How does one summarize or describe the oeuvre and persona of an actor like Mammootty whose career spans more than four decades and four hundred films, and who is still going strong? The variety of roles he has essayed, the diverse acting modes and speech styles he has experimented with, and the untiring efforts he puts into each role, are phenomenal to say the least. Most importantly for an actor, he still looks fresh and young, ever ready for new makeovers and more challenging roles. Just take a look at some of the stunning performances of his in the last decades. Who among his peers would have been as equally at ease to play such majestic roles such as YS Rajasekhara Reddy in Yathra (2019), the valiant fighter in Pazhassi Raja (2009) on the one hand, and also the weary gulf migrant Narayanan in Pathemari (2015), the serial killer in Munnariyippu (2014), the meek sub inspector fighting terrorists in Unda (2019) and the hapless father in Peranbu (2019) on the other? A rare and unique combination of magnetic personality, physical charm, longevity of career, diversity of roles and ever-increasing popularity — all make Mammootty one of the greatest actors in Indian cinema.
Mammootty's debut in a major role was in KG George's Mela in 1980; but for a brief appearance in Anubhavangal Paalichakal (1971), his other attempts never reached the screen. He entered the scene when major actors of the earlier era were at the fag end of their careers: Sathyan, the iconic actor of the earlier generation, had met with an early death and Prem Nazir's evergreen image was beginning to fade. An array of young actors like Sukumaran, Sudheer, Vincent, Raghavan, Gopi and Ratheesh were making their presence felt, bringing in fresh energy and vigour to the screen. In 1980, the career of another rising action hero, Jayan came to an abrupt and tragic end in an accident.
This was the scene when both Mammootty and Mohanlal entered it in the early 80's. But it was the decade when the Malayalam film industry was witnessing a huge jump in terms of production: from around 80 films a year in the previous decade it rose to more than 110, averaging about 2 new releases every week! It was also a period when gulf remittance to Kerala was on the rise, spurring film production and the growth of exhibition halls. In terms of content, treatment and themes too, this decade proved to be very prolific: films of all kinds — 'art', 'middle' and 'commercial' — and genres — suspense thrillers, family dramas, northern ballads, socials, films based on contemporary events and politics etc. — were being made. All this created a vibrant industry atmosphere that encouraged experimentation with daring themes, introduction of new techniques and technologies, and the entry of more and more new talents: scenarists, directors and technicians, as well as producers. Rise in production figures, expanding market and thematic variety, gave more leeway for existing actors to experiment with diverse roles, even while offering opportunities to new artists. Entering the scene at such a high point in Malayalam film industry, a hardworking actor like Mammootty had ample opportunities to hone his skills, connect with the audience, and to entrench himself as a star in the industry and as an actor in popular imagination.
In his first decade itself, Mammootty had the opportunity to work with all the important filmmakers from different generations, and in diverse categories and genres. His directors ranged from already established masters of the time like A Vincent, KS Sethumadhavan, PN Menon, to contemporary hitmakers like Joshiy, Sasikumar, Sreekumaran Thampi, IV Sasi, PG Viswambharan, M Krishnan Nair, Hariharan, Fazil, Priyadarshan and Sathyan Anthikad. Apart from them, he also acted in the films of 'middle cinema' auteurs like KG George, Bharathan, Mohan, Padmarajan, and Siby Malayil and in art films made by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, TV Chandran, Pavithran, KP Kumaran and later Shaji N Karun. So much so that in the very first decade of his entry, he had acted in more than 200 films in all conceivable genres — socials, family dramas, mystery thrillers, ghost stories, period films, art films, and also some light comedies. By the end of the decade, he had established himself as a very dependable and successful star with an acting style of his own.
Even in the 1990s when the entry of television rocked the film industry by capturing its most favourite and popular thematic terrains, and hitting the box office by bringing visual entertainment to the audiences' homes, the popularity and stardom of Mammootty continued to grow. Actually, in the case of both Mammootty and Mohanlal the coming of television was a blessing in disguise. Though television captured the most important segment of the movie market — the 'family audience', as far as its entertainment content was concerned, it predominantly depended on cinema for its films, songs, comedy scenes, clips and the umpteen parodies based on that. Such 'splintering of the huge silver screen whose pieces fell into individual homes' (as Kamal Swaroop once described the coming of television into homes) in fact gave a second life and new platform to the films of the reigning film stars through telecast, further entrenching their star image in public mind and boosting their fan base.
