“Assalamu Alaikum,” the lessons began for Ramdas aka Dasan and Vijayan under a dark sky.
The duo was set to slip into Dubai illegally on a dhow. Gafoor, played by Mamukkoya, was teaching them Arabic so that they could merge into the Dubai crowd without being noticed.
The lessons were much easier than Dasan and Vijayan, played by Mohanlal and Sreenivasan, anticipated: Assalamu Alaikum and Wa-Alaikum-Salaam, the lessons ended.
It was enough Arabic to communicate in Dubai, the students were told.
“Just say you are Gafoor ka dost,” Gafoor advised them in case they were caught. Unaware that Gafoor was taking them for a ride, Dasan and Vijayan boarded the dhow that sailed into the night.
The next day, Gafoor, pointed to the duo’s dreamland, and Dasan and Vijayan swam ashore only to find hoardings in Tamil in what they thought was Dubai.
After bagging their money, Gafoor had left them at Chennai’s Marina Beach. He also made them wear Arab clothing and accessories, triggering a laugh riot in theatres.
Several years have passed by since the satirical comedy, Nadodikkattu (The Wandering Wind), was released in 1987. But Gafoor, Dasan, and Vijayan remain, fresh in the collective memory of Malayalis.
Also read: Malayalees’ ‘Gafoor Ka Dosth’ Mamukkoya no more
A versatile actor
Buck-teethed and with a Mappila dialect, Mamukkoya was far from the common perception of a movie actor. However, he carved out a niche space for himself among the crowd of handsome stars. Cine-goers considered him one among them.
Mamukkoya, a versatile actor who left a unique imprint on the Malayalam tinsel world — along with fellow comedian Innocent who died exactly a month ago — breathed his last on Wednesday, 26 April, aged 76.
While inaugurating a sevens’ football tournament at Wandoor in Kerala’s Malappuram district, the actor collapsed after suffering a heart attack on Monday, 24 April. He was admitted to a private hospital in Kozhikode city.
Though he was stable and responded to treatment, the veteran actor’s health suddenly deteriorated on Wednesday.
Though he acted in hundreds of Malayalam films, apart from making forays into Tamil and French cinema, Mamukkoya was always Gafoor to his fans across the state.
To Mamukkoya, his fans were all Gafoor ka dosth (Friends of Gafoor), the code he gave to his victims Dasan and Vijayan to escape unnecessary questions from authorities if they created trouble for them.
Also read: Innocent has left an indelible mark like the Cheshire Cat’s smile
Mamukkoya, with his lively and novel on-screen performances, has enthralled film lovers across Kerala for decades. His sudden demise is a big loss to the industry, the world of art and the state’s public sphere. Joining the grief of family, friends, and the film world. pic.twitter.com/nKIzWU6evw
— Pinarayi Vijayan (@pinarayivijayan) April 26, 2023
A Gafoorian act in real life
Mamukkoya was widely respected for his honesty and integrity. He was also humility personified and approachable to all those who frequented Beypore, his hometown, in Kozhikode.
These were the traits he was known for even outside the tinsel world.
In the post-Babri Masjid demolition days, some Congress leaders took him to Wayanad to campaign for their candidate in a local body election. He readily agreed and went along with them.
But on stage, he urged the electorate not to vote for Congress under PV Narasimha Rao, whose alleged inaction resulted in the masjid’s demolition.
The Congress leaders did not expect such a Gafoorian act from Mamukkoya. When questioned, the actor, who did not act in real life, said he spoke from his heart, and if they had not liked what he said, they could arrange his return journey.
It was perhaps the last time anyone invited him to an election campaign.
Hon'ble Governor Shri Arif Mohammed Khan said: "Heartfelt condolences on the sad demise of noted actor Sri #Mamukkoya who acted in 450 films. His natural humor, Malabar accent and a
rural touch in acting endeared him to viewers. May his soul rest in peace":PRO,KeralaRajBhavan pic.twitter.com/b8FReVKSDF
— Kerala Governor (@KeralaGovernor) April 26, 2023
In Kozhikode and Malappuram, Mamukkoya stood for unity and amity among communities, and always emphasised the need for social solidarity.
In and around Kozhikode, he was a cultural icon, simple and forthright. For over four decades, he maintained a space of his own in Malayalam cinema with diverse characters that reflected the essence of rural life in the northern Malabar region.
While Gafoor became a cult figure and later became the subject of an animation series in Malayalam, his performance in Perumazhakkalam (2004) proved that Mamukkoya could handle non-comedy roles with ease. His serious role in Byari, too, cemented that fact, and helped the film win the National Award for Best Feature Film.
His title role in the film Korappan, the Great (2001) depicted him as a forest brigand like Veerappan, which also went down well with the audiences. Perumazhakkalam helped him win a Special Mention in the Kerala State Film Awards.
His French film, Flammens of Paradise, won critical acclaim. But beyond the awards and recognitions, his unique use of the Mappila Muslim dialect of Malabar made him the favourite of the masses.
Rest in peace Maamukkoya Sir! Had the absolute privilege of sharing screen space with you multiple times. But to see you unleash #Moosa in #KURUTHI at such close quarters will be a memory that I cherish forever! #Legend 🙏❤️🙏 pic.twitter.com/rU5uOV4TIO
— Prithviraj Sukumaran (@PrithviOfficial) April 26, 2023
Mamukkoya acted in more than 450 Malayalam films and is the first winner of the State Award for Best Comedian.
