I met Mammootty for the first time in 1989. The superstar of Malayalam cinema marked 50 years in the film industry a few weeks ago, but when I met him, his career was just beginning to peak. His newly released film Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, a historical costume drama, was all set to become a blockbuster. The song Chandanalepa Sugandham, sung by the golden-voiced Yesudas and featuring the strapping, romantic Mammootty and the beauteous Madhavi, was on everyone’s lips.
Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha was based on a script by the author MT Vasudevan Nair, and recast an old legend with new characters. It was directed by Hariharan and had a then-agile, dashing Mammootty in almost every frame. Everything about it was grand—the cast, the setting, the costumes, the music.
Like any good film must in order to create a buzz, it also invited controversy. Chandu, played by Mammootty, the hero in this reinterpretation was presented as a larger-than-life figure who was misunderstood and unfairly vilified. But in the old legend, he was known as Chadiyan Chandu (Chandu the betrayer). Had the script been tailored to suit the image of the rising mega star?
At that time, Mammooty had already spent about 18 years in cinema. He was an actor who had literally pulled himself out of anonymity by his bootstraps and was on the verge of becoming one of Malayalam cinema’s first superstars. He had started his career as a junior artiste in Sethumadhavan’s Anubhavangal Paalichakal (1971), featuring the stars of the day, Prem Nazir, Sathyan and Sheela. After playing small roles in a few other films, he got his big break in KG George’s Mela in 1980. The film was set in a circus and he played the part of a handsome motorcycle stuntman to whom the clown’s beautiful wife is attracted. It bombed.
Mammootty’s career took off only after 1982 when he decided to take on every film that came his way. Between 1982 and 1987, he starred in 150 films, good, bad and indifferent. 1986 was a bonanza year—he starred in around 35 films in a year—but it was also disaster year in terms of box office success.
Director Joshiy, who worked with Mammootty on a number of films, told journalist Shobha Warrier in a 2000 interview, “In 1986, all his films flopped miserably. Everybody wrote him off. Many predicted that Mammootty’s days as hero were over… We had worked in four films that year -- all flopped. It was one of his worst years. Why, youngsters wouldn't go near the theatre if they found it was his film! The moment he appeared on screen, they used to hoot.”
But miraculously in 1987 he made a spectacular comeback with Joshiy’s crime thriller New Delhi, which won him national acclaim. The awards started pouring in. All the hard work and perseverance was beginning to pay off. In 1989, when I met Mammootty, he was starring in films in at least three languages.
This was the time when there was a line between “art” and “commercial” cinema. There were also artistic yet commercially successful middle-road films made by directors like KG George. Mammootty had managed to straddle all these genres successfully. He starred with equal ease in commercial blockbusters like IV Sasi’s Eenadu and critically acclaimed and commercially successful films like KG George’s Yaavanika. He became a favourite with Adoor Gopalakrishnan and acted in several of his films, including Anantharam, Mathilukal and Vidheyan.
I been commissioned to do a cover story for Filmfare on this rapidly rising star. Mammooty was quite excited about the interview as he was trying to project himself as a pan-Indian actor. After all, he was fluent in several languages, including Hindi and Tamil.
When we met at 1.30 pm in a hotel lobby in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram), he had just woken up an hour earlier. He had driven down from Madras (now Chennai) overnight, and said he’d slept only at 5.30 am. His days were packed. “I have to dub for one film, shoot for another, do patchwork for several more, then night scenes to be shot... I have no time to think of day or night,” he told me. And yet he looked exceptionally relaxed and fresh, dressed in a spotless white mundu and lighting a beedi.
Just ten years earlier, he told me, he had been trying to make a living as a lawyer in Manjeri in north Kerala. Friends introduced him to the well-known writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair at a film festival. Nair offered him his first role in Devalokam, a film that was shelved a week after it went on the floors. Yet he got noticed.
Mammooty had married Zulfat just six days before he started his first film. “She married a lawyer,” he laughed, “but now she has to live with an actor.” That, he said, came with its own set of issues—no privacy, no time to spend with Zulfat and their two children, Surmi and Dulquer, then 8 and 6. “But I have just one life and I have to share it with both my career and family,” he said, somewhat philosophically.
What’s kept Mammootty relevant for decades is his chameleon-like ability to adapt to any role. The fact that he was not choosy about his roles at the start of his career helped. He could be an urban sophisticate in one film, a rustic character in another, a villain, a superhero, a family man. “In the Malayalam film industry, we are not bothered about image and appearances. Once I accept a role, I go into it without reservation.”
By this time a more tempestuous star had appeared on the scene: Mohanlal. He was 10 years younger and equally passionate about his profession. Between them, the two Ms have dominated Malayalam screens for several decades now. Although fans and social media keep pitting them against each other as rivals, the two superstars have always maintained that there is no enmity or rivalry between them. They have acted together in 55 films. In fact, in Padayettam, their first film together, Mammootty acted as the younger star’s father. On Monday evening, both received Golden Visas from the UAE government for long-term stay and work.
During that 1989 interview Mammootty had said, “Superstars? I don’t know if we are superstars… maybe audiences prefer us to some other stars.” But it was no secret that they commanded much higher prices than the stars of yesteryear. Over the years as cinema budgets soared, fingers were often pointed at the superstars and their high fees. Today they are rumoured to charge around ₹2.5 crore a film, sometimes double that. As they grow in stature and power, the two Ms continue to be accused of getting scripts tweaked to suit their larger-than-life images.
Although Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha remains one of my favourites, there are many more Mammootty films I love—and many which left me cold. Without doubt, Mammootty’s best films that remain in my mind are the less flamboyant ones. Like Pathemari, the 2015 drama with Mammootty in the role of a pioneering immigrant in the Gulf who lives frugally and works hard to support a family that cares little for what he is going through. He showed much restraint in this film which could have easily turned into a maudlin melodrama.
Over the last few years, he has acted in films with varied subjects, and with varied success. The 2019 film Unda, a black comedy about a group of policeman from Kerala, posted for election duty in a region affected by naxalism, was fun. Others like the costume drama Mamangam flopped.
Despite the hits and misses, there is no doubt about Mammootty’s superstardom. Audiences across the country recognize him, and he’s won a number of prestigious awards. On 7 September, he has a milestone birthday—he will turn 70. He’s certainly a different Mammootty today from the young, 20-something lawyer who stood in front of a camera with stars in his eyes, but his penchant for hard work and willingness to take on a variety of roles hasn’t changed.
Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.
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