These stars have made handsome contributions but have remained unrecognised throughout their careers.

Thilakan Jagathy Seema Jalaja and others The long list of Mollywoods unsung stars
Flix Mollywood Tuesday, July 03, 2018 - 14:42

In the Malayalam film industry, only the so-called upper crust of actors have always remained in the limelight. Also, the industry has always adopted different yardsticks for its male and women actors. Over the years, however, there is a long list of unsung stars who have made handsome contributions but have remained unrecognised right through their careers.

Chemmeen, directed by Ramu Kariat, won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Film in 1965 at the National Awards. The film could qualify as one of the earliest multi-starrers with most industry folk landing roles in it thanks to its wide canvas. Two characters in this epic novel by Jnanpith Award winning writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai were those of Chemban Kunju and his wife Chakki Marakkaiyi. Kariat chose veterans Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair and Adoor Bhavani for the roles and they turned in superlative performances. But the portrayals by these two actors remained unheralded. Incidentally Sreedharan Nair’s son Saikumar remains one of the most popular villains in Malayalam cinema and also excels in character roles.

One of Mollywood’s mainstays where story and scriptwriting is concerned has been another Jnanpith awardee MT Vasudevan Nair, who has also directed well-known films such as Nirmalyam (1973) and Oru Chiru Punchiri (2000). In Nirmalyam, theatre artiste PJ Anthony, from whom the late Thilakan picked up his craft, was cast in the main role of a velichapad (oracle). The most riveting sequence in the film was the climax.

Sword in hand, the character approaches the idol of the goddess who had failed him and his family. With great deliberation he draws the sword across his forehead and begins to bleed profusely. Gathering spittle in his mouth he spews it in a blob mingled with his blood at the deity, collapses in a heap and dies. One wonders whether a scene like this can get past the censors in today’s India. Antony won the National Award for Best Actor that year. He revealed his angst at the raw deal that he had been receiving at the hands of the industry in his acceptance speech.

Another actor who could have been utilised much better was the late Premji, who enacted the role of Professor Eachera Warrier, the grief-stricken father of student Rajan, a victim of the Emergency in Piravi (1989). The directorial debut of cinematographer Shaji N Karun, it fetched Premji a National Award but the publicity remained low-key.

One actor whose long career witnessed several highs and lows was undoubtedly Thilakan, who had to serve an unofficial ban after some industry bigwigs took offence at some remarks he made. There was a time when Thilakan, who began with small, insignificant roles in films, had become indispensable. And rightly so, for very few of his contemporaries could hold a candle to him where portrayals of diverse characters were concerned.

Can one imagine films like Rithubhedam, Mookilla Rajyathu or Spadikam without Thilakan? Directors like Vinayan who too had to face the industry’s wrath on various occasions ensured that Thilakan remained a part of all his films. Director Ranjith, who cast Thilakan as Dulquer Salmaan’s grandfather in his film Ustad Hotel, when questioned on opting for the actor reportedly stood up to the actor’s detractors and demanded that they produce a better actor than Thilakan for the role he had in mind.

Thilakan’s contemporaries including the likes of the late Narendra Prasad, no mean actor himself, had the highest regard for him. Thilakan’s departure from the scene has left a void that is yet to be filled.

Among underrated actors in Malayalam cinema, the comedians deserve a notable mention. One of the most successful comedians was Jagathy Sreekumar, who was seriously injured in a car accident in 2012 and still remains out of action eight years later. Jagathy was always a delight to watch on screen and, in tandem with actors like Innocent, could bring the roof down with their antics. The laugh riot Kabooliwala, which featured the duo, still remains green in memory.

Two comedians who nailed the lie that comics in Malayalam films were good only at slapstick and buffoonery were Salim Kumar and Suraj Venjaramoodu, both National Award winners. Salim won his award for Adaminte Makan Abu, a moving film about a poor man who yearns to go on the Haj against heavy odds. His role in Achanurangatha Veedu as an anguished father whose daughter is trafficked and raped was no less memorable. Suraj proved that he could deliver in serious roles with the Dr Biju directed Perariyathavar, which fetched him several awards including the National Award. Cast as a municipal sweeper, Suraj simply lived the role. In more recent times he did a wonderful job in Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. Such roles have, however, been few and far in between and with the films failing to cut ice with the masses it is back to square one for these fine actors.

Siddique (not to be mistaken for the reputed director of the same name) is another actor who has been around for over three decades but is yet to make it to the top bracket. There is hardly any kind of role that Siddique has not done; in some films he has even donned multiple disguises. Like another star who now does character roles after playing the hero for decades, Nedumudi Venu who remains an inevitable part of most films, Siddique too has never had a dearth of assignments. But where star ratings are concerned, Siddique has never been able to rise to the heights of his contemporaries like Mammootty or Mohanlal though he has been an integral part of most of their films.

Script and screenplay specialist, actor, director and producer Sreenivasan is another star performer who has given the industry several hits in all capacities. Although his forte has remained the comedy genre, Sreenivasan has also played the hero with aplomb. Films like Sandesham and Mazhayethum Munpe fetched him state awards for Best Screenplay. Sreeni’s son Vineet has now established himself as a singer, actor and director as well and his other son Dhyaan too has followed in his father and brother’s footsteps.

It is only in recent times that heroine oriented films have caught on in Mollywood thanks largely to the ability of actors like Manju Warrier, Rima Kallingal and Parvathi Thiruvoth to carry a film on their shoulders. Sharada, a brilliant two-time National Award winning actor, remained in the shadow of superstars like Sathyan and Prem Nazir. It was the late cinematographer-director Vincent who cast her in a woman-oriented film, Thulabharam.

Sukumari, a gifted dancer and actor, cousin of the famous Travancore sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, and director Bharathan’s wife, and KPAC Lalitha, a versatile actor in her own right, are two stars who remained in the periphery right through their long careers.

Seema was not director IV Sasi’s first choice for his bold, pathbreaking film Avalude Ravukal. The story of a woman who turns sex worker was pitched to many heroines but Sasi drew a blank as not only was the subject taboo but there were quite a few risqué scenes as well. The film became a blockbuster and Seema was flooded with roles. The one-time background dancer in films would later prove her mettle in the MT Vasudevan Nair scripted Aaroodam, directed again by Sasi, whom she married. Sasi’s Aalkkoottathil Thaniye was another film in which she delivered a stunning performance. Seema later faded away and was last seen in Tamil TV serials.

The petite Jalaja too was another dignified performer in the 1970s and 80s. Introduced by the late Aravindan in Thampu, Jalaja went on to work with ace directors like Lenin Rajendran in Venal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Elippathayam.

The Malayalam film industry boasts of some of the finest acting talent in Indian cinema. But Dame Luck smiles only on a few of them. But the rest, far from being disheartened, have always laboured with sincerity and devotion to their craft. And their contribution to the industry’s growth has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Also read: Her story: 12 Malayalam films where women characters have their own arc

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