30 years of 'Kireedam': Why Mohanlal and Thilakan are seared in our hearts

'Kireedam' became such a huge favourite with viewers mainly because at its heart, it is also a beautiful father-son tale.
30 years of 'Kireedam': Why Mohanlal and Thilakan are seared in our hearts
30 years of 'Kireedam': Why Mohanlal and Thilakan are seared in our hearts
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"Ninte achanaada parayunne. Kathi thaazhe ideda.." (It’s your father who is saying this. Put the knife down) – says a helpless Achuthan Nair (Thilakan) to his son, Sethumadhavan (Mohanlal) in the closing scene of Kireedam. Sethumadhavan has just stabbed and killed the rowdy who'd ruined his life. He is still furious, pointing the knife vigorously at his father. After a few seconds, he comes to his senses, drops the knife and cries out loud to the sky.

The entire movie is shaped as a build-up to this finish. An ambitious young man has now turned a murderer and a father’s dreams of seeing his son as a police inspector has been shattered. The market and crowd scene is staged perfectly. Anyone else in the place of Mohanlal or Thilakan would have toned down the impact. Johnson Master’s background score once again draws you deeply into the situation unfolding on screen. The result is one of the most heartbreaking endings ever in Indian cinema.

Lohithadas’s terrific screenplay gave a shocking yet realistic narrative of how a youth’s fate takes a dramatic turn when he beats up a local goonda to save his constable father. Sethumadhavan starts losing his family, the woman whom he loved and finally the job for which he'd aspired. Lohithadas showed us how society brands a person as a criminal and never takes him back into the fold. 

But Kireedam became such a huge favourite with viewers mainly because at its heart, it is also a beautiful father-son tale. Mohanlal and Thilakan are two fabulous actors, who also share an amazing chemistry on screen. Which means that for most part of the movie, we forget that we are watching two characters on screen, and not a father and son whom we know so well from our lives. A particularly heart-warming sequence early in the movie is when Achuthan Nair finds out that Sethu is lying about dieting at home, but is eating lavishly at his grandmother’s. Instead of scolding his son, Achuthan just smiles and says –“Eat as you wish. You don’t have to stay hungry to reduce weight." In the next scene, Sethu tells his friend how he feels guilty about lying to his father.

Kireedam had such small moments that portrayed the beautiful bond between Achuthan Nair and Sethumadhavan, even before the movie takes a serious turn. Achuthan often calls his son "themmadi"( rogue) affectionately. Sethu reads Ramayanam to his mother (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) while she massages his head. Sethu and his sister laugh at the moustache of their younger brother which he has drawn with a pen. Lohithadas gives you enough reasons to fall in love with the family first before the actual story begins. When the tragedy finally hits, a lot of thought has been put into showing why Sethu can't find a way out, no matter how hard he tries. How his friends start a fight in the bar, but everyone thinks Sethu was behind it, is where one of Kireedam’s most important messages lies. When Achuthan Nair hears about it from his colleague, he comes home and slaps his son. Sethu walks away saying –“I know this town has a different image of me. But now I realise that in your minds, I am changing, too.”

The characters who were close to Sethumadhavan became dearer to you as well. You cannot watch the scene where Sethu asks Devi (Parvathy) to forget him and the evergreen “Kanneer Poovinte” that follows without a lump in your throat. Sethumadhavan’s friend – Keshu (Sreenath) is planted by Lohithadas as a technique for Sethu to open up and talk to the viewers. Before he makes up his mind to face Jose, it is to Keshu that he says the movie’s most poignant lines – “If I die, tell my father that I have not loved anyone else more in this world." Lohithadas’s strength lies not only in writing powerful dialogues, he places them at the most appropriate places.

Kireedam starts with Achuthan Nair’s dream where Sethumadhavan walks into the police station as a sub inspector. It ends when Achuthan Nair walks into the same station and informs his superior that his son is a criminal, who is not fit to be a police officer. You hear the same bell of the clock ringing at the start and at the end.