The burgeoning popularity of Mammootty as an actor and his pre-eminence within the industry are evident from the fact that he acted in as many as 220 films in the 1980s. From 1983 to 1986, he acted in about 35 films every year! In the next decades, along with the general decline in film production, Mammootty films also came down to an average of around 55 films a year. It was also a period when production, turnover and also the number of theatres were on the wane. If the 1990s saw a more mature Mammootty performing with greater ease and in a variety of roles, in the post-millennium years his persona has assumed greater gravitas and grace. A host of young 'newgen' actors were entering the field in the last decades, and superstars like Mammootty and Mohanlal becoming more selective in their choice of roles and films, and so, figuring mostly in mega productions. But even in the so-called 'newgen' films one can see the glare and shadows of these super stars — in the form of references, tributes, jokes, imitations or parodies.
Through all these ups and downs in the visual media and film industry — the transformation from Black and White to Colour, and later the radical transformation from analog to digital, the coming of television and later social media and OTT platforms — Mammootty the actor and star has grown and evolved. As Joshiy, the director with whom Mammootty has done most number of films, rightly says, "Mammootty is changing with the times. He is growing with the times. That is why he is the king even after 20 years."
In many ways, K G George could be considered a mentor of sorts in moulding Mammootty the actor and his future persona. Mammootty played major roles in almost all KG George films, and the earliest ones — Mela (1980) and Yavanika(1982) could in many ways, be considered as foundational to his later career. Though he is not the main protagonist in both films, his role was crucial and pivotal to the narrative. In Mela he plays the role of a young circus motorist (Vijayan). Rebellious and independent, he dares the circus manager and stands up for his abused friend, the dwarf-clown and his wife. Eventually, the clown commits suicide entrusting his wife in the hands of his friend and protector. In Yavanika, a crime thriller set in a drama troupe, Mammootty plays the role of a cop investigating into the murder of a tablaist in the troupe. In this role, he was noted for his energetic screen presence and controlled yet powerful acting. In most of the films that followed, one can see both these character-types and role models — that of the protector of the weak and women, and as the enforcer of Law — being elaborated in various guises, diverse situations and different milieus. Apart from KG George, it was in the films of Joshiy and IV Sasi that Mammootty played most roles, especially in the 1980s. The Joshiy-Mammootty partnership extends over 30 films, from Aa Rathri (1983) to Nasrani (2007), and that with IV Sasi from Thrishna (1981) to Balram vs Tharadas (2006).
In many of the Joshiy films in the 80's, Mammootty plays the role of the family man who is caught in domestic and marital conflicts of different kinds. The same period witnessed an array of films on the same lines like Rugma (1983), Sandharbham, Mangalam Nerunnu (1984), Muhurtham 11.30nu, Eeran Sandhya, Makan ente Makan, Thammil Thammil, Anubandham, Yathra, Nirakkoottu Avidathepole Ivideyum (all in 1985) etc, strengthening Mammootty's fan base among the female audience. Anthropologists Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella (Men and Masculinities in South India, Anthem Press, 2006), who studied about Malayalee masculine imaginations and their movie heroes, observe that "Mammootty's family tragedies provoke welcome tears and endear him to those older women who are looking in a hero for a competent mature man: a good father, a fascinating husband, a masterful figure in the family". Soon, too many films of the same genre led to a series of box office failures. This is how Joshiy recounts the period: "That was also the time Mammootty, Baby Shalini and the briefcase were a common factor in all Malayalam films. I had started the trend, but every filmmaker in Kerala followed suit: Mammootty, Baby Shalini and the briefcase!". But both the director and the star soon broke the jinx and recast themselves into new stories and roles.
IV Sasi, the most commercially successful director of the decade, also cast Mammootty in superhit films, many of which were also multi-starrers: it includes Thrishna (1981), John Jaffer Janardhanan, Innallenkil Naale (1982), Ee Nadu (1982), Athirathram, Aalkkoottathil Thaniye, Adiyozhukkukal, Aksharangal (1984), Idanilangal, Anubandham, Karimpinpoovinakkare (1985),Vartha,Aavanazhi (1986), Adimakal Udamakal (1987), 1921, Abkari (1988), Mrigaya,(1989), Inspector Balram (1992), and 2 (1991). These films, most of them scripted by well-known scenarists like Padmarajan, MT Vasudevan Nair, Lohitadas and T Damodaran (with whom IV Sasi made a series of films based on stories about current events, political corruption and intrigue), also had ensemble cast that included all the prominent actors of the time. Those well-crafted scripts and the company of great actors and directors gave a learning-actor like Mammootty immense opportunities to constantly improve, improvise and reinvent himself.
