Personification of versatility

Personification of versatility

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Malayalam cinema lost one of its finest character actors when Thilakan breathed his last in a Trivandrum hospital, battling multi-organ failure for nearly a month.

Thilakan, who acted in over 200 films in a career spanning well over four decades, graduated to cinema from theatre, having been a part of the late actor P J Anthony’s drama troupe.

It was P J Antony who first introduced him to the big screen in his black and white film Periyar in 1973. He was, however, first noticed in the film Ulkadal, released in 1979, and thereafter found himself essaying minor roles in a number of films before his portrayal of a drunkard in Kolangal, and his state award-winning performance in the K G George-directed Yavanika.

Strong, sturdy and ebony-skinned, Thilakan thereafter remained the first choice for tough and meaty roles and the occasional negative roles too came his way. With his experience on stage standing him in good stead, the actor never once failed to deliver the goods in powerful author-backed roles that often ran parallel to the roles of the main protagonists, so much so that even superstars like Mammootty, Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi were in awe of him. While there are many films that stand testimony to the thespian’s talent, his national award winning performance in the Prathap Pothan-directed Rithubhedam, based on a script by the Gnanpith awardee M T Vasudevan Nair, and his role as a carpenter in Perunthachathan stand out for their sheer artistry and mastery over the craft.

Perunthachan should have fetched him his second national award this time for Best Actor, but he was elbowed out by Amitabh Bachchan. Thilakan, however, was adequately compensated with a number of state awards going to him for diverse portrayals in films like Santhanagopalan and Gamakam, apart from a National Special Jury Award for his role in the Malayalam film Ekantham.

Thilakan and Mohanlal played father and son in a number of hit films and their onscreen chemistry delighted viewers for decades. Both the actors always had roles that were equal in intensity and such was the warmth they exuded that films like Kireedam, Spadikam, Narasimham, Ividem Sorgamanu, Pavithran and Chenkol had audiences clamouring for more.

Thilakan also worked with megastar Mammootty in Sangham, Truth, No 1, Snehatheeram, Bangalore North and Pallavur Devanarayanam. One of Thilakan’s last films that turned out to be a super hit was Ustad Hotel in which he played a spiritual sufi seeker and mentor to Mammootty’s son Dilquer Salman, a newcomer, only in his second film. Thilakan also shared screen space with other leading actors like Jayaram, Dileep and Prithviraj. Thilakan’s performance in Indian Rupee, directed by scenarist director Ranjith, was an outstanding effort and Thilakan proved that age and illness had not begun to take their toll on him.

Thilakan often found avenues to stamp his versatility, playing the underworld don in films like Randam Bhavam, Karma and Kaaval Pada and comic characters in Nadodi Kaatu, Pattina Pravesam and My dear Muthachan. He also won critical acclaim for his performances in character roles in films like Moonam Pakkam, Namakku Paarkan Munthiri Thoppugal, Kattukudira and Mukhamudra — the only film where he had a double role. The actor also made brief forays into Tamil cinema and was the villain in Vijyakant’s Chatriyan and also had pivotal roles in Suyechai MLA, Nee Venumda Chellam, Villain and Ali Baba. But with several commitments to meet in Malayalam cinema, he often had to refuse roles in films in other languages.

For quite some time, Thilakan had a running feud with the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA). Matters reached such a pass that the association banned him from acting in films and many filmmakers who were keen to cast him were dissuaded from doing so. Some like Vinayan, Major Ravi and Ranjit defied the ban. Even a veteran director like Joshi was forced to drop him from the multi-star cast film Christian Brothers and for Thilakan, this