As part of our series celebrating 50 years of the Malayalam megastar, screenwriter Shibu Chakravarthy shares his experience of working with the actor and the impact of Samrajyam in Mammootty’s career
While in film industries across India, several actors can stake claim to one-upping each other in gangster roles, in Malayalam, Mammootty’s Alexander from Samrajyam still remains the ‘top boss’, even three decades after its release. The actor’s character, which still has a cult following, also became a trend-setter of sorts – for Mammootty’s career as well as similar roles in films in other industries.
As part of our series celebrating 50 years of Mammootty, Samrajyam’s scriptwriter Shibu Chakravarthy talks to OTTplay about shaping the character, its influences and what the megastar brought to each film they have collaborated in over the years.
How did the idea of doing a gangster movie like Samrajyam take shape?
I had committed to Samrajyam right after Nair Saab. In fact, it was Mammukka who had suggested this. When director Jomon narrated the story to me, I didn’t want to commit to it because I wasn’t comfortable with their initial thread. Their idea was that the mother was a prostitute, the father was a deputy inspector general of police and the son was a smuggler; I asked them what nonsense was this? I made an excuse and asked them to leave. Soon, Mammukka called me and asked me why I was rude to them? I told him the problems I had with the subject and he said, ‘Who told you to write the screenplay of that story? You can write how you want. But make sure you sign the film.’
So, I used the essence of the story that Jomon told me and applied Mahabharata to it, especially the story of Kunti and Karnan. I, however, didn’t tell anyone this. Another film that inspired me was Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. It was a thrilling film and I wanted to make a Malayalam version of it. So, in a lot of ways Samrajyam’s writing was influenced by the Bollywood film that had Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff and Nana Patekar.
So, I finished writing this and went to Moolamattom where Mammukka was shooting Jeassy’s Purappadu. Mammukka loved the script and the film was greenlit. We shot it in Chennai. I think if it wasn’t for Mammukka’s insistence, I wouldn’t have written Samrajyam.
Alexander was probably among the first Malayalam films to have a stylised version of a gangster. How much did it influence other similar films in Malayalam?
I am sure that you couldn’t think of a gangster film without discussing Samrajyam or the scale at which it was made, at least in Malayalam cinema. In Bollywood, there were a lot of films; as I said Nana Patekar’s role in Parinda was something that had excited me.
The movie was a bumper hit in Malayalam. But more than that, it was a huge hit in Telugu too. In fact, it ran for more days in Andhra Pradesh than Kerala, giving him an edge in the industry. The film catapulted Mammukka’s star status in that industry because after Samrajyam’s release, he was on par with the Telugu superstars. It was released before Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva remake. So, a lot of Telugu producers would send me flight tickets for film discussions in Hyderabad.
How much did it help shape Mammootty’s career in the 90s, which was a defining decade for him in terms of commercial success?
Mammootty’s second coming began from New Delhi and he was able to do back-to-back films of different genres after that. If you look, Kaagaz Ke Phool was a flop when it released but now it’s remembered as one of the greatest films in Bollywood cinema. People remember standout performances rather than the commercial success. But an industry can progress only if the films are commercially successful. Mammukka was able to straddle both, by doing different roles in hit films. I still consider the most important film from our team to be Dhinarathrangal (1988) and the other one was Adharvam. I don’t think there is any film in India that told a story against a philosophical backdrop through the four vedas like Adharvam did.
Mammootty’s look as Alexander would go on to become a trend-setter of sorts. How involved is he in these aspects?
His look was very different. Initially, we wanted the character to have long hair but we decided against that. We retained the beard. It was entirely a movie that Mammukka wanted to be made. It’s not like I conceived the role and then approached him. He had the belief that if he did a gangster movie, it would turn out good. In this film, Mammukka was completely involved with everything, not just the looks.
Apart from Jomon, who was IV Sasi’s assistant director, all the others had worked with Joshiy sir. So, it was a collaborative effort. A fond memory from the film’s sets was that it was shot when the Football World Cup was on in 1990. Because of Mammukka’s interest in gadgets, he had this TV in his car. We would set up an antenna on top of his car and watch the matches when we had shoots at night. So, there was that camaraderie all around.
You have also worked with Mammootty in films like Manu Uncle, Adharvam and Nair Saab before Samrajyam. So, what is that unique quality that he brings into the script?
As far as we are concerned, an actor should be flexible – he should be able to do serious roles while also taking up lighter characters such as Manu Uncle. Otherwise, you get relegated to similar roles. In the past, even though we hail Sathyan sir’s performances, his roles would be stereotypical. But Mammukka, during that time, was able to play all sorts of characters. Performers should be more like matter that can be moulded into anything. I think that’s the advantage of actors such as Mohanlal and Mammootty, who can do Vidheyan and Thaniyavarthanam and at the same time also do Manu Uncle.
Samrajyam can be streamed on Hungama Play, Disney+ Hotstar and Mainstream TV.