The 90-year-old starred in Malayalam film ‘Thiramaala’, directed two others, worked in Hollywood, is a published author, and more.

Thomas Berly talks, his hands raised in a gesture, and behind him is a yardThomas Berly at his house
Flix Interview Wednesday, January 25, 2023 - 17:15

While we were looking for his house in the lanes of Fort Kochi, he was trying to hide a dead body under a couch, 90-year-old Thomas Berly (Burleigh) Kurishingal says, cooking up a story as he speaks. He is trying to explain time splicing to us, a film-making technique where time is edited instead of film, something he learnt many decades ago in the United States of America. Thomas, who started off as an actor in Malayalam cinema in 1953, went off to the US and worked in Hollywood with the likes of Frank Sinatra before coming back to Kerala and making a couple of films. His seafood business had kept him away from the movies, but he is once again ready with seven little stories to be made into films.

My Name is Maria is the first of these, the second is called Duppatta, and the third is a COVID-19 story called Malaaka, Thomas says. He has used time splicing in all of these, as he did in the first film he made – Ithu Manushyanano – back in 1973. “It is about a man who marries for money. He marries a woman and kills her (or thinks he does), then he marries her sister and kills her too, but then the first woman comes back,” Thomas says. Thinking of the story he had earlier made up – hiding a body under the couch – it is apparent that he has a taste for morbid crime stories.

Ithu Manushyanano – starring the likes of Sheela and Ummar – came out 20 years after Thomas made his debut in acting. He was not yet 20 when he became the hero of Thiramaala, a film directed by Vimal Kumar alias Thomas. “Vimal Kumar knew my father and had visited us once. I was home for vacation after completing my intermediate from Loyola College in Madras. He saw me and asked if I would like to act in a film. I needed to do a makeup test for the role in Thiruvananthapuram at Merryland Studio, which was then under construction.

“During that time, a friend of a friend came to visit me, trying to sell a camera, one of those old box cameras. That was Ramu Kariat (who would go on to become a legendary filmmaker, directing Chemmeen), who was then working as a journalist. He couldn’t sell the camera but accompanied me to Thiruvananthapuram in a kari bus (coal bus). I passed the makeup test and became the hero while Ramu became an assistant director to Vimal Kumar,” Thomas says.

Sathyan was the villain in Thiramaala, which came a year before the iconic Neelakkuyil that sealed it for the actor. Thomas says that Thiramaala, which was a typical love story, ran only on account of its 12 wonderful songs. He worked in a Tamil film called Inba Vilakku with BS Saroja that could not be completed before his US adventures began. “After Thiramaala, I decided to study films. I had heard of Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and wrote them a letter. They replied (good thing about Americans is that they always reply) saying that it is an Academy that gives away awards (the Oscars no less!) but there is the University of California quite close by, where I could study motion pictures as a craft and art.”

Thomas applied, adding some clips from his film. And to his surprise, he got in. “Mrs Reagan (Nancy Reagan, actor and First Lady of the US between 1981 and 1989) taught us acting. For my course fee, I had to pay US$ 650 and someone suggested that I should try acting. So I met an agent who said that I don’t look like an Indian but a Mexican and that he could find me Mexican roles. So that’s what I did. I played the villain and got shot and killed, I don’t know how many times! But I got pally with the people in the studio, and they’d call me Senor Thomas. They couldn’t believe I was from India with a name like Thomas. They were surprised to know we had Christians.”

Those were the days he came in contact with American legend Frank Sinatra and Italian actor Gina Lollobrigida. Thomas was acting in a film called Never So Few with them, after working in a number of television series. “Sinatra was a funny guy. He first spoke to me in Spanish thinking I am Mexican. Gina, on learning that I am from India, asked if I can read palms. I had no idea but I said yes and cooked up things,” he says, laughing.

In those years, he shared rooms with a man called Aslam Khan. Aslam happened to be the brother of legendary Indian actor Dileep Kumar. It was Aslam Khan who was instrumental in Thomas starting a seafood business. They partnered with a third man, an American, and expanded the business to multiple places including Vietnam. Aslam also became responsible for Thomas’s story about an elephant getting adapted into a film called Maya in Hollywood.

 

 

But Thomas’ interest had shifted by then to his seafood business and he stayed away from films for long. It took 12 years for him to direct a second film called Vellarikkappatanam. He brushes the film off as a comedy, made for the laughs. Prem Nazir played the lead role and stayed in Thomas’ house in Fort Kochi, where this interview was conducted. It was also in this house (“in the very same couch you are sitting in now”) that director Lijo Jose Pellissery came to meet him for a character in his film Double Barrel, which released in 2015. Call it irony, but once again Thomas played a Mexican man, a ganglord much like the gun-wielding gangster roles he did in Hollywood.

Thomas has quite a few other interests and has spent time on all of these – he has written books, painted pictures (including beautiful ones of his children), and made music. Among his books, he had trouble getting Sacred Savage published because it spoke bluntly about caste in Kerala, he says. Another book he has now written is set in 16th century India, titled Shadow of the Night.

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