I have never seen a Mollywood film all the way through, but I know all about Mammootty and Mohanlal. If you've spent any time at all in Kerala, you've met them: at the barber, the supermarket, the mobile phone shop, the inside of your rickshaw. From these various static vantage points, their visages keep a close eye on everything that goes on in any given town. It goes without saying that Mammootty and Mohanlal are always on TV in Kerala, often on more than one channel at a time. Wherever you go, whatever you do, the state's two superstars are looking over your shoulder. And that is only the beginning of their influence.
Both came to prominence during the so-called Golden Age of Malayalam cinema, the 80s. As Kerala churned out socially conscious, smart and humorous films on a weekly basis, Mammootty and Mohanlal positioned themselves firmly at the centre of everything and have never relinquished their hold. Nowadays, they have the luxury of appearing largely in worthless superhero and comedy films of no lasting consequence. Having done the hard work, they rest comfortably on their laurels in the manner of Western stars like Ewan McGregor and Matthew McConaughey.
That is where the comparison with McConaughey and his washboard abs ends. As an outsider, it's an odd idea at first: the biggest stars of Kerala's film industry are heavy-set and moustachioed, their masculinity as straightforward and unequivocal as their haircuts. Also, and most importantly, they show all the signs of ageing: Mammootty seems happy to let the wrinkles multiply around his legendary eyes, while Mohanlal's figure continues to balloon at an alarming rate. Compared to the preening, self-obsessed vapidity of most Bollywood or Hollywood idols, they are a breath of fresh air. All they need is five minutes with a razor and a comb. I suppose that says as much about the culture as it does about them.
Your average Joe (or should that be average Ajeeth?) in Kerala looks up to the two Ms with a reverence usually reserved for great politicians or discoverers. They are in fact the most popular people in Kerala, according to a news poll. As a result, there are Mammootty and Mohanlal clones everywhere: in the way people speak, move, laugh; in their pompadours, moustaches and bellies. It goes without saying that there are no female equivalents. In such a male-dominated society, men set the tone and get the plaudits, and these two fiftysomething actors sit at the top of the pile.
I'm not sure whether it is the stars' talent or their business smarts that has brought them to where they are. Both answers have come up when I've asked locals why Mammootty and Mohanlal are such superstars, so I suspect it is a combination of the two. What most folks are more eager to tell me is whom they support. The supporters' associations for each actor are thousands strong, with branches in every locality, and where supporters' associations for Western actors do little more than print and circulate newsletters, here it is almost a lifelong battle. Each side will boycott the films of the other (or, in the digital age, download them rather than paying) and champion their hero in the streets, with the violence on the screen sometimes spilling into the audience.
In public, they claim to be good friends. I imagine that's rubbish. There is a tendency among the most successful people to want more and more success, especially once they have seemingly gone as far as they can go. Within their culture, they've reached a level of ubiquity that few individuals in the world have ever achieved. So what happens next? The mega-budget all-starrer Twenty:20 gives us a clue. In this clip, Mammootty and Mohanlal fight each other, presumably because with all other rivals and figures of manliness already eliminated, there is nobody else left for them to fight.
If pressed, I would call myself a Mammootty supporter. His face advertises my corner hardware shop, and, well, there's just something about those eyes. (Now watch as Mohanlal fans first engulf The NRI in a flame war, then boycott the site altogether...)