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August 4, 1999


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'I felt relieved only after the censor board certified Ambedkar'

A still from Ambedkar. Click for bigger pic!
Ever since the national awards are announced, Mammootty has been a busy man. No, he is not shooting now; in fact he is enjoying a 20-day holiday with his wife and children. But most of it has been spent in giving interviews. All provided rather reluctantly, of course.

Shobha Warrier waited for the interest to subside before calling him up but by then he was quite bored.

"I hope you will understand my feelings," he said. But he finally relented and agreed to an interview at his home, a beautiful and tastefully decorated house reminiscent of old Kerala architecture in Madras. In fact, he has collected several items, including finely carved doors, wooden floor, wooden ceiling etc from old Kerala houses.

In such comfortable surroundings Mammootty finally loosened up and chatted on for nearly an hour, though telephone calls interrupted him several times. He spoke of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the challenges before him as an actor, his desire to act in Hollywood movies and his search for challenging roles.

The latest national award is Mammootty's third. Other than Kamal Haasan, no other male actor has won three national awards. The first two awards were for his performances in Malayalam films but this time it was for a film made in English. And that makes it sweeter, he says. Excerpts from the interview:

You said in some of the interviews that this national award is special. Why do you say so?

It is because the award is not for a role that in a Malayalam film. I think, most of the earlier awardees got their awards acting in the films made in their mother tongue. But I got this award for my role in a foreign language film. So, it is special and sweet.

As an actor, is there any difference in emoting in a foreign language film?

The only difference is in the modulations in the dialogue delivery because there is a lot of difference in the way you say something in Malayalam and in English. Emotions are the same to all human beings. But there is some difference in the way people react to situations.

Click for bigger pic!
Did you have to put in a lot of effort for your role as Ambedkar?

Of course, I had to. Is there no difference in the way you communicate in your mother tongue and in a foreign language? English is a language known to us but we use English like we use Malayalam, I'll say, it is very flat. And we do not use the real expressions too. We use the written language and not its colloquial form. But as this film is made in English, aimed at those whose mother tongue is English and who react in English, we had to put in a lot of effort.

We had to speak in English quite naturally, like a person whose mother tongue is English. And, even if we try to bring in some modulations, the influence of our mother tongue will be quite obvious in our speech. For example, we stress certain words and expressions like we do in our language. So, I had to learn it from somebody whose mother tongue is English. Moreover, the English that was used in the film was the Queen's English, English that was used 50 years ago!

How did you prepare yourself for the role?

Initially I didn't do any preparation at all. Once I got involved in the project, I started taking classes from an English woman who stays here. I think, I took some 25, 30 classes. And during dubbing, a person who was educated in Oxford and had been associated with theatre helped in my diction. And, of course, we need not go anywhere to learn acting! One can manage only with what one knows!

As Ambedkar was educated at Oxford, was dubbing in the Oxford accent tough?

He was educated at Oxford but you should understand that the story happens in India and he was talking to people who knew only Marathi. It was not necessary for him to talk in English to the illiterate villagers.

We converse in English because the medium of the film is English, and not because Ambedkar was educated at Oxford or Cambridge! And, you cannot expect me to speak English the way Ambedkar did. That's not possible.

One foolish thing the film-makers did was that they retained the accent of the actors so that they had the accent of the particular region they came from. When the film was not meant for an Indian audience, why should you have different accents? I cannot understand the logic behind it. Ambedkar talked like an Englishman without any accent but all the others had a pronounced regional accent.

Click for bigger pic!
How can the illiterate villagers speak correct English?

Don't all English women speak English? Even the illiterates in England also speak English.

But then the language spoken by an illiterate woman is different from the language of an educated person.

You don't seem to understand what I say. Why do these people speak English in the film? Because the film is in English. When the medium of the film is English, even the illiterates also should speak in proper English. In real life, those villagers did not speak in English but in Marathi. So, what is the point in making them speak English like Marathi?

But won't it be jarring if they spoke in correct English when they are actually illiterates? For example, in South Africa, the English spoken by the educated class, the semi-literate blacks and the illiterate blacks are different.

There is no logic in your point.

My point, perhaps the film-maker's too, is that even their Marathi is also different from the pure Marathi spoken by the educated class.

I don't agree with you. I feel all of them should speak in proper Queen's English as the film is made in English.

Okay, okay. I have heard that you were initially very reluctant to accept the offer to act as Ambedkar. Is it true?

I just couldn't imagine myself playing a political leader. And, he looked very fat and his face was quite rotund. I couldn't believe that I looked like him! And I knew it would be a big strain too. He was a real person and if I could not do justice to the role, whatever name I had obtained would be gone. And I didn't want that to happen. So, I avoided them. But they continued to pressurise me. They offered full co-operation. But there was not much money in it!

Was the reluctance mainly because you were going to portray a person who some people may still remember?

No, no. I don't think all those who have seen him when he was 20, 25 30 or even 40 are alive now. Maybe those who have seen him during his last few years are alive now. So, I had all the liberty as an actor when I portrayed him as a young man. When he [the character] grew older, I had to put on a lot of weight to look convincing.

Click for bigger pic!
Did you see any of his documentaries to prepare yourself for the role?

Where are the documentaries? Only a three-minute footage is there!

I remember having read in the papers that Ben Kingsley had to do a lot of research, a lot of reading to portray Gandhi.

That was because he was not an Indian. I am an Indian and I know what India is. I know Indian culture. I know Indian constitution and democracy. So, I didn't have to do any such preparation. Of course, appearance saved Kingsley a lot. His resemblance to Gandhi was amazing.

But I could never imagine myself as Ambedkar. You just look at my face. Do I look like Ambedkar? I don't look like him at all. See; the problem that is going to arise now is, as Ambedkar's face is not imprinted in the minds of the people like Gandhi's, after sometime, people may think of my face whenever they think of Ambedkar.

Like many people kept the photo of Arun Govil as Rama in their prayer rooms, may be, we will see your photo in the government offices!

That's also possible! (laughs)

When you saw the final product, did you feel it was worth all the trouble that you took? I am not taking about the national award alone.

You won't believe, I haven't seen the final product. I just wanted to finish my work and escape.

Why? Was it very strenuous for you?

It was very, very strenuous. I just wanted to run away as soon as the final dubbing was over. It was not like an ordinary movie. I had to say some lines at least 40 times to get the accent and nuances right. Our English is different from the British English and it takes at least a day to get over the hangover of our accent.

Then we dub for three-four days and by the fourth day, you get tired of all that. Can we make speeches for four days? Once I am bored and tired, I take a break and come back home. Then, I start dubbing only after a couple of weeks and it continues... I cannot even think of those days. That tiring they were! Imagine, I couldn't enjoy my work because of the tension.

'With dentures inside, you hear only shhhhh... and nothing else!'

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