“There are two Mammoottys,” says veteran filmmaker Sathyan Anthikkad. “One corporeal, whom we see and assume to know, and the other, a spectre shadowing the former, closely observing him. The superstar is a carefully crafted project designed by a relentless self-critic.”
You might sense traces of this quality scattered throughout his public appearances, where he eloquently reflects on his craft and the world around him. He once admitted to being deeply embarrassed by his performances in early films. “I realised everything I knew about acting was folly,” he wrote in his memoir Chamayangal (2011).
At film promotion events, he steers all conversation towards the art and technology of cinema. “It is not make-believe,” he interrupted a journalist in an interview last May, following the release of Puzhu. “An actor should believe.” To become a character is to enter the mould of an entire life lived by another person, he said, before elaborating on how he decided that Raghavan in Munnariyippu (2014) would not swing his arms.
Mammootty, 71, has been acting for over five decades, a period long enough for a celebrity in a culture of incredible flux to fade into obscurity. However, not only has he endured the test of time, he is currently in one of the most exciting phases of his career.
His recent films are a mix of mainstream entertainers and smaller auteurist projects. In January this year, he delivered a terrific performance in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam as James, a Malayali man who metamorphoses one afternoon into a stranger and begins to live a life hitherto unknown to him in a Tamil Nadu border village.
Mammootty delves into the core of this transformation and richly animates the oneiric melding of the two characters. The film was produced by him under his newly launched banner, Mammootty Kampany, and distributed by his son, Dulquer Salmaan, who is one of the most bankable young stars in South India today.
Last year, he headlined two top-grossing Malayalam movies — Bheeshma Parvam, an ersatz Godfather directed by Amal Neerad, in which he starred as the patriarch of a Christian family in Fort Kochi, and Rorschach, a revenge-drama by Nissam Basheer.
His upcoming lineup include Jeo Baby’s Kaathal: The Core with Jyothika, and Roby Verghese Raj’s Kannur Squad.
With around 420 films in six different languages, Mammootty’s filmography towers over his Southern contemporaries Mohanlal, Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi. He has aged gracefully on the screen and seems unruffled by the transformations in cinema and audience tastes in recent years.
“Growing up, I always had him around. Even when he was busy, he made time for us. We travelled together and celebrated important occasions together. His generation is very disciplined. In the pre-digital era, they worked with several constraints. Every take counted as film was expensive. So much value was attached to the time between the calls of ‘action’ and ‘cut’. I feel that the new generation tends to take budget factors lightly. I want to imbibe his incredible passion for acting and his constant drive to improve. Even today, after 50 years in the profession, he puts in the effort to develop new traits and looks for every character he plays. I make mistakes and learn from them, just like my father did in the past. While he rarely gives compliments, he does give me pieces of criticism. He always reminds me to stay true to the moment.” Dulquer SalmaanActor and Mammootty’s son
A part of Malayalam film industry’s golden decade
Mammootty’s popularity transcends simplistic paeans for his rugged look, smooth skin and baritone to grudging admiration for his ability to remain contemporary. Once mildly derided, his obsession with cutting-edge tech goods is now emblematic of his youthful spirit. What was once seen as narcissistic behaviour is now celebrated as a manifestation of his self-possession.
“Mammootty has always remained a man of today,” says Jeo Baby. “When I say he is a young man, I am not referring to his physical fitness but his interest in the world around him. He is constantly refurbishing himself as a social being.”
Born as Muhammad Kutty in Chandiroor, Alappuzha, in 1951, Mammootty was 20 when he first appeared in a movie as a junior artist in K.S. Sethumadhavan’s iconic Anubhavangal Paalichakal (1971). A few minor roles later, he landed his breakthrough role in K.G. George’s Mela (1980). By then, he was a grown man, married, and had a degree in law.
Unlike Mohanlal, the other superstar in the Malayalam film industry who began his career around the same time, Mammootty did not burst on to Malayalam cinema as a spectacle exuding erotic charm. He is a force accrued over time, a constant work-in-progress. At the end of the 70s, the film industry was in transition. The old guard of leading men had faded away, and Mammootty and Mohanlal emerged as the dominant masculine figures on the screen. They led from the front as the Malayalam film industry passed through its golden era over the next decade.
“The presence of Mammootty and Mohanlal boosted the confidence of the industry,” says Anthikkad. “They could and were willing to play all kinds of characters. They were crowd-pullers who could act exceptionally well.”
Collaborations with Adoor, M.T. Vasudevan Nair and others
In the 80s, Mammootty joined hands with a diverse range of writers and filmmakers, including Adoor Gopalakrishnan, I.V. Sasi, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Joshiy, Dennis Joseph, Pavithran, Padmarajan, Anthikkad and S.N. Swamy, to create a solid body of work that earned him the superstar title and critical recognition.
