Celebrating Mammootty at 70: The Originally Supreme of His Species
Mammootty at 70: Why Mammukka continues to stay strong and relevant in Malayalam cinema
In his Independence Day Facebook post on 15 August last month, Mammootty virtually donned the role of an 'anti-national', asking everyone to ‘uphold the values of secularism, democracy and equality’, disparaging words indeed bordering on lunacy in today’s socio-cultural and political milieu that we find ourselves in.
An actor who unflinchingly wears the left liberal ideology on his sleeve, the post in a way can be seen as a testimony to his life, of the arduous trek from an uncredited role as a bent, scrawny beedi-puffing oarsman on a canoe in the Prem Nazir starrer Kaalachakram (1973) to the recent bravura portrayal of a state chief minister consumed by his all-encompassing wokeness in debutant Santhosh Vishwanath’s One (2021).
It tells us that one Muhammad Kutty Panaparambil Ismail can go on and be a Mammootty, that infinite possibilities abound if you have the proverbial fire in the belly and gutsy fortitude in a country that is yoked to the ideas that he espouses, uniting us in our disparateness.
When some actors, usually from the Mumbai film industry, abuse their names adding superfluous alphabets sweepingly to invoke the hallowed and the divine and hustle their getaway towards success, for Mammootty it was a given. As if personally willed by the almighty. From his bit screen debut as a nameless, dialogue less gawky onlooker at 20 in Anubhavangal Paalichakal (1971) and later careening into the hands of MT Vasudevan Nair, KG George and IV Sasi, and with Padmarajan, AK Lohithadas and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, he became the willing clay to the artful potter. The aspiring lawyer soon found the arc lights more fascinating and rested his case, the judge smiling reassuringly from above giving his assent.
Mammootty was at his best when he performed with an ensemble of actors like Soman, Sri Vidya, Innocent, Thilakan, Seema, Karamana Janardhanan, Gopi, Rahman, and Mohanlal to name a few. The stories and their telling in most of these collaborations were nothing short of exemplary. At the same time as the main protagonist, he revelled with Anantharam (1987), Mathilukal (1990), Sooryamanasam (1992), Vidheyan (1994), Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000) and many more, portraying a vast range of characters deftly.
As rank commercialisation ganged up with a burgeoning market for Malayalam films his roles segued into the one man, superhero formula which did dampen things, but his films nevertheless kept raking it in big time at the Kerala box-office. Even today, a Mammootty-starrer can shore-up the production and distribution costs and eye profits within days of its release, a remarkable feat compared to the often tepid responses Mumbai film industry greats are greeted with.
Mammootty’s recent role in Khalid Rahman’s Unda (2019) in certain ways is an ode to the many beautiful stories he was part of during the 80s and 90s, playing characters who were weak and broken, brave against all odds, viciously deviant, the compassionate brother and of course the quintessential family man or the elusive lover.
It is to these marvellous stories that he must return to and ignite the spark in writers and directors.
Dulquer Salmaan alluded in a tweet last month upon Mammootty completing 50 years in cinema that a book on his father was due. That book should be in the works, illuminating and retelling Mammootty’s real-life stories, of sheer hard work, pain and glory, the failures, and sacrifices, and above all, of gritty determination; a journal for today’s generation and the next; that a journey is never easy, overnight success is a mirage, often never lasting and that nothing buffets one more with what life throws at you than a sincere and honest work ethic coupled with steely resolve.
Interestingly, the actor’s eponymous official website runs out of breath after listing his films till the year 2017 under its ‘Movie Directory’ section, the site’s absconding content editor posting a snapshot link to the star’s Facebook page as a consolation. Most likely unable to keep pace with Mammootty’s sprawling anthology of films, a rare case then of technology and machine algorithm bowing down to the glorious perspicacity of the human form. Surprisingly the site is searingly honest and lets fall hard truths as it goes on to chart the actor’s career in films over the decades, it calls out his ‘forgettable films’ in Tamil and is not very gung-ho about his spirited Hindi venture, Dhartiputra (1993) either.
As an aside, little is known about the status of an ayurvedic, herbal enterprise under the brand name of ‘Pathanjali’ out of Palakkad, Kerala that had Mammootty’s heft and backing launched sometime towards the late 1990s. Way before a full-time guru, part-time freewheeler businessman of sorts up north who could pleat himself into various inhuman bodily contortions and even spin like a top resting atop his palm launched a slew of products with a similar label.
A dearth of epithets for the actor beckons and so about time then that some angel investor warming up to cool new startup ideas dotting Kerala’s immense coastline did something about this Keralan if not national adversity hovering upon us. In the year when the Swedish quartet ABBA all in their 70s rejig their smash hits and plan to lure us with a redemptive comeback of sorts post a 40-year hiatus, Mammootty entering his septuagenarian phase continues his cinematic voyage with nary a pause. As one of God’s own, the man is beyond age and time, unbounded and livened by the very passion he breathes, his flight is limitless.
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