The first time Mammootty spoke on screen was in K Narayanan's Kaalachakram (1973). He plays a skinny boatman who nonchalantly talks about a couple’s elopement with comedian Adoor Bhasi. The actor wasn’t credited in the film, and it wasn’t until the Eighties that he achieved a breakthrough. Fifty years after Kaalachakram, Mammootty has nothing left to prove – from macho hero to vile antagonist, he has done it all. But looking at his career graph just last year, it’s apparent that Mammootty is far from hanging up his boots. And why should he, when he has so much more to give? His first release in 2024 is likely to be the horror thriller Bramayugam, directed by Rahul Sadasivan, and if the posters are anything to go by, Mammootty’s appetite for experimentation has only grown.
Mammootty Kampany, the Megastar’s production house, debuted with the neo-noir psychological thriller Rorschach (2022). In the film, Mammootty plays Luke, an NRI businessman whose wife goes missing after their vehicle meets with an accident. But there’s more to it than what meets the eye. From a devoted husband to an unhinged creep with a sadistic streak, Mammootty’s electrifying performance anchors the film as it hurtles through unpredictable twists. Made on a budget of about Rs 20 crore, Rorschach earned double the amount – an impressive figure for an experimental film.
In 2023, Mammootty Kampany added three more films to its repertoire – Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, Kannur Squad and Kaathal: The Core. The last is possibly his riskiest role yet – that of a gay man coming out of the closet as his marriage falls apart. Jyotika, his co-star, said that she jumped at the role when it came to her. “I’m a big fan of director Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), and when I heard that he was working with Mammootty, I jumped at the opportunity. I was awestruck when the story was narrated to me. I didn’t have to think about saying yes,” she said.
In Kaathal, Mammootty plays Mathew Devassy, a retired bank employee from a privileged social background. He’s married to Omana (Jyotika) and they have a college-going daughter together. Mathew is on the brink of contesting a by-election in his constituency when it comes to light that Omana has filed for divorce. She alleges that Mathew is gay, and that she has been denied her conjugal rights in the marriage. Like Baby’s other films, Kaathal, too, offers a commentary on family, society and religion. Jyotika termed the film as “growth” – in her second innings as an actor, the star has consciously picked meaningful roles, and Kaathal, she said, was an experience to cherish. The meticulously written script (Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria) contained all the pauses, silences, big and small actions that were translated to the screen. Everything felt real, and the actor went with the flow.
“Most of the takes in the film were our first takes, especially in the emotional scenes. Mammootty told me that we should do what comes to us in the scene. He said that Malayalam cinema was more about reacting rather than acting. I come from an industry that has a different thought process in filmmaking, so this was something new for me,” said Jyotika. The moving scene towards the end when Omana requests Mathew to sleep next to her one last time, is among those “first take” scenes. As Mathew holds her tight and exclaims “Ende deivame”, it’s hard to find a dry eye in the audience. “We went undecided on what we were going to do – whether it’s the hug, my finger on his ear or me touching his hair. As an actor, I feel some of our finest performances come in our first takes when there’s a director who’s able to make you feel the emotion of a character,” she said.
Mammootty began 2023 with Lijo Jose Pellissery’s existentialist drama Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam. He plays a jingoistic Malayali man who wakes up from a deep slumber one afternoon, and believes himself to be a Tamil man who’d gone missing from a village nearby. A bilingual in Tamil and Malayalam, Nanpakal shines with absurdist humour, and Mammootty easily shrugs off his superstardom to dissolve into the role of James/Sundaram. The critically acclaimed film picked up two awards at the Kerala State Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Actor for Mammootty.
But, it isn’t only the small, offbeat films that Mammootty Kampany is placing its bets on. One of the biggest blockbusters from the Malayalam film industry in 2023 is Kannur Squad directed by Roby Varghese Raj. In this cop thriller, Mammootty plays ASI George Martin who heads an investigative squad with a reputation for cracking tough cases. “There are two dimensions to the character of George Martin. He’s a peaceful man but he can also be violent when required. We were not sure if the film would work without a massy approach to the subject. It’s possible to make a very realistic investigative thriller, but there’s a chance that people might not like it,” said Raj.
When an influential NRI businessman is killed and his family brutalised in a dacoity, the Kannur Squad is called on to investigate the case. The manhunt takes George Martin and his men across the country, with the criminals proving to be elusive. “This is a film that demands a lot of travel and action, and we needed a budget to accommodate that. It was necessary to have a superstar on board. We also needed an actor of Mammootty’s calibre, someone who is capable of drawing out emotions and can perform action scenes too,” added Raj. Kannur Squad was made on a budget of around Rs 30 crore, and earned over Rs 100 crore, despite Tamil star Vijay’s highly anticipated film with Lokesh Kanagaraj, Leo (2023), releasing two weeks later.
It was on Day 2 of the shoot that Raj observed the body language that Mammootty had adopted for George Martin. “He had his hands on his hips, and that was a mannerism he came up with for the character. It wasn’t in the script or what I had told him to do. When I felt something wasn’t working in the action scenes, I’d go to him and explain it. He’s a man who welcomes ideas. He’s very interesting as an actor and producer,” said Raj.
Kannur Squad is an action-packed film, and considering Mammootty’s age – he’s 72 – it was a daunting task for the director. “The film also had a lot of night shoots. We shot many sequences from 6 pm to 6 am the next day, and most of it was exterior. We shot extensively in Pune, which has dry and cold weather conditions. Many in the crew fell sick, and I was concerned about Mammootty’s health. He’s 72 though nobody can believe he’s of that age,” said Raj. The action scenes required Mammootty to kick and punch, and the director was concerned about how everything would pan out. But, Raj said that Mammootty was on the sets all through, and was supportive of the crew. “He was very excited about how we were putting together the sequences and shooting it. For the fight that happens at Tikri village in the film, we used a set in Cochin since that was more convenient. It was quite expensive but he okayed it as the producer,” said Raj.
Though George Martin is the star of the Kannur Squad, the others in the team also emerge as prominent characters. Among them is the film’s scriptwriter Rony David Raj, who is the director’s brother. “As a first time director, I was worried. Though George Martin is the lead, he’s part of a team, and each character has their own space. A superstar can demand that a director reduces another actor’s part in the film, but Mammootty wanted everyone to have equal space. He wanted others to do their best in the film. That’s a special quality he has,” said Raj. Noting that the superstar is the decision-maker at Mammootty Kampany, the director said that the actor in him is still looking for new roles to play, and even if it’s a familiar character, he wants to reconstruct it.
Jyotika, who has spoken up several times about stars needing to be responsible about the kind of films they make, is all praise for Mammootty’s recent film choices. Adding that the superstar’s maturity, experience and confidence are evident in how he is going about selecting his films, Jyotika said that film industries need stars who push the envelope. “Right now, what Mammootty is doing at his age is outstanding. He’s giving back to cinema. There’s a lot to lose from where he’s standing today if a film like Kaathal had gone wrong. But, as a superstar, he’s taking that leap to give back to cinema by doing good films,” she said. “We need people to defy cinema to take it to the next level, and when a superstar does it, there’s nothing like it.”