The elusive superstar status and how Mammootty and Mohanlal achieved it

We take a look at the movies that brought a change in status to the two celebrated actors of Malayalam cinema, and what propelled it.
Mohanlal and Mammootty
Mohanlal and Mammootty
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The man in a white suit stepping out of the Contessa is doubtless famous. Reporters have gathered at the court premises where he has come for a case. One of them dares to click a picture. The famous man looks at him and does not take his eyes away until the photographer opens the camera, digs out the roll and tears it to pieces. Vincent Gomez is charmingly introduced in this 1986 film Rajavinte Makan. Mohanlal, then a 26-year-old, hopping through the Malayalam film industry with a mad lust for cinema, had 34 films that year. But looking back, observers of his growth put this Vincent Gomez film of his as the one that sealed his superstar status.

Around the same time, Mammootty, the other superstar in Malayalam cinema, was also acting prolifically, in fact seen in the same number of movies that year. There is no consensus on one particular movie that might have brought him the superstar status, but critics point to New Delhi, a film by Joshiy in 1987, which marked a sort of comeback for the actor after a few movies that hadn't worked. GK in New Delhi is the very opposite picture of Vincent Gomez, introduced as a middle-aged prisoner whose right side is paralysed. The back story, of course, shows a fighter journalist in New Delhi and the future shows a sharp comeback, sparing no one that had hurt him.

“It is interesting. Mohanlal who had by then shed his earlier villain image and got accepted as a man next door sort of person, he took on this anti-hero, anti-establishment character. People started accepting this larger than life anti-hero strain that emerged in Rajavinte Makan. You don’t see that in Mammootty. He plays pro-state characters – the ideal police or CBI officer. If Mammootty was the face of power, Mohanlal was the counter face,” says Parshathy J Nath, theatre artiste and freelance journalist who did her PG dissertation on the superstar culture in Kerala.

There were of course exceptions. In the 1984 Adiyozhukkukal, Mammootty played a despicable red-eyed fisherman who is often mean. But then Mohanlal made villainy glamourous, through the films that followed Rajavinte Makan – the smuggler in Irupatham Noottandu, the arrogant feudal lord in Devasuram, the goon in Spadikam, among others.

“The image got sealed for Lal (Mohanlal) – not a stickler for rules, the one who goes against the law. Everyone wants to go against the system and Lal fulfils the fantasy for the average viewer. The negative streak made Lal a larger than life figure,” Parshathy says.

Mammootty in these years developed a different image – he moved with the literary crowd in Kerala working with the likes of MT Vasudevan Nair (although several of his scripts had both the stars acting together in the mid-80s) and T Damodaran, Parshathy notes. There was the CBI series on his detective character Sethurama Iyer and then the '90s saw him play powerful collector or bureaucratic roles in movies like The King and The Truth with Renji Panicker’s dialogue-rich scripts that created applause in the theatre. “There can be no police officer more ideal than him or a man better than him to play the valiyetan, the patriarch of the family," says Parshathy. Indeed he did play the title role in a film called Valiyettan.

The two stars complement each other like that, Parshathy notes.

They are not mere rivals or ‘equal competitors for the crown of most popular Malayalam cinema hero, although this is sometimes how they are set up’, write Sociology Professor Radhika Chopra and UK scholars Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella in ‘Malayali young men and movie heroes’, a chapter in their book South Asian Masculinities.

“They seem to embody different styles of hero and to have different types of appeal to audiences,” they add. The book, however, came in 2004 and the observations are from more than 16 years ago.

Contradicting the famous observation by Soubin’s character Crispin in the film Maheshinte Prathikaram, the scholars point out that “Mammootty often plays a Brahmin or high-caste Nair; he is repeatedly seen in uniform; he is also strong in ‘family dramas’ or ‘sentimental films’. In contrast to Mammootty's martial Nairs, Brahmin Police officers and powerful newspaper editors, Mohanlal's classic roles include auto-driver, would-be labour migrant, and fisherman.”

