Nedumudi Venu, the legend: Revisiting his towering contributions to cinema

Whether drama or comedy, Nedumudi Venu sketched three -dimensional characters that linger in our minds long after the curtain closes on screen.
Nedumudi Venu with a black shawl around his neck
Nedumudi Venu with a black shawl around his neck
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A legend of Malayalam cinema was lost to us on 11 October 2021. Nedumudi Venu, immortalised on screen as Udaya Varma Thampuran of His Highness Abdullah, Sreekrishnan from Thenmavin Kombathu, and numerous other performances that won him National and State awards, was known for his versatility and range. Whether drama or comedy, Nedumudi Venu sketched three -dimensional characters that linger in our minds long after the curtain closes on screen. Here’s a look back at some highlights from his varied career.

G Aravindan’s Thampu (1978) a docudrama set in the backdrop of a visiting circus in a village, is centered on the life of circus artists and the reaction of the villagers to them. Nedumudi Venu plays a rich scion who is detached from his father’s wealth and seems to have his own ideas of music and life. He hardly speaks and spends his time around the temple peepal tree, exchanging musical conversations with an elderly priest. And eventually he is seen joining the departing circus. That was the first dent he left in the Malayalam film industry. That was also the beginning of a productive partnership between Bharath Gopy and Nedumudi Venu as they later became part of several momentous films. Venu, like Gopy, came from theatre and both coincidentally were part of veteran theatre personality Kaavalam Narayana Panicker’s troupe. “I would call it the best years of my life,” Venu says in a television interview.

Interestingly, Venu and director Fazil who were college mates in SD College, Alappuzha have also dabbled in mimicry. The late '70s also facilitated the beginning of new wave in Malayalam cinema, with the entry of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan.

The glorious '80s and '90s

Venu’s first big break came a year later in Bharathan’s Thakara. Chellappan Ashari is the devious local stone smith who, after getting spurned by the heroine, persuades Thakara to seduce her. Interestingly the role which the actor nails with precision has been recreated with varying dimensions later on in his career. In Kamal’s Chambakkulam Thachan (1990), which came a decade later, he was pure evil, who assaults his friend's wife and convinces him that it was consensual.

In Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu (1990) he is the serial killer, who hides a troubled past behind an ascetic exterior. But whenever he blended wickedness with a hint of lasya and hasya, he would always do well. The sly troublemaker in Oru Kadha Oru Nunakadha (1986) for instance. His Appu Nair can get away with murder with his innocuous smile. But when the woman he loves falls for his friend Mohandas (Mammootty), he sets out to turn the wind in his favour by deviously fixing Mohandas’s alliance with another woman. Venu does it with such subtlety that you almost feel like throttling him. In Thenmavin Kombatthu his Sreekrishnan serves shringaram and roudram with abandon. And Venu lends a bit of hasya as well. Love makes him manipulative and Venu navigates his aggravations cleverly. In Bharathan’s Keli he gets lasya pitch perfect as a shopkeeper with a roving eye and the scene where he accelerates the sound of the food processor when he spots the heroine talking to the hero is a riot. Another variation of a soft Romeo was done in Arapatta Kettiya Gramathil. It also shows how he has always resisted being typecast and is without a doubt, a true character actor, i.e. an actor who sheds himself with ease and dons the skin of the character – with all its nuance, idiosyncrasy, and depth.

Venu belonged to that club of pure talents like Thilakan, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Philomena, Meena, Sankaradi, Sukumari, KPAC Lalitha or Kalpana who could elevate a seemingly ordinary scene with their mere presence. In the '80s and early '90s, he was part of the films of all the feted filmmakers of the time. From Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, KG George, Lenin Rajendran, John Abraham, KP Kumaran to IV Sasi, Joshiy, Sathyan Anthikad, Priyadarshan, Venu Nagavally, Sibi Malayil, Kamal to Siddique Lal, Venu became an indispensable part of Malayalam cinema. And he would go the whole hog—playing every spectrum of human emotions with aplomb. It could be romantic, angst-ridden, witty, wretched, desperate, gentle, regal, villainous. Naturally, it was also the period that brought out some of the gems from the actor.

He perhaps had the best ally in Bharathan, who gave him some of the best roles of his career (Chamaram, Vaishali, Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam, Palangal, Thakara). If it was in Padmarajan’s Oridathoru Phayalman that he first played a character double his age, it was Bharathan who helped him explore the zenith in Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam (1987). Venu who was only 38 years, plays Sharada’s ageing husband, catching the gait and inflections of an older man’s voice timbre perfectly. A glance here, a smile there, Venu is deceptively subtle. And time and again he has proved that when it comes to adding nuance to characters that belie his age, Venu seldom goes wrong. When he played the regal ageing King Udaya Varma Thampuran in Sibi Malayil’s His Highness Abdulla (1990), he was in his early 40s, but pulled off the character with perfection, maxing the gravitas and body language of a stately sexagenarian, which helped him bag his first National Award for supporting actor. “I like to think that being a hero is a limitation. Actors like me have the freedom to do any kind of role,” Venu said in an interview.

