Remembering Malayalam superstar Jayan, 40 years after his death

Jayan, known for performing daredevil sequences without a stunt double, died while attempting a helicopter fight scene on this day in 1980.
Malayalam actor Jayan
Malayalam actor Jayan
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At 7.30 that Sunday evening, Rita received a call from her sister. Between suppressed sobs, the teen told Rita that actor Jayan was no more. Rita didn’t believe her. There had been hoaxes like these before. The next morning, she waited for the newspaper. It was raining that day and the newspaper did not come to her doorstep. It was only in the evening she discovered it tucked into the mailbox. And there it was, in big black headlines – Jayan really was dead, at the age of 41. The date was November 16, 1980, a Sunday.

“To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of Jayan when he was alive. I didn’t understand what the craze was all about. But the morning after he died, they played his songs on the radio. ‘Oru mukam maathram kannil’ (Only one face in front of my eyes) and other songs composed by Salil Chowdhury. It felt so sad, and I imagined pain in his smiles on the screen. I turned a fan after his death,” says Rita, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram.

All Jayan had was six years in cinema – 1974 to 1980 – and in that time he rose from a minor actor to a villain to an action hero. People remembered him for his powerful dialogues, angry glances, and the famous daredevil stunts he performed himself, refusing to put the lives of stunt doubles at risk. AngadiMeenPanchamiSharapancharam and Manushya Mrugam – all became noted films that fans would keep watching year after year. Long after his sudden death 40 years ago.

Watch: Jayan's famous English dialogue in the movie Angadi

Rita wrote in her diary that the loss has become hers too, she was grieving his death like a dear one’s. So were thousands, unable to believe that Jayan, undeniably a superstar of the 70s, had died a tragic death while shooting for a film.

It was an accident like no other. Lots has been written about that disastrous day. Director PN Sundaram’s multi-starrer Kolilakkam was being shot near the then Madras. The scene, shot at noon that day, had all the actors performing stunts – Sukumaran, Madhu and Soman fighting it out on the ground, and Jayan climbing on to the landing skid of a flying helicopter and fighting the villain, played by Balan K Nair. Before that, he had climbed onto the pillion of Sukumaran’s motorbike, standing on it and reaching for the helicopter.

Producer Kalliyoor Sashi, who worked as a production executive on the sets of Kolilakkam, has given several interviews of witnessing the accident, when the helicopter lost control and crashed to the ground. Jayan fell down his head hitting the ground hard. The pilot jumped out while Balan K Nair was thrown off. Both of them escaped with minor injuries while a heavily bleeding Jayan was rushed to a hospital by Sashi. The nearest clinic suggested that they go to the Government General Hospital (now Rajiv Gandhi Hospital), which was an hour’s drive away. Surgeries were performed but the damage had been extensive. He died at 6.30 pm.

Screenshot of the helicopter scene from Kolilakkam

“There were many stories floating around after his death, suggesting that Jayan died under suspicious circumstances. One story was that there was foul play in his death, that some people had wanted him out of the way. Another was that he didn’t die, he was secretly taken to America for treatment – this was in a book called Jayan Americayil,” says scriptwriter Bipin Chandran, who also writes on films.

Unconfirmed stories kept emerging through the years. There were reports of a film screening of Deepam – Jayan’s film that was released days after his death – being interrupted with a reel announcing the actor’s death, and people running out screaming. However, news of Jayan’s death had appeared on all major newspapers on November 17 – one of which Rita had read.

Other allegations were made against the film crew about delaying taking Jayan to the hospital. But it was raining that day, the road was filled with potholes, and Sashi and the team didn’t know about other hospitals nearby – this was Madras, not home, and it was 1980, there were no phones in their pockets.

But there are more credible stories, cited in more than one place. “It’s said that the doctor at the hospital who had to do the post-mortem came out and said that he didn’t want to put a knife on such a perfect body,” Bipin says.

Watch: Jayan stretch his muscles in Sharapancham

That’s one feature that had set Jayan apart in those early years. He came to the movies with his perfect body, at a time when bodybuilding was not a thing. Jayan had worked in the Navy for several years before that and brought the discipline of the force with him. Actor Seema, in a recently published article in Madhyamam, recalled the actor’s discipline. She had acted opposite Jayan in a number of films, including AngadiMeenManushya MrigamMoorkhan and Deepam.

