Mammootty: Bollywood's loss

Mammootty: Bollywoods loss

At 68, Malayalam cinema's superstar Mammootty continues to hold his own at the box-office. A look at how commercial Hindi cinema could have better utilised the actor

By Khalid Mohamed

Published: Thu 7 Nov 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 15 Nov 2019, 8:37 AM

If there's one actor I miss interviewing, it's Malayalam cinema's superstar Mammootty. There was a time when he would frequent Mumbai to get a foothold in Hindi cinema.
At his suite in an oceanfront Juhu hotel, he would field questions with a stiff upper lip, P.G. Wodehouse-like sense of humour, cracking jokes at his own expense, and pointing out that if he hadn't lucked out as an actor, he would still be fighting petty legal cases.
A practising lawyer for two years, he was born to a farmer's family in the Chandiroor village of Kerala. After playing bit roles, he was cast as a hero, thanks to his magnetic personality noticed by talent scouts. Subsequently, he shortened his name from Muhammad Kutty Paniparambil Ismail to Mammootty. "See, you don't have to struggle with my name. My screen name is short and sweet, isn't it?" he'd smile. "Still, the film people from your city don't pick up the phone to offer me work."
As it happened, the winner of three National Awards in a career spanning over four decades and 400 films largely in Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada, did snag parts in B-town's Triyatri (1990), Dhartiputra (1993) and Sau Jhooth Ek Sach (2005), which didn't quite do justice to his calibre. Since they tanked at the ticket windows, his visits to Mumbai stopped.
On the upside, the English language biopic Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), on the revered social reformist who championed the cause of the underprivileged besides being the chief architect of the Constitution of India, was excellently crafted by its director Jabbar Patel. In the eponymous role, the film fetched Mammootty the Best Actor National Award.
The foray of Mammootty's son, 33-year-old Dulquer Salmaan, into Hindi cinema hasn't been financially upbeat either. Although he was lavishly praised by reviewers for his screen presence and acting chops, Mammootty Jr's road flick Karwaan (2018), co-starring Irrfan Khan, as well as the lately-released romedy The Zoya Factor, in the company of Sonam Kapoor, didn't fare well at the cash counters.
Like it or not, that just strengthens the regressive trade belief that even the most capable of actors from south India - be it Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan - can't make a long-lasting cross-over to Bollywood.  That's a conundrum that will be sorted one fine day hopefully. Incidentally, Mohanlal, another fine actor from Kerala, seems to have kept a distance from Mumbai, having only featured in Kalapaani (1996) and in the ensemble cast of Company (2002), Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007) and Tezz (2012).
Back to Mammootty. At the age of 68, he continues to be a mega-star. This year, Madhura Raja -  described as a "fun ride to be enjoyed with a tub of popcorn" - became his career-best grosser with a global collection of over INR100 crore. An improved sequel to Pokkiri Raja (2010), it returned the actor to the genre he's excelled in - a crime thriller in which he takes on vicious opponents. Ever the do-gooder, he delivers punchy dialogue and performs incredible stunts while taking on a fearsome villain who is responsible for a tragedy (based on a real-life incident in 1982 which devastated the lives of hundreds of families.)
The actor is not averse to appearing in low-budget arthouse films, as well. Take for instance, his straight-from-the-heart portrayal of a prisoner who falls in love with a woman whom he never sees in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Mathilukal (Walls, 1990). There were no high dramatics here, asserting that the actor can be effectively restrained when asssigned an opportunity.
Perhaps Mammootty's strongest trait is his abiding tendency of not taking himself too seriously. Apart from that, he has kept himself in shape. Unarguably, his face is his fortune, enhanced by a disarming smile and a well-groomed moustache.  His baritone voice packs in a range, rising to the high octaves effortlessly. When I had asked him how he modulates his voice, he had laughed, "I guess I learnt to do that in the law courts. You can't possibly speak at a low volume to reach the ears of the judge in a crowded courtroom."
His unwavering popularity among his loyal fans has risen because of his devotion to several charitable causes, and for his frankspeak, like his criticism of  the International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFA) ceremony in Dubai way back in 2006, emphasising that the organisers had no business to call the event  'international' since they have for years ignored south Indian cinema as if it did not exist.
At one point, he aspired to direct a film starring Rajinikanth, but it fell through the cracks. Plus, there have been rumours that the southern star, with socialist leanings, was planning to join politics. However, he has gone on record  to categorically state, "I don't think I will ever have much interest in politics. You don't need to be in politics to serve the people."
Mercy  be. Because the Mammootty I would like to see is the pleasant-natured, uncomplicated actor on the Mumbai sets of a haunted house created for a suspense thriller. Raveena Tandon was to be his co-star. The project was shelved after a week's shoot, and he had laughed, "See, no wants me around in your city. I just don't fit in." Shuttling between Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Chennai now, he's smiling heartily.
Whether Dulquer Salmaan, will get another shot at fame in Mumbai remains to be seen. Surely, both the father and son deserve to be even more widely known. Believe me, it's Bollywood's loss entirely.

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