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50 years of Mammootty: Jabbar Patel on what Dilip Kumar said after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s screening

As part of the OTTplay series celebrating the Malayalam megastar, director Jabbar Patel shares his experience of working with Mammootty in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar

50 years of Mammootty: Jabbar Patel on what Dilip Kumar said after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s screening

  • Sanjith Sidhardhan

Last Updated: 12.21 PM, Aug 04, 2021

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To play a seminal figure like Babasaheb Ambedkar, who is revered by millions in the country, is no mean feat. But Mammootty did that and that too with élan. However, getting him to be part of the film back in 1998 wasn’t easy, says director Jabbar Patel, and what was even tougher for Mammootty was getting every nuance of the statesman perfect. At the end of it, the praise from some of the greats in the industry along with the National Award for the Best Actor paid dividends to the actor’s efforts.

As part of our series celebrating 50 years of Mammootty, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s filmmaker Jabbar Patel talks to OTTplay about his experience of working with the Malayalam megastar, what he brought to the role and emotional moments from the film’s shoot.

You went through about 100 actors before finalising Mammootty to play the role of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Could you tell us how you zeroed in on him and why?

I was actually in a dilemma as to whom to cast as Dr Ambedkar. He had a particular personality; he was well built with broad shoulders. I had done a documentary on him before and those who had seen Dr Ambedkar told me he was so fair that when he smiled, his cheeks would become red like Kashmiri apples. There were instances of foreign actors like Ben Kingsley being cast in Indian roles before. Also, Ambedkar spoke in Oxford dialect due to his stint abroad. So, to find someone who resembled him as well as spoke like him, we initially thought of looking at actors outside the country. We roped in casting director Priscilla John, who had videos and photos of 100 talents that she showed me while I went to the UK. We also went to the US, where we had looked at Indian-American and Latin-American actors. Somehow, I was not happy.

I came back disappointed, and then one day I chanced upon this Filmfare issue with Mammootty’s photographs in which he was wearing black-rimmed glasses. It reminded me of another profile photograph of Dr Ambedkar and how they looked so similar.

We then took this photo to Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) in Pune University where they took it as a challenge to render the image, by removing Mammootty’s moustache and puffing up the cheeks, so that he resembled Dr Ambedkar. Mammootty was unaware all this was happening.  

Mammootty as Ambedkar in a still from the movie
Mammootty as Ambedkar in a still from the movie

How did the meeting with Mammootty happen and what was his first reaction?

A friend from Kerala suggested that I had to meet Mammootty. But I didn’t know him at all. So, I called Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who had directed Mammootty in Vidheyan and Mathilukal, and told him what I had in mind. He said, ‘It’s a great idea and he’s a fantastic actor. This would also be good for him because he would be doing something different than Malayalam films.’

Adoor connected me with Mammootty and I told him that I wanted him to play Dr Ambedkar. He outrightly refused, saying that he hasn’t done any North Indian films. He said, ‘Your way of culture and body language are different. Even the way you wear dhoti is different. The only similarity between Ambedkar and me is that both of us were lawyers.’

I then showed him the four photographs that showed the transition from his original look to Ambedkar. He was shocked and he rushed to the kitchen to his wife. ‘Look what this man has done to me. I am looking like Ambedkar,’ he told her and she agreed. So, he came back and said he was feeling nervous. But then he thanked us for coming and said that he will tell Adoor not to do injustice to Dr Ambedkar. He refused.

So, how did he come around?

I gave him eight days to think. By then Adoor also asked him to listen to the screenplay. Mammootty was also aware of my films such as Umbartha with Smita Patil. After 10 days, I went to him and reluctantly he said, ‘We will see.’ That’s how he agreed.

Mammootty
Mammootty

What were the preparations from his side to play the role?

There was hardly any footage of Ambedkar that Mammootty could source. I have rarely seen a talent like him; he has an intellectual, analytical and non-emotional approach to a character. He read the script and he told me, ‘I am going to portray what you want to see, Jabbar. I don’t want to read biographies, and would rather just play the character. So, please help me by giving me material that can build my emotional insight of Ambedkar and his external features.’

I remember for the first make-up trial; he was so reluctant to shave off his moustache. He was angry with himself. He said, ‘Do you know what my moustache means to me?’ Malayali women were mad about his handsome looks because of his moustache and so I had to tell him that he was removing it for a great cause.

Was it difficult for him to get into the skin of the character?

He understood the script, scene by scene, and hence the development of the character. Back then, everybody warned me that he was short-tempered, has his own way of dealing with things and is quick to grasp aspects about acting. But somehow for this film, because we shot in the US, the UK and India, we needed time. The film’s cinematographer Ashok Mehta needed time to set the frames and lighting, and Mammootty was tolerant throughout.

