Day – Exterior – Long shot. A dude in dark sunglasses and slick attire rides into the frame on a flashy green old Royal Enfield. The director yells, “Cut”. Close up: MAMMOOTTY.
Mammootty jumps off the bullet, and smiles. He walks towards the technicians, and does some charismatic clowning around; very warm, very likeable by all, very friendly to all, from the light and spot boys to the cinematographer, director, and other actors. Then, he pulls up the nearest chair, and surfs the worldwide web on his cell phone, chilled out, totally lost to the world around him, while the sets are being lit for the next scene.
Three-time National Award-winner, seven-time State Award-winner, ten-time Filmfare Award winner, and recipient of the Padma Shri, Mammootty, has an acting career that spans three decades comprising over 300 films in the lead role. This year, he narrowly missed what would have been a record fourth National Award, for his performance in Kutty Srank (The Sailor of Hearts).
Film critic Dalton L has a candid conversation with this remarkable individual who in addition to possessing rave acting and dialogue delivery skills and being a notable art-house actor is also one of the two ruling megastars of the revered Malayalam Film Industry.
CHARACTERS & VERSATILITY
You certainly are in the league of versatile international actors such as Robert DiNero, Al Pacino, and Tom Hanks, but have never drastically changed your physical appearance to play a specific character.
Hahaha! You want me to put on and reduce weight, and look like a fat man and a thin man! Maybe it isn’t really necessary. But I do that, I do that! Actually, I don’t believe in prosthetic makeup also. Still, I’ve done these things, and will again, if a role demands it. I, of course, always appear as the character that I play. See, I reduced, for Mathalukkal, almost 10 kg to get into the character.
But see, unlike in Hollywood, actors do many, many films every year in our regional Indian cinema (in 1986, 35 films were released with Mammootty in the lead role), and the film budgets are also very tiny (Rs. 2-3 crores). So, those kinds of characters are not coming my way.
Of course, it feels good whenever I am offered a challenging new one, but I don’t sit back and wait for specific characters to come along. I’m not the kind of actor who always wanted to play a certain character and has not. No; nothing like that. But I go through scripts in detail and am very choosy about which roles I finally take up. I select from the ones that come my way. That’s it.
Also, I don’t shoot simultaneously. This way, there is no chance for getting confused between characters from different films. I finish one, and then start the other. And I take some gap in between also. So, my mind is clear and relaxed. I like to prepare myself, thoroughly, for my characters. Also, I get into and out of my character only on the sets. This way, I will not confuse myself with one of my fictional characters (smiles). I won’t take them home.
IN REAL LIFE
A question from National Award-winning film critic, Utpal Datta (Assam): Who is the real Mammootty?
The real Mammootty is seated next to you right now and driving the car; a very, very common, ordinary person (smiles).
You may have seen, today, on the sets, also, I am cheerful with everyone. Positivity creates a harmonious atmosphere. Even while working with new, young directors, I make them feel very comfortable, and I should behave, myself, comfortably also; otherwise, I will not get the result I’m looking for.
I’m a very home person, and love to give something back to society. No matter how busy I am with shooting, I always manage to devote quality time with my family, without compromise, without fail. I am very happy with my family. I don’t officially drag them into my profession, and they are not interested also.
Apart from entertaining my audiences, I like to live my life comfortably without disturbing nature or any being, anything which is living and non living.
One of your fans, Alisha Moosa (SYBcom, Chinmaya Vidyapeeth, Cochin), asks: do you follow the fast?
Yes, always. Recently, we were shooting during the holy month of Ramadan. I don’t feel that I’m fasting, because I don’t do it for the sake of fasting. It’s a very natural thing.
Coming to your roots: as a kid, did you stand in front of the mirror?
Sure (smiles). I used to try out different expressions and dialogues. I knew even then that I would be a full time actor some day. I knew it when I saw the first film in my life; I don’t remember the name; I was around 5 years old. But see, I did not leave my studies for that, or try hard. But I was expecting, I was hoping, I was dreaming. So I completed my studies. I go married. And only after that, I tried. And, I got it.
If you hadn’t gotten into acting, would you have been one of the most celebrated and charismatic lawyers in Kerala, today?
