Prem Nazir gave the fledgling Malayalam cinema its first super star, a star who made sure that his feet was on terra firma. A tribute to the actor on his 25th death anniversary, on January 16.

There might have been great actors before and after Prem Nazir, Malayalam cinema’s first super star. But no one, before or after him, could play the ‘hero’ with so much charm and conviction. He redefined the hero and gave him a face and an image; a hero who could break into a song or a dance with élan and still beat up the goons without a hair falling out of place. Twenty-five years after his death on January 16, 1989, the space he left behind has still not been filled.

The three decades he filled the big screen with his larger-than-life persona helped create a space for Malayalam cinema and gave south Indian regional cinema an identity that was not synonymous with Tamil cinema. In an era without television or social media, his posters were enough to draw fans to theatres. During the sixties and seventies, he dominated Malayalam cinema and yet the star never forgot to be humane and down to earth.

If one of his films did not do well at the box office, the next day the producer would get a call from the star: “Please begin the next film. Don’t worry about my dates, I will give you as many as you want.” This assurance from Prem Nazir ensured that producers were not left in the cold and strengthened the foundation of the movie industry. Here was an actor who did not bankrupt the industry that nurtured him, an actor who understood the synergy of tinsel town. Udaya, Merryland, Manjilas, Supriya, Jayamaruthi, Ganesh Pictures, Aseem Company… Many of these production houses were able to sustain themselves in the movie business on the strength of that assurance. It is perhaps a coincidence that after the exit of the titan, many of these production houses exited from the movie world.

Prem Nazir never demanded that scriptwriters write custom-made stories for him. Despite his admiration for and familiarity with the world of letters and classics, this super star happily acted in many small roles when those classics and novels were interpreted on celluloid. He played second fiddle to thespian Sathyan in Odayil Ninnu, Anubhavangal Palichakal, Kadalppaalam and Adimakal. Similarly, in Aranazhikaneram, Pazhassi Raja and Kunjali Marakkar, Kottarakara Sreedharan Nair had the meaty role while Prem Nazir had a comparatively smaller role. He played the second lead with Thikkurissi in Maya and with Madhu in Bhargavinilayam and Kaakkathamburatti.

Diverse characters

He was an actor who had no problem in acting in heroine-oriented films such as Kallichellamma, Agniputhri, Devi, Thulabharam, Oru Sundariyude Katha and so on in which the leading heroines of the day such as Sheela, Sharada and Jayabharathi played the plump roles.

The actor played along with the chocolate hero image that he was thrust into but he never lost an opportunity to essay diverse characters ranging from simpletons to anti-heroes. As Kunjachen in Kallichellama, Ravindran in Nizhalattam and Kunjachan Muthali in Azhakulla Selina, Nazir tried to break free from the mould of the noble, righteous hero. In fact, in Azhakulla Selina, Kunjachan Muthalali, his character in the film, was a rapist. This was in 1973, when he was at the peak of his popularity and proved beyond doubt how much the actor wanted to be versatile and how bold was director Sethumadhavan in casting him in that role.

His good looks and realistic portrayal of women (when the hero was in disguise) in some suspense thrillers and comedies earned him the derision of critics. But one must remember how easily he played the valorous hero in films such as Aromalunni, Kanappanunni, Aromal Chekavar, Thacholi Othenan and Palat Kunjikkannan. He also donned the roles of Lord Sri Rama and Krishna in many mythologicals.

Not given his due

However, he was never given his due by critics who refused to see the actor in the star. In the decades that Prem Nazir was the top star in Kerala, he was often flying from one set to the other – playing the college boy, entrepreneur, labourer, officer and God, all in the space of one day.

Often it was in between this mad rush that he found the space to give life to some memorable characters such as Balan in Murappennu (1965), the first film scripted by M.T. Vasudevan Nair. The romantic, action hero played to perfection the tragic role of the brother and lover who was willing to sacrifice everything for his family.

Madhavankutty in Nagarame Nanni and Govindankutty in Asuravithu, both scripted by M.T., proved that the star was a versatile actor who could also dip into the dark side of life to etch his tragic characters. One of his unforgettable standout role was that of Velayudhan, the simpleton in M.T.’s Iruttinte Atmavu. It remains one of the masterpieces in his oeuvre. With a hundred films in his filmography, the star was at the height of his popularity when he acted in the film. It was the same with Pottan Raghavan in Adimakal.

He tried to change his usual breezy style in films such as Nadi, Virunnukari, Thurakatha Vathil, Devi, Aradi Manninte Janmi, Panitheeratha Veedu and so on. Towards the end of his career he came up with another gem of a character, Arakattu Ambadi Thampan, in Padayottam and also as Unnithan in Karyam Nissaram.

He has the distinction of having acted with the same heroine – Sheela – in the most number of films; incidentally a Guinness Book record.

Moreover he was one the first in Malayalam cinema to make the most of song sequences by effortlessly and realistically synchronising his lip movements with that of the songs. Some of the most memorable and popular film songs of an era were picturised on Prem Nazir.

A staunch secularist, Prem Nazir gifted an elephant to the Sharkara Devi Temple in Chirayankeezhu, where the star hailed from. A school and a hospital in his home town are mementos of the actor’s magnanimity and benevolence.

Although he was reputed for his courtesy and thoughtfulness, there were occasions when he lost his cool and did not hesitate to express his annoyance through words and action. He had no patience for votaries of ‘art cinema’ and was not afraid to say that too. But when he presided over the jury of the national awards, it was G. Aravindan’s film Chidambaram, not a commercial film by any stretch of the imagination, that walked away with the awards.

However, it is a pity that Malayalam cinema never really acknowledged the contributions of the actor who had a big role in building a firm foundation for the film industry. In 1975, Chattambi Kalyani’s posters showed the 25 ‘faces’ of Prem Nazir in the movie but by 1985, there were other producers who were reluctant to put his image on their posters. In 1988, when the international film festival came to Kerala, Prem Nazir, Malayalam cinema’s biggest and longest reigning superstar, was not even a part of the inaugural function.

In fact, the only Kerala Government film award he won, 13 years after the awards were instituted in 1969, was for overall contribution to Malayalam cinema. The next year he was honoured by the Government of India with the Padma Bhushan. He was also a star who campaigned for the Congress without asking for a ticket himself.

After Dhwani, his last film, he was in the middle of plans to produce a film when he passed away unexpectedly following a surgery.

Sadly, today, there are no memorials, statues or government awards in the name of Prem Nazir. All such proposals remain on paper. Twenty-five years after he faded away from the scene, Prem Nazir remains alive in the memory of his fans and in hundreds of films of another era.

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