There are good actors and great actors. While the former perform their roles given to them in a faultless manner, and fit themselves perfectly into the defined scheme of the narrative at hand, great actors break the barriers to go beyond, adding personal intensity and charge to their presence. This leaves behind in the minds of the viewers a line of thoughts that gradually creates on its own, a whole and unique emotional persona. In the case of Thilakan, it was that of a father figure, stern, unsparing and also deeply ambivalent. Thilakan essayed umpteen roles elaborating the shades of fatherhood in all its diversity, intensity and complexity. During the last four decades, through numerous films, the father figures played by Thilakan had several faces: that of the strict and punishing father/teacher, a wise guru-like patriarch, a menacingly lecherous stepfather, a maverick church priest, a compassionate and understanding grandfatherly figure and so on.
Surendranath Thilakan was born in 1938; he became active in theatre from his teens, and it was a passion that he nurtured right through life. He was part of several prominent theatre groups in Kerala, starting from his early involvement with Mundakayam Nataka Samithy, which matured through acting for Kerala People’s Art Club, Kalidasa Kala Kendra, Edapally, P.J. Theatres, Changanasserry Geetha, Chalakudy Sarathy, and so on.
He made his debut in films in Periyar (1972, directed by his mentor, P.J. Antony). His talent was honed and moulded in films by K.G. George in the 1980s; movies such as Yavanika (1982), Kolangal (1981), Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (1983), Irakal (1986), Adaminte Variyellu (1983), and Panchavadipalam (1984). The characters he played in these films painted the actor persona of Thilakan in very bold and stark colours, and it was one that persisted and developed in the coming decades.
Padmarajan was another director in whose films one could encounter Thilakan in his element. In his Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal (1986), he played the role of a stepfather lusting after his wife’s daughter, while in Moonam Pakkam (1988), he is an aged grandfather at the fag end of his life, whose life is lit for a brief while by the arrival of his grandson before it is snuffed out by fate. These two father figures in a way also encompass the deep ambivalence inherent in Thilakan’s characters.
The decade between 1985 and 2000 marks the peak of Thilakan’s acting career, deeply entrenching his unique character persona and presence in the film industry and in the minds of film lovers. In films like Kireedom and Chenkol, (Siby Malayil, 1989 and 1993), Perunthachan (Ajayan, 1990), Kattukuthira (P.G. Viswambharan, 1990), Santhanagopalam (Sathyan Anthikad, 1994), Sphatikam (Bhadran, 1995), and Kannezhuthi Pottumthottu (T.K. Rajeevkumar, 1999), Thilakan played intense roles that portrayed the deep conflicts of and within fatherhood that Malayali society was mired in.
Here was a father figure that belonged to the post-Emergency pre-liberalisation era of our life and polity, who did not draw his authority from pre-existing sources like the family or other social establishments, but was a man who fought his way to the top, and one who spurned mercy and was himself merciless. Though his roles and acting style had close continuities with similar actors in older generation like Kottarakara Sreedharan Nair, P.J. Antony and Thikkurissi, it also radically differed from it. Unlike their protective authority/power that was based on feudal, familial or traditional foundations, his characters stood on their own feet and wielded almost dictatorial powers over others in the family through their own innate abilities, skill or status. The son had to either fight with this super ego figure to assert and redeem himself, or surrender to it completely. Here was a father figure surging with love within, but refused or was reluctant to express it openly, a wise guru who also held deeply malevolent forces within which he could unleash at anytime, a stepfather lusting after his daughter, a priest who breaks all the rules to assert his humanity.
Thilakan’s acting style drew its intense energy from theatre, and it employed the whole body in the emoting process, which created a very strong ‘presence’ in the visual and narrative fields. Through his performance, he was also capable of provoking the best out of fellow actors, who always had to struggle to keep up with the energy he exuded and to equal his presence. Thilakan was also a master of voice modulation, which was very evident in his captivating performances in radio plays, where he effortlessly carved a character through well-timed and modulated dialogue delivery.
During the last decade, we witnessed a lonely but assertive Thilakan fighting for his dignity and often ‘crossing’ the limits in his passionate but always sincere outbursts. In many cases, it seemed as if his screen persona was spilling over into worldly, organisational matters, irking all around. But despite his isolation and physical ailments, he fought back with vigour and went on to give impressive performances. In his appearances in Manjadikuru (Anjali Menon, 2008), Ividam Swargamanu (Rosshan Andrrews, 2009), Indian Rupee and Spirit (Ranjith, 2011/12) and Ustad Hotel (Anwar Rasheed, 2012), one can see the resonances of the father figure – often ailing and weak, but hauntingly persistent and powerful.
The genius of Thilakan rests on his ability to bring in a raw, untameable energy to his performances, which was like sculpting each moment, modulating and mixing the levels of intensity, depth and intonation of voice and of bodily movements and facial expressions. All film lovers will miss him for a long time, not only because such actors appear on our horizons very rarely, but also for those rare qualities of his like the courage to speak out and the readiness to offer everything to one’s art.