All those who fear getting older and are dreading entering their sunset years should take a page out of Malayalam superstar Mammootty’s book.
The revered icon turns 70 on September 7 and has never looked in better form or shape.
Just like our age-defying Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor (64), this multiple National Award-winning South Indian talent is undoubtedly one of the most well-preserved actors of our generation.
And he’s in no mood to slow down.
In India’s notoriously ageist entertainment industry, this self-made actor’s star-wattage and bankability at the box-office hasn’t diminished despite his advancing years.
Even after appearing in more than 400 films with a career spanning five decades, his appeal and on-screen charm hasn’t waned. Unlike Bollywood heroes who seem desperate to appear young, youthful and sprightly on the big screen, Mammootty has never shied away from taking on age-appropriate roles. Barring a few misadventures in his forties where he was spotted romancing actresses of his daughter’s age in forgettable films, Mammootty’s spine of work is sturdy.
His recent release — a political thriller called ‘One’ — where he plays a stoic state-head was at best an ordinary film, but his towering on-screen charisma elevated that drama to an immensely watchable feature.
But what’s it about Mammotty’s appeal that transcends age, gender, or class? Is it his ability to morph easily into any character with enviable ease or is it his borderline arrogance, but magnetic real-life personality that makes him compelling?
Man for every season
From playing an uncouth fisherman in the stirring father-daughter drama ‘Amaram’ to portraying a flashy businessman in the hit comedy ‘Pranchiettan And The Saint’ or channelling a straightlaced detective in the ‘CBI Diary’ franchise with panache, this self-made actor has this insane ability to make any character convincing.
On the big screen and off it, he’s a formidable force of nature. And what makes his prolific career catalogue so interesting is that has always experimented with roles and has eluded being stereotyped as the actor who only does flattering or one-dimensional roles.
His diabolical turn as an evil and wicked upper-caste patriarch in director Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Vidheyan’ is a masterclass in being unapologetically loathsome. In his acclaimed feature 'Munnariyipuu', the climax which reveals his cold-blooded nature can still send a chill down our spine.
In director Ranjith’s celebrated thriller ‘Paleri Manikyam Oru Pathira Kolapathakathinte Katha’, Mammootty took on three roles with varying moral compasses and played each part with scary precision. He isn’t averse to having some fun with his roles either. In the Mohanlal-led murder mystery ‘No 20 Madras Mail’, Mammootty played himself — an iconic actor travelling in a passenger train bound for Chennai (previously known as Madras) and gets reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation. In the film, his chemistry with the adorable, man-child (Mohanlal) is still a joy to watch. If Mohanlal is the accessible superstar of Malayalam cinema, then Mammootty is diametrically opposite in his persona and proudly maintains an aura of mystery and untouchability around him, He seems to take immense pride in being slightly distant from his adoring army of fans.
And what makes his stupendous success story so compelling is that Mammootty — now a UAE golden visa holder — was never a part of an acting dynasty.
Mammootty’s actual name is Muhammadkutty Ismail Panaparambil and he was raised in a modest middle-class Malayali household where his father did farming and his mother took care of them. Before he became one of the most recognisable names in South India, he was a lawyer who studied at the Ernakulam Law College.
Initially, he featured in a series of forgettable roles in the 1970s, and it was the ’80s that marked the beginning of his long on-screen reign. It’s safe to say that he and his equally talented colleague Mohanlal are the two driving forces and sturdy pillars of Malayalam cinema. Both have dominated the cultural landscape in an industry which is notorious for spitting out talents and rejecting new, unfamiliar faces.
While there’s no denying Mammootty’s stupendous skills as an actor, there was often a chatter in Malayalam cinema about his monopoly and legacy throttling the growth of young talents. But that was almost a decade ago. Now fierce actors such as Parvathy, Fahadh Faasil, Prithviraj, and Manju Warrier have learnt to survive and thrive in an entertainment eco-system filled with sharks like Mammootty and Mohanlal.
And in turn, veterans like them have learnt to adapt and change with the times. During the recent lock-down, Mammootty – a doting grandfather in real life — proudly flaunted his newly-acquired gym body. His rock-hard abs and long hair may be a recent development, but Mammootty has always been rock solid as a performer and brave in his acting choices.
Give him any role and this actor, with left-leaning political ideology — will make it his own in his inimitable style.
While he’s a cracking performer on the big screen and has also been upping his style game recently (yes, he can carry off leather jackets and psychedelic shirts), he’s not an easy subject to interview. In journalistic parlance, he’s a tough nut to crack and is painfully politically correct in all his media interactions.
During the handful of times that this journalist has interviewed him, Mammootty has staunchly refused to be drawn into any controversy or anything remotely provocative. For instance, when we broached him with some sticky, but relevant questions about sexism or misogyny rampant in Malayalam films or his take on the relevance of the #MeToo movement, he brushed us off curtly and instructed us to stick to the film that he was peddling that week. Perhaps, he’s just embarrassed to have acted in cop films with seriously questionable dialogues disparaging women (remember ‘Kasaba’ where he played a copy threatening his female colleague with sexual violence?) or promoting casual patriarchy and misogyny in his films (‘Rakkuyilin Ragasadassil’ where he played a husband who had a problematic take on his wife’ ambitions as a dancer).
While he may shy away from using his celebrity and clout to draw attention to larger issues and shatter deeply ingrained regressive mind-set among his impressionable male fans, there’s no denying that he is a powerhouse performer. Unlike many actors in Indian cinema, there’s no vanity or self-awareness when he steps into the shoes of his complex characters.
Clearly, Mammootty makes 70s look like the new 40s and is undoubtedly the grand old – read enviably youthful – man of Malayalam cinema.
Did you know?
*Mammootty has won three National Film Awards for Best Actor, seven Kerala State Film Awards, and 13 Filmfare Awards South.
* The actor is fondly called ‘Mammukka’ by his army of fans across the globe and completed 50 years in the industry last month.
* As a part of his birthday celebrations, his fan association in the UAE is spearheading a blood-donation drive.