' Rajamanikyam ', released in 2005, was a watershed film in Mammootty’s career. Still charming with his chiselled looks, the then 54-year-old ‘Mega Star’ of Malayalam cinema adopted Thiruvananthapuram slang for the movie that went on to become one of his biggest hits. The film also helped undo the perception that Mammootty can’t do comedy. One of his dialogues in the film goes something like this: “Oru varavu koodi varendi varum.” (I will have to come once again). His fans lapped it up.
However, last week’s release of Kasaba, a police story directed by Nithin Renji Panicker, the son of script writer and actor, Renji Panicker, is now prompting Malayalees to deliver a retort to that Rajamanikyam dialogue: “Mathi. Vannathu mathi" (Enough. Don’t come any more.) The film has evoked acerbic and cynical criticism by even the staunchest Mammootty fan, with many lamenting the depths the great actor has fallen to. One of the reviews says: Kasaba is ‘Mammootty in a variety of Ray-Ban shades.’
Between Rajamanikyam and Kasaba, a decade has gone by. Mammootty has grown 10 years older. Unfortunately, there are hardly 10 movies in these years that Mammootty could be proud of as an actor. Why did it happen? Was it the actor’s reluctance to accept his age? Or is it because the industry wants Mammootty to be permanently middle-aged, a bachelor, a divorcee or a protector of family values so that his fans would remain devoted to the actor’s image? In one of his interviews a decade ago, Mammootty said he caters to the 20-25-year-old audience. Those 25-year-olds are now 35-year olds. That means Mammootty now caters to an audience that would like to see the mega star acting their age out. This logic, however, is not aesthetically pleasing when one sees the actor’s works in the movies that have come out during the last decade. In almost all of them, he has acted the roles of a 40-45-year old man, never his age.
Going by Mammootty’s own logic of an actor catering to the age group of 20-25-year-olds, it’s pertinent to understand that youngsters of this age group form a critical size of the average cinema-going public. But in a changed economy, with more and more global trends and values coming to influence lifestyles, aesthetic preferences and consumer choices, it should be understood that the perspectives of this age group too has changed. And people above 30 years are not redundant as consumers of films.
The reluctance of Mammootty to remain a discerning actor is a big loss for the discerning Malayalam movie fans: they are forced to see again and again different versions of the same character by an ageing actor. None including this writer is against ageing. Aged people are wise and more discerning, which unfortunately Mammootty is not able to project in his choice of characters. This is where Mammootty fails miserably when compared with other stars such as Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth. Bacchan got nearly edged out in early 1990s, when a new crop of actors including Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar came up with a string of super hits.
After his `Angry Young Man’ stint, though Bachchan tried to cross over to the generation of the Khans, he failed. After the business fiasco with his ABCL Corp. in mid 1990s, Bachchan receded to the cultural memory of India at large only to stage a comeback with the ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ quiz show. People saw a charismatic old man, in sharp suits and with a full white French beard, talking in chaste classic Hindi and in elegant English. Bachchan had his second innings started there. Here was an old gentleman, exuding the charm and sex appeal of yester years. For the 20-25-year-olds, he was someone to be wondered at in sheer awe. For the oldies who grew up in the Angry Young Man’s staples, it was a new adrenaline pumping. Middle aged men puffed up their chests in pride and the aunties went all red when Bachchan called them out at the sets of the ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati.’
The films that followed Bachchan’s television success were of a new genre where film makers could dare to experiment with the ‘age’ of the senior actor. Suddenly, the scope of stories that the Bollywood could think of in order to rake up money grew big and the boundaries of imaginations were expanded, for an ageing/aged actor! See the films that followed: Black, Nishabd, Cheeni Kum, Pa, Piku and so on and so forth. No story repeats in formulaic way because the stories of old people were different and Bachchan each time could become a new old man. Old age cannot be more alluring than this! Following Bachchan’s success, several retired heroes dared to come back to screen from their hideouts in plush Mumbai offices from where they operated as developers and film producers.
The case of Rajinikanth is slightly different though. Unlike Bachchan, Rajinikanth prefers to play the role of those men who are slightly over 30 years old. Rajinikanth’s films are pure poetry, because like poetry they too make the audience willingly suspend their disbelief. But when he is not doing films, Rajinikanth remains an incognito figure who doesn’t mind appearing in public in his bald head, ageing skin, slightly imbalanced lips and dark skin. Also, with films like Linga and the semi-animated movie, Kochadiyan, evoking a lukewarm response, the indefatigable Rajini too realized that you can’t always charm the audience with prosthetic make up. In his forthcoming movie, Kabali, Rajinikanth perhaps goes the Bachchan way, showing himself as an old man but as swashbuckling as ever.
Mammootty could’ve hidden his age for long if he really tried hard. But Internet is such a nasty leveller. Anyone can dig up celebrity trivia and splash it everywhere online. Hence we’ve Mammootty slapping his fans from an open vehicle, getting angry with people and so on in the YouTube. All these have slowly eroded the gentleman image of the actor. Also his guarded silence on many of the pivotal social and political issues has given the actor, over a period of time, the image of a self-seeking person. This has happened to his contemporary star Mohanlal as well, as he remains equally lopsided in his political views and uncritical of the real issues despite his penchant for soft blogging.
Mammootty is now an actor exposed. But this exposure of age, one feels, should be taken with grace and equanimity by the actor himself. When his son Dulquer Salman is getting rave reviews, Mammootty should gracefully open himself as an actor rather than sticking to the illusory chair of a mega star. While taking a leaf from Bachchan’s career decisions, Mammootty could also look at the erstwhile heartthrobs of the Hollywood such as Robert De Nero, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Harrison Ford, John Travolta and Denzel Washington. They all’ve aged gracefully; even their characters in the movies show the fault lines in their age. They wheeze as they run, and their backs get cramped as they sit or get up. Mammootty is still clumsily doing his stunts and dance. No VFX and no selective frames betray the occasional revealing of his ageing skin, hanging muscles, eye bags and general sluggishness. Ray-Ban shades could hide his eyes, but that’s like the proverbial cat drinking milk with its eyes shut when the whole world is watching. In Bollywood, Dev Anand did it and his exit was ridiculous. We don’t want to see the same thing happening to Mammootty.