In his various roles in life as an actor, performer, writer, politician and Akademi Chairman, one can see an uneasy restlessness, the haunting awareness that one doesn’t actually belong there.

Murali was a ‘theatrical’ person in the real sense. He was at ease in theatre, and in films; his performances always had a theatrical charge to them. In his writings on acting and on the life of an actor and the treatise on Kumaran Asan’s poetic skills one encounters an introspective and intense person. As the Chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, he gave the bureaucratic organisation a new sense of direction and animation and his involvement in the Asian Theatre Festival last year at Thrissur unearthed a huge and appreciative audience for theatre - one that everyone thought belonged to a bygone era. He had plans of organising other such similar festivals to showcase African theatre.

Conflict-ridden characters

Hopefully it will come true as a tribute to his passion and commitment to theatre. In all these areas – performance on stage, film acting, writing, organising and so on, one can sense a man who couldn’t fit comfortably into the roles that the world offered him. Like his mentor Narendraprasad, there was always an excess of energy and exuberance that sought other means to explode and express itself. So, many a time, unable to find fulfilling outlets, it imploded, often pushing him into despair and frustration.

Inspired by the intellectual climate of the 70’s and honing his knowledge under the likes of Ayyappa Panicker and Narendraprasad, Murali brought into film acting a certain sense of rooted rawness that stood in stark contrast with the mindless flamboyance and empty super heroics of the star system around him. He played roles that essayed the conflicts and dilemmas of real men caught in the puzzling flux of life. Most of his characters were middle-class, middle-aged men whose fragile lives are shaken by the unpredictable turn of events. He always played roles driven with conflicts – that of a loyal but often betrayed friend, a jilted lover, a loner fighting it out against the world, a husband who is also a lecher, an upright officer up against odds, an elder brother or father pinning his hopes too desperately upon his younger siblings or child.

Playing roles with élan

Taking his ‘rough’ exteriors too seriously, many films cast him into the roles of one-dimensional villain and corrupt politician, which he played with élan too. His film career was certainly overshadowed by that of the super stars and he had to struggle to find his own niche, which he found in the films of independent filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Priyanandanan, M.P. Sukumaran Nair, P. T. Kunhimuhamed and Madhu Kaithapram. Only in their films could he find enough space and time to elaborate the repertoire of his acting skills.

He seemed to be in constant search for the ideal role that suited his persona and talents. In his various roles in life as an actor, performer, writer, politician and Akademi Chairman, one can see a uneasy restlessness, the haunting awareness that one doesn’t actually belong there. He was uncomfortable with the ‘script’ most of these roles thrust upon him: as a result, the spiritual in him couldn’t contain the politician in him, the actor in him was too intelligent to get typecast, the theatre person in him often succumbed to the film performer. The only place where he felt at home was theatre, where the rhythm of his mind, spirit and body could freely find their modes and medium of expression.

It is a pity that our cinema couldn’t make much out of an actor like him.

In a class of his own

It was my first film as a director and I went to Muraliyettan with the script of ‘Neythukaran.’ He wanted me to narrate the story in a nutshell but I was not good at that. My main concern was to let him know that it was a genuine attempt but we only had a limited budget. I gave him the script and he agreed to do the role of Appa mesthiri, which eventually won him the national award for best actor. He had a thorough idea about the character that he was doing and also about the film’s genre.

He was well aware about the intricacies regarding the art of acting. Not many approach a role with his kind of sincerity and understanding. For instance, not many realise how important silence is while acting, a glance or perhaps the movement of a finger. The actor should be able to get into the skin of the character on his own and he often proved the theory that an actor is merely a director’s tool is indeed far from reality.

We started having constant interactions after ‘Neythukaran.’ For me, it was his role in ‘Pulijanmam’ that was more challenging for him as an actor. And he portrayed both his characters, of Kari Gurukkal and Prakashan, with amazing finesse.

Most of our actors tend to forget that it’s not their bank deposits or the grandeur of their homes that will find them a place in cinema history. They are often not ready to take up challenging roles and still lament that good movies are not happening here. Murali made it a point to do genuine characters even while he was doing the so-called commercial or mainstream cinema. He was committed to serious cinema and never minced words to voice his opinions.

I am not used to writing scripts with an actor in mind. Murali was approached for both my films, after I realised that the roles suited him. In fact, that is the reason why he was not there in ‘Sufi Paranja Katha.’ Murali will be remembered as an actor who made an impact on screen regardless of the length of his roles. Most of the actors who are lauded with great reverence during their stint may not remain so after a certain period. Murali will be different from them and has stamped his signature as an actor like few others. His life gives an altogether new meaning to the thinking that it’s not about how long you lived here, but how you spent those years.

Director Priyanandanan as told to Vijay George

Keywords: cinemamalayalamtheatre