A superstar unafraid to get raw: A walk through Mammootty’s chilling grey characters

One of the biggest stars in south India, Mammootty has never shied away from making bold deviations throughout his career, the latest example being ‘Puzhu’, in which he plays a hateful, casteist man with absolute conviction.
Mammootty's collage
Mammootty's collage
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Midway through Dijo Jose Antony’s Jana Gana Mana, when Prithviraj Sukumaran made his appearance for a second time, the script was trying to be vague about the kind of role he was playing in the film. His mannerisms and initial bunch of questions in a courtroom seemed to suggest this was a mean guy. It could have gone either way from there – a good lawyer just building the ground for his arguments, or a nasty one just out there to help the bad guys. But murmurs among the audience rose this way – “it’s Prithviraj, so things will turn around, he will end up being the good guy for sure”. If the director had meant to keep the audience guessing, it did not quite work out. That was the image most people have of the ‘heroes’, the male leads – that, somehow, they can’t go wrong.

But after four decades of being an actor and three of being a star, Mammootty, one of the biggest celebrities in south India, gives no such expectations. The audience cannot keep calm in the belief that a role coming from Mammootty will be a good man’s — director Ratheena’s Puzhu, in which he plays a hateful, casteist man, being the latest example of this bold deviation he has taken from the beginning of his career.

Beginnings, of course, cannot be too easy for most actors. He can’t afford to be picky when he doesn’t know what kind of film may come his way, or if any would come at all. KS Sethumadhavan, a prolific filmmaker of the 60s and 70s, who died in December last year, once mentioned how Mammootty had long ago stood on a beachside, watching him shoot a film, and later approached him for a role. The actor, who studied law and tried his hands at mimicry, made short appearances in a number of movies of the 70s, including in one of Sethumadhavan — as a man running along and standing besides Bahadoor in Anubhavangal Paalichakal, Sathyan’s last film.


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When he properly launched into acting in the 1980s, same time as his co-star Mohanlal, Mammootty appeared in varied roles – a man of wayward ways falling in love with a woman in one (Thrishna), an efficient police officer in another (Yavanika). By ’82, he began doing roles by the dozens every year, several of them with noticeable negative tinges. That year, in the epic period drama Padayottam, he played a petty villain and dad to Mohanlal. A year later, when he had already become one of the new young male heroes along with Mohanlal, Shankar, Ratheesh and others, Mammootty played a jealous man chasing a teenager to his death in Padmarajan’s Koodevide, drawing no sympathy from the audience.

One might argue that these were still early days for him, and he might have been building a good repertoire of movies. But if you wade through his filmography you will run into one such film every few years, where he plays a ruthless character that can in no way be justified under any light. That includes a rapist in another Padmarajan film Kariyila Kattu Pole. There are also the semi-villain characters, who will be irritable a long way through the film, and show a hidden good side towards the end, as if in a last minute effort to make peace.

In 1988, when he was beginning to be reckoned as a superstar, he did Sangham, playing Kuttappayi, the leader of a gang of men younger than him, doing all sorts of mischiefs, and having a past that shows a more hateful side. Six years later, he played the iconic Bhaskara Patelar in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan, ruthlessly treating a fellow human as nothing less than a slave and showing no signs of humanity.

By then – this was the mid-1990s – it was clear that Mammootty was that kind of a star, the kind that dared to take on roles no matter how it made him look, because it’s got stuff, and because he is first and foremost, a performer. Not a politician. Image, he knew, a mature audience would understand, was something that came from the way he treated his characters, not what roles he chose to play. To take a parallel, Jagathy Sreekumar, regarded as one of the greatest actors in Malayalam and is still a favourite among the audience 10 years after an accident had incapacitated him, has done every sort of funny, mean and nice guy characters you could think of. People hated his hateful characters and loved him.

Mammootty, a man who has famously shown he is ready to learn, whatever age or stage of his life he was in, realised this basic principle much early in his career. You can’t say he has always been a good chooser though. He had become part of a series of poorly made films in the late 90s and 2000s. Only, he may not have had a lot of choice back then, for Malayalam cinema as a whole seemed to dwell on formulaic scripts and easy-way-outs, daring little to experiment.

Even in that decade – the early 2000s – amid some of his tiresome superhero roles, Mammootty played the mean and jealous army officer in Megham, selfishly ruining his subordinate’s life to win the love of a woman. But it became one of those films where the hero, despicable till the end, reveals a good side he had underneath him. In the same vein is Azhagiya Ravanan, where for the most part he appeared to be the petty new millionaire buying his way through things, until the climax reveals he was not so bad after all. Still, both of these roles were rather unlikeable, and it is a surprise that a superstar was ready to take them on, without qualms, and even seeming eager to add them into his repository.

Ore Kadal and Paleri Manikyam came in the late 2000s, one featuring him as a drunk academic and player with women, the other portraying him in multiple roles – he played the hero and the villain in Paleri Manikyam, but his villain was so terrifying that he eclipsed the hero to almost nothing. In Pranchiyettan (released in 2010), he plays one of his more adorable characters, but readily becomes the caricature of a petty rich man trying any which way to gain some fame. A few years later he played in Venu’s Munnariyippu the quiet and well-behaved prisoner who appears to hold a mystery within him, until it all comes shattering out, scaring the daylights out of you. 

And now there’s Puzhu, where you keep wondering if this scary man, making life hell for his little boy, would have an iota of kindness somewhere inside, forgetting completely that the face belongs to a superstar who had endeared himself to us with many nice and sad characters in the past decades. You only see the horrible man on the surface, and Mammootty makes every effort to make sure you despise the character as much as he deserves to be despised.

This cannot be a chance selection of movies. It is admirable that at every stage of his career he has taken this risk. He must have a lot of trust in the art to keep doing that. He must know that the audience who sometimes can’t separate the artist from the character will be able to see the difference when he plays the ultimate family man and do-gooder in one movie (Golanthara Vartha), and in the next becomes Patelar, an incarnation of devil just short of the horns.

Somehow it worked for Mammootty. While people embraced his emotional roles (the loving father in Amaram, the teacher driven to madness in Thaniyavarthanam, the smart detective in the CBI series, or the slow one in Soorya Manasam) and loved the actor for it, they chose to hate his villain roles but not tie him down to it.

It is true that there are other actors who started by playing the villain and later turned the hero. Mohanlal famously began as the despicable Narendran in Manjil Virinja Pookkal and followed it up with a bunch of hateful roles in his early 20s. Suresh Gopi was often a high pitched villain until he earned a reputation as an action hero. In the neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Rajinikanth was a villain in his early days before becoming an unsurpassable superstar. 

But a generation and two later, few other actors have taken the same line as Mammootty did all those decades ago. Fahadh Faasil is of course famous for having absolutely no qualms in playing creepy guy after creepy guy (no one is forgetting Kumbalangi’s Shammi any time soon, the thief in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, or the weirdo son in Joji). Tovino Thomas, who started as the bad guy in ABCD, soon rose to be a star, and still plays the despicable one now and again, Naradhan being his latest. But Fahadh and Tovino have the advantage of playing these characters in the 2010s, when the audience in Kerala have been much more exposed to all kinds of cinema, and used to varied genres of filmmaking. For Mammootty, to do this in the 80s and 90s, and even now, is nothing short of absolute courage and an unshaken faith in his craft. 

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