Mammootty turns 68: How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling big-budget films with meaningful cinema

Reinvention perhaps explains the longevity of this Mammootty, who continues to co-exist with his 33- year-old superstar son, Dulquer Salmaan.

Neelima Menon September 07, 2019 13:30:24 IST
Mammootty turns 68: How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling big-budget films with meaningful cinema

In this year’s Khalid Rahman directed Unda, Mammootty plays SI Manikandan, who heads a team of Kerala cops assigned to cover election duty in the Maoist Chhattisgarh.  Manikandan is in his late 50s, a few years short of retirement, takes tablets for blood pressure, is a big brother to his young team, can only converse in his mother tongue, and is momentarily left motionless when he faces an unexpected arms attack. He is that superior who confesses to his subordinates that he has never used a gun or chased a thief in his life. Mani sir would perhaps be the Malayalam megastar’s 30th (roughly) outing as a cop on screen and interestingly, this character is a subversion of all the previous ones. Similarly, Amudhavan, who finds himself taking care of his spastic daughter in Ram’s Tamil film Peranbu is the nth father role he has done, in a career of more than four decades, and over 400 films. The Telugu film Yatra, directed by Mahi V Raghav which was screened a week after Peranbu, where he is the late Chief Minister YS Rajashekara Reddy, would again be one of the many instances when he has been part of biopics. The fourth release was Madhuraraja, a mainstream potboiler, also a sequel to his own superhit 2010 film Pokkiri Raja, where he plays a funny Malayali don from Madurai with an obsession for bad English.

Reinvention. That perhaps explains the longevity of this 68- year-old Malayalam superstar who continues to co-exist with his 33- year-old superstar son, Dulquer Salmaan, in an industry where fortunes fluctuate every Friday (and Thursday). It is again reinvention, hard work, and an unending process of dusting and polishing his craft that makes Mammootty sustain along with the other superstar, Mohanlal, who is often conventionally eulogised as a born actor.  “Mammootty perhaps is the only living superstar who even at this advanced stage of superstardom has managed to straddle both commercial and off-beat worlds with commendable aplomb. This is a rare kind of hunger. While the rest of the pantheon craves for just adulation, this man wants both adulation and appreciation in equal measure,” says R Ayyappan, a journalist, who works with Manorama.

Mammootty turns 68 How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling bigbudget films with meaningful cinema

Mammootty in a still from Peranbu

Mammootty and Mohanlal entered almost during the same period (mid-'80s), and both flourished from the mid-'80s and '90s with the help of writers and directors who had the ability to bring out the best in them. But unlike Mohanlal, Mammootty’s career graph has seen colossal lows along with highs. Somewhere after the mid-'80s, when the actor was stuck in a slew of films where he played a suitcase bearing single rich dad to a toddler, his career hit a roadblock. He was booed in theatres, films were flopping in succession, and no one from the industry wanted to touch him with a bargepole. Finally, it was a friendship that paved the way for his resurrection, the Joshiy-directed New Delhi (1987), written by Dennis Joseph, where he played a victimised journalist, G Krishnamurthy, who wreaks vengeance on his tormentors. Like his onscreen character, Mammootty the actor was also witnessing a rebirth. After that came his first step towards reviving his image, by blurring the boundaries between commercial and art house cinema, along with a conscious effort to not get stereotyped. It was during this time that he won his first National Award (Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, Mathilukal) and went on to win two more, besides the Padma Shri. Though he, along with Mohanlal, slowly shifted gears to playing alpha male heroes in films which celebrated their stardom, Mammootty continued to strike a balance.

Criticism has faithfully trailed the actor at every point of his career — particularly in his stiffness in action, comedy and dance scenes, categories his rival always excelled in. But in 2006, he successfully busted the second charge against him in Rajamanikyam, by playing a rural buffalo seller, who spouts chaste Thiruvananthapuram slang with fantastic comic timing. Though he is still trying to retain an ease while doing stunts, ironically one of the most iconic stylised action films in Malayalam continues to be the Amal Neerad-directed Big (2007), headlined by Mammootty.