But the first few days were painful for him. He used to say, ‘This is torture. I am ready with the role inside. Please shoot.’ But we wanted to make a film on par with international standards. It was the first time in India we were using the video monitor; we shot the film in 35mm. Mammootty would sometimes go to the monitor and check, not every time. He would make minor changes but the way he acted in the film, he became Ambedkar. The kind of devotion he showed while we were shooting at Columbia University and also Gray’s Inn, where Ambedkar became a barrister, was brilliant. He also interacted well with the British and American actors in the movie.

Also, it was a period film set in a timeline that he had not acted in before. All my Ambedkarite friends were skeptical about his casting because Ambedkar is a god to them. I remember I showed a rough trial to a devotee and a scholar, who had worked very closely with Ambedkar. I asked him how did you find Mammootty as Ambedkar? He replied, ‘I couldn’t see him. This man Mammootty is a miracle. He is so much like Ambedkar that tears were flowing throughout the film.’ That’s how tremendous he was.

Mammootty as Ambedkar in a still from the movie
Mammootty as Ambedkar in a still from the movie

The movie was in English. So, how did Mammootty work on getting Ambedkar’s dialect right?

We brought in a special teacher to get the Oxford diction right. Mammootty used to narrate his lines to the tutor to get him to say that in the diction. He would go over it again and again till he got it right. He dubbed the entire film in English. While he knew that we were dubbing the film in nine languages, he requested not to dub it in Malayalam. ‘I want people in Kerala to see me speaking the original language of Dr Ambedkar and not Malayaalam,’ he said. So, that’s why it doesn’t have a Malayalam version. Marathi, Tamil and Punjabi were probably the best dubbed versions of the movie.

He won a lot of laurels for the film, including the National Award for Best Actor in 2000.

I had once shown the film to Dilip Kumar, the great man who had just passed away. After watching it, he asked me, ‘Where is this man?’ I told him he’s in Kerala and he said, ‘I have done so many roles but to play Ambedkar is no joke.’ After the film, he called Mammootty and told him Dilip Kumar wanted to talk to him. Dilip saheb said, ‘Mammootty, I haven’t met you and have seen only two or three of your films, but you are a miracle. I have actually met Ambedkar and you have absolutely, completely, emotionally and intellectually become him.’ He praised the film and said they should meet. Coincidentally, there was a music album release sometime later with Dilip saheb and Hema Malini as chief guests and Mammootty came to meet him. They talked for a long time.

Mammootty and Dilip Kumar
Mammootty and Dilip Kumar

Another tribute came from the great Marathi film and theatre actor Shreeram Lagoo, who saw Mammootty’s performance and said he was a wonder. He said it’s easy for gifted actors to show emotions but to do that with grace and dignity is something tremendous. He said it was good that the movie had intellectual arguments but it had to be done by somebody who looked intellectual too and that’s what Mammootty achieved. Ambedkar has that mix of pain and arrogance because the society of downtrodden had suffered a lot and Mammootty’s face reflected that, but in the most pleasant manner, he said, which is rare.

There was also a special show in Delhi. The honourable president KR Narayanan loved Mammootty and Sonali Kulkarni’s performances in the film. Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji saw the show and said he wanted to talk to Mammootty and so he called him from the Prime Minister’s office.

The film has left a lasting impression among those who have watched it.

Wherever the movie was exhibited, it was loved. Today, you would find a copy of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in universities across the world that have a sociology department and all of them love Mammootty. It rarely happens that an actor and character become synonymous.

There were also instances during the shoot where people fell at his feet, believing he was Ambedkar.

When we were shooting the last scene, where Ambedkar converts to Buddhism at Nagpur in 1956, two lakh people gathered on the day. An emotional moment was when Mammootty as Ambedkar appeared on the stage to take the oath of Buddhism and practically everyone was in tears. Dr Wamanrao Godbole, who was a close associate of Ambedkar and was present when the actual Deekhsha had happened in 1956, was on the sets when we were filming in 1998. He asked me, ‘Can I touch him?’ I asked him who and he said, ‘The actor, Mammootty. He is so much like Babasaheb. When we had met Ambedkar, we didn’t dare to touch him but can I touch this Ambedkar?’ Mammootty was moved and he hugged Godbole.

Also, Mammootty was particular that he stayed with the team. When we were in Mahar in Konkan, he had called the entire unit and cooked fish for them. I had once told him that Dr Ambedkar was himself a great cook and would call his friends to treat them for a feast. Mammootty kept that in mind, which I think he still does.

Are there roles that you want to see Mammootty do more of?

We have a very rare talent in Mammootty and I only wish he had done more roles in Hindi films. He was somehow particular that he did films in Malayalam or Tamil. I want to see him do at least five to six more intellectually outstanding characters in the future.

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