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Thilakan, rebel without a pause

George Jacob
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Acting was the only solace in a life scarred by emotional volatility

Surendranath Thilakan was a born rebel. He rebelled against his father, whose patriarchal ways disgusted him; against his mother, who tried to control him with her love; with colleagues, who tried to tame him with organizational discipline.

And, like an orphaned child trying again and again to get his act together, Thilakan rebelled against himself, putting together, bringing down and reinventing himself in myriad roles he donned.

“He was born to act,” says his childhood friend Samuel Zacharia who lives at Chotti, near Mundakayam “Acting was everything for him, the only solace in a life scarred by intense emotional volatility, for which he sacrificed everything else,” he says.

He should know. Just a year younger, he was with Thilakan at Mundakkayam where he spent his early years. As the second of the six children of Devayani and T.S. Kesavan, estate writer at TR&T Co, Thilakan enjoyed a middleclass lifestyle and the family was regarded high in society, he said.

The artiste in Thilakan was identified by his lower primary school teacher at St. Louis School, Mariyakkutty Aasatty, who encouraged her ward to act in one-act plays, remembers Mr. Zacharia.

They had acted in school plays together and, later, gave shape to the Mundakayam Dramatic Club. Thilakan, now ‘Mundakayam Thilakan’, was the producer, director, and the central character.

The rehearsal camps were his ‘worlds’ where he dominated his friends with his acting and directorial skills. He would print publicity materials and went round sticking bills announcing the drama. “He was totally immersed in theatre,” said Mr. Zacharia.

The first drama, Jeevvitham Avasanickunnilla , had Thilakan as a tyrannical father and Mr. Zacharia, as his son. Thilakan enacted a similar character years later - Chacko Master in Malayalam movie, Sphadikom . Both had shades of his own father who refused to acknowledge his son’s sensibilities. “Estate officials were like slave drivers at that time, strict and often tyrannical,” Mr. Zacharia remembers.

Acting and theatre were taboo for the middleclass family and his passion for acting cost Thilakan dearly, when it interfered in his relation with his own mother. In an interview he remembered: There were days when he had to go without food as his mother refused to provide him. While his siblings were sleeping after sumptuous dinner, he had to sneak out, get raw tapioca from their garden to douse his hunger.

Feeling an outcaste, Thilakan left home at the age of 19, for a life as actor. The rebellious streak followed Thilakan in his student days. He remembered at a public function here two years back - he was dropped from a school drama while in Kottayam but Thilakan got special permission, wrote a new play, cobbled up a new team and took the first prize in the competition.

His college days saw Thilakan honing his histrionic talents when he first came into contact with the school of method acting in Hollywood films but had to drop out from studies as he was found ‘indisciplined’ by the college authorities.

His career took him to leading theatre groups such as Kaladasa Kalakendram, KPAC, and Geedha before he entered the films. While the past three decades saw Thilakan donning roles after roles in Malayalam and south Indian films, he came back into the maternal lap of his beloved theatre once again in 2010- when he once again felt orphaned by his colleagues in the industry.

It was the time when the actor was suffering a boycott from the industry. His well-wishers in Ambalappuzha gave shape to a theatre group Akshara Jwala Theatres under whose banner the drama Itho Daivangalude Swantham Naadu? was presented in more than 100 venues.

Thilakan, enacting an aging freedom fighter, collapsed on stage at Chirayinkeezh. But, in his usual style Thilakan rebelled against his doctors who advised a week’s rest and was ready for the next show at Punalur.

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