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“Every film feels like my first one”

Five decades, almost 300 films and three National Awards later, Mammootty continues to be the reigning Malayalam superstar. Bhakti Mehta and Titas Chowdhury caught up with the veteran actor during the shoot of his upcoming film, a multilingual period drama titled Mamangam, based on a festival held once in every 12 years in Kerala. He talked at length about the movie, its minimal use of VFX, his responsibilities as a superstar and still feeling like a newcomer 

Titas Chowdhury (TC): In an interview in 2000, you had said that you found it difficult to judge yourself as an actor. 
Yes, I did.

TC: 19 years later, are you able to do that?
No, I do not think that I will ever be able to do that. And I think it is because I am still struggling to be good at my job. I am not happy with what I am doing. I think that I can try harder and better myself.

Bhakti Mehta (BM): We believe the producer of the film, Venu Kunnappilly, does not want much VFX in it and wants the scenes to look real. Does this get challenging as an actor?
Well, we do not need too much VFX. There will be real fight sequences, without the use of any special effects, but that does not mean that we will kill anybody during those sequences. (Laughs) It is only the acting that is unreal. There are so many things kept real in this film, including the sets that look so real and true to the era. So we thought, let’s keep things as real as we can overall. The producer does not want too much VFX because he wants that the film should look more real rather than realistic.

BM: Your character in Mamangam is very mysterious and there are several layers to him…
(Cuts in) Yes, he is very mysterious. He suddenly disappears from one mamangam and appears just before the next one. He is not around during the time between the two mamangams. We do not know what happens between the two events. He appears in a different face and a different look before the next mamangam. That prevents people from recognising him. So you will see that his identity is not revealed anywhere in the film. Somewhere someone calls him using his surname. His relationships will surface eventually as you watch the film but we do not want to reveal that now. Is that okay? (Laughs)

BM: Yes, sir. This is a film set in the 1600s. How did you get into character and determine things like body language and mannerisms, given that there was no reference point?
Yes, you have to plan these things keeping something in mind. That happened when I was doing Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar also. I have not seen him and there was no footage available of his younger days. When we enact fictional characters, we have to chalk out and fix certain things beforehand, such as the mannerisms and way of talking, after consultation with the director. If he says something, we have to follow it. The same thing happened here. 

BM: Mamangam is one of the biggest and most expensive films in Malayalam cinema in recent times. Being the face of this cinema industry, you have to put in a lot of faith in a film like this.
Not only faith, but a whole lot of effort, time, energy and dedication too. I need to put these things into every film that I do, not only this film. 

BM: But this time, you had to show a lot of confidence and faith in the filmmakers. This is your first collaboration with producer, Kunnappilly. 
Yes, the producer is taking a lot of risk with the film because he is putting a lot of money into this project. So we also have to do all we can, so as to support him. When he is supporting us, we also have to support him. That is a must.

TC: As an actor, when the film came to you, did you also think of it as a risky project?
If you think of it that way, every film comes with a certain amount of risk. Every film is an experiment. But Mamangam is a bigger film. When the producer came to me, I was so happy to think that somebody was ready to do such a big film. 

BM: Today there are a lot of experimental films being made in the Malayalam film industry… 
We have been experimenting for a long time. I came into this industry through an experimental film. I have been a toad for experiments at one point of time. Being a smaller film industry, we make a lot of low-budget films. The experiments mostly happen with low-budget films and now with commercial films also. The smaller, experimental films are more content-oriented and we then use elements of that in commercial films. That way, commercial films also look natural. 

TC: You are the face of Malayalam cinema…
(Cuts in) I do not believe that I am the face of Malayalam cinema. (Laughs)

TC: But we all believe that, because it is a fact. 
Somewhere I read that I am the face of Indian cinema. (Laughs)

BM: You and Mohanlal sir represent Malayalam cinema globally.
Now you have added one more face! (Everyone laughs)

TC: Does being a superstar bring a whole lot of responsibility with it, especially when it comes to choosing scripts?
When you read a script, you know whether you want to do the film or not. If a script touches you and you see that there is scope in it for you as an actor to display your craft, then you say yes, and make the film. If the film does not perform well, you cannot blame others, because it is your mistake; you did not choose correctly. You need not always be right. It all depends on your judgment of scripts and your judicious mind. Had I been an expert at choosing scripts, I would have been a big producer today. (Laughs) 

BM: Mammootty sir, you enjoy an immensely strong fan base. Do their expectations ever come into play when you are zeroing in on a film?
I would like to reiterate that my film choices depend on my interest, my scenes in the film and my scope as an actor. My fans are waiting for me to act in good films. Any film or script I choose should initially satisfy, convince and inspire the actor in me. That is the first criterion. The next is subject; whether I have a good role in the film and the subject is good. I have to gauge all this. I also have to see the crew, the director, the producer and all the technicians behind it. Sometimes even if you have big names attached to a film, it might not perform very well. 
I believe that you cannot keep your own audience in mind when you make a film. If I make a film for them, it will always be influenced by their tastes. You have to do films for yourself, and then make them like it. I let my instincts dictate my choices. 

TC: Looking back at your career that spans five decades, how would you describe it?
Why look back? I believe in looking ahead and awaiting what is going to happen. (Laughs) 

TC: That is a nice way to put it. 
What has happened has already happened, you cannot change it. You can control what is going to happen in the future. You can choose to make changes to the things that are going to happen. But once you have already chosen something, you cannot change it. It will remain attached to your name and your life forever. So no looking back!

BM: Given that there is a lot of money involved in this film, as an actor, do you feel a sense of responsibility as far as the box-office performance of Mamangam is concerned?
The responsibility is totally mine. My responsibility is to do complete justice to the role that is given to me. Otherwise I will only be concerned about my producer putting in a lot of money. But this is a combined effort. We are all in this together as a team and we are working in a very sincere and dedicated manner. We do not know what the result will be.  

TC: In 2018, you acted in six completely different films. Did that happen by design? Do you believe in constantly pushing the envelope?
That happened by chance; it did not happen by design. How can you design these things? If you do one or two films, then you can say that it happened by design. But if you do six films a year, then it cannot happen by design. My producer can plan to release a film at a certain point in time, but any natural calamity can change it. So we do not plan; it just happens by chance.

BM: After so many years, what is the secret to your energy? Does it still excite you to go to the sets of a new film?
Every film feels like my first film. The first day on the set of a new film feels like the first day of my first film even now. Every new film is like a new chapter in my life.This feeling keeps me alive.

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