In their attempt to find out what lured young fans to the stars, the Osellas and Chopra found that Mammootty fans spoke of his abilities in playing ‘elder brother’, ‘policeman’ and ‘Christian’ while Mohanlal supporters like his ‘versatility’ in doing ‘violence, love, comedy, drama and so on’.

“Mammootty embodies, performs and alludes to a familiar style of masculinity, popular among both men and women. If we see him at all with a woman it is often a screen mother, a grey-haired lady looking proudly at her son who finally, in mother’s presence, permits himself a smile,” the trio makes this interesting observation.

On his contemporary, they wrote, “We heard several stories of his unexpected on-set improvisations in dance or dialogue, and one fan offered the interesting observation that, he has many different ways of smiling’.”

Mohanlal became the song-and-dance person who could do comedy through the '80s and '90s while Mammootty either played a tough man or else a capable family man. Movie lovers that the authors spoke to thought that Mohanlal could also do romance better and therefore was more popular among younger women, while Mammootty with his family tragedies was a favourite among older women. “From a hypothetical female perspective, if Mohanlal then deals in pre-marriage romantic fantasies, Mammootty appears to trade in the grittier realities of negotiating family life after marriage and parenthood," they said.

‘Pettiyum kuttiyum thooki’ roles, critic GP Ramachandran calls it. Meaning a man walking with a suitcase (indicating he is employed) and a child (indicating he has a family).

He contradicts the scholars’ observation and sticks closer to Crispin’s. GP lists ThoovanathumbikalAryanDevasuramAram Thampuran – a series of movies where Mohanlal played the upper caste hero, often with underworld connections in the city. Mammootty was the pettiyum kuttiyum man, almost stereotypically so, until movies like Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha and Mathilukal changed it.

By the early '90s, he crossed borders to play the lead in Mounam Sammadham and Azhagan and the supporting character to Rajini’s Thalapathy, directed by Mani Ratnam. He was spreading his stardom, GP says. “He played Ambedkar in a Hindi-English movie and didn’t want it remade in Malayalam. He wanted his fans to observe the difficult Ambedkarian style he had taken months to master. Unfortunately the movie didn’t release here," he says.

Mammootty had his share of upper-caste unbreakable heroes too, like Dhruvam. But he was a man who was willing to test his range despite the limitations others had attributed to him. “Rajanamanikyam was a sort of comeback for him in the mid-2000s. It was an amazing makeover of Mammootty, handling humour and dance. He went on to do certain niche roles that Lal excelled in, as troublemaker or hooligan. He is one actor who has revamped himself through his career,” Parshathy says.

They have made clever choices, she says, maintaining this unshakeable stardom for over three decades.

“Stars are always a creation of the times. Before them there was Prem Nazir, Sathyan and Madhu. Actors Soman, Sukumaran and Jayan briefly filled the gaps they left behind. They were good actors. Mohanlal and Mammootty are great actors in different ways and they could hold on to their turf by establishing themselves as successful actors in commercial cinema,” GP says.

But in these three-and-a-half decades, none of the successive young crop of actors rose to the ‘superstar’ status. There has been instant stardom for some while for others it took longer and like the superstars, they too got their own fans associations. But stardom somehow never evolved to superstardom.

There were brief superstardoms conferred on the likes of Suresh Gopi (the story goes that Mammootty himself bestowed the title on him at an occasion when they were both on stage) who had a series of angry man roles in Renji Panicker scripts of the 1990s but that faded in a short time.

Journalist and author Sreejith Perunthachan has an interesting theory for that. “Superstars stopped getting made because super directors are no longer there. And super directors are made by super scriptwriters!”

Sreejith, also a writer of Malayalam books, once wrote about the story behind titles of many famous Malayalam movies in Periya Ninneyiha. He had spoken to many directors to learn these stories. 

“There were these magical scriptwriter-director combinations like Lohithadas–Sibi Malayil, MT Vasudevan Nair–Hariharan / IV Sasi, Sreenivasan–Sathyan Anthikad, and so on. When such teams come together, you get a superstar. Super scripts ensured crowd pullers, movies running for several months at a stretch together. There is no such life for the films now,” Sreejith says.

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