By the end of 1980s and the beginning of 1990s, we see the actor persona of Mammootty strongly leaning towards hyper-masculine roles, with a slew of commercially successful and thematically engaging films like Aavanazhi, Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil, Vartha (1986), Kathakku Pinnil, New Delhi (1987), Sangham, Abkari, Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (1988) Mrigaya, Mahayanam, Nair Saab, Atharvam, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989) Iyer the Great, Samrajyam, Kuttettan (1990), Inspector Balram, Amaram, (1991) Kauravar (1992), Dhruvam(1993), Sukrutham (1994), The King (1995) etc. These films expanded and placed Mammootty on to a wider canvas of narratives that portrayed different and more complex shades of masculine power and conflicts. Compared to earlier films, the narrative world of these macho protagonists expanded from the realm of the individual and family, to that of society and nation at large, and the paternal/protector figure turned into an authority figure representing the State. These narratives traversed history and legends, and were animated by various shades of desire, valor, love and troubling questions about corruption in public life and crime. These varied roles successfully combined Mammootty's stature as an actor and appeal as a star.
What distinguished Mammootty the actor was his continuing engagements with films outside the commercial-mainstream that constantly enriched and expanded his repertoire, and brought him critical acclaim and national accolades. Films like Anantharam, Vidheyan, Mathilukal (Adoor Gopalakrishnan), Ponthan Mada, Ormakalundayirikkanam (TV Chandran) used his masculine presence and grace to great artistic effect. If Mammootty elaborated upon the theme of master and slave, domination and violence in Vidheyan, he plays the creative and internal conflicts of a writer who is also a political prisoner in Mathilukal. In Ponthan Mada, he plays the role of a rural peasant, who is a mute witness to the grand history unfolding around him, while in Ormakalundayirikkanam he is a macho political activist, an agent of political revolution and social change. Though not very comfortable in his comic roles, Mammootty also experimented with light comedies. In films like Sreedharante Onnam Thirumurivu (1987) Golanthara Vartha (1993), Nayam Vyakthamakkunnu (1991) and Pappayude Swantha Appoos (1992) and Azhakiya Ravanan (1996) his rigid, masculine persona is playfully set to comic effect. The superhit action comedy Rajamanikyam (2002) gave Mammootty a new turn to his comedy roles by hilariously mixing his masculine charm, language delivery skills and superstar charisma.
Another feature that distinguishes Mammootty is his ability to embody and voice 'regionalities'. There are several hit films where he plays the role of a hero belonging to a particular locality/region/milieu, and speaks the respective local lingo. The film titles themselves tag the place, milieu or region to the name of the character: Kottayam Kunjachan, Kizhakkan Pathrose, Ezhupunna Tharakan, Kamath & Kamath, Iyer the Great, Nasrani, Puthan Panam. In these films he embodies local manners and speaks the local dialect with great flourish. While Pranchiyettan & The Saint plays with Trichur lingo, in Rajamanikyam it is the language of people in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. His method acting style and his ability to become the character is very much evident in films like Mrigaya, Ponthan Mada, Loudspeaker, Vidheyan, Best Actor, Kutty Srank, Paleri Manikyam etc. While elevating him as a versatile actor, these roles also indicate the pan-Kerala image that he has built up through his career — noted for the flair and even flamboance with which he transmigrates into becoming a Kottayam Christian, a coastal Latin Catholic, a Konkani-brahmin, an Iyer, a Nair karanavar or a Muslim aristocrat. It is something that is evident in the ease with which he has played his roles in other languages: roles as diverse as Ambedkar (Jabbar Patel's Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar/2000) and YSR (Mahi Raghav's Yathra/2019) to that of a ruthless don (Mani Ratnam's Thalapathi /1991) and a hesitant lover (K Balachander's Azhakan /1991)
It is impossible to talk about Mammootty and his acting career without referring to Mohanlal, the other super star, his friend, competitor and his alter ego. Poet and writer Kalpetta Narayanan refers to them as the Rama and Krishna of Malayalam cinema: one, the upright, powerful, masculine and monogamous family man, and the other the playful, eternal flirt and boy next door, vulnerable, polygamous, lyrical and romantic. While one readily sings and dances around trees, the other is averse to it. These two actors, in a way, also embody the continuation of Sathyan and Prem Nazir — the star-duo of the earlier generation who had the same kind of binary attributes. While Sathyan was the patriarchal, rebellious, manly hero who takes charge, and plays the tragic hero, Nazir was the romantic playboy, evergreen, extremely vulnerable and always lovable. Interestingly, both the actors were accepted and adored by the public.
