Somewhere, someone – in all probability a hardened fan in the middle of a message board trail on the Internet – has said that when Mammootty cries on screen, the Malayali cries along. The message comes with an obvious, almost romanticised admiration for one of Malayalam cinema’s most iconic star-actors of all time. But in many ways, it also reflects the Malayali’s perception of and expectation from the actor. Dreary, mass-feeding set-pieces like Rajadhiraja may still find takers among his younger fans but what really gets him going are these emotionally pegged, often victimised characters. At 66 years, the actor is still evolving; he adds fresh, subtle touches to scenes that would have drifted to melodrama in films from the 1980s. Mammootty continues to be irresistibly good when he deals in drama. We like it when he breaks down, fumbles with his cigarette, stops and throws at you a teary, intense line in that near-broken baritone. We hurt, and root, for him.
Here are five post-2000 performances that had us hurt along.
Kaazhcha (2004) Mammootty’s Madhavan lives a life of simple pleasures, anchored in his family and his little home in the backwaters. Writer-director Blessy’s outstanding debut feature tells a story of love and hope that transcends barriers of culture and language; Madhavan is an unlikely guardian to the Gujarati-speaking boy haunted by bloody memories of an earthquake. Mammootty’s top-rate performance comes stripped of all starry sheen. When a cop accuses him of having done to the boy something unimaginable, Madhavan responds with a wide-eyed, almost defensive look. There is a hint of indignation but it also comes with a stronger sense of fear.
Karutha Pakshikal (2006) As Murukan, the migrant Tamil worker, the actor wears the tired scowl of a beaten man and a slouch that defines the everyday struggle his life is. The physical transformation is not intrusive; what makes Murukan stand out in the pack is Mammootty’s effective use of a cowed-down body language and what seems to be a deliberate decision to underplay. Murukan takes the blows with a detached sense of inevitability. It’s like he’s embracing his tragedy because he doesn’t seem to think he deserves better. A finely paced, underrated performance.
Palunku (2006) Another Blessy film in which the family forms the bulwark of the story. Mammootty plays Monichan, a farmer who loses his way after moving to The City. The actor plays nice and easy in the initial portions that establish his life as pure and unaffected by desire. The latter segments see him in smashing form as a man grappling with new choices and temptations. The rape of a daughter is the final blow to Monichan. The film pans out like a morality play toward the end but Mammootty’s performance leaves even the grim climactic portions with enough for a revisit.
Varsham (2014) P K Venugopal in Varsham – with mandatory nod to C K Raghavan from the terrific Munnariyippu – is one of Mammootty’s most layered characters from recent years. There’s a certain cold pettiness about Venu’s life as a cut-throat financier; he is a selfish parent who gets blunt enough to ask a friend to keep his terminally ill son at home (“raise sick children the way they should be”, he says, no apologies). The transformation, again, is brought in by death. There is vintage Mammootty in a scene where Venu blames his wife Nandini (Asha Sharath) for the tragedy. He repeats, almost deliriously: “Nee mindaruthu!” (you should not speak). Varsham does tend to bank entirely on this character and performance. But if this is the kind that we get, we shouldn’t mind. Pathemari (2015) Salim Ahmed’s Pathemari is a film about expatriates in the Gulf who burn out in hard labour to light up lives of dear ones back home. There have been other films. Pallikkal Narayanan played by Mammootty is your regular Gulf Malayali from the 1970s, returning after every home visit hoping the next would be the last. We have seen him too. Pathemari, yet, stands out for the understated intensity that Mammootty brings to its lead character. When a journalist friend of his son wants to interview Narayanan as a struggler who could not succeed even after many years in the Gulf, Narayanan asks the young man after a pause – “Did Satheesan (the son) tell you that I’m a failure?” The actor, in that pause, lets you into Narayanan’s mind – “Does my son really think of me as a failure?” Beautiful.
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Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...