Mammootty turns 68 How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling bigbudget films with meaningful cinema

But he countered these shortcomings by channelising his core strengths as an actor. He is one of the earlier actors in Malayalam cinema who explored the gradations of voice modulation, which he later introduced in the concept of flavouring his characters in their local dialects. He has always made diligent efforts to lend distinct makeovers to his characters, through body language, voice, and costumes (Mrigaya, Suryamanasam, Ponthan Mada).

Another part of reinvention was in allotting dates to new directors, thereby opening the doors to directors like Aashiq Abu, Anwar Rasheed, Amal Neerad, and Martin Prakkat, that also smoothened the narrative ahead for new age filmmakers in Malayalam.

Mammootty turns 68 How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling bigbudget films with meaningful cinema

In the last few years, Mammootty, despite falling behind his rival Mohanlal in churning blockbuster hits, seems to be in no hurry to slow down, often doing more films than his son yearly. While a lot of his choices of films were dodgy, one has to give him credit for his unending quest to keep experimenting with roles. Especially this year, the actor has consistently produced great performances.

Fine-tuning his craft

While the actor has delivered great performances right from the beginning of his career, there is no denying how he has determinedly restructured his craft by smoothing the apparent chinks in his armour, at every crucial phase in his four-decade old career graph.

Mammootty turns 68 How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling bigbudget films with meaningful cinema

One uniform, various guises

One of his early breakthroughs is considered to be the KG George-directed crime thriller Yavanika (1982), in which he played CI Jacob Iraali. One of his first notable cop acts, Mammootty handles Iraali with trepidation. There is an evident melodrama in his dialogue delivery and gestures. A decade later, he modified himself in a similar role as Sethurama Iyer CBI of the superhit CBI Diarykurippu series, by deliberately reigning over his certified mannerisms, that have often been caricatured by mimicry artists over the years. That is why you see the Iyer firmly clasping his hands behind his back (for the uninitiated, the actor was mocked for his dramatic use of hands till then). Writer of the CBI series, SN Swamy, has often spoken about Mammootty’s involvement in shaping the calm-thinking-on-his-feet cop, including his mannerisms and ethnicity. He rarely raises his voice, is self-assured to the point of being dull but his stride has an urgency, and eyes have a sparkle, that keeps us thoroughly invested in the narrative.

The sacrificial patriarchs in different milieus

In the Cochin Haneefa-directed Valsalyam (1993), he is the patriarch of a joint family, a farmer with a quick temper, who is the picture of generosity and kindness, and takes pride in the sacrifices he has made for his siblings. Still counted amongst the actor’s popular roles, Mammootty handles Meledathu Raghavan Nair with a dramatic intensity, expressions flap across his face quickly, and the voice modulation picks a higher pitch. But 22 years later, though the milieu is different, Pallikal Narayanan in Salim Ahamed’s Pathemari shares a similar narrative, the son who takes the responsibility to shoulder his extended family by slaving in the Middle East. But this time, he is more subdued, using silence and body language to convey emotions. “When a journalist friend of his son's wants to interview Narayanan as a struggler who could not succeed even after many years in the Gulf, Narayanan asks the young man after a pause – ‘Did Satheesan (the son) tell you that I’m a failure?’ The actor, in that pause, lets you into Narayanan’s mind – ‘Does my son really think of me as a failure?’ "Beautiful,” observes Independent journalist Krishna Kumar.

Mammootty turns 68 How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling bigbudget films with meaningful cinema

Mammootty

The slave and the slave-driver

He won the second National award for Ponthan Mada and Vidheyan in 1994. The sheer contradiction between the two characters underlines the actor’s range. Mada, in the TV Chandran film, belongs to the lower caste, and is a slave of landlord Sheema Thampuran (Nasserudin Shah) while the roles are reversed in the Adoor Gopalakrishnan film, in which he is the cruel landlord Bhaskara Patelar, who hails from Karnataka. Mammootty brilliantly pulls off the complexities and nuances of the characters with an astonishing eye for detail, in mannerisms, body language, voice modulation, including perfecting the South Canara slang of the Patelar. And two decades later, the actor played a similar but more flamboyant version of Patelar in Ranjith’s Palerimanikyam Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha — Murikkum kunnathu Ahmed Haji.  While Ranjith frames him with a sort of heroic bravado, lionising his Satanism, and sketching him as Don Juan, Adoor’s Patelar is raw in depiction, and unequivocally despicable and irredeemable.

