Imagine Kireedom without Thilakan. Then imagine a few other films without him, such as Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal, Perunthachan, Kilukkam, Moonnam Pakkam, Santhanagopalam and Sphadikam.
Then you would probably get a fair idea of what an astonishingly gifted actor this short, dark man was. Those films would not have become the major cinematic creations in the language that they became if he was not in them.
Some of those films would not have probably been even made if he had not become an actor.
Thilakan was one of the finest actors Indian cinema ever produced. But, strangely, he never won the national award for the best actor. And that hurt him.
He was overlooked, sometimes deliberately - so he believed - while lesser actors walked away with the country’ biggest honour in acting.
During one long interview - it lasted more than four hours - with this writer at Kozhikode five years ago, he had recalled how he had almost won the national award for Perunthachan in 1989. That award went to another actor, purely because of political reasons, he said.
The national award’s stature would have grown if he had won it. Like that of the Nobel Prize for peace, if Mahatma Gandhi had won it. What is it that separates him from all other actors, including those who won more awards than him? “My eyes,” he said in that interview.
“No actor could use eye as evocatively as I do.” No, modesty was never his biggest virtue. But he was speaking the truth.
And he showed how he used his eyes to emote some of those heartbreaking scenes with Mohanlal in Kireedom inside the police station. And one felt privileged, and grateful, as the master performer gave an unforgettable display of nuanced acting.
The best thing about Thilakan’s performances was that it did not look like acting at all, even when he was doing the most dramatic of scenes. He lived a role.
Like he did in Gamanam , as an ageing police constable who is fatally misunderstood by his wife.
It is one of his lesser-watched films but one of his finest performances.
He won the State award in 1994 for the best actor for that film and Santhanagopalam , in which he had to feign his own death so that his family would benefit from it.
An outstanding performance from him that did not win any award was his villain in Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal, one of P. Padmarajan’s several master works.
As the cruel, lecherous man who rapes his stepdaughter, he invoked more fear and revulsion than any other bad man in Malayalam cinema history.
Thilakan could also make us laugh. Just as easily. Remember the retired judge of Kilukkam , who gets up and bows before the food served by his cook (because the chicken is older than him). Remember also the funny villain from Nadodikkatt.
And he made us weep, too. Just as effortlessly. As the old man who loses his grandson to the sea in Moonnam Pakkam . Those characters, and the man who gave his life to them, will live as long as cinema will.
“No actor can use eyes as evocatively as I do,” which he claimed separated him from the other actors.