Maybe (laughs). During my law school days, I used to do a lot of mimicry. I became famous for my voice, expressions, and speech delivery back then, so, who knows! But one thing I can assure you is that I’ve always been sincere in my work and to satisfy the thing which I do for myself as well as my clients; here, my clients is my audience.
Hard work and talent is very important. But destiny also plays a part. If you ask me, at the time when Jayan (predecessor) was at his peak, did I think I would be what I am today, I would say, ‘Never!’ For this, I must thank all my fans. I am what I am only because of their constant love, support, and adulation. And professionally, I love nothing more than being accepted by my audiences, who are everything to me.
Ever considered changing your screen-name to Mammukka?
Mammootty is even again not my real name. It is Muhammed Kutty (kid) reduced to Mammootty. (Off-screen, even on the sets, practically everyone addresses him as Mammu-ikka; “Ikka” is the equivalent of the Hindi “ji”). How can I again change it! Then I’ll have no name at all (laughs).
You’re a well-educated person
Education is a continuous process. We learn from books, from the various media, from the people around us, and from life. And we constantly evolve, emotionally and intellectually. That’s how it is, I think.
Before I got into acting fulltime, I studied Law. I used to watch a lot of films, dramas and mimicry artistes in those days, and I was good at enacting them also.
I study actors, even now, Indian, international, from the present and past. But I try not to get influenced by any of them. Of course, I adore all the names that you already told me about, and many, many others.
Then, I like technology very much, and I keep myself updated with the latest. So, I was maybe one of the first actors in the world to have a website (mammootty.com). I’m every much a net person. I used to blog (blog.mammootty.com) and I’m on Twitter (@mammukka) but my Facebook account is very private.
I used to read also a lot. I’ve downloaded a lot of e-books, but these days, I hardly get any time. There used to be a Prabath Book House. You remember that? They used to come out with all these Soviet magazines, because Kerala always had this slant towards the left. And we used to get also all those Russian classics translated in different languages, at a low price.
What is your secret?
You mean in keeping fit and trim, or, being continuously successful? I follow a disciplined lifestyle, have a routine workout at the gym, do a lot of yoga, and am selective about the kind of food I eat. I think a warm, healthy home life too contributes significantly to one’s body and mental health. I put in a tremendous amount of time and effort into whatever I do. I strongly believe in hard work, hard work, and hard work.
My family controls my lifestyle. My wife and son chooses my clothes and decides what I wear (smiles). They are very concerned about me. I’m happy with any clothing that suits me perfectly and is comfortable. I’m not really the brand conscious type of person, so I don’t adhere to any particular brand. I wear all brands. Rather than style, I dress for comfort.
Then, there are the upcoming actors, some of them famous, who now and then ask me for grooming tips. I just tell them to do some rigorous workout; that’s all. It is natural that actors who follow in my footsteps would in some way be influenced by their predecessors. They would be eager to know, after all, the secret (smiles). If at all there is a secret.
Does stardom affect your personal freedom?
Not really. As you can see right now, I’m driving down the road like anyone else. I can stop anytime and talk to anyone. Being famous has never prevented me from doing things. You get mobbed only when your appearance is pronounced: “Mammootty is coming at such and such a time”; then, everyone waits for you. Otherwise, people just get a pleasant shock when they see you, and before they realize it, you’re done with what you came for and you’re gone.
But I think celebrity artists must be extra cautious with their words and behavior in public, and must maintain their charisma at all times. You see, young fans adulate their idols, and watch your life closely and keenly. Therefore, you must be very careful and keep your private life very private, lest tender-hearted fans be unnecessarily and unduly influenced by your off-screen failings. That is what I feel. And I also believe that, with all frankness and without hypocrisy, you should be that what you are, in public also.
Surely, you would love to walk the red carpet at Cannes.
Oh, why not (smiles).
Let’s get to your films. If Yavanika hadn’t happened, would your erstwhile signature role have been quite different?
Not necessarily. It was the first film that pronounced me as an actor, but the cop in Yavanika is a real cop, not the stereotype cop looking guy that I later did. Yes, there were some barking kind of roles that I did later as a cop, but this cop was using more of his intellect.
