Thilakan put his heart and soul into any character he played.
Born in 1935, Surendranatha Thilakan (77) was a native of Plankamon, Ayroor, Pathanamthitta District in Kerala. As a theatre artist, he proved his mettle in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in plays such as ‘Sarasayya’ and ‘Thulabharam.’ Cinema consumed him in the 1980s and he acted with all the leading Malayalam stars including Mammootty and Mohanlal.
Thilakan made an impression in every film he acted, so much so that he had a big fan following. He won the National Award in 1988 and 2007, the Kerala State Awards nine times. He was conferred Padma Sri in 2009.
Thilakan acted as a veterinary doctor in the Malayalam feature film, ‘Mizhineer Poovukal,’ which I had produced in 1986. When the costume designer could not fit in a new pair of shoes for Thilakan, the actor looked down at my feet and simply asked, “Can I borrow that pair?” His humility and presence of mind bowled me over. Twenty six years on, and I still have those shoes.
For the same film, he flew to Chennai from Thiruvananthapuram, where the Monsoon was at its peak.
Simplicity, his hallmark
It was June. Clad in warm clothes, Thilakan landed in Chennai that was blazing hot. Power cuts were for long hours and the AVM garden theatre was a cubby hole.
Within half an hour of arriving, Thilakan was drenched in perspiration. Longing for some fresh air, I stepped out. When I returned after a couple of hours, Thilakan had stripped to the waist and was dubbing in full swing. By 6 a.m., he had finished his work and caught the first flight back home. He didn’t even expect a hotel accommodation. Such was his simplicity!
His car was his first love and whenever he had to cover long distances for shooting within Kerala, he would drive there himself.
As an accomplished dramatist, he never needed any dialogue prompting. That powerful voice, famous for its modulations, was his asset. He never forgot the theatre ladder that he had climbed to prove himself in the celluloid world. Nedumudi Venu thought it was a privilege to act with Thilakan whom he admired a lot as a theatre artist.
Thilakan’s dream and grievance got fulfilled when the last National Award committee selected a Malayalam character and comedy artist as the Best Actor, and the Filmfare Awards committee followed suit.
Dr. Rajendra Babu, who was closely associated with Thilakan right from his childhood days as he was the main stage artist in his father C.G. Gopinath’s People’s Theatres’ plays such as ‘Agni Golam’, ‘Kuridhi Kalam’ and ‘Thapas,’ has only words of praise for the actor.
As a script writer for Mohanlal’s ‘Spadikam,’ and Suresh Gopi’s ‘Yuva Dhurki’ both directed by Badran, Dr. R.B. says Thilakan nurtured him. Twelve years ago, when he had accompanied Thilakan for his routine health check-up to Vijaya Hospital, in Chennai, the doctors discovered some blocks in his heart and felt he needed surgery immediately. When Thilakan wanted to postpone it, cardiologist Dr. Cherian said, “Sir, you may not want yourself for you but Malayalis all over the world need Thilakan, the artist.” These words finally forced Thilakan to undergo surgery. Dr. R.B. was by his bed, providing support.
On hearing about the passing away of Thilakan, director Hariharan lamented, “The aalamaran (Banyan tree) of the South Indian film industry has fallen.”
Thilakan had acted in all the four South Indian language films. He was always punctual. Although he was considered strict in getting his stipulated remuneration, in all my productions he never insisted on money. That was his way of expressing his gratitude.
Be it a Brahmin in ‘Parinayam’ or a journalist in ‘Panjagni’ or an Ayurvedic doctor in ‘Sargam,’ Thilakan put his heart and soul into every role he played in my films. In fact, he bagged the State Award for ‘Panjagni.’ Of course, he will always be remembered for such iconic roles as the cop Achuthan Nair in ‘Kireedom’ and the carpenter in ‘Perunthachan.’
While Thilakan had proved his calibre with his own voice in the Tamil flick ‘Chathriyan,’ the Tamil film industry played spoilsport by getting Thilakan’s voice dubbed by most unsuitable voices. His other notable Tamil ventures were ‘Alibaba,’ ‘Mettukudi,’ ‘Nee Venumda Chellam,’ ‘Karuppu Vellai,’ and ‘Aravindhan.’
When the doyen was barred from acting for a while, the South Indian film viewers were the losers. The Kerala Government gave his mortal remains State honours apart from footing his hospital bills. Perhaps Thilakan would have been happier if the Government had supported him during the crisis.
