‘Dialect’ics of performance: An ode to Mammootty

This is not an attempt to theorize Mammootty or his acting. Nor it is an authoritative take on the theories and technicalities of acting. I don’t possess enough knowledge in both fields to produce such an account. Moreover, The history and legacy of his acting career span beyond any such takes of particularity. Rather, this as an account of witnessing. Needless to say, there will be some limitations to this method of analysis. I would like to share some thoughts on Mammootty, manifested through these limitations itself. The first limitation is the limitation of seeing itself. We believe that seeing is the most honest way of accounting/collecting. But John Berger says that the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. The knowledge, the explanation never quite fits the sight1. But lest we acknowledge the fact that there is nothing as seeing as such, and we can experience seeing only from the history of seeing. Thus, all the individualistic improvements apart, our experience of seeing Mammootty on screen is always strongly mediated by our history of discursive engagements with various on/off-screen experiences of Mammootty, as an actor and as a public personality. Therefore, our experience of seeing is always an experience of the changing times, from popular screen representations to the recent public representations., ranging from New Delhi to the recent viral workout selfie.

The question of difference is another interesting area to look upon while we discuss through limitations of this method. It has become almost impossible to initiate a discussion on Mammootty without bringing in a comparison of Mohanlal. The question is always about identity and difference.

How different is Mammootty from Mohanlal? The most popular analogy is that Mohanlal is a born actor, and Mammooty a made one. Many critiques and directors agree. Even Mammootty himself has admitted that he’s not an actor by birth. By citing the absence of theatrical legacy in his family, he remarks that acting is always an aspiration for him. While giving interviews, he constantly reiterates this aspiration by stating that he’s always in a process of becoming. This very aspiration leaves us with an optimistic notion of Derridean to-come2, that the best is yet to come. Yet, An independent appreciation is always absent while evaluating these two giant figures of Malayalam cinema. The most underlying factor here is the inadequacy of our methods and tools to think differently about the difference. It is therefore important to create an adequate space for independent evaluation, not without acknowledging the other, but through developing new languages of difference.

Famous screenwriter S.N Swamy makes this interesting observation while commenting on both Mohanlal and Mammootty, that while the former intake his characters, the latter becomes them. This can be read in connection with screenwriter and filmmaker, Lohitha Das’ observation that while Mohallal acts, the minute residual elements of Mohanlal will always be evident in one way or another in each character. But when Mammootty does that, characters are the only remnants in the frame. Acting is an act of representing. Good actors make that representation ethical, without violating the limits and boundaries of representation. There’s an interesting memory shared by Jabbar Patel, director of Babasaheb movie, in which Mammootty acted as Dr. B.R Ambedkar. He says that the most challenging thing was not the expressions of emotions but the representation of the intellectual aura, which was constantly produced by Babasaheb. He admiringly recalls that this task was efficiently handled by Mammootty, especially during the engagements with the character of Gandhi in the movie. Another important task was to reproduce the kind of English that Ambedkar spoke at that time, A strange production of Oxford English of the ’50s spoke by an Indian. This too was brilliantly executed by Mammootty. Later, Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Babasaheb, spoke about the performance in awe, recalls Jabbar Patel. What is that element which enables Mammootty to transcend the limits- geographical, physical, linguistic, social- to become a character to produce a non-violent act of performance later? Prof. C.S Jayaram, a prominent art critic, notes that Mammootty upholds inference, in contrast to the commonly conceived idea of observation, as a fundamental trait of an actor. Inference, according to Jayaram, is an important thought of Western-Stanslivaskian school. Inference, in contrast with blind repetition enabled by mere observation, is a dialectical process of making logical-rational conclusions, evolved according to historical-real life situations. While Mammootty constantly denies the questions on his acting by stating that he hasn’t studied acting formally, Jayaram suggests that he can be a perfect case study for method acting in any theoretical workshops.

Acting as an act of representation, as I mentioned earlier, demands ethical sensibilities. It also invokes certain questions on the idea of self and other. No actor ever had to represent himself in a movie. It is always about representing others. To represent others, you need to accept others. Here the self act as a host of others. As Derrida himself interestingly notes: ‘We only ever speak one language—and, since it returns to the other, it exists asymmetrically, always for the other, from the other, kept by the other. Coming from the other, remaining with the other, and returning to the other3.’ In the case of Mammootty, the hospitality exceeds the limits while accepting the otherness to an extent that the self is no longer visible. It is this very reason which makes Mammootty, in contrast to Mohanlal who often tends to be remainder with residual elements, an invisible element on the screen. The mastering of dialects is one of the major enabling tools of Mammootty to make that transcendence possible. Dialects are often remarked as an attribute of difference. Most of the dialectic varieties represent hyphenated identities, often considered as the opposite of ‘pure’, ‘sacred’. Mammootty, with his unparalleled modulating control over voice, has been very successful in this process of linguistic transcendence without showing an iota of effort. From Karutha Pakshikal to Vidheyan, the trajectory remains as another interesting case study.

As I’ve mentioned in the opening paragraph, this was not an attempt either to theorize Mammootty or to explain complex technicalities and contesting theories. This is an ode to Mammootty, a man I’ve been admiring, like most of you who are reading this now, since my childhood. O.V Vijayan, the legendary author, recalls an incident from his New Delhi days when one energetic handsome young man came to him and addressed him as ‘Vijayetta’. Vijayan, who couldn’t identify this young man replied that he didn’t understand who he was. The young man replied: I’m Mammootty. Vijayan, who was still processing, asked what he was doing. ‘I’m an actor’ he replied with a smile. ‘I pray for that young man’, Vijayan later writes, ‘It’s not a problem that this poor Vijayan couldn’t recognize him. It’s enough when God himself recognizes him’. Hearing Vijayan’s prayer or not we don’t know, but God has recognized him for sure. K.G. Shankarappillai, another favorite poet writes in one of his poems:

“Aalukal kandu kand aan sir-

Kadalithra Valuthaayath

Puzhakal Ithihaasamayath”

(It’s by constant seeing, The sea has become this large, The rivers became legends)

1.Berger, J., Dibb, M., & BBC Enterprises. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: BBC Enterprises.


3. Jacques Derrida, ‘Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin’

Afeef Ahmed is a student of English literature at the Hindu College University Of Delhi.