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In praise of the mercurial Actor, Kerala’s superstar Mammootty, by Khalid Mohamed

If there’s one actor I miss interviewing, it’s Malayalam cinema’s superstar Mammootty. There was a time when he would frequently visit Mumbai to detect whether he could find a foothold in Hindi language cinema.

At his suite in a oceanfront Juhu hotel, he would field questions with a stiff upper lip, P.G. Wodehouse-like sense of humour, cracking jokes at his own expense, and pointing out that if he hadn’t lucked out as an actor, he would still be fighting petty legal cases in a law court.

A practising lawyer for two years, he was born to a farmer’s family in the Chandiroor village of Kerala. After playing bit roles he was cast as a hero, thanks to his magnetic personality noticed by talent scouts. Subsequently, he shortened his name from Muhammad Kutty Paniparambil Ismail to Mammotty. “See, you don’t have to struggle with my name. My screen name is short and sweet, isn’t it?” he’d grin. “Still the film people from your city don’t pick up the ‘phone to offer me work.”

As it happened, the winner of three National Awards in a career spanning over four decades and 400 films largely in Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada, did snag parts in B-town’s “Thriyatri “(1989), “Dhartiputra” (1990) and “Sau Jhooth Ek Sach” (2004), which didn’t quite do justice to either his screen presence or acting calibre. Since they tanked at the ticket windows, his visits to Mumbai stopped.

On the upside, the English language biopic “Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar” (2000), on the revered social reformist who championed the cause of the underprivileged besides being the chief architect of the Constitution of India, was excellently crafted by its director Jabbar Patel. In the eponymous role, the film fetched Mammootty, one of his Best Actor National Awards.

Unfortunately, the foray of Mammootty’s son, 30-yish Dulquer Salmaan into Hindi cinema, hasn’t been exactly upbeat so far. Although he was lavishly praised by reviewers for his restrained persona and acting chops, Mammootty Jr’s road flick “Karwaan” (2018) co-starring Irrfan Khan, as well as the romedy “The Zoya Factor” in the company of Sonam Kapoor, didn’t fare well at the cash counters.

Like it or not, that just strengthens the regressive trade belief that even the most capable of actors from south India – be it Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan -- can’t make a long-lasting cross-over to Bollywood. That’s a conundrum which will be sorted one fine day hopefully. Incidentally, Mohanlal, another fine actor from Kerala, seems to have kept a distance from Mumbai, having only featured in “Kaalapaani” (1996) and in the ensemble cast of “Company”(2002), “Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag “(2007), and “Tezz” (2012).

Back to Mammootty. At the age of 70, he continues to be a mega-star. To date, he remains prolific and belts out whopper hits. Take “Madhura Raja” (2019) – described as a “fun ride to be enjoyed with a tub of popcorn” -- became his career-best grosser with a global collection of over Rs 100 crore. An improved sequel to “Pokkiri Raja” (2010), it returned the actor to the genre he’s excelled in – the crime thriller in which he takes on vicious opponents. Ever the do-gooder, he delivers punchy dialogue and performs incredible stunts while taking on a fearsome villain who’s responsible for a liquor tragedy – based on a real-life incident in 1982 -- which devastated the lives of hundreds of families.

The actor can be and is mercurial –he is not averse to appearing in a low-budget arthouse films as well. For instance, his straight-form-the-heart portrayal of a prisoner who falls in a love with a woman jailmate whom he never sees across the other side of the wall in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Mathilukal” (Walls, 1989). There were no high dramatics here, asserting than the the actor can be effectively low-key when asssigned an opportunity to display a twist of sobriety.

Perhaps Mammootty’s strongest suit is his abiding tendency of not taking himself too seriously. Apart from that, he has kept himself in shape. Unarguably, too, his face is his fortune, enhanced by a disarming smile and a well-groomed moustache. His baritone voice packs in a range, rising to the high octaves effortlessly. When I had asked him how he modulates his voice, he had laughed, “I guess, I learnt to do that in the law courts. You can’t possibly speak at a low volume to reach the ears of the judge in a crowded courtroom.”

His unwavering popularity among his loyal following of fans has risen because of his devotion to several charitable causes. As for his frankspeak, there was the instance of his criticism of the International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFA) ceremony in Dubai way back in 2006, emphasising that the organisers had no business to call themselves ‘international’ since they have for years ignored South Indian cinema as if it didn’t exist on the map.

At one point, he aspired to direct a film starring Rajinikanth but it fell through the cracks. Plus, there have been rumours that the southern star, with socialist leanings was planning to join politics. However, he has gone on record, to categorically state, "I don't think I will ever have much interest in politics.You don't need to be in politics to serve the people."

Mercy be. Because the Mammootty I would like to remember, is the pleasant-natured, uncomplicated actor on the Mumbai sets of a haunted house created for a suspense thriller. Raveena Tandon was to be his co-star. The project was shelved after a week’s shoot, and he had laughed, “See, no wants me around in your city. I just don’t fit in.” Shuttling between Thiruvanthapuram, Kochi and Chennai now, he’s been a stoic survivor. On the digital domain, he has fetched up regularly, in films albeit of varying quality during the straitened pandemic conditions. Lately it was announced that his film, “One” (2021) – in which he portrayed a Chief Minister determined to clean up rampant corruprion -- will be remade in Hindi, but the role ostensibly will be one of the Bollywood A-listers.

Dulquer Salmaan, will be seen next in the Bollywood sphere in a psychological thriller, in the company of Sunny Deol and Pooja Bhatt, directed by R. Balki.Surely, both the father and son deserve to be even more widely known than they already are. Believe me, or that will be Bollywood’s loss entirely.

Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and film director.

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