Lohithadas wrote Kireedam’s script in six days. Sibi Malayil completed directing the movie in less than a month. It’s difficult to believe how these filmmakers achieved such perfection in such a short span. Sibi Malayil left no stone unturned in Kireedam. After days of wrapping the movie, he felt the "Kanneer Poovinte" song isn't complete without a frame of Mohanlal walking away from the camera through a lonely lane. Sibi Malayil lined up his crew and Mohanlal again for that shot alone. He was adamant that he wouldn’t make Kireedam without Thilakan, who had date issues and had to shuttle between the sets of his other movies to accommodate Kireedam.

As he stated in a recent interview with The Cue, Sibi Malayil decided to leave the stunt choreographer aside and direct the stunts himself, so it feels close to real life and not performed to suit a superstar’s image. Mohanlal‘s portrayal of Sethumadhavan is a rare instance when an actor infuses life into the character he plays with such perfection. Initially, when his friends narrate Keerikadan Jose’s violent stories, Sethumadhavan is hesitant to listen to them and closes his ears. When his father questions his actions in the market, Sethu sits down and weeps. As he walks out from his home and tells his mother that he is losing the grip on his life, Sethu is now only slightly vulnerable. But when he finally asks Devi to move on, Sethu’s voice is stern. He doesn’t shed a tear. Sethumadhavan has transformed to a hardened person, and it's effortless how Mohanlal makes us realise the evolution of the character. The climax where he just chews on while waving the knife at police is just another instance of the minute details Mohanlal brings to keep improvising on screen.

Kireedam wouldn’t have been the same without Thilakan. The legendary actor portrays with aplomb a man who struggles to find the balance between being an upright police officer and a doting father, when he can only stand helplessly watching his son’s life getting ruined. In a beautifully enacted sequence, Achuthan Nair beats up his son in the lockup and says he doesn’t need him any more. He arrives home to Devi’s father, who wants Achuthan to force his son to forget her. Achuthan now returns to Sethu with food, feeling sorry for what he had done earlier. How much do we miss Thilakan!

Kireedam left a big impact on Malayalam cinema and culture. It turned around the careers of almost everyone associated with the movie. Already an established superstar, Mohanlal rose to national fame when he was in a close race for the National Award for Best Actor, but ended up with a Special Jury award. It is still debatable today if he could have shared the honours with Mammootty (who won for Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha).

Kireedam helped Cochin Haneefa turn big time to comedy roles. Keerikadan Jose carried his screen name thereafter. Krishnakumar, one of the producers, got the nickname ‘Kireedam Unni’. Kireedam was remade to five other languages, though none of them really replicated the cult status or remarkable success of the original. The sequel to Kireedam, Chenkol was made in 1993. Chenkol was even more tragic, telling us that Sethumadhavan’s life only kept moving from one failure to another. When novelist Kalpatta Narayanan once wrote on Lohithadas, he noted that no other character in the history of Malayalam literature had got as much affection from readers or viewers as Sethumadhavan. You cannot help but concur.

Today when you watch Kireedam, you know how its story ends. Still when Keerikkadan Jose beats up Achuthan Nair in the street, you wish Sethu does not rush to save his father. When he picks up his father and runs to beat up Jose, you wish he listens to his father who screams –“No, don’t do it”. At the end, when Jose lies on the ground, you wish Sethu does not stab him with the knife. On 7th July this year, 30 years have passed since we first saw Sethumadhavan on screen.“Maruvaaku kelkkaan kaathu nilkkathe poothumbiyengo maranju. Enthe pullorkkudam pole thengi” -wrote Kaithapram in the beautiful lyrics of Kireedam. 30 years on, we feel that this young man, who walked away with so much pain in his heart and faded into the distance without waiting for a reply, was still a part of our lives.

Fahir studied B.Tech and works in a multinational company. He loves writing on movies and cricket as a hobby.

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