When superstars like Mammootty and Mohanlal were struggling to gain a foothold in Malayalam cinema, one actor had already cemented his place in the industry and had already earned a name as a bankable star.
Nedumudi Venu often played the hero while the newcomers were cast in supporting roles. Much water has flown under the bridge since the time this journalist with the Malayalam journal Kala Kaumudi (who also worked as a teacher in a tutorial college) donned the greasepaint for Aravindan’s Thampu. This was a role that he bagged largely due to his abiding friendship with the director, who was also a media man and a celebrated cartoonist.
In fact Aravindan, Padmarajan and ‘Bharat’ Gopi used to hang out together. Venu later named his house 'Thampu’ in memory of the film that signalled his entry into tinsel town.
Once his performance was recognised in his debut film, there has been no looking back for the versatile actor who went from strength to strength as a director’s delight and as one who never disappointed his audience.
Front line directors like Bharathan, KG George, Fazil, Padmarajan and others always ensured that Venu had a part to play in all their films and created characters that suited his acting style.
In fact, the late Bharathan who directed Venu in Thakara, his second film after Thampu, once confided to this writer that Venu’s portrayal of the lusty Chellappan Asari was one of the finest that he had seen and could well serve as a yardstick to judge future performers.
The actor would always credit his success in cinema to his grounding in theatre where he had the good fortune of being closely associated with the doyen of Malayalam theatre, the late Kavalam Narayana Panicker. The musically inclined actor was also adept at playing a few instruments, notably the mridangam. Venu has been a firm favourite of ace director Shankar and has been a part of his films like the Kamal Haasan starrer Indian and the Vikram thriller Anniyan.
In the nearly four decades that Nedumudi Venu has worked in Malayalam cinema, there has never been a dearth of roles for him but with the advent of a whole new array of actors into the industry, his roles have shrunk considerably. At times, all that he has been required to do is to add to the comedy quotient which should have been galling for someone whose histrionic prowess has been at the fore in most of his earlier films.
Venu who has performed with panache in hundreds of films, was at his best in films like Oru Minamininginte Noorunguvattam, Devaragam, Devasuram, Bharatham, Sargam, Perunthachan, Hrithubedam, Oridathoru Pahelwan, Meenamasathile Sooryan, Panchavadi Palam, Marmaram, Kallan Pavithran,Vidaparayum Munbe, Ormaikkaiye, His Highness Abdullah, Spadikam, Margam etc.
He won his first National Award for Best Supporting Actor for his nuanced performance in the film His Highness Abdullah in which Mohanlal played the lead. A Special Jury Award came his way for the film Margam.
His riveting performance in the offbeat film Saira fetched him a Best Actor Award at the Zimbabwe International Film Award. The jury commended his compelling portrayal of a man caught between secularism and fundamentalism.
He was also cast as the leading man in the NFDC film Parinamam directed by camera wizard Venu. Venu was also good at penning stories for films and hit movies like Kattathe Kilikoodu, Theertham, Sruthi, Ambada Gnane, Oru Katha Oru Nonakatha and Savidham.
He has directed one film ‘Pooram’ and has also acted in a number of TV serials in pivotal roles. The actor who went from playing the hero to essaying character roles also effortlessly donned the mantle of the villain in two of his later films Rudra Simhasanam and Oru Second Class Yaathra and won critical acclaim for his performances.
Selecting just five films where Venu’s portrayals were the piece de resistance is no doubt an uphill task as there has hardly been a single film where he had not given his cent percent, but from a critic’s viewpoint these films will remain etched in memory for the thespian’s deft delineation of his roles.
Thakara (1979): For someone who entered the industry with the intention of playing the main protagonist, Venu had to don the villain’s robes in just his second film but with director Bharathan reposing his faith in the actor, Venu breathed life into the character of Chellappan Asari, a vagabond carpenter who pines for the heroine. Venu’s uninhibited portrayal, his rustic style and his robust body language all marked him out as a good bet for the future.
Vidaparayum Munbe (1981). This film in which Prem Nazir played the title role was written by John Paul and directed by Mohan and Venu was cast as a cancer patient who never gives an inkling of his serious illness to anyone around him including his boss Prem Nazir. It was a moving portrayal of a man who despite counting his days only seeks to spread cheer all around. Both Nazir, the seasoned actor, and Venu vied for acting honours in the film that had a phenomenal run at the box office.
Oru Minaminnginte Nurunguvettam (1981). One of Nedumudi Venu’s finest performances came in this Bharathan directed film where he also had to match strides with the formidable actor, Sharada. Venu played the role of Ravunni Nair, a teacher and Sharada his wife. A childless couple, the duo lavish affection and care on a young girl who comes to live with them. They arrange her marriage to an NRI living in the US. Unfortunately the young girl who continues to stay with them after marriage dies in childbirth. Her husband leaves the child with the aging couple who dote on him. The child’s father returns to claim his son and the couple with a heavy heart part with him and are left to find solace in each other.
His Highness Abdullah (1990). This film scripted by ace scenarist A K Lohitadas and directed by Sibi Malayil was a Mohanlal starrer which had Venu cast in the role of a Maharaja surrounded by enemies who are after his wealth. Mohanlal is a hired assassin whose brief is to kill the Rajah. How the two eventually bond with each other, with Mohanlal falling for the king’s illegitimate daughter is what the story is all about. Venu appears in most of the frames and reveals a whole gamut of emotions and fully justifies the National Award for Best Supporting Actor awarded to him.
Margam (2003) This film for which Venu won a Special Jury award at the National Awards also deserves to be ranked among his best ever portrayals to date. Directed by Rajiv Vijayaraghavan, the film had Venu in the protagonist’s role of a militant revolutionary who eventually realises the fruitlessness of militancy, lays down his arms and retreats to a secluded life of a teacher, saddened by the plight of his fellow travelers and their ordeals. ‘Margam’ made a mark at several international film festivals and also won a host of awards at the state and national levels.
A man of Spartan habits, a teetotaler endowed with a pleasant personality, Nedumudi Venu has always been an asset to the Malayalam film industry. There are few actors around who can match his versatility and his dedication to his craft.