Mani sir is in his 50s, with a slight paunch, greying sideburns and walks slowly and smiles gently. He is an SI and has been assigned to head a group of havildars and constables assigned to cover election duty at the Maoist-ridden Chhattisgarh. When you first meet him, he is sipping chai at a roadside kadai, watching a man strategically steal a purse from a man sitting in front of him. When he realises that a policeman has just witnessed the scene, he quickly slips it on the ground and nudges the man to pick it up. SI Mani sir’s response to this scene is an unhurried smile, as he briefly narrates the scene to his fellow officer. “There are bigger thieves than him,” he reasons.
SI Mani is Megastar Mammootty’s nth outing as a cop and also a subversion of all the previous ones he has done on screen.
Mani is kind, gentle, vulnerable and carries a lot of insecurities and fears along with him. When an unexpected attack occurs at their camp at night, he goes panicky and numb with shock, and watches weakly as his subordinates’ take charge. In another film, two decades ago, Inspector Balram would probably have clenched his teeth and showered Mani with a volley of choicest expletives for his ineptness. Or an SI Narendran in Roudram would make him listen to a stunning monologue, the next morning about duty, honesty, bravery and a brief about the definition of Khaki. If it was Kasaba’s Rajan Zachariah, he would smirk and plant Mani a tight slap and stroll away amidst a celebratory BGM. The dichotomy between Mani and these alpha male cops are startling and thoroughly delineated by the actor, by way of his body language, dialogue delivery or even something basic as a smile and walk. Even among these alpha male dare-devil superstar cops, Mammootty brings an originality and nuance that doesn’t always looks like it was there on paper.
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Balram (one of his most feted characters) despite being honest and duty-bound is unpleasant and bitter and the actor played him up with lot of drama. He was the classic angry young man, angry with himself, the world and the system. The line-up of cops (20 memorable ones) in a way also show his fruition as an actor. Balram’s evolution is what we saw in Inspector Narendran or Nari—the same anger, bitterness against the system and yet Narendran has internalised the trauma, unlike Balram. He seems more in control of his emotions than Balram, making him a formidable enemy to even his naysayers. While Black’s Head constable Karikkamuri Shanmugam is the system, he is the creator and the destroyer, a beast on a leash. Shanmugam’s past and present merge brilliantly in his attire (he only wears black) and bearing. CI Amarnath (The Godman) and Ramanathan IPS (Rakshasa Rajavu) are essentially cops cut from the same loud-in-your-face-caricaturish sketches. They bark unnecessarily, are disgusted with the system and are yet kind and compassionate when need be, providing them a superman closure.
In a KG George film, Inspector Rajan Zachariah would have thrived organically—he is flawed, salacious and a womaniser. He passes lewd and sexually coloured remarks on his female colleagues and gets away with it and clearly sees women more as objects than individuals. But in the hands of debutant director Nithin Renji Panicker, these obnoxious characteristics of Zachariah are leveraged and celebrated (accompanied by a robust BGM), thereby aborting what could have been an unconventional and challenging choice for an actor like him.
Yavanika’s no-nonsense sub-inspector Jacob Irazhi is counted as one of his earlier breakthrough roles but today he seems to be a preparatory to one of his most iconic cop roles that came a decade later—Sethuramaiyyer CBI of the CBI Diarykurippu series. The Mammootty who did Irazhi is raw and unpolished, almost awkward but when he comes to Iyer, he has modified himself. He deliberately controls some of his “mannerisms”, like keeping his hands tied behind his back. Iyer is deceptively calm, thinks on his feet, rarely raises his voice, yet gets things done his way, walks briskly and is ordinary to the point of being dull. There is nothing flamboyant about the man or his lifestyle (a sort of counterpoint to James Bond). But there is an urgency in his movements and a twinkle in his eyes that livens the proceedings.
Similarly, DYSP Perumal in August 1 and Superintendent Haridas Damodaran in Eee Thanutha Veluppankalathu are cops who primarily follow the calm-thinking-on-their-feet narrative. While Perumal is naturally flamboyant, Haridas comes across as casual and pragmatic. There is also Pramanam’s DYSP Prathapan who has an interesting sketch—he is strict, playful and even romantic.
Antony Simon, CI Crime Branch in Daddy Cool suffers from lazy writing, with the focus drifting away to the superstar than the actor. Ditto for Masterpiece (2017) and Abrahaminte Santhathikal (2018), frivolous mass-set pieces where his stardom were brazenly exploited. That’s why we don’t really recall anything more of Anto Antony IPS or ASP Derick Abraham than their physicality or their jackets and boots. Last year’s Streetlights CI James Abraham although had a less starry sketch still rallied around his stardom.
In the early 80s Mammootty played a petrified young cop in Nandi Veendum Varika, someone who was pushed into the profession by his ambitious father. But towards some point in the film, he morphs into a fiery angry young cop, which somehow looks unconvincing. Mudra’s Ramabadran can be considered as one of his most underrated acts. He is the superintendent of a reform school, who wins over the inmates with his patience and compassion. He is another version of Mani sir, younger and more capable though.
It’s easier to slot SI Mani sir as one of his finest cop acts in his career, not because it subverts every previous on-screen police role but also in how the actor merges himself into the body and soul of this kind, vulnerable, disarmingly humane cop. More importantly, how does one create the image of a man bone-tired, broken in spirit and struggling to sustain himself in a profession which demands exactly the opposite? Look out for that scene where he is trying to decipher the reality that he just had a minor heart attack or the one where he apologises to his juniors for his act of cowardice or the scene where he curls up on the floor, weary, helpless and anxious or that climactic scene where out of sheer desperation he musters enough courage for himself and his juniors to fight the Ministers gundas or his shock when he sees his otherwise frightened juniors gang up to protect him with empty guns.
Unda is a reminder—of an actor who continues to finetune, polish and reinvent his craft. An actor who knows after every fall, there is a rise. And that even after a spate of bad films, all he needs is a director who knows how to use Mammootty the actor in all its nuanced glory.