Remembering Sathyan, a great actor Malayalam cinema lost 50 years ago

One of the most respected actors of Malayalam cinema, Sathyan was once a teacher, a soldier in World War II and a policeman.
Actor Sathyan
Actor Sathyan
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It was a summer of the 1960s. Rajani was a young girl shopping at the Rangoon Textiles shop (which no longer exists) in Thiruvananthapuram. Someone said that actor Sathyan was standing outside the Cannemora Café (which also no longer exists) nearby. Little Rajani ran to have a look at the star. White shirt, black pants, sunglasses and a cigarette on his lips, she noticed him leaning against a car. He saw the little girl and smiled at her, she recalled. Years later, when a friend rang up to tell her about his death, she could not believe it. Only that day – June 15, 1971 – she had read in the morning paper that he was seriously ill.

“Until then, we had no idea he was so unwell. None of us did,” says Rajani, 50 years later. She is now a homemaker in Thiruvananthapuram, watching Sathyan’s movies on his death anniversary. He would have been 98 if he were alive now, a year older than communist veteran VS Achuthanandan.

Sathyan, one of the most respected actors in Malayalam cinema, died of leukemia in 1971. He had acted for 19 years after working as a soldier, a policeman and a Malayalam teacher. He is known for fighting in World War II for the British when India was still under colonial rule. He is also known for going after communists during the Punnappra-Vayalar struggle of 1946 as a policeman in Travancore, serving Dewan CP Ramaswamy Iyer.

But later, Sathyan developed an interest in acting. In 1952, he acted in Aathmasakhi, his first film to be released. reports that he acted in a film before that – Thyaagaseema (1951) – but it didn’t release.

Sathyan special edition of Nana Magazine, 1977 / Courtesy - Bipin Chandran

He has acted in 147 films, many of which were directed by KS Sethumadhavan. Together they made many wonderful films such as Odayil NinnuVazhve MayamAdimakalYakshiKadalpalam and Anubhavangal Paalichakal. Both films for which Sathyan won the state award for best male actor – Kadalpalam and Karakanakadal – were directed by Sethumadhavan.      

“My heart broke when he was gone. I felt so weak. I have never been so upset in my life and didn’t know how I would make films again. He was that good,” says Sethumadhavan, now 90 years old.

It was on the sets of his film Oru Penninte Kadha that Sathyan began coughing up blood and others realised he was unwell. “The cinematographer Melly Irani, the makeup man and I were all worried. Melly Irani became really upset. My brother was the producer and he called home and got hold of some beetroot juice and mutton soup for Sathyan. Of course Sathyan knew this would not help, he had cancer. But he understood the sincerity with which it was given and had it anyway,” Sethumadhavan says.

Sathyan and Sethumadhavan / Courtesy - Santhosh Sethumadhavan

His were some of the best movies of the time, quite a few of these adapted from great literary works. Anubhavangal Paalichakal was based on a novel written by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Odayil Ninnu was another great work by P Kesavadev. Yakshi is Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s classic.

“Sathyan could work on many such literary masterpieces. Chemmeen (Thakazhi), Neelakkuyil (Uroob)Aranazhikaneram (Parappurath) and so many others were there. He also played characters which had a certain ambiguity in them. In Anubhavangal Paalichakal he was a union leader who had troubles at home. In Yakshi he was a professor who got burnt on the face and suspects his wife of being a ghost, and in Vaazhve Mayam he played a jealous husband,” says film critic GP Ramachandran.

Actors Saradha and Sheela played female leads in most of Sathyan’s films. Sheela says, “He was my first hero, and I worked with him till the end. He was an exceptional actor and a great human being.” She has been speaking about him for the past few days, she says, sharing the memories over and over again.

In a television interview, Kaviyoor Ponnamma who played an important role in Odayil Ninnu, says that everyone in the sets used to be afraid of Sathyan. As soon as he came, everyone stood up and set things up properly.

“That was the image he had because of the kind of tough characters he played and because of his army and police background,” says director Kamal, who has worked as an assistant of Sethumadhavan in the early 1980s.

Sathyan was long gone by the time Kamal joined Sethumadhavan. “I was a student of Class IX when he died but I had seen almost all his films of those days. I remember the first movie that was released after his death was Sarasayya. Before the film began, they played visuals of his funeral march to the music of ‘Samayamam rathathil njan swarga yathra cheyunnu’ (I am travelling towards heaven on the chariot of time), a Christian song that was included in the film Aranazhikaneram. They also played clips from his various films,” Kamal says.

"Not a day has gone by without Sethumadhavan sir telling his crew about Sathyan," Kamal says of the time he worked as an AD. “He said that when Sathyan master walked onto the sets, it was almost like a headmaster entering it. Everyone would disperse and turn quiet. But in reality he was nothing like the tough characters he played. He cracked a lot of jokes and was a jolly person. (Senior actor) Madhu sir also says this about him,” Kamal adds.

Two stories that Sethumadhavan shared with the crew still bring a certain emotion to Kamal. One is of the time Sathyan acted in films when he was seriously ill, without letting anyone else know about it. “He would periodically go to hospitals for blood transfer and then come back like nothing happened. During Oru Penninte Kadha when he coughed up blood, everyone else was worried. But he said it was fine and later drove to the hospital on his own. He died by the time the last song of Anupavangal Paalichakal was shot, and someone else looking like Sathyan played his character where you see him only from behind.”

It was not just his terminal disease that came as a personal tragedy to Sathyan. All three of his sons grew up with problems with their eyesight – turning partially or fully blind.  

Another story that Kamal holds dear is of the attitude Sathyan showed towards his co-actors. “When Manjilas (production company) approached him to do the lead role of an aged Kunjonachan in Aranazhikaneram, he said it would not work. He said that Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair should do it. When producer MO Joseph and Sethumadhavan sir said that they can’t do the film without Sathyan, he said he would be part of it, just not as the lead character. Sathyan played a less important role as Kunjonachan’s son. And this attitude of give and take was common in those days. Prem Nazir, then a star, played an even smaller role as Sathyan’s son in the film. That’s how it was in those days. Kottarakkara ended up winning the state award for best actor that year.”

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