The one I was shooting for this morning, “August 15”, again has me as a ‘tough cop’; an imitation of a role I did in “August 1”, twenty-two years ago. But my last cop role was four years ago, so that’s not frequent.
These days, I engage in a lot of variety stuff. I dance with heroines, play a cool, funky dad, and do comical acts, among others. The audiences accept all these performances. Maximum, I have done over 300 roles. Images have a habit of persisting, but I broke out of the ‘tough cop’ image a long, long time ago.
You’ve experimented with a variety of tones and accents.
Yes, in Videyan and Chattambinaad, I’ve used a Karnataka border accent. In Raajamanikam, I’ve taken on a Trivandrum accent. And in this film that’s playing in the theaters now, Pranchiyettan and the Saint, I’ve become a proper Trichur townsman. I believe it is important to depict the character according to the place from where he belongs. So, I try to get the dialects right. I am sincere to my characters to the maximum perfection.
The fight scenes in Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha are embarrassingly ridiculous, loud, and clumsy.
Which! Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha? No, no, no, no, I disagree! That’s perfectly done by all the gurus in the Northern style of kalaripayattu! (one of the oldest and deadliest of the martial arts). And we got the gurus from the kalari (the sacred arena where the art is taught in secret). One of the best gurus, Satyan gurukkal, was the stunt master. We’d been practicing every day mornings, for months. We did all the positions, postures, steps, and techniques. In fact, you’re the first one to say that! Everyone else raves about the performances! Maybe the martial arts in Pazhazhi Raja is a little louder, but even that is not very loud.
You missed a chance to do for Kalaripayattu what Bruce Lee did for Kung Fu
Maybe this was a film that had every potential to revive the martial art of Kerala called Kalaripayattu, and place it, sensationally, on the international map. I don’t know. However, Bruce Lee was a master. I am not (laughs). I am an actor.
How do you get into the mind of a character? In Koodivide, you’re totally sloshed.
I have seen so many drunkards. And I have carefully observed the silly things that they do, from a distance. You don’t need to actually experience something, subjectively, to be able to portray it accurately. You see, I have played a warrior too, but I’ve never been in a war (laughs).
Should commercial cinema have a message?
You need not always make a film to send out a message. If you want to send messages, you can simply send out long messages through email and short messages through SMS and Twitter. Nowadays it’s fairly simple and easy (laughs heartily).
You’ve done a lot for sensible films
Yes, I’ve acted free for most of the meaningful films in which I acted (smiles). Since I offered my services as an actor for free, you can say that, in a way, I was the co-financer. I like working with intelligent debutant directors with the correct attitude, because they are fresh in their ideas, approach to filmmaking, and characters. So, if someone like that offers me a challenging role, I will be willing to act even without payment. See, I have been giving opportunities to young directors ever since the very beginning of my career. Then, I was a beginner. And they were also beginners. And we all grew together (smiles). And after I grew, I started grooming others also.
Am planning to launch a national film society very soon
Good. I think it should aim also to teach film art and craft to deserving people, and not be limited to only screening films. There are so many potential actors and filmmakers all over the country who simply need to be given a break.
If you want to, you can use my name. You see, I offer my brand ambassadorship free. I am the chief patron of the ‘Pain and Palliative Care Society’; Kazhcha (free surgery for the underprivileged); ‘Heart to Heart’ (free heart surgery); ‘Care and Share’ (free pediatric service); ‘Jeevan Jothi’; ‘Street India Movement’ (anti-child abuse/labor), and many other such charitable associations that I see are doing great work for the needy.
What do you think of the ‘National Film Awards’?
That’s the jury’s decision. I don’t want to disagree or go for any controversies. If you don’t trust the jury, don’t send your films and don’t talk about it. See, you are trusting a jury and sending your films, so keep the trust.
There are plans by the cream of film critics to institute a National Film CRITICS Awards.
Very, very, very nice gesture! Of course, this is already there in America and other cinema-rich nations. We need it here also. An award given by eminent film critics will be very valuable; more valuable than any other award in the country. It is good this is happening. There are many people who were not properly honored.