50 years of Mammootty: A disciplined star

50 years of Mammootty: A disciplined star

Perseverance and a desire to get better have helped the Malayalam actor scale great heights in a career spanning five decades

Mammootty, who has acted in over 400 films across languages, is a three-time National Award-winner. INSTAGRAM/MAMMOOTTY

Finding context to personal milestones — especially to the ones that validate the achiever’s longevity in his or her line of work — can, at times, get ungainly.

Take Mammootty’s 50th year in cinema; his first appearance on screen came in 'Anubhavangal Paalichakal', released in August, 1971. We could see this event with a this-day-that-year throwback on what was happening around the world in 1971, in what could be a commemorative reminder on how the actor has travelled with generations.

We can, for instance, lead with the fact that Bangladesh was formed in the same year and ask ourselves, how many of these actors do we have; the ones with careers that run parallel to nations’ histories, careers that do the full stretch — that year to this day?

The problem is that with Mammootty, that’s not the road you want to take. The actor — he turns 70 on Sept. 7 — is still evolving and is not likely to let encomiums distract him into complacency. He is learnt to have refused to attach too much significance to the 50th year, since 'Vilkkaanundu Swapnangal' and 'Mela' (both 1980 releases) are widely considered his breakthrough films.

In an industry brought to halt by a pandemic, at a time when uncertainty over release dates is forcing big-ticket films to go OTT, Mammootty is prepping for characters in a backlog of films that could take, at least, another two years to screen. In the line-up is Ratheena Sharshad’s Puzhu which has Mammootty in what’s being billed as a never-before character. That’s an unlikely hook-line – Never Before – for a film headlined by actors of his vintage but that, really, is the thing with Mammootty.

The celebratory closure of a half-century cannot capture a career that covers over 400 films in multiple languages; no chronologically arranged listicle can string together a diverse body of work shaped by perseverance and an unflagging drive to get better.

The actor’s career choices are influenced by the market but he also retains a streak of intern-like enthusiasm for his craft — the kind that takes him on detours, at least one of them in every two to three years, to explore the unknown as an actor. These are incentives his distinguished contemporaries, some of them bigger stars, have not allowed themselves.

Mohanlal, a particularly distinguished actor-star, is among contemporaries who have spoken highly about the “discipline” with which Mammootty approaches his work. The range of his most celebrated performances is expansive – from the big actorly flourishes as the wronged warrior in 'Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha' (1989) to the seething resentment of the grieving, hallucinating prisoner in 'Bhoothakkannadi' (1997) to the chilling brutality of the feudal antagonist in 'Paleri Manikyam: Oru paathirakolapathakathinte kadha (2009)'.

These transformations, physical and often supplemented with the actor’s mastery over dialects, are about this one facet of his method – discipline. It has also kept him in shape, with pictures posted on his official social media handles setting off fan frenzy and memes that invariably reference Benjamin Button.

Mammootty has, in a televised chat with writer-filmmaker Ranjith, talked about the “shame” in having to watch his performance in 'Trishna' (1981), his first in what would be a series of celebrated associations with writer M T Vasudevan Nair. “Then, I only had the desire to act but I didn’t have the craft,” he tells Ranjith and adds, “that’s why I say I would like to do that film again.”

This is a three-time national award-winning actor, telling you that he had to work to the top. There’s no condescension or rehearsed humility of an over-achiever; he’s only wistful of a second chance, of the possibilities that another film offers. The compulsions around stardom, unlike with his generation of Indian actors, have not steered him to its spin-offs — brand-building, a production house that makes him more exclusive, television shows or political ambition.

That three of his career’s finest performances came in the past seven years, and that he played them across the range — the affable, enigmatic double-homicide convict in 'Munnariyippu' (2014), the lonely, blue-collar expatriate in 'Pathemari' (2015) and the weak-kneed cop on election duty in insurgency-hit Chhattisgarh in 'Unda' (2019) — tells you about this enthusiasm. It’s this enthusiasm that also makes the actor accessible to young, untested talent; at least three of Malayalam cinema’s most accomplished new-wave filmmakers started with Mammootty — Aashiq Abu, Anwar Rasheed and Martin Prakkat.

That in 'Unda', the male lead is stripped of all the mass-hero detailing we are conditioned to in Mammootty’s iconic angry-cop blockbusters tells you that he is still having a shot at cracking the actor-star conundrum that has limited some of his gifted contemporaries. The star, meanwhile, is on his own ride on the other lane – Mammootty’s 'The Priest', a horror-thriller that hit screens in March this year, is the biggest theatrical success among post-pandemic releases; 'Bheeshmaparvam', his next with director Amal Neerad, is one of the most awaited films in Malayalam.   

There are calls seeking more exclusivity from the actor; the reference here is to contemporaries who have cut down on the numbers and moved on to event films and big star vehicles. For Mammootty, plateauing out doesn’t seem to be an option. Those of us who are in this for the actor shouldn’t complain. He still dabbles with the bafflingly ordinary but we should know that the good one is around the corner. That’s the promise, that’s how this has worked.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru).  

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