Playing the everyman differently

The actor’s ability to bring goodness, helplessness, detachment, and naivety in his body language is another remarkable aspect of his performance, it was there when he played the cinema operator in Kazhcha, the immigrant Tamilian in Karutha Pakshikal, the convict in Munnariyippu or the villager in Palunku. Agrees Kumar— “I don’t think any actor channels a character’s inherent goodness better.”

Mammootty turns 68 How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling bigbudget films with meaningful cinema

Chandu to Pazhassi Raja

Two epic characters released within a time span of 20 years has the actor playing a fallen war hero. While the former, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989), is a smartly twisted folklore, the latter (2009) is part of Kerala’s history. Both tales flourish in the valiance of two men from North Malabar, and being period films, one cannot ignore a similarity in looks and at times, even the costumes of the two protagonists. One of those instances, when an actor can earn a tag of duplication, but then Mammootty proved he is up for that challenge. Of course, one cannot discount the role played by MT Vasudevan Nair’s script here. Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha is required to be more stylised, with more stress on drama and exposition in dialogue delivery. But when he enters the garb of Pazhassi Raja, the actor uses silence effectively, the dialogue, though verbose, is still carried out with impeccable restraint. “When I saw Mammootty through the lens during the first day of the shoot, I was amazed to see the same actor I saw 20 years ago in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. The same energy, the same blinding persona — but with more wisdom in his performance,” says the director of the two films, Hariharan, in a television interview.

Amaram (1991) to Peranbu (2019)

Two single fathers; one embraces the responsibility of both the parent with ease, the second father is reluctant and clueless to take care of his spastic daughter in the absence of the mother. In the Bharathan-directed   Amaram, written by AK Lohitadas, Achutty is an affectionate father, who nurtures big dreams for his daughter, despite belonging to the fisherman community. While Amudhavan in the Ram-directed Peranbu is not quite in charge of his life, as he grapples with the challenges of discovering that his differently-abled daughter also has sexual needs. If Achutty’s angst is more about the daughter not living up to his ambitions, Amudhavan is struggling to take each day as it comes. The distance between Amaram and Peranbu is again in how he handles the emotional metric both films demanded. In Amaram, Mammootty also has the challenge of dealing with the local fisherman’s dialect, lending a drama to his articulation, and he sails through without going off the mark even during emotional scenes. When it comes to Amudhavan, he internalises his trauma, infusing the anger, vulnerability, desperation, and sadness into himself as the narrative requires. The nuances he brings to the character are palpable, prompting us to reach out to him.

Mammootty turns 68 How the Malayalam megastar stays relevant by straddling bigbudget films with meaningful cinema

“He shrugs off the emotional overtures that he could have done with voice modulation in enacting the role of Amudhavan in Peranbu. Instead, Mammootty uses body language and silence to show loneliness and helplessness. In Unda, his character is distinct, and goes against the grain of all the previous cops he has done. He is tired and fragile, and doesn’t even have the fitness required for such a job. It’s brilliantly subtle, and is a new high for his acting career,” says Maneesh Narayanan, film critic.

While purists might laugh at a film like Madhura Raja, what is astonishing is how he manages to reproduce the same energy and irreverence into a character that he has played a decade ago. “Mammootty, now, is not in an enviable place. If he performs way below his age, and that too with some panache like in Madhuraraja, he is excoriated. And when he exhibits traits that are considered normal for someone close to 60, say a painfully slow gait like in Unda, once again it's sniggers that are directed his way. His performance is cruelly dumbed down saying the man is finally playing his age. In both cases, an unjust and crude underestimation is at work,” observes Ayyappan.

It must be more than mere talent, and a perspective that goes beyond what is on paper that facilitates an actor in bringing fresh nuances to each of the 30 or more cop characters he has essayed on screen. It is unflinching dedication that makes him sit in the dubbing studio and patiently dub for Peranbu and Yatra, but also agree for several retakes till he got the pronunciation to the T.  “I am an actor by choice. I became better after coming to cinema. I polished myself with each film. So, the more I polish the more it will glitter,” Mammootty had famously said in a TV interview. Re-invention is a simpler term though.

All images from Twitter.

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