In another Sibi Malayil-Lohitadas partnership, Bharatham (1991), Venu manifested envy so brilliantly, as the once successful musician who is forced to make way for his talented brother. Look out for that scene when he realises that it’s the brother they want. Blood drains from his face, eyes reflect unspeakable sorrow… suffice to say, Venu owns the scene. Balachandra Menon’s Achuvettante Veedu (1987), in which he plays a middle-aged man who dreams of building a house but dies before its completion, the victimised husband in Irakal (1985), the terminally ill Xavier in Vida Parayum Munpe (1981), Scariah, the jovial middle-class family man in Dasharatham (1989), the widower in Swagatham (1989), the fun-loving Nicolas in Orkapurathu (1988), the tipsy and annoying uncle in Veendum Chila Veetukaryangal (1999) and the loner in Sarvakalashala (1987) are vintage Venu outings.

Venu also shared a profitable partnership with Priyadarshan and the roles that came off it were crackling fun. Be it the good-natured uncle Kaimal in Chithram (1988), the lovable doctor in Thalavattam (1986), the avenging professor in Vandanam (1989), or that hilarious cameo in Midhunam (1993). No one played the affable, kind friend/uncle with such ease as Venu. The warmth he unleashes is almost tangible—the various priest roles in Kathodu Kathoram, Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu, Chamaram and Akasha Doothu, the gentle old politician in North 24 Kaatham who is the most reassuring presence in the film, the kind Kuttappan in Charlie who still nursed a broken heart, and the kind employer in Udhaharam Sujatha.

Watch: Bharatham on YouTube

Less exciting 2000s

As cinema evolved, and narratives changed, Venu though seldom lacked offers (he never went a year without a release in the last 40 years), somehow never got the kind of characters that paid homage to his versatility. From making his debut in DD as a director for Kairali Vilasam Lodge to being part of one of the longest running television serial (Jwalayayi), Venu is one of those rare actors who found equal success in television as well. He also branched out to Tamil (Indian, Anniyan, Silambattam, Sarvam Thalamayam) but admitted that “the language barrier and being thrown out of his comfort space” made him reluctant to experiment more in Tamil.

In 2008, at the age of 60, Venu went back on stage and recreated Pattu Parisha in Avanavan Kadamba, a path-breaking social commentary which he first performed in 1976 directed by G Aravindan. This was his birthday gift for his theatre Guru Kaavalam Narayana Panicker. As for the films, the rare notable ones didn’t get the necessary mileage—Margam (2003) in which he played a communist revolutionary who goes into clinical depression, Thaniye (2007), also scripted by the actor in which he plays an old man who is neglected by his family. But the surprise package turned out to be one of the segments in the anthology Aanum Pennum (2021), directed by Aashiq Abu, where Venu plays a cheeky old man who narrates the intimate encounter and conversation he witnessed between a young couple to his bedridden wife.

Multi-talented Venu

He was an accomplished percussionist, passionate about folk arts and classical art forms, and also directed Pooram, which unfortunately didn’t fare well at the box office. In the film circles, he was known to be diplomatic; friends vouched for him, and youngsters treasured his guidance. Venu always kept away from politics, and maintained that he was happiest to just explore the possibilities of the actor in him— “What you see on screen is not me. I really can’t say what kind of a man I am.”

Puzhu, directed by Rethina, headlining Mammootty and Parvathy was the last film he shot. “I was reluctant to approach him for Puzhu as the role, though significant wasn’t lengthy. After listening to my narration, he told me— “The reason why I asked for the details is because I wanted to know if I had to catch some particular mannerisms.” That really moved me,” wrote the film’s writer Harshad on FB.

What remains significant in Nedumudi Venu’s career graph (over 500 films, three National awards, six Kerala state awards and several other recognitions) has to be the brilliant consistency he has maintained in his craft right from his first film. From Thakara to Keli, Bharatham to Margam, Thenmavin Kombatthu to Aanum Pennum, for Venu, his talent has only gleamed, rarely will you find a bad performance. Nedumudi Venu was prolific, with a chameleon ability to adapt to any milieu, who made even his brief on-screen moments golden. His loss has created an irreparable void in Malayalam cinema.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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