Towards the end of Jeo Baby’s Kaathal - The Core, Mammootty’s Mathew Devasy opens up to his father, played by a steadfast PS Panicker, giving us a moment of absolute vulnerability between two men which is an on-screen rarity. The 72-year-old megastar, whose production house also bankrolled Kaathal, is now the talk of the internet for his audacious choice of playing a closeted gay man struggling to reclaim himself. The film is a win on many counts, and Mammootty deserves applause for utilising his star power to make this crucial intervention at a time when most of his contemporaries across languages seem focused on solidifying their silver screen hypermasculinity.
Dileep-Lal Jose’s 2005 film Chanthupottu is a classic example of the havoc that problematic politics in cinema can wreak, especially when headlined by a (then) popular actor. The film mocked queerness, reducing it to “a lack of masculinity”, with the protagonist ridiculously proving to be “man enough” by having his lady love bear his child. Queer activists have since alleged that the film adversely impacted their daily lives in unimaginable ways, causing them to be a subject of public ridicule and harassment. In many other films before and after Chanthupottu, LGBTQIA+ characters have mostly been relegated to the roles of sidekicks for comic relief.
But now, as a filmmaker like Jeo Baby decides to make a Kaathal, and a megastar like Mammootty chooses to step into this territory and portray a gay man on screen in all his complexities, they open space for the legitimisation of queer lives in a society that strives to shut them out.
It is the reluctance of other superstars of Mammootty’s stature to embrace better content that makes his choices more pronounced. Playing a queer protagonist in mainstream cinema is a risk for any actor, both financially, and in terms of whether a largely conservative audience will embrace or abuse his choice. But when the actor in question is a bona fide star like Mammootty who brings with him the fame and goodwill he earned over decades, the game changes. His vehicle of stardom ensures that the film reaches at least a few more homes and minds that stubbornly remain averse to the idea of queer existence.
The gamble has fewer risks for stars of such big standing, because even if the film brings them backlash, their fandom and opportunities remain intact. Yet, many veteran contemporaries of Mammootty have had quite a disappointing run of late, with films that ride on sexist jokes and violence, a fact that even their fans cannot dispute.
There is a problematic scene in Mammootty’s 2001 Malayalam film Rakshasa Rajavu, where his irritable cop character reprimands the heroine for wearing “provocative clothes”. A comment under a recent Instagram troll reel of the scene reads, “The way Mammootty progressed as an actor is astonishing. From portraying such characters with regressive ideas to playing Mathew in Kaathal - The Core, his evolution is really impressive.” This comment encapsulates the impact a superstar like the big M can make on society when he reflects on his own choices while tapping into the transformative potential of a mass medium like cinema. And Mammootty has been attempting to make this difference for quite a while now, in various ways.
In director Ram’s 2018 Tamil language film Peranbu, where Mammootty played Amudhavan - father to a child battling cerebral palsy, trans woman actor Anjali Ameer played Meera. Anjali’s role is important and her transness quite incidental in the film, and though the decision to cast her is definitely not a reason to pedestalise the film’s lead actor, credit is due to Mammootty for being cognisant of the importance of inclusivity and non-appropriation in a film. It was reported at the time that the superstar insisted on giving Anjali, who was a model back then, a chance to act. This is especially significant in the context of his contemporaries looking eager to be paired with the most sought-after heroines for eyeballs and box office numbers. When the film was announced, the news of Anjali being featured in a Mammootty film also paved the way for a discourse surrounding trans representation in films, and the responsibility of superstars in backing marginalised actors.
Another significant film in Mammootty’s recent filmography is Puzhu, the 2022 Malayalam film directed by debutant Ratheena. In the film, he played Kuttan, a dominant caste antagonist who murders his sister (Parvathy Thiruvothu) for marrying a Dalit man. Many who watched it called Kuttan an “exaggerated, unrealistic” character, asking “whether casteism of this kind still exists in Kerala.” The film created quite a ripple among critics and film buffs, with most of them unanimously lauding Mammootty for his portrayal of the problematic man.
But none of these choices came without consequence for the megastar, though his stature and privilege may have cushioned him quite a bit from being drastically affected. After Puzhu, he was accused of spreading bias against caste Hindu men, and his own Muslim identity was used to make this attack more pointed. Kaathal too is a huge financial gamble for Mammootty, considering he may have known that the film would not pass the censorship rules of Middle-Eastern countries like Kuwait and Qatar, an important market for Malayalam cinema. He has also been attacked by incel groups on social media, with many clamouring for a boycott of the film, which according to them “gives a wrong message to the younger generation”. Even here, Mammootty’s Muslim identity has been dragged through the mud to emphasise his “disrespect for the tenets of his own faith.”
This is definitely not to say that Mammootty’s most proximate contemporary back home, superstar Mohanlal, or other actors of their stature across industries have not trodden unconventional paths. In the 1980s and 90s, if Mammootty played a clinically depressed hero in Thaniyavarthanam (1987), the endearing Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer in Mathilukal (1990), a feudal caste oppressor in Vidheyan (1994), and an introverted protagonist in Bhoothakannadi (1997), Mohanlal too had a diverse cinematic run with Kireedam (1989), Vasthuhara (1991), Kamaladalam (1992), Kanmadam (1998), and Vanaprastham (1999) among others. Other megastars like Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, and even Shah Rukh Khan up north, have had a similar diversity in their outings, but it is Mammootty’s stardom that has perhaps aged better because of the comparatively progressive films he has chosen in recent times.
Mammootty’s recent filmography too is not free from the questionable likes of Christopher (2023), Shylock (2020), or the regressive Ganagandharvan (2019). Much before that, his police character Rajan Zakaria in director Nithin Rejni Panicker’s film Kasaba (2016), was called out for being problematic. Rajan Zakaria makes many sexist remarks in the film that are accentuated to elicit applause by making them look heroic. Albeit, in comparison with the graph of his counterparts who seem more charged to capitalise on the post-Baahubali frenzy around loud, pan-Indian misogyny and violence, Puzhu, Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (2022), and even the age-appropriate patriarch in Bheeshma Parvam (2021), are better cinematic choices that justify Mammootty's reigning stardom.
Mammootty has also remained ahead of popular discourse, making many public comments about relevant current affairs. In fact, he is the only superstar who responded to the controversial topic of banning YouTube film reviews, reiterating that people have a right to review films and that good cinema will always thrive even in the face of negativity. His straight-off-the-fashion-wagon attires and collaboration with young filmmakers and actors have also made him a more accessible star for the audience.
Kaathal sure serves as an inspirational close to 2023, an extension of what looks like Mammootty’s effort to support relevant films and filmmakers. Here is giving him credit where it is due, and hoping that his contemporaries too take a leaf out of his book.