Renowned filmmaker Sathyan Anthikad was an assistant director on the sets of Deepam. Those days he was staying with P Chandrakumar, director of films like Deepam and Thadavara, both of which starred Jayan in his last days. “Jayan was supposed to go to work for IV Sasi’s Thusharam soon after Thadavara. I remember him calling me on the landline every day, insisting that his dubbing be done immediately. It wasn’t yet time for dubbing since editing was not over. But then Jayan said that his ‘dubbing should be done now, you won’t get me later (pinne enne kitoola)’, like a premonition. So we booked the dubbing studio and recorded only his parts in advance,” Sathyan Anthikad says.

It was a time when a number of Jayan movies released. During Christmas 1980, when Manushya Mrigam was running in theatres, another movie was quietly released. A set of new actors directed by a new filmmaker formed the cast of that film, titled Manjil Virinja Pookkal. The film that launched Mohanlal ran for days without fanfare with very few in the audience. Everyone wanted a ticket for the Jayan movie. Finally, word got around that the new movie with the new actors was promising. The fates of many new talents were decided. Unfortunately, Jayan’s had already been sealed the moment he decided to ask for a fourth retake of the helicopter shot that the director had already been happy with.

Jayan and Seema / Courtesy - Madhyamam magazine Annual Edition

In the Madhyamam article, Seema writes about such risks that Jayan took while doing his stunts himself, not wanting to put the life of a junior artiste at risk for his sake. “He valued every human being. He was not being heroic, he was just that concerned about another person’s life,” says film critic A Chandrasekhar. His parents were neighbours with Jayan’s and Chandrasekhar remembers his mother telling him what a quiet boy Jayan was.

Jayan grew up in Kollam, as Krishnan Nair. By the time he reached Class 10, he was selected to work in the Navy. Fifteen years later he left the Navy, as a Master Chief Petty Officer, and began trying his luck in movies. He had some uncredited roles before being introduced as Jayan in Shapamoksham in 1974. Two years later, he got a breakthrough when his cousin and actor Jayabharathi introduced him to director Hariharan for the film Panchami.

“Jayan played negative characters in several films. It was only in his final years that he got this action hero image. He played a villain in Panchami. In Etho Oru Swapnam, he played an entirely different character, that of a sanyasi. In 1979, he played an anti-hero in Sharapancham, something novel in those days. This was long before the days of Rajavinte Makan and Uyarangalil in which Mohanlal would play the anti-hero,” says Chandrasekhar.

Watch: Jayan play sanyasi in Etho Oru Swapnam

Many years after his death, Jayan unexpectedly gained new recognition with the sudden popularity of mimicry artistes in the 1990s. Here were impersonators walking around in bright red shirts and Elvis bellbottoms, cracking exaggerated versions of Jayan’s famous lines, stretching the syllables and throwing their hands out wide.

“That imitation is really a caricature of the actor. It’s not how Jayan rendered his dialogues. But after his death, mimicry artiste Alleppey Ashraf, who later turned director, had dubbed for Jayan for a few movies. These movies came out with certain words dragged out and stretched. It’s true that Jayan’s dialogue delivery was also stylised, but those were the ways of those times and most actors did this,” Chandrasekhar adds.

At the time of Jayan’s death, there were many movies awaiting him. Deedi Damodaran, scriptwriter, remembers that her late father T Damodaran’s script for the film Thusharam had just been completed. “It was to have Jayan in the lead and the shooting was about to start soon. That’s when a messenger came home to deliver the news. We were in the sitout of our home and the news shocked all of us so much. My father thought no one could replace him. Jayan had acted in his movies like Angadi and Meen and was a close family friend. Actor Ratheesh later took up the role in Thusharam and father realised that no one was indispensable.”

But then 40 years later, and even after the advent of several superstars in Malayalam cinema, Jayan continues to have a special place among those that once watched him on screen and others born much later. New fans keep emerging from every new generation. In some ways, Jayan does seem indispensable and like the followers of Jayan Americayil, some may take solace in believing that he might still be alive somewhere, with a smile hiding his pain.

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