Such strange equivalence could be read as the expression of the ambivalence in Malayalee male masculinity — one that is torn between the macho and the tender, the masculine and the feminine, the strong and the vulnerable, the rigid and the flexible, the tragic and the comic. Incapable of making any final choice between the two, Malayalee masculine imagination seems to waver between the two, consciously and subconsciously, and indulges in the possibilities and diverse pleasures they open up through these star-duo. It is a significant coincidence that Mammootty made his first ever film appearance in Sathyan's last film (Anubhavangal Paalichakal), and took the mantle from him as it were.
Another interesting parallel between Mammootty-Mohanlal and Sathyan-Nazir duo relates to combination roles. Both Nazir and Mohanlal revel in playing combination roles and the company of sidekicks. If Nazir was often paired with comedians like Adoor Bhasi, Bahadur etc., Mohanlal has done some of his most memorable roles pairing with Srinivasan and Mukesh (many superhit Sathyan Anthikad and Priyadarshan films). In contrast, in the case of both Sathyan and Mammootty, prominent co-actors or sidekicks are very few and far between. It is as if in their excess of masculine power, they don't need the other — comic, ludic or perverse — to establish, sustain or magnify their heroism. If at all there are sidekicks or co-actors, they are most often followers or minions (Kuttettan, Sangham, Annan Thampi, Rajamanikyam etc.). They are loners who are capable of reigning over the world and the narrative all on their own. Obviously, it is hasya and sringara rasa that needs the company of vidusakas, while vira rasa can stand alone or only with followers.
As a lone, masculine hero, age and aging go much more comfortably or convincingly with Mammootty whereas with Mohanlal it often looks odd or a little forced, for we always associate him with youthhood, playfulness, and often childlikeness. For instance, one of the recurring images in Mohanlal films is him, the eternal child, lying on the lap of the mother (usually Kaviyoor Ponnamma) who caresses him. In a Mammootty film, one will seldom find such a scene of blithe innocence, such yearning to return to the womb, or to seek maternal or even feminine refuge. Likewise, while many of Mohanlal films employ impersonation/ misrecognition — the protagonist masquerading as other, or being misunderstood for another — as a recurring trope, one wouldn't find it in Mammootty films. It is as if his masculine identity and power is not amenable to such trifles.
While Mammootty roles are more often associated with seats of power and authority (State, Court, Executive, Military etc), Mohanlal plays the common man, the one who is in search of security, life, freedom and love. As Osellas observes, if the former plays a grown up, married and responsible man, the latter is more at ease as a reckless lover, unemployed young man. While the concern of one is to control and conquer the world, the other explores and revels in all its uncertainties and accidents. So, while one offers love and invites our identification, we are in awe of the other and look up to him in admiration. While one is a companion and fellow prankster, the other is a protector or guide.
This is how the respondents of the superstars that Osellas interviewed imagine them: "One would want to be able to practice — or imagine oneself — speaking like Mammootty, in a voice that resonates power, warmth and sensuality; one would want to imagine oneself as Mohanlal , singing and romancing a girl; one would aspire to this one's swaggering gait, that one's expression of amused disdain. One wants to participate in Lal's 'average Malayali' alter-ego and in Mammootty's range of recognisable 'types' of dominant masculinity, the former's access to Hindu 'normality' and the latter's access to Muslim exceptionalness."
Apart from the personality and acting abilities of the actor in question, a star evolves out of a combination or confluence of several factors, many of them accidental or chance happenings. It relates to film-industrial dynamics, power equations between creative, production, marketing and exhibition networks, shifts in technologies, change in audience tastes, influence of other cinemas, etc. Though the rise and fall of all actors depend on all such factors, certain actors, through time, emerge as 'stars' and 'super stars' depending on their sustained appeal for the audience and industry backing on the one, and star's own ability to churn out hits by re-inventing oneself.
