Thespian Madhu, a part of Malayalam cinema for the last 50 years, stands tall with his contributions and passion for the medium.
To stay active in a medium like cinema for half a century is something phenomenal. But Madhu alias Madhavan Nair, has not only been active in cinema, but, both in his life and career, he has consistently been creative and multi-faceted. His contributions are not limited to acting: a very successful director, producer, and studio owner apart from being a theatre actor and institution builder, Madhu still retains his relentless passion and commitment to the medium.
When he came to cinema 50 years ago, he was literally a fish out of water. A postgraduate in Hindi, with professional training from National School of Drama, he was cut out for a career in academics or professional theatre. But he very easily fell into the groove of cinema. Though his entry into cinema was the result of his encounters with people like Ramu Kariat and Shobana Parameswaran Nair and friendship with actors like Adoor Bhasi, he could easily find his rhythm and pace in this medium soon establishing a niche for himself.
He was unlike other stars of his time; he was neither a rough, macho idealist like Sathyan nor a handsome romantic like Prem Nazir. More than the rebel and the lover, he personified the urbane adults of Kerala of the post-independence period, with all their conflicts and dilemmas, yearnings and disappointments.
Making his brief but significant debut with the National-award winning film Ninamaninja Kalpaadukal (N.N. Pisharoty, 1963), the next decade witnessed some of his finest acting performances, including some of the most memorable ones such as Basheer in Bhargavinilayam, Pareekkutty in Chemmeen, Baputty in Olavum Theeravum, Mayin in Ummacchu, Gopan in his own film Priya and Viswam in Swayamvaram apart from roles in films like Aval, Almaram, Kallichellamma, Nadi, Abhayam, Swapnangal, Abhijatyam, Chenda, Chembarathi etc.
He brought to these roles a strange but intense energy, that marked him apart from the others; he was more at home with tragic characters, who were caught between their callings and the roles that the real world thrust upon them, and grappled with the vagaries of life, but were always firmly holding on to certain loves, passions and beliefs. The singularity of his acting style resonated more with the ‘national’ style like that of Raj Kapoor or Dileep Kumar, rather than with the ‘regional’ melodramatics of Tamil or Malayalam.
But this was readily recognised by the directors and appreciated by the audience, and right from the beginning he had the opportunity to work with some notable auteurs such as P. Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat, K.S. Sethumadhavan, A. Vincent, P. Subramaniam and P.N. Menon. The fact that offbeat directors such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, John Abraham and C. Radhakrishnan cast him in their films stands testimony to his acting abilities and personal charm.
In the next decade, one saw a much more evolved and established actor, who confidently experimented with various genres and forms. In this decade he produced an amazing array of characters and roles and worked with all the major directors of the period like Sreekumaran Thampy, Sasikumar, Hariharan, I.V. Sasi, Thoppil Bhasi, Chandrakumar, P.G. Viswambharan and Joshiy.
His performances in Nakhangal, Itha Ivide Vare, Enippadikal, Chukku, Itha Oru Manushyan, Eetta, Vadakakkoru Hridayam, Njaan Njaan Maathram, Ithanente Vazhi, Idavazhiyile Poocha Mindapoocha, Jeevitam Oru Ganam, Simhasanam, Karthavyam, Pin nilavu etc easily combined popular success without compromising personal identity and acting style.
In the later decades up to the present, one found an aging Madhu limiting himself to the roles of the patriarch and loner, idealist politician/leader or community elder, but, even then he is able to easily embody certain values and aspirations, and give his performances a kind of actorly presence that is all his own. In his own words, “it is like the material on which the painter draws his pictures, like the drawing paper, corrugated paper or glazing paper, the texture of the material ought to be present in it.”
Behind the camera
The role of the director came naturally to him. He directed only a few films and was active in direction mostly in the 1970s, but in his oeuvre, one can see a very active and restless mind at work, trying out various genres and also roles for himself as an actor. His directorial debut Priya (1970) featuring himself as the villain, won the State award for the second best film, while the best film award went to P.N. Menon’s Olavum Theeravum in which Madhu played the central character. By donning the role of the negative character in Priya, he was also trying to break the stereotype of the tragic lover that he was being thrust upon him. He has directed a dozen films.
His next film Sindhooracheppu (1971) was unique in terms of its theme; at the narrative centre was an elephant; it touched the Malayali psyche that has spun legends and stories about pachyderms for ages which forms part of their collective memory. His next work next film Sati (1972) was based on a play by G.Sankara Pillai that combined his rich experience in theatre and film. Manyashree Viswamitran (1974)
was again an attempt to redefine his star persona, by casting himself in the comic role of a strict family patriarch who vainly tries to impose his idealism upon the world. Neelakkannukal (1974), an adaptation of a poem by O.N.V. Kurup dealing with a political theme, was again a bold and innovative attempt in the medium. His next two films Akaldama (1975) and Kamam Krodham Moham (1975) were again based on literary works, that of P.R. Chandran. Theekkanal (1976) marks the pinnacle of his directorial career in terms of commercial success and appeal. He made only four more films after that: Dheerasameera Yamunatheere (1977), Aradhana (1977), Oru Yugasandhya and Udayam Padinjaru (1986). Obviously the pressures of acting and establishing and managing a studio of his own and his role as a producer, had its toll on Madhu, the director. By then he had already established a studio of his own –Uma Studio – in Thiruvananthapuram.
In an acting career spanning five decades, Madhu has worked with several generations of actors in Malayalam. Starting with the first major actor duo, Sathyan and Prem Nazir, he went on to essay memorable combination roles with the next generation of actors such as Sukumaran, Soman and Jayan, moving on to the next major actor duo – Mammootty and Mohanlal, who have dominated the last decades. Although he was neither a tree-circling lover nor a domineering macho male, he portrayed some of the most intense relationships in Malayalam cinema, through a unique chemistry with brilliant actors such as Sheela, Sarada, Vidhubala, Jayabharati and Sreevidya. No wonder when Sheela directed her film (Yakshaganam) dealing with subterranean female desire, she cast Madhu opposite her.
In 2004, the Government of Kerala honoured him with the J.C. Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award. That such a multifaceted personality like Madhu who has made significant and enduring contributions to all departments of cinema has not received the recognition he deserves says a lot about his sterling character as a human being, and more sadly, about our society.