Ajai Vasudev, the director of three unapologetically ‘mass’ Mammootty films (Rajadhiraja, Masterpiece and Shylock), isn’t very good with dates or numbers. He often gets years and months mixed up in what began as a short, twenty-minute interview before Megastar’s 70th birthday, which falls on September 7. Of course he remembers this date because a) it is a life event for him and b) his memories are wired around Mammootty-related events anyway.
So when you ask him to narrate the origins of his lifelong love for cinema, he doesn’t remember the year, the town he lived in then or a theatre. “It was around the time Kauravar released,” he recalls, adding that he must have been in the fourth or fifth standard. His father was a Magistrate and this meant shifting towns every other year, covering the length of the State. This also meant new schools, new friends and an unpredictability right through his teens.
It is around this time that movies became a constant in his life, particularly Mammootty’s movies. “I’m originally from Haripad and my friends were all Mohanlal fans. During Onam, when both their films released, we would leave home together and then split up midway because only I had to go to a different theatre to watch Ikka’s film.”
If Mammootty’s film ended up being better, it meant he had won. If it wasn’t, he had to argue valiantly to make his point against all of them—a skill a fanboy needed to develop. He developed this right through school even when academics suffered with each passing year. “By 11th or 12th standard, my life revolved around movies. Everything else took a back seat. I even watched films like Danny and Boothakannadi in the theatre.”
He would bunk classes on Fridays and Saturdays and watch every release. And because his father was a Magistrate, people took turns to ensure news of his bunking reached home, even before he did. “It didn’t help that I was wearing the school uniform to theatres.”
Class notes vanished and notebooks started to get filled with cutouts of Mammootty from magazines and newspapers. Slowly, Nana, Cinema and Vellinakshatram became textbooks and Mammootty, his main subject. “I was just a fan until this point but something changed around then. I’m not sure but I think it started with Dhruvam. From a pastime, I knew I wanted to become a Mammootty film director when I kept rewatching it over a summer.”
Externally, the side effects of fandom started to show. Ajai tried growing a mullet (“a terrible one”) inspired by Mammootty’s The King. His clothes from Johny Walker was much sought after just like how Ajai’s big purchase one year was the silk ‘Hitler’ shirt the star rocked. As pastime, all this may have been forgiven but not when it was being considered a career option. “We come from an academic background and we knew no one in the movie business.”
This career dream strengthened when he read a Vellinakshatram that detailed the launch of a certain Lal Jose as an independent director with Mammootty’s Oru Maravathoor Kanavu (1998). “Ikka had a track record for making assistants into independent directors even then so I imagined joining one of these directors to finally get to Ikka one day.”
But his family had other plans. They shipped him off to Mangalore for college to see if a shift in surroundings would distract him. “It only became more severe. Malayalam films didn’t even release there so I made do with Kannada and Hindi films. And on Sundays, along with other Malayalis, I would get prints of Ikka’s releases and project it in small one-room auditoriums.”
Ajai dropped out of college and returned home with nothing but a mullet and some dreams to sell. A friend managed to hook him up as an AD on Dileep’s Kalyanaraman and the world had slowly started to conspire for him. He became a part of other films too and by the time his director Shafi moved on to Thommamum Makkalum, starring Mammootty himself, his star was at arm’s length.
“This was when I saw him up close for the first time. Because I had already worked in a couple of films, I imagined I wouldn’t be star struck. We were shooting in Pollachi and he just drove into the set in his Land Cruiser wearing a regular mundu and a shirt. He walked up to Shafi sir and started talking. I couldn’t stop looking at him. It was unreal. I remember everything.”
During the shoot, Mammootty even made a special request. “He gave me his handycam and asked me to shoot a making-of video. His only instruction was that no one should say cliche things like ‘this was an unforgettable experience’ and that ‘their role was very different.’ In a way, my first film was shot on Ikka’s camera.”
Not that this changed things back at home. “I kept working on films right through my twenties but this didn’t matter at home. Once when I was back at home between films I was assisting on, my uncle, my father and others did an intervention to get an ultimatum out of me. In their eyes, I was just wasting time and by the end of it, it was decided that I could try making movies for two more years at the end of which I would have to move to Dubai.”
The pressure kept on mounting because he was also the oldest sibling. With a younger sister and a brother, even their plans in life was getting stalled because Ajai hadn’t made his movie. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Ajai could start off by making just any movie. But in Ajai’s words, he had taken an oath—that he would only get married after he makes a Mammootty film.
And with news spreading in the industry that he had taken this oath and with even more pressure for him to get married from his current in-laws, he had to take the leap of faith. With a script from hitmakers Sibi K Thomas and Udaykrishna that focussed on a Baasha-like transformation scene, he got a go ahead from Mammootty himself. “Some directors wait decades to get his dates but I got it in a year and a half, after I first narrated the idea to him.”
With its success, he came to be known as a specialist or as the die-hard fan who incidentally, also became a filmmaker. He repeated the success again with Masterpiece and then again with Shylock. “Mammukka himself has to remind me that I’m a filmmaker first and not just a fan. But I disagree. I am always a fan first and only then a filmmaker. “
Which means that he’s always thinking about how a scene would look had Mammootty done it. “In Rajadhiraja, for instance, I was extremely particular about his first punch and the effect of a man bouncing off the bonnet. Similarly, when he listens to his daughter singing, I begged him repeat an expression he had used back in Amaram.’ Did he do it? “No way. He just said poda poda.”
In his eyes, both Mohanlal and Mammootty have achieved a level of stardom where the directors don’t have to give reasons for why they are able to beat up so many people. “If I write a scene where either of them slap a Minister or MLA it isn’t unbelievable because stardom allows it.”
And that’s perhaps why he got his team to open both the back doors of the Rolls Royce even though only one person was getting out of it in Shylock. It was also a part of his build-up plan for him. “Actually, I wanted Ikka’s entry in Shylock to start with him drifting in on that Rolls Royce. I even asked the producer. But if I had wrecked that car I would have had to make movies for him till I died,” he laughs.
But has three movies with the star changed his love and admiration for him or at least keep it in check? “It’s not like I can just pick up my phone and call him. Even now, even though I have shot more than 100 days with him, I start shivering when my car reaches Manorama Junction on my way to meet him.”
The old fanboy is still very much alive he says, showing me a silver ring he flicked from the sets of Shylock, just because Mammooty wore it. “His shoe size is a bigger but I take them too whenever the shoot gets done. From Masterpiece, I took the G-Shock watch he used in it.”
Ajai’s phone number ends in 369 (Mammootty’s lucky number) and his cars too have always had 369 on the licence plate. “Ikka was among the first people to drive my new car and I even got fined because I waited for more than a month to get 369 as my car’s number.”
With a fourth film in his mind and a smaller film with another star before it, he’s all set dreaming up even bigger introduction scenes, punch dialogues and interval punches to prop up his megastar. Has the fandom slipped over to the next generation? Is his six-year old son a Mammootty fan or a Dulquer fan? “I’d be happy if he likes Dulquer too but I really really hope he too grows up a diehard Mammukka fan like his dad.”