Perunthachan of Malayalam cinema
With the passing of Surendra Nath Thilakan, Indian cinema has lost one of its finest actors. During a career spanning more than three decades, Thilakan acted in over 200 films. but his journey began with theatre when he was a second grader in school. It was in the late 70s that Thilakan was noticed by filmgoers—the film was K.G. George’s Ulkkadal. Thilakan’s rugged looks meant that he was not exactly hero material. But he soon proved beyond doubt that looks had nothing to do with true stardom. While his contemporaries ran around trees, sang songs and fought goons, Thilakan effortlessly stole a march over them by taking up meaty ‘character roles’ which allowed him to show off his formidable acting skills. He was not a captive of his image and this freedom was his strength. Even in a cameo role, Thilakan could eclipse the most charismatic superstars acting alongside him. This was why, despite the controversies that shadowed him, he was looked up to by everyone in the Malayalam film industry. He was nothing less than an institution and it is a measure of his talent that there were directors who felt that only Thilakan could do justice to certain roles. When maverick filmmaker Ranjith cast him in ‘Indian Rupee’ in the teeth of opposition by certain film organisations, this was how he justified his decision. The surging crowds at his funeral spoke volumes of the love, affection, respect and regard that the people of Kerala had for the veteran actor who could redeem even a mediocre movie by the brilliance of his performance.
Thilakan had a chequered personal life. He was estranged from his mother for several years because she disapproved of his career choice. His father was a harsh disciplinarian. The pain and struggle of his early childhood and youth made him what he was. Even in his professional life he was a man who ploughed a lonely furrow. He was a misfit in an industry where sycophancy and hypocrisy were the fairy godmothers that could bring success and good fortune. Thilakan did not need them though. He was secure in his knowledge of his own merit in a sea of mediocrity and this helped him stay afloat despite the egos and vanities that were punctured by his blunt speech and devil-may-care attitude. Even his worst rivals did not doubt his talent. Indeed, they did not have to look elsewhere for acting lessons.Despite being the ‘Perunthachan’ or master craftsman in his chosen field, Thilakan was a man of humility when it came to his craft. He famously told the director of the movie, ‘Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu,’ that the scenes featuring the young heroine, Manju Warrier, should be shot only in his presence. His explanation was that she was a formidable actress who could steal a march over him. Thilakan was like a chameleon in his ability to become the character he was playing. In that sense, he truly lived his roles. As the doting grandfather in ‘Moonnam Pakkam,’ who with unblinking determination, walks into the sea to certain death, while performing the last rites for his drowned grandson who had been his only living heir, he gave a haunting portrayal of grief that overwhelms the human soul. As ‘Pylokkaran,’ the scheming stepfather who rapes his stepdaughter to prevent her from marrying her lover, in Padmarajan’s ‘Namukku Paarkkan Munthirithoppukal,’ he was a chilling picture of extreme depravity. In ‘Jathakam,’ he essayed the role of a superstitious old man who murders his daughter-in-law. fearing that the afflicted Mars or ‘chovva dosham’ in her natal chart would be fatal for his only son. The fact that he could elicit sympathy for such a character says much about the depth and complexity he brought to his role. And who can ever forget the shattered father in ‘Kireedom,’ who helplessly watches his dreams for his son crumble to dust before his very eyes or the cruel Chacko Maash in ‘Sphadikam’ who refuses to acknowledge and embrace his son’s innate genius? The versatile performer that he was, Thilakan could handle comedy too with practised ease, as he proved in films such as ‘Nadodikkattu’ and ‘Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam.’ he proved his mettle in this genre. His last release was ‘Ustad Hotel’ in which he plays the owner of a run- down hotel who teaches his grandson valuable lessons about life. It was a role that seemed to be tailor-made for the thespian. Thilakan was awarded the Padmashree in 2009 for his contribution to cinema. In 1990 and 1994, he won the Kerala state award for best actor. In 1988, he won the national award for best supporting actor. He narrowly lost out on the national award for best actor in 1990.If, as an actor, Thilakan was a class apart, as a person, he was someone who possessed a remarkable personality. In a world where political correctness is the norm and opinions shift like quicksand, he was a man who was not afraid to say what he felt. What is more, he stood by what he said. Curiously, this trait won him both enemies and admirers. By all accounts he was a rarity in an industry where most people are like Iago who could smile and smile and yet be a villain. It was perhaps this strength of character that gave him the indomitable spirit to triumph over illness and his enemies, making him the master of comebacks. But the greatest tragedy of his life was not that he was a much misunderstood man. It was the fact that despite being one of the best actors that the country, and even the world, has ever seen, the government refused to honour him as such, and instead often chose to evaluate his performances by the lesser benchmark of the character or supporting actor or ‘saha nadan’. This indeed was the unkindest cut of all. But perhaps it never mattered to him after all. Film awards have their own logic—there are backs to be scratched, favours to be returned, and egos to be pampered. But Ultimately it is not by the sound of clapping, the cheers and whistles, that we recognize that we are in the presence of greatness. It is by the sound of hushed silence. It is the moment that belongs to the ‘real’ best actor. And no one could craft such moments more exquisitely than Thilakan, the one and only ‘Perunthachan’ of Malayalam cinema.