Not Enough Is Said About Mammootty's Impact on Malayalam Cinema of the 80s
Looking back the huge impact that Mammootty had on Malayalam cinema of the 80s
“I register the passage of time when belles traverse from youth to middle age”, is one of parallel college tutor-turned-IAS officer Haridasan’s quick repartees in the 1988-film Mukthi, delivered with aplomb by Mammootty. The ‘Mega Star’ of Kerala, who turned 70 this week, is often hailed for looking youthful and radiant at his age, while all his heroines from yesteryears have moved on to play matronly characters. For a multiple-national award-winning actor who played some of the most memorable characters in Malayalam cinema, it is astonishing that defying age is bandied about as his single-biggest achievement today.
Perhaps that necessitates a recounting of Mammootty’s contribution in the transformation of Malayalam cinema in the early 1980s’, when he gave life to MT Vasudevan Nair’s characters with autobiographical shades among other films. From the era of potboilers during Jayan’s fleeting superstardom to the mainstreaming of movies with deeper sensibilities, it was a revolution that was made possible only because of the availability of actors par excellence like Mammootty and Mohanlal. One often hears how Mohanlal is the ‘effortless’ actor, or the more ‘gifted’ actor, with all his talent. But anyone who has gone through Mammootty’s rich body of work in the 1980s and ‘90s would vouch for his metamorphosis on screen, playing characters with an understated brilliance unmatched by anyone.
The flashes of talent were in display in early films such as Mela (1981) and Yavanika (1982) but it was in March 1984 that Mammootty stamped his mark on Malayalam cinema when Aalkkootathil Thaniye, Aksharangal and Athirathram released within a week of each other and went on to become super-hits. This would be followed by the likes of blockbusters Kanamarayathu and Adiyozhukkukal, the latter winning him his first ‘Best Actor’ award in Malayalam. While these films were essentially commercial, they were backed by acclaimed scriptwriters and drew inspiration from contemporary literature.
Mammootty’s range as an actor is often highlighted with his performances in Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha (1989), Vidheyan, Ponthan Mada (1993) et al but it is in playing regular characters like Professor Mohandas in Oru Kadha Oru Nunakkadha or Sekharan Master in Kochu Themmadi (1986) where you could see the effortless transformation of the actor on screen. One couldn’t be faulted for wondering if Mammootty’s good looks came in the way of his characters getting more recognition. Would it be a coincidence that all the ‘Best Actor’ awards he won during his first couple of decades in the industry were for characters that looked vastly different or less-glamorous from his real appearance? Adiyozhukkukal (1984), Mrugaya, Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha (1989), Vidheyan, Ponthan Mada (1993) won him the awards even as some of the great characters he played with his regular get-up got passed over for awards.
The way Mammootty behaves as writer Jayadevan sketched by MT Vasudevan Nair in Aksharangal (1984) or as MT’s alter-ego Muraleedharan in Anubandham (1985) should go down as the finest portrayals of male leads in the history of Malayalam cinema. It was Devalokam directed by MT which was originally slated to be Mammootty’s debut in 1979, but the film didn’t see the light of the day. Hence it was poetic justice when Mammootty was called up to replace debutante Babu Namboothiri midway as the lead in MT’s Trishna (1981) directed by IV Sasi, which turned out to his first lead role.
The film landed in Mammootty’s lap when the actor was going through a phase of struggle and self-conflict as he was seen aping the redoubtable Sukumaran’s dialogue-delivery in Munnettam, his previous release. The Sreekumaran Thampy-directed Munnettam, a remake of Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuruvi, had some heavy-duty dialogues which Mammootty strung together in Sukumaran’s distinct style, then at the peak of his career. But post Trishna, that same year, Mammootty came into his own in Ahimsa, winning the state award for the ‘Second Best Actor’. There was no looking back from there as Mammootty went on to become the busiest actor in the industry post-1982.
True, there was that little phase in the mid-1980s when the ‘Mammootty-Petty-Kutty’ trope briefly threatened to destabilise his career. He played the ‘family man’ in a string of box office duds without a cohesive script which had him in a bit of a rut, but that spell was finally broken in 1987 with the back-to-back releases of New Delhi and Thaniyavarthanam followed by Manivathoorile Aayiram Shivarathrikal. Mammootty’s portrayal of the journalist-editor G Krishnamoorthy in Joshiy’s New Delhi drew from his performances in Nirakkoottu (1985) and Vartha (1986), two films which had won critical acclaim and also had the cash registers ringing.
Manivathoorile Aayiram Shivarathrikal would see Mammootty in a rare romantic turn playing the character of Dr Vinayachandran delicately and with the right amount of vulnerability. That Mammootty could play around with his accent and modulate his voice to perfection was evident from his performances in films such as Kottayam Kunjachan (1990). The actor’s unique comedic skills too came to the fore in Azhakiya Ravanan and No 1 Snehatheeram Bangalore North (1995).
In the mid-1990s, speaking at the launch of Asianet, Mammmooty stated he wanted to be known more as a good actor than a ‘superstar’. In the years that followed, however, especially post 2000, the actor seemed to become conscious of turning older and doing films often for the sake of it than as a creative pursuit.
Seemingly intent on protecting his stardom and doing characters that didn’t exploit the actor in him, Mammootty let down the fan base he amassed during his prime. Die-hard ‘Ikka’ fans would argue that he endeared himself to another section of fans by doing larger-than-life characters during this phase, thus enhancing his mass appeal. Mammootty’s part in elevating Malayalam Cinema’s standards several notches during its golden era in the ‘80s should be juxtaposed with his career post 2000, when one would struggle to pick out ten good films.
Film connoisseurs would remember that Mammootty never really aged on screen, forever remaining a 35-something character. In Johny Walker (1992), for instance, the actor’s screen age is mentioned as 35-36, while 12 years later in Aparichithan (2004), the actor’s age is again referred to as 35. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then Mammootty was once heard saying that he wants to remain the heartthrob of the 35-year-olds forever.
Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha (2009) and Pranchiyettan & the Saint (2010) gave hope to serious connoisseurs of cinema that the superstar was willing to play characters more in line with his age but that was belied in no time as the actor got back to doing pointless films and characters which had no substance.
Actor Prithviraj recently remarked that turning 70 would be the beginning of the “most interesting phase” of Mammootty’s career – by which he probably meant that the veteran would probably experiment more with his roles (and play older characters) although that remains to be seen. Maybe, Mammootty needs to pause and ask himself why he chose to become an actor in the first place and whether he still wants to be known as an ‘actor’ than a ‘super star’.
Notwithstanding all the terrible choice of films Mammootty made post 2000, his oeuvre in the 1980s and 1990s mark him out as the best actor of that era, a notch higher than, I daresay, even Mohanlal. Those films would forever stand testimony to Mammootty’s acting chops no matter what lies ahead. Here’s wishing the beloved actor a thousand full moons and more.
(Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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