rajat Kamal for Best Actor (1989) for two films, Mathilukal and Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. The former was an arthouse movie and Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, a commercial blockbuster. Forbes India rated his role in Mathilukal among the 25 Greatest Acting Performances of India while commemorating 100 years of Indian cinema. It was a repeat in 1994 when he picked up the Rajat Kamal again for Vidheyan and Ponthan Mada, and five years later for Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. His choices have been unconventional and unexpected.

One of the best examples of this is, perhaps, the 2005 blockbuster Rajamanikyam. The film about the rustic, loudmouthed Bellary Raja was the biggest grosser of the year and the next three too. Be it Koodevide, 1921, Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (the first instalment of the CBI franchise) of the 1980s or Amaram, Ponthan Mada and Vatsalyam of the 90s, or movies such as Munnariyippu, Paleri Manikyam, Loudspeaker, and Kadal Kadannu Oru Maathukutty of the 2000s, he has found a way to mix it up. Of course, the list is punctuated by, to put it plainly, bad, misogynistic movies such as Kasaba.

That said, what sets Mammootty apart from his peers across Indian language film industries, is how clued in he is. The tech-savvy actor is as in touch with the world around him as he is with new technology. It extends to a curiosity about trends in filmmaking and the kind of cinema that is being consumed. When his contemporaries took the safer route of reprising hit roles in new avatars in ‘new’ films, here is one actor who doesn’t hesitate to step out of his comfort zone and reinvent himself each time. However, ever so often, as is the case with Mammootty, a Mathew Devassy kind of role comes along. It is a role that propelled him out of his comfort zone.

ALSO READ: Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria talk about scripting ‘Kaathal - The Core’

Reinventing masculinity

For Mammootty, once considered the definition of masculinity by a generation or two of Malayali filmgoers, this is huge. Seen through today’s prism, many of his past roles, and films, are problematic. In his and the films’ defence, they should be seen in the context of the times they were made in. After all, films reflect the zeitgeist as much as any artistic work. Like Kaathal - The Core does with a director like Jeo Baby, who is a storyteller who holds up a mirror to the times, or Lijo Jose whose sensibility is a fantastical world apart from the kind of cinema he has been part of.

For a while, over the years, many of the films coming Mammooty’s way seemed to be part of a ‘making a film with Mammootty’ dream. Some like Amal Neerad’s slick blockbuster Bheeshma Parvam, released in 2022, is the ultimate fanboy movie. But this is where Mammootty flips the script. Rorschach, Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, Kannur Squad and Kaathal - The Core have been produced by Mammootty Kampany, his own film production company, perhaps driven by the understanding that the scripts coming his way are rehashes of what he has done before or made by fans or for fans. This is one way of getting selective, and he is sticking his neck out for the films he wants to see made, perhaps, or wants to be a part of.

Each film is different, and directors’ sensibilities as varied. It also indicates an astute sense of business. There is thought and deliberation to the process of picking and making a film, as Jeo Baby insinuated in an interview. The director spoke of Mammootty’s active involvement in the film, and his suggestions for enhancing the film. Whatever the process is for selecting his films, it seems to be working for Mammootty.

And that brings us to the other thing about him, you never know what is coming next. Just when you think, roles-wise, Mammootty has done it all he springs a surprise on you reminding you that picture abhi baaki hai.

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