In Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (2023), Mammootty is at a local bar in a Tamil Nadu village. He’s playing a Malayali man who wakes up from an afternoon nap on a bus, and inexplicably believes that he is now a Tamil man who had gone missing from the village. Spreading his hands apart, James-now-Sundaram, lip syncs to Sivaji Ganesan’s famous dialogue from the Tamil legal drama Gauravam (1973). Interestingly, the static camera is placed at a distance, as if we’re watching Mammootty through a crowd, and there’s nothing special at all about this superstar who is delivering a pitch perfect performance.
The scene, however, is telling of Mammootty’s reinvention at the age of 71. This is a superstar who isn’t desperately clinging to his on screen youth; he isn’t trying to evoke nostalgia among his fans for the Mammootty from decades ago by referencing those films repeatedly in his new ones; he’s done with flogging dead horses and is running free.
Nanpakal was produced by Mammootty and Pellissery, and distributed by Mammootty’s son, actor Dulquer Salmaan’s Wayfarer Films. Veteran film critic GP Ramachandran said that in the past, it was rumoured that Mammoottty would demand that his character be glorified to preserve his stardom, barring the films he did with revered filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and TV Chandran. “The actuality in this regard is still unknown to me. But anyhow, he’s now showing the courage to let himself experiment even with younger generation directors like Ratheena PT and Jeo Baby. This has led to his success,” Ramachandran noted.
In Ratheena’s psychological drama Puzhu (2022), Mammootty plays Kuttan, a paranoid, casteist Brahmin who cannot accept the fact that his sister (Parvathy) is married to a Dalit intellectual (Appunni Sasi). This wasn’t the first time that Mammootty played a negative role – in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1994), he was the despicable landlord who exploits labourers and has no redeeming qualities. He won his second National Award for Best Actor for the performance. Less than a decade ago, he played CK Raghavan, a convict who claims that he’s innocent of his crimes in Venu’s thriller Munnariyippu (2014). It’s only in the last scene that the truth hits the audience like a sledgehammer, as a slight smile lights up Raghavan’s impassive face.
“Kuttan in Puzhu is a layered character. He is a close-minded, casteist man, a bad father. He’s the type of man who forces his ideas on others. He believes that he’s always right. He is full of negative thoughts,” said Ratheena. But, the director added, Kuttan doesn’t look or behave like a villain. He is someone who leads an ordinary life. “I couldn’t think of anyone but Mammootty to play the role. The writers of the film (Harshad, Suhas-Sharfu) also had only Mammootty in mind while writing the script,” she said.
Still, directing a superstar in such an unflattering role wasn’t easy. “Though his earlier antagonist roles gave me courage, I was concerned about how people would perceive this role. He’s a star who is welcomed with whistles and claps in theatres. But Puzhu shows him in a cruel, negative role from beginning to end. I didn’t want it to look glorified in any way,” said Ratheena.
In a career spanning over 50 years, Mammootty has had his fair share of highs and lows. Not so long ago, he went through a lean phase when he was delivering dud after dud. Films like Pulikkaran Staraa (2017), Parole (2018), Pathinettam Padi (2019), Ganagandharvan (2019) and even the big budget period drama Mamangam (2019) had critics wondering if the superstar had lost his ability to select good scripts. He seemed to be signing anything that came his way, and it was only an occasional Peranbu (2019) or Unda (2019) that proved that Mammootty, the actor, was still alive and kicking.
Perhaps Mammootty listened to his critics closely, because there has been a remarkable turn-around in his script selection. He’s more selective, more attuned to what works with the audience now, and open to working with young filmmakers who are interested in experimentation. What’s more, he is also backing these films as producer.
Mammootty is now at an age when most superstars have either hung up their boots or are trying hard to bring their loyal fanbase to theatres by playing hypermasculine roles that are reminiscent of their blockbuster films. At any rate, none have managed to experiment with such a wide variety of roles and genres as Mammootty in his recent filmography. Just in 2022, the actor starred in Bheeshma Parvam, a mass action film that paid tribute to Francis Coppola’s The Godfather for its 50th anniversary; CBI 5: The Brain, an investigative thriller which was part of the famous CBI franchise; psychological drama Puzhu in which he played the antagonist; and the experimental thriller Rorschach in which he played a man who goes on an impossible hunt to avenge his wife’s murder (he was also its producer). He began 2023 with Pellissery’s offbeat absurd drama Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam.
But between the numerous commercial blockbusters and hypermasculine hero roles that Mammootty has done, Ramachandran said that he has always looked for unusual roles that tested his potential as an actor. The critic lists films like Ponthan Mada (1994), Dany (2001), Vidheyan (1994), Ormakal Undayirikkanam (1995), Bhoothakannadi (1997) and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000) to make his point.
Director Jeo Baby, who worked with Mammootty in his upcoming film Kaathal: The Core, is in agreement with Ramachandran’s assessment. Recounting a conversation that he had with Mammootty on the sets of Kaathal, Baby said, “We were talking about Malayalam independent cinema that has always received acclaim in the festival circuit and among audiences beyond Kerala. Mammootty was wondering why indie filmmakers are not casting him now. He entered cinema through such films, and told me that he’s still very keen to do such roles.”
Like Ratheena, Baby too was sure that nobody but Mammootty could play the character that he had in mind for Kaathal. “It is Mammootty, the actor, that we’ve used in this film. Of course, we also hope that his stardom will bring people to the theatre and help us at the box office. I was waiting for someone like him who can take the subject of this film to the audience,” said Baby.
While the crew is tight-lipped about its premise, there is much excitement around the film since it also stars Tamil star Jyotika. According to Baby, Mammootty was closely involved with the project and had many suggestions for the director regarding the screenplay. “They were all suggestions that were appropriate for the film. He had understood his character and the material of the film to that extent,” he said. This film, too, is produced by Mammootty.
“In my discussions with him, Mammootty told me that he did several commercial films but that he’s always supported indie cinema. He is actually hurt that people who make indie cinema now have forgotten him. He’s aware that his star presence in such films can make a big difference, and he is also hungry for the exciting roles that such films offer,” said Baby. Are Malayalam cinema’s New Wave directors listening?