Ironically, at a time when his arch-rival Mohanlal sits pretty on critical acclaim and box office success with films like Vanaprastham and Narasimham, Mammootty treads on precarious ground. His box-office pull has been waning as evident by the not-so-satisfactory performance of Arayannangalude Veedu, his only Malayalam release in 2000.

1999 was no better. Stalin Sivadas, Ezhupuna Tharakan, Megham, Pallavoor Devaranarayanan flopped while his Thachiledatha Chundan, an action film in which he played the role of a rustic hot head just scraped through at the box office. Consequently, his current film, Dubai is stuck up for want of finances. Unlike in the past, theatre owners are now unwilling to pay any advance to a Mammootty film except when it features him as a cop or a toughie. The superstar is now desperately trying to win back his loyal fans and is pinning his hopes on Valiyettan directed by Shaji Kailas, who gave the mega hit Narasimham to Mohanlal. But can a single hit pull him out is the question?

A lawyer by profession, Mohamed Ali alias Mammootty, who has so far acted in 300 films, began his film career with M T Vasudevan Nairís unreleased film Devalokam. He clicked with action films directed by Joshi and P G Vishwambaran at a time when a void existed in the Malayalam industry due to the death of Jayan, a craze among action lovers. It was also an era of family films and every other film featured child superstar Baby Shalini as the central attraction. Mammootty, like other actors, knew he had to share the credits with her but nevertheless accepted such films to keep going. Soon, family dramas started getting stale and Shalini too outgrew her baby stage and Mammootty had to look for other avenues to sustain himself. Luckily for him, I V Sasi, with Inspector Balram and Tharadas, and Joshi with New Delhi not only gave him a new lease of life but also helped him in attaining the superstar status. Playing a police officer or a don or an angry young man in film after film, he became a craze and for the first time in Kerala, a state which never adored its actors, fan clubs sprouted. Even his predecessor Prem Nazir who ruled for almost four decades as hero, never got this status.

Mammootty could not afford complacency though. His equally competent rival, Mohanlal was becoming increasingly popular in anti-hero roles and also scored over Mammootty in dance and comedy. The superstar realised that his film career would last only if he came up with something new every time. So, the man who milked the producers dry by charging Rs 60-70 lakh per film, was now ready to do meaningful cinema even for free and thus came Mathilukal in 1989, directed by Adoor Gopalkrishnan. The film won him his first national award for best actor. His acting in Chandranís Ponthan Mada and Adoorís Vidheyan got him his second National Award while Dr Ambedkar got him the third, equaling Kamal Haasanís feat.

From the arty scene he then attempted a shift to the national scene. But his shot at being a multilingual star misfired with both Dhartiputra (Hindi) and Swatikiranam ((Telugu) proving a disaster. His insistence to dub for self in every language film that he acted in, proved costly. He ended up speaking heavily accented Telugu and Hindi and was rejected. In fact, Tamil cine-goers knew him till recently only through his big brother role in the Rajanikanth film Dalapati. Mammootty was thus forced to restrict himself to Malayalam movies, where he experimented with a variety of unconventional roles -- mostly matured characters to establish himself as an actor of repute.

Now, even with the audience demanding to see him only as a cop or don -- largely a Suresh Gopi domain today Mammootty doesnít want to backpedal to stereotypical action roles or at least not completely. Realizing that films, like Kottayam Kunjuachan, in which he played a rustic hothead were hits, Mammootty now has his hopes pinned on Valiyettan (Big brother), based on a clash between two rural families. Armed with a new get up - a twirling moustache and dhoti tied in rural style, with powerful dialogues to boot, the film allows him to fashion the same action role but with a difference.

The producer of Dubai is hinging his film on the fate of Valiyettan and so are many other projects of Mammootty, which have been kept in abeyance till the superstar makes a comeback. It remains to be seen whether Shaji Kailas who created a Mohanlal craze with Narasimham can work the same magic for Mammoootty with Valiyetyan. And then again will a single hit suffice?