The year was 1981. Infosys was born, Nargis had died, and Mammootty broke into my world via a full-page ad in the Malayala Manorama newspaper for the film Sphodanam (Explosion). I was about to enter college and it was hard not to notice the handsome young man who looked unlike any other Mallu actor. The title spoke to me because I had just blasted my way through the shackles of a boring boarding school life into the exciting world of college. I met him exactly 20 years later, in 2001. Mammootty was the chairman of the nascent Kairali TV, where I learnt the ropes of television production. Suddenly, the matinee idol was my boss. For all you know, he could have walked out of the poster of Sphodanam, which was by then 20 years old. He looked younger than me then, as he does now. And he is still my boss.
Ask him, and he will tell you the secret to his ageless looks is sacrifice with a capital S. In the world of glamour, Mammukka—as we call him in Kerala with affection and pride—leads an “ordinary” life. While travelling together, whenever we have a sumptuous dinner, I know where to find him next morning—in the hotel gym. The man refuses to let his wealth affect his middle-class values. A fine trait imbibed by his son, emerging superstar Dulquer Salman.
Mammootty is often considered impulsive as he doesn’t bother with formalities. Few realise these impulses stem from a rooted understanding of life. It is a miracle how this man survived and became an icon in a world where being two-faced is the norm. Filmmaker Renjith—whose 2009 film Kerala Café signalled the arrival of the newest ‘wave’ in Malayalam cinema—recalls how he met its sole superstar. “Director Kamal introduced me to Mammootty in 1988. He gave me an ice-cold handshake. I could make out he was measuring me. That’s his style. He warms up slowly, but once he does, his friendship never grows cold,” he says.
That Mammootty was the lone superstar who dared to feature in the experimental film anthology Kerala Cafe is not just testimony of his friendship, but also of his commitment to those who think differently. He has worked with a lot of new filmmakers, many of whom are now famous across India thanks to OTT platforms. He identifies new talent from film sets—cameramen who hope to direct, assistant directors looking for their big break. Unbeknownst to them, Mammukka puts them under ‘observation’, and once convinced of their ability, volunteers his dates.
If Mammootty has straddled every ‘new wave’ of Malayalam cinema, it’s because he hates yes-men. He peppers directors with questions while discussing scripts to check their level of commitment and counts on people to speak their mind or challenge him. It’s integral to his liberal, progressive worldview. He is himself never afraid to articulate his politics. I believe it is his outspoken political views that stand between him and a Padma Bhushan (he got a Padma Shri in 1998). A caveat: he has never allowed his politics come in the way of friendships or causes he espouses.
The consummate method actor adores Stanislavsky. In Mammootty’s own words, he breaks the iron cage of his self to reshape it according to the demands of a new role. A voracious reader, he “barges into worlds” uninvited, to seek out new challenges. Once, at a public function, director Sathyan Anthikkad told me he was writing a new script with Mammootty in mind. I told him he should announce it there itself. He took the bait and the crowd erupted into a huge applause. Afterwards, he quipped: “My headache begins now. I’m still in the initial stages of the project, but Mammootty will already start preparing for the role.”
Few know that Malayalam cinema’s biggest superstar is a serial investor in tech startups. Mammootty’s obsession with tech started when he began tinkering with ham radio. In the 1990s, long before the mobile phone revolution, he used to communicate with his wife using a ham radio in his car, as he shuttled from one set to another. If a new gadget catches his fancy, he will travel to far corners to acquire it. He will also recommend gadgets freely. Once, hearing me whine about a recurring throat infection, Mammukka asked, “Do you go for morning walks?” When I said yes, he replied, “Get a set of ear pods. Blocking your ears should help your throat.” For good measure, he added: “Listen to Akashvani, it suits your age.”
(2021 marks Mammootty’s 50 years in cinema)John Brittas Rajya Sabha member and managing director of Kairali TV