Like any other star, Mammootty's career too had its ups and downs. As Joshiy describes it, "That was a time when Mammootty was extremely busy. He would do four shifts a day. Almost all Malayalam films had him in the cast. In the day, he would work three shifts for three films. Then we would meet at 10 pm and shoot till 2 am!.." He continues: "In 1986, all his films flopped miserably… Many predicted that Mammootty's days as hero were over, and that hitherto, he would get only supporting roles…In the history of Malayalam cinema, no one has come back as hero after he was down and out.. But it was not to be. Mammootty rewrote history."
The star persona of Mammootty was always associated with a certain kind of masculine imagination. The protagonist roles he played in his formative years were predominantly tough and masculine often in the tragic mode, a man of action who takes charge of his own destiny, fights for certain values, controls women and protects family. There are many films in which he plays the family head, elder brother, group or gang leader, don, upright police officer, committed government official, ethical businessman etc — all of which suits and feeds into his persona. Many of the film titles themselves indicate this: Valyettan (Big Brother), Hitler, Dada Saheb, Rakshasa Rajavu (King of Demons), Pokkiri Raja, Mayavi (The Magician), Prajapathi, Thuruppu Gulan (The Trump Card), Stalin Sivadas, The King, Iyer the Great, Nair Saab, Big B, Pramani (Aristocrat), Rajadhiraja, Shikari, Phantom — all indicating power and authority — physical, social, political or intellectual. This trend continues up to the present, and even to the OTT era, where he portrays a powerful and just chief minister in the film One (2021).
All through his career, he has played authority roles like that of police officers, soldier, advocate, successful businessman, journalist, political leader, community figure head, gang leader etc. Coming out of family roles, his masculine power expanded into wider realms like the bureaucracy, police or the military (The King, Rakshasa Rajavu, CBI series, Pattalam, Megham, Sainyam, right up to Kasaba(2016) and Unda which could be considered a dark spoof on the rest). The other sites of power include the society, community and milieu, like in Dada Saheb, Dhruvam, Thachiledathu Chundan, Vidheyan, Pramani etc). But there is another set of films — especially in the new millennium — that run parallel to the above featuring him as an ordinary, struggling man (Dany/2002, Kazhcha/2004, Rappakal/2005, Palunku/2006, Karuttha Pakshikal/2006, Best Actor/2010,Bavuttiyude Namathil/2012, Immanuel /2013, Kunjananthante Kada/2013, Pathemari/2015 etc). But even here, he remains the upholder of values, protector of the family, the voice of the voiceless, and defender of justice. In the last decades, stories about loss of masculinity itself becomes a theme in some films: if Dany subverts the macho image of Mammootty at various levels, films like Bhargavacharitham Moonam Khandam (2006) and Peranbu is also about the crisis of masculinity. Interestingly, they all tangentially tap on to the Mammootty persona deeply embedded in public minds to poignant effect. So through time, Mammootty persona has not only embodied and enacted masculine charm, power, desires and fantasies, but also its fears, anxieties and uncertainties.
Another makeover domain was visible in the new millennium, when Mammootty played several light and comic roles in films like Best Actor/2010, Pranchiettan & The saint/ 2010, Daivathinte Swantham Cleetus/2013, Kadal Kadannu Oru Maathukutty/2013, Proprietors: Kammath & Kammath/ 2013, UtopiayileRajavu/2015, Bhaskar the Rascal / 2015, Thoppil Joppan/2016 , Pullikkaran Staraa / 2017 etc which again draw from the contrast and make-belief contrast between the stereotypical Mammootty and these protagonists.
Mammootty had been a consistent and important presence in art cinema too — apart from the films of art filmmakers per se, he has essayed award-winning and critically acclaimed roles in films like Bhoothakannadi (Lohitadas), Thaniyarvathanam (Siby Malayil), and Sukrutham (Harikumar) right up to Peranbu in 2019, thus always expanding and diversifying his repertoire of roles, and challenging himself as an actor. The incisive self-criticism he expresses in many of his acclaimed interviews prove his commitment to the art and also his relentless effort to reinvent himself. This is also a unique feature that elevates him from other actors of his generation, who tend to get pigeon-holed into certain stereotypes, industry models or generic patterns. As an actor and a star, Mammootty had always tried to transgress these boundaries and to redefine and remake himself. Which is what has always kept him at the top, for so long and for so many.