In director Fazil’s 1992 film Pappayude Swantham Appoos, the protagonist is a young man who turns into a workaholic to distract himself from the loneliness that his wife’s death caused. One day, he realises that his rigorous working pattern has taken a toll on his 8 year old son. To cheer the kid up, the man sings, dances and plays with him. That song sequence is remembered less for that poignant father-son bonding moment than for the clumsy, yet endearing attempt at dance by the lead actor, Mammootty. He runs across the frame, picks up the kid and swings him by the arms. He diligently tries to shake a leg, but the dance must have certainly looked a lot better inside his head than on the screen.
Not many senior stars in India are blessed with perfect dancing skills. While Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi and Mithun Chakraborty were natural dancers, stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth developed the skill to a decent degree over time. However, Mammootty, unlike the latter, flunked out completely in the dancing department. The star openly admitted to this shortcoming. “You are a good choreographer, but performing with such dancing stars like Chiranjeevi , is not a big deal. I will only acknowledge you as a great dancer, if u can make me dance to your steps,” he told Prabhu Deva once. And the latter managed to do that twice, with a little help from the cameramen – In Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathy (1991) and Jayaraj’s Johny Walker (1992).
Mammootty’s stiff body language and peculiar style of walking have always been a hit among Kerala’s mimicry/comedy artistes. He is the apostle of Malayalees with poor dancing skills. At dance parties, anyone could do a terrible thumka and say they were imitating ‘Mammookka’. Time and again, Mammootty has tried dancing on and off screen, and whenever he did, the theatre exploded in laughter.
He famously attempted a break dance in 1983 film, Pinnilavu, in the song sequence Maane Madhura Karimbe. In Indraprastham (1994), a mediocre movie that sank at the box-office without a trace, Mammootty danced atop what looked like a computer motherboard in a song which had lyrics about the computer revolution that had been gripping the country then. In Priyadarshan’s Megham (1996), Mammootty and his equally inept colleague, Srinivasan, did a ‘dance contest’ to impress their crush, a very graceful dancer, Priya Gil.
However, this shortcoming never affected the actor’s journey towards superstardom, thanks to his superior acting skills, screen-presence, and the finesse of scripts that came to him. At the peak of his career in the late 1980s and 90s, Mammootty was doing films like Mathilukal, Oru Vadakkan Veera Gadha, Ponthan Mada, Thaniyavarthanam, Amaram, Ambedkar and Bhootha Kannadi, all of which won him critical acclaim. And the National Award for Best Actor, thrice. The King, New Delhi and the CBI franchise later affirmed his position as one of the biggest stars Malayalam cinema has ever seen. To be a star, he proved, it was not necessary to be perfect.
But in his 2005 film Rajamanikyam, Mammootty went one step further and beat his critics and bullies. He made the wittiest jokes at his own inability to dance and turned the tide in his favour. In the song ‘Paandimelam‘, the man walks into the frame where actor Rahman, who plays his brother on screen, is dancing with a group of junior artistes. The group pauses and waits for Mammootty, the lead man of the film, to join them. He strikes a pose, as if he would break into a dance any moment, and then, runs off as the group stands watching open-mouthed.
Now, in his 60s, Mammootty seems to be enjoying this little flaw of his. He led a whole team of dancers in Pokkiri Raja, and such was the fun that the choreographer asked excellent dancers like Shreya Saran and Prithviraj to follow his steps. His character was an overgrown bharatanatyam student in Johny Antony’s comedy-entertainer Thuruppu Gulaan. In the recently released Thoppil Joppan, a lovely Mamta Mohandas sways to a peppy number in the rain on a meadow. When Mammootty gears up to dance with her, his friends beg him not to. “They were just scared that I would steal her thunder,” Mammootty remarked later in jest.
“I love dancing. That’s what I am the most confident about,” he is seen telling a young interviewer during the promotion of the movie.
While Mammootty mastered the art of uninhibited dancing, there were healthy aspects of his career that gradually corroded. In the last 6 years, Mammootty starred in 41 movies, out of which hardly 8-10 films managed to make money at the box-office. Of the 41, just a few films like Pathemari and Munnariyippu put to use the exemplary actor Mammootty is. Others were flimsy formulaic attempts to showcase his image of a megastar with mass-appeal. They had him playing characters that were decades younger than his real life self, romancing heroines who are in their twenties, cracking poor jokes and doing gravity-defying stunts. In 2016, he appeared in four films, out of which only one movie, Kasaba, survived the box-office test. However, the movie was widely criticised for its highly regressive and misogynistic content.
With his hair looking darker than ever, and his skin more cosmetic, the Mammootty that the audience came to love from movies like Sreedharante Onnam Thirumurivu and Golanthara Varthakal is almost non-existent now. His characters in those films didn’t dance or fool around, but were real people with real problems. In his road ahead, the biggest challenge for the actor might be to play a role without getting choked in the starry, glamourous air that he has built up around him.