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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Moments into our conversation in a hotel room in Cochin, Kerala, India, Malayalam superstar Mammootty whips out his mobile phone to proudly show me the first look of his magnum opus Mamangam. I'm nonplussed initially, because to me it looks like his Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha character, from the 1989 period drama that showcased the superstar as a valiant warrior, misunderstood by those close to him.
It's not every actor who can boast of spearheading a movie with the same ease with which he carried off his roles during the heydays of his career. Yes, at 68, Mammootty is a phenomenon. Not only does he retain the same drive and physicality in Mamangam that he showcased 30 years back in his National Award winning role as 'Chathiyan Chandu' in the epic Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, he is also equally dismissive of any compliments that may came his way due to his youthful looks.
It was way back in 1971 that Mammootty made his debut as a junor artist in the Malayalam film industry with Anubhavangal Paalichakal starring Sheela, Prem Nazir and Sathyan.
Precisely 48 years down the line, it won't be an exaggeration to say he is among the extremely few actors to enjoy such a long shelf life in the ephemeral world of cinema as well as the box-office draw that ensures his movies have a mass appeal second to none.
At an age when many actors of his calibre are relegated to doing character roles, Mammootty does not merely shoulder an entire film but is able to give actors half his age a run for their money.
This week as fans await the release of his period drama, Mamangam, "the most expensive Malayalam film to date", we revisit our recent meet with the actor in his home state of Kerala during the fag end of the shoot of the historical drama.
King of period drama
Even while we were hard pressed to distinguish his Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha look from that of Mamangam, due mainly to the fact that he is one actor who hardly seems to have aged in the over four decades he has been in the industry, Mammootty is adamant that there are no similarities between the two.
"Somebody was telling me that I was looking like that in the first part of the movie (shows me a picture from the set) the hairstyle is similar.. maybe because it is from the same time period.", his voice veers off. Both the movies have the veteran star don the look of a warrior from the 17th century.
Then more strongly, "But Vadakkan Veeragatha is not history. It is folkore." Whereas Mamangam is based on a historical religious festival that was held once every 12 years at Thirunavaya, on the banks of the Bharatapuzha.
While the makers seem averse to reveal the exact plot line, what is known is that the actor essays a mysterious character who plays a central role in the 400-year history of Mamangam. Pivotal to the story is also the character of a 12-year-old-boy Chandunni, a Chaver (warrior) who attempts to kill the Zamorin (ruler), who has wrongly usurped the right to host the Mamangam by doing away with the rightful leader. "Vadakkan Veeragatha was an entirely different set," Mammootty avers when I ask how it was to get back to a similar setting as his famous period drama from 1989.
"Vadakkan Veeragatha is a different concept," he adds. "The same kalaripayattu performance was there, of course. Kalari as a martial art is the same, but we have added some more action (in Mamangam).
So what makes an actor who enjoys mass appeal like Mammootty, whose last 'mass film' so to say, Madhura Raja, was an out and out entertainer, to take on a serious historical movie like Mamangam? "This is also for entertainment," he laughs.
Relevance of Mamangam
Considering Mammootty's checkered career where he has done a period drama like Pazhassi Raja (2009) as well as a comedy like Pranchiyettan and the Saint (2010) or a serious drama like Perambu (2018) with equal elan, it would be of course, no exaggeration to state that here is an actor who is at ease with whatever genre he signs on to do.
Does he believe that the success of Bahubali has opened up an audience for pan Indian movies in the country? "Of course, the language barrier has dropped and the pan Indian audience has come into being now. Even lip sync is not an issue. They just want to understand the movie with the full emotion," the actor tells us.
"We (the Malayalam film industry) are more into period movies. Look at Kayamkulam Kochunni (the Nivin Pauly starrer that released in 2018). Others have just seen us and then started." Then referencing other movies - "Thugs of Hindostan didn't do well."
"Manikarnika also is not the absolute truth. You should at least put 60 per cent truth. 40 per cent you can go for fiction."
As for Mamangam, he considers it a "responsibility" that he has to take on as an artist. "This is historical cinema and it has to be brought into the knowledge of the new generation. They (the warriors in Mamangam) were brave; they were martyrs for a cause." He continues, "Of course, there is a need for youngsters to know more about their history."
"In historical movies, all our war heroes are tragedies. They were simply killed. Their martyrdom is our heroism."
It may have happened hundreds of years ago, but "more such movies should be made because even our young generation is not aware of their history unless they are taught that in school."
What's Mamangam all about?
Mamangam is based on the religious festival that took place in the Malabar region of Kerala once every 12 years for over 280 years. While the movie is based on historical facts, the makers have been secretive about the actual plot. All that is known is that Mammootty plays a Chaver, a mysterious character who is part of the warriors of Valluvanad who are part of a plot to overthrow the Zamorin. Unni Mukundan, Prachi Tehlan, Achutan, Sudev Nair, Iniya and Tarun Arora play supporting roles in the drama.
With action helmed by Shyam Kaushal of Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat and Dangal fame, and VFF headed by M. Kamalakannan (Bahubali, Saaho), there is no doubt it will be a visually spectacular cinematic experience for fans.
The film went through some initial hiccups when the original director Sajeev Pillai, was replaced by director M. Padmakumar of Joseph fame (he was also an associate director on the sets of Mammootty's Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha). It is the first Malayalam movie to be released in three other languages - Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
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