Tribute On the occasion of Sathyan’s birth centenary, a review of how the titan moulded the image of the hero and deeply influenced the acting code in Malayalam cinema. C.S. Venkiteswaran

November 9, 2012 marks the birth centenary of Sathyan, one of the greatest actors of Indian cinema. Although Sathyan’s acting career did not last very long and spanned less than two decades (1952-1971), he was able to leave an indelible mark in the minds of a generation of cineastes.

Through striking and heart-wrenching performances, Sathyan personifies an era in Malayalam cinema and Kerala history – one on the cusp of nationalist and socialist hopes on the one side and a colonial and feudal lineage on the other; one waking up from the shackles of the past, and looking up to a new age of hope and freedom, nation-building and idealism.

Born in 1912 in Thiruvananthapuram, Sathyanesan (renamed as Sathyan by producer-director P. Subramanyam) had been through several avatars before he met with his destiny in cinema: he was a clerk in Records Office, a school teacher, a Subedar Major and commissioned officer in the British Army (he fought against the Japanese), a sub-inspector of police in Alappuzha, the epicentre of Communist uprising, and a theatre actor right from his school days.

The multiple roles he played in life, in fact, helped him a lot to bring in a certain earthy worldliness to his acting style. Unlike many others, he never looked phony in any of his roles: whether it be that of school teacher or professor, farmer or uniformed officer, political leader or rowdy, businessman or fisherman, family patriarch or trade unionist, he looked very much real and rooted. His acting style was one that was well-controlled yet powerful, stylised yet captivating.

In more than one way, his oeuvre moulded the image of the hero in Malayalam cinema, and deeply influenced the acting codes in Malayalam for the next decades. He was one of the first actors who broke away from theatre (though himself an experienced theatre actor) and developed a cinematic acting style that was quintessentially ‘Malayali’ – both in physique and body language, and persona and appearance. He shunned theatrics and loudness in acting, and outside it, the glamour and glitz that stardom bestowed upon any actor of his stature. Most of the important roles he portrayed were that of strong male characters who stood, lived and fought for certain values.

Making his debut with Atmasakhi in 1952, and until his sudden and untimely death in 1971 at the peak of his career, Sathyan essayed roles that were diverse and striking, making him one of the all-time greats in Malayalam cinema.

He always excelled in playing the role of the rebel and the crusader, a loner who dares to take on the establishment. Most of the time engrossed in himself or his passions, he is aloof and brooding but intensely alive, always standing up to fight for the values he believes in, or brought to ruin and damnation by those values.

In Neelakkuyil (1954) he was a school master, the typical harbinger of modernity, who ironically, ditches a Dalit woman and drives her to death. In Odayil Ninnu , he is a proud and hardworking rickshaw puller Pappu, who fights a tragic battle not only with the system but also with his own body, which is ravaged by age and tuberculosis. In Kadalppalam , he plays the double role of a patriarchal father and a rebellious son; in Mudiyanaya Puthran he is the prodigal son raging against a decaying system; in Anubhavangal Palichakal, he is a man who turns away from familial chores and its jealousies, to find refuge in the communist movement, and eventually becoming a martyr.

In Aswamedham and Sarasayya , he is an idealist doctor fighting a losing but courageous battle with an increasingly corrupt system and indifferent society. In Yakshi , he is a teacher-scientist who is unable to come to terms with his impotency and crumbles within. In Chemmeen , he is an orphan fisherman proud of his prowess, but in the end loses his life and love to the sea.

Sathyan and Prem Nazir constitute the first star-duo in Malayalam cinema, a combination that later seems to find continuity in the Mammootty-Mohanlal pair from the 1980s. In a way, these duos represent the Malayali ambivalence about male sexuality and masculinity: one, tender, lyrical and playful, the other, tough, earthy and idealistic. Being the masculine persona amongst the two, Sathyan was not known as a romantic hero, and his characters were defined by larger identities and greater individual pursuits, one with definite social and political dimensions.

He excelled in the role of a mature man, weathered by circumstances and always ready to live and die for certain ideals and values. In the process, women were his equals or rivals, threats or companions, never his playthings or passive admirers. The role of the failed and suspicious husband in Neelakkuyil, Yakshi, Aranazhikaneram, Vazhvemayam and Anubhavangal Palichakal exhibit one side of this man, while the patriarchal figure in Kadalppalam and the idealist loner in Doctor, Puthiya Akasham Puthiya Bhoomi, Aswamedham, and Sharashayya sketch the other side.

He was at his peak when Malayalam cinema was dominated by literary works and writers, and most of his memorable roles are literary adaptations, the rendering of which demanded a social and aesthetic vision that was often ahead of the ‘cinematics’ of the period. What Malayalam cinema was attempting at that time was something unique and different from the rest of the cinemas in India, and hence it was a period that sought its own idioms and styles, formats and narrations of its own.

Sathyan was instrumental in giving body and voice to this urge within the film texts and the industry, moulding a certain male hero image and heroism in Malayalam cinema.

“I haven’t seen Sathyan as a star. His demeanour was totally different from that of a matinee idol: dark in complexion, short body, disproportionate limbs, stubby fingers – all that Indian cinema demanded from a hero was absent in him. But he had enough talent as a real actor. So, he came to cinema, acted in it, and conquered the audience, and, an age,” observed M.T. Vasudevan Nair in an obituary on the day after Sathyan left us. MT’s words ring very true and the image of Sathyan still resonates with the conflicts and energies, yearnings and frustrations of a vibrant era in the history of Malayalam cinema and also of Kerala.

Sreedharan Nair in Neelakkuyil (P. Bhaskaran/Ramu Kariat, 1954)

Rajan in Mudiyanaya Puthran (Ramu Kariat, 1961)

Sukumaran in Puthiya Akasham Puthiya Bhoomi (M.S. Mani, 1962)

Othenan in Thacholi Othenan ( SS Rajan, 1964)

Pappu in Odayil Ninnu (K.S. Sethumadhavan, 1965)

Palani in Chemmeen (Ramu Kariat, 1966)

Sreeni in Yakshi (K.S. Sethumadhavan, 1968 )

Narayana Kaimal and Raghu in Kadalppalam (K.S. Sethumadhavan, 1969)

Sudhi in Vazhvemayam (K.S. Sethumadhavan, 1970)

Chellappan in Anubhavangal Palichakal (K.S. Sethumadhavan, 1971)

Damodaran Muthalali in Karakanakadal (K.S. Sethumadhavan, 1971)

Dr. Thomas in Sarasayya (Thoppil Bhasi, 1971)

(Names of Sathyan’s characters are followed by the movie in which they featured. The director’s name is given in brackets)