He was at his most prolific in this decade, starring in a staggering 30 films in 1986 alone, a number that by today’s standards seems unattainable. In 1987, New Delhi, written by Dennis Joseph and directed by Joshiy, famously revived his career after a string of flops, becoming an important footnote in the narrative of his trajectory.
Mammootty’s enduring collaboration with M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the Jnanpith-winning writer-filmmaker, resulted in numerous exceptional films such as Thrishna (1981), Aalkkoottathil Thaniye (1984), and Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989). The actor once wrote that M.T. was the ‘dowser who sensed the presence of an abundant spring of artistic talent within him’.
They first met in Ernakulam at the end of the 70s, when Mammootty was living as a young lawyer with the ambition of becoming an actor. Impressed by his demeanour, M.T. cast him as a labour union leader in Devalokam in 1979. The film was left unfinished due to financial constraints, but M.T. helped Mammootty secure his first acting credit in his next writing project, Vilkkanundu Swapnangal (1980), directed by his former assistant, Azad.
Mammootty’s resonant voice is one of his greatest assets, even though it may have contributed to the perception that he was matured beyond his age early on in his career, thus keeping lighthearted, romantic roles away.
His colleagues attest that his perfection in voice modulation is the result of rigorous training. Anthikkad narrates an incident in the late 80s when Mammootty had just signed on to play the legendary Chanthu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. “He offered me a ride from Ernakulam to Thrissur in his car, and throughout the journey, a recording of M.T. reading out the screenplay played on a loop on his cassette player. He was studying how the writer had metered the lines.”
Mammootty’s silences are as evocative as the vocal shifts he creates, says filmmaker Salim Ahamed, whose Pathemari (2015) ends with a compelling monologue delivered by the actor, who portrays the harrowing life of a Malayali immigrant in the UAE.
Comedy and the hyper-masculine template
Mammootty has also brought to the screen a variety of regional accents with incredible accuracy. In Rajamanikyam (2005), a comedy helmed by Anwar Rasheed, he spoke flawless suburban Thiruvananthapuram slang, and in Pranchiyettan and the Saint (2010), directed by Ranjith, he effortlessly slipped into the Thrissur dialect.
These films marked a significant shift in his career as they departed from the hyper-masculine template that had dominated the Malayalam film industry in the late 90s and early 2000s, in which he was a prominent figure. He subverted the macho hero by injecting into this construct a grand dose of humour.
There was a slew of silly formulaic movies too, but the period around the onset of the millennium was not entirely bleak. In fact, in 1999, Mammootty won his third national award, for his performance in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, an English-Hindi bilingual film by Jabbar Patel. In 1997, he starred in Lohithadas’ magnificent Bhoothakkannadi, and in 2000, in Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility, he played a decommissioned soldier with an amputated leg and a heart full of resentment. He stood out as an oddball in a pool of young beauty, and walked away with the best moments in the film.
Even as he appears to be baring himself in front of the public, there are clearly parts of Mammootty’s person and persona that remain carefully guarded.
Meena T. Pillai, film critic and academic, says that this reserved nature fuels his star persona. “Mohanlal’s fandom comes out of an approachability, while Mammootty remains reticent, enigmatic. His persona is intimidating, it is beyond your reach. If Mohanlal is about playfulness, Mammootty is about stoicity. You want to touch him, but you can’t. He is a star beyond your grasp. This gels with the expectations of fans. It fans fandom.”
Actor Parvathy and the ‘Kasaba’ row
Sometime in the mid-90s, the actor began to shy away from playing his age on screen, which helped him prolong his status as a reigning megastar. His fanbase has grown into an uncontainable beast that launches into violent attacks on his critics. Actor Parvathy was at the receiving end of the vilest of such attacks in December 2017, after she, at a public event, termed a scene from his film Kasaba (2016) misogynistic and slammed his choice to be a part of it. The megastar maintained a wall of silence as the young actor suffered verbal abuse and even rape and death threats on social media platforms for weeks.
While his colleagues describe him as a habitual do-gooder involved in unpublicised charity missions, Mammootty appears chary when it comes to airing his views on political issues or the patriarchal nature of the film industry. Perhaps, it is not part of the design he has crafted for himself. “Mammootty is driven solely by his desire for success in movies,” says Anthikkad. “He is in perpetual, greedy pursuit of good characters to play. Over the years, he has transformed himself into a tool for filmmakers and writers to use. He does not have a life away from cinema.”
Many years ago, in the pre-OTT era, Mammootty appeared in a TV interview hosted by director Ranjith. Leaning back on a couch with his legs crossed, he spoke about a time when he set out to make a film based on a screenplay by the late Lohithadas. “However, my enthusiasm vapourised soon,” he said, laughing at his own naïveté.
Then his voice fell into a familiar melancholy as he continued, “All those people who gave me those magnificent characters have departed. I am now without any wealth.” He pauses to smile, and in the tenderness of it, you sense the actor vanishing and the human being seeping in through the cracks.
The writer is a film critic currently residing in London.