For the rest of Kerala, Mamukkoya remained an ambassador of Malabar’s rich Muslim culture. And the actor always remained intensely local.
He took all roles and challenges with ease, and the characters he played included Hindu monks chanting Sanskrit hymns.
Mamukkoya said it reflected his seriousness about the mass media when asked about his success in the tinsel world. For him, only a serious approach made the best comedy films.
Mamukkoya’s lean frame, buck teeth, dialect, and body language have always enamoured audiences. Other than Gafoor, his most memorable characters included Jamal (His Highness Abdullah), Hamsakoya (Ramji Rao Speaking), KG Pothuval (Sandesham), and Kunjananthan Mesthiri (Thalayina Manthram).
In more than 50 films, he played the role of a rural tea shop owner. In several other films, he handled the role of the caretaker or karyasthan of wealthy families. When asked how these roles crippled his possibilities as a versatile actor, Mamukkoya responded differently.
“Becoming a tea shop owner is very easy. It requires very little costume and get up,” he used to say. And he said he might be a proud tea shop owner if he had not received roles in Malayalam films.
No comedy for comedy’s sake
Mamukkoya repeatedly said that he never stooped to the level of performing “crass comedy” roles. He had even walked out of films with such characters on several occasions.
Among the actors in Malayalam, he always remained considerate of new directors with low-budget films. He said he prioritised them to ensure the industry’s survival.
Born in Pallikkandi near Kallayi, Mamukoya used to work in the timber yards even during his school days. His assignments involved measuring the length of logs, ascertaining the quality, and marking them.
A timber merchant in Kallai, Mamukkoya’s entry into the film world was by sheer accident. But through hard work and dedication, he remained to stay afloat in Malayalam cinema. He was happy and contended till his last breath.
While working in the timber yard, he used to work with amateur drama troupes. The acting was always his passion. And he owed the inspiration to act to the cultural troupe Saigal Arts Productions, which was close to his home.
Whenever the troupe got trained in a play, the children in the vicinity used to reproduce it, the actor once recalled.
After the timber business went into the red, Mamukkoya switched to films.
Aduie to #Mamukkoya, the great actor of Malayalam cinema. He was a superb commadian who made generations of film lovers laugh. His charectors will be remembered forever. Pranamam.#ripMamukkoya pic.twitter.com/u79AX0ozBN
— V D Satheesan (@vdsatheesan) April 26, 2023
A role in the stable
Mamukkoya debuted in Malayalam cinema in 1977 through Anyarude Bhumi or Strangers’ Land, directed by Nilambur Balan. He played a funny character who was more of a rebel. When the movie was released, Mamukkoya hoped he would soon become a busy actor. But that was not the case.
In 1982, he bagged his second film, Surumayitta Kannukal, directed by S Konnanatt.
His association with legendary Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, the Beypore Sultan, helped him win that role.
Mamukkoya used to be a regular at Basheer’s home. When the movie crew came to seek Basheer’s blessings, he directed them to give Mamukkoya a role. And the filmmakers created one servant who feeds horses.
What set his career rolling was Doore Doore Oru Koodu Koottam, directed by Sibi Malayil and written by Sreenivasan, in which he played an Arabic teacher.
Mamukkoya knew Sreenivasan from his theatre days. That movie ensured he didn’t have to return to the timber yard or the world of theatre.
Mamukkoya used to say that he started focusing on comedies after finding that his physique suited it. But he said he used to cringe at seeing some of his old movies.
Mamukkoya always recalled with pride his long associations with comic actors of Malayalam like Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Kuthiravattom Pappu, Balan K Nair, and Murali. Jagathy Sreekumar and Innocent were part of the comic trio that turned many Malayalam films into box-office hits.
A voracious reader with rare insights, Mamukkoya considered himself a product of the cultural collective that thrived once in Kozhikode and its surroundings. He was the only one from his family to enter the world of cinema.
When people found his Kozhikode dialect a limitation, Mamukkoya viewed it as a gain. He had reasons to believe that his slang clicked and became a style. But he always maintained a detachment from fame.
In an industry driven by heroes, Mamukkoya used to say that the heroine and the supporting cast tend to be insignificant. Small characters in a film are rarely fleshed out, he repeatedly said.
Even in the autumn of life, Mamukkoya subjected himself to experiments. He took a different step recently when he appeared in a rap album, Native Bapa, narrating the life of a Muslim father whose son has been branded a terrorist.
He agreed to do the role after he was detained at an airport in Australia because his father’s name was Muhammad.
In Kozhikode, Mamukoya will be seen as the last icon of its once-rich cultural collective, where literature, theatre, sports, and arts flourished.
SK Pottekatt, Basheer, Thikodiyan, Uroob, and MT Vasudevan Nair, and musicians like MS Baburaj were part of the collective.
“That was the time everybody had a bit of everything in them. The daily wage labourer from the Kallai River would come in the evening and do his bit, maybe play the tabla. If we were staging a play, we would rehearse before them, and then it would be discussed thoroughly,” Mamukkoya once recalled.
The actor is survived by his wife Suhara and children Muhammed Nisar, Shahitha, Nadiya, and Abdul Rasheed.
A comedian who considered acting a serious job is no more. He will always be remembered as a proud son of Malabar — and Kerala.