They say that your reputation precedes you, and it could not be more true while talking about Mammootty. With nearly 375 films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and even English to his credit, the actor’s work spanning almost 38 years speaks for itself.
As he begins talking about his career, he makes it sound quite simple. “You can’t plan your dreams, can you? Sometimes, things just happen in your life. Films are no different,” he says, when asked if he is in a different phase of his career. It is not just his candour that is refreshing. The acclaimed actor takes you by surprise when he walks into the room dressed in a casual shirt and veshti. He is 67 years old now but it does not look like that age will catch up with him any time soon. “It’s all God’s grace,” he quips, talking about how he has looked almost the same over the years.
As he gets talking, you might even convince yourself that the smile on his face is perennial. However, beyond all that, there is an actor who takes his craft quite seriously. It goes without saying that Mammootty has earned the tag of being one of the most influential actors of his generation and quite rightly so. When he agreed to come on board Yatra to play YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s role, it was nothing short of a casting coup by Mahi V Raghav, who had previously directed Anando Brahma and Paatshala. Ask Mammootty if he had any second thoughts about taking up the film, considering that Mahi is just two films old, the actor says, “In my career, I’ve worked with more than 70 debutant directors and nearly 80 percent of them are still active in Malayalam and Tamil film industries. Mahi had directed two films already before he approached me (smiles). I’ve always looked forward to working with new directors because I believe that they’ll have something interesting to say through their stories. For me, it’s all about the story and the script. Mahi came to me with a full script and they had complete confidence in me. The script was quite convincing and I was confident that I could do the role.”
When the trailer of the film landed on the internet, the actor was praised for imbibing the nuances of YSR’s body language, including the latter’s trademark way of waving his hand at people. “You can only wave your hand in a certain way, and all the more so when you are playing a character based on a real person,” Mammootty laughs, adding, “I didn’t do any research before I came onboard. It was Mahi who did all that work and I just followed his instructions. I didn’t want to mimic YSR or adapt his mannerisms. We have only focused on the soul of the character. If we try to mimic him, then it’ll become a poor copy. And it’s not possible to do it because we are two different personalities. During the shoot, there were quite a few scenes where I became quite emotional. However, I couldn’t project them because I was playing a character who would have to behave quite differently. That was challenging. It didn’t matter that I’m from an actor from Kerala playing the role of a politician from Andhra Pradesh. Poverty has the same colour no matter where we are from. We might speak different languages, but the problems which people face are the same.”
Mammootty has also dubbed for himself in Yatra, an impressive feat considering that YSR had a distinct Rayalaseema accent. For this, the actor had to put in a lot more effort to sound right. Elaborating further, Mammootty says, “I am not conversant in Telugu, but I do have a flair for languages. I end up watching movies and interviews in Telugu for the sake of learning the language. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between Telugu and Malayalam, although we don’t stress on every letter like they do while speaking in Telugu. At times, I would end up pronouncing Telugu words like how I might say it in Malayalam. We had to be careful about such things and go for quite a few retakes. The team was quite patient with me during the whole process.”
Yatra is the first film in his career, Mammootty says, where he is playing a politician. “I’ve done quite a few political films, but they were mostly about the protagonist holding the politicians accountable. I haven’t done as many biopics though. In all these years, I can remember films like Ambedkar and Basheer, and period dramas like Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja which were biopics. Yatra isn’t a full-fledged biopic either because we are focusing only on an event which happened in YSR’s life,” he says.
On a different note, he is clear that he will not join politics actively. “I’ve been in this industry for 38 years and I see no reason why I should join politics now. Films are my politics, if I may say so. But as a citizen of this democratic country, all of us need to be aware about what’s happening in our state and national political field.”
Yatra is his first Telugu film in nearly 22 years after he played the lead role in K Vishwanath’s acclaimed film Swathi Kiranam, which released back in 1992, and later Surya Putrlu (1997). He was supposed to play the lead role in Kodi Ramakrishna’s Railway Coolie, but the film was never completed. Although he was approached for quite a few Telugu films over the years, the actor says that he was not impressed with the roles he was being offered, until Yatra came his way. “But I must say, I’ve always held Telugu cinema and the people here in high regard. People are very kind when it comes to accepting films from other languages. They don’t care if it’s a big budget film or a small one, as long as the content appeals to them. It’s really healthy and good for filmmakers everywhere. Who knows, maybe I will also try to dub some of my films in Telugu in near future. That’ll be another adventure for me,” he adds.
In the last few years, the influx of a lot of newcomers in Malayalam cinema has ushered in a new era of filmmaking and stories which filmmakers want to tell. And on top of that, the film audience too has become far more forthcoming about their opinion, thanks to the rise of social media. While Mammootty acknowledges the power of social media, which has given a platform for everyone to voice their opinions, he opines that all an actor can do is listen to his heart and try not repeating his or her mistakes. “You’ve to understand that as an actor, I can’t choose a film that’s complete already. I can only choose a script. If everything falls in place, then films work or else, they’ll fail. Like a TV, I’m just one of the several thousand components that have to work together to project a good quality picture. Being the face of a film, it does affect you a bit when films fail. Sometimes you know that you’ve gone wrong in the process, and you’ll try to correct your mistakes going forward. You’ll have to reinvent yourself a lot with time. I’ve changed a lot in the last 20 years. It also depends on how people look at you and expect from you. I’m trying to do that all the time,” he avers.
With his son, Dulquer Salmaan, making giant strides in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and now Hindi cinema, one might be forced to think that the competition starts at home for this father-son duo. However, Mammootty laughs it off saying, “Perhaps, the only thing we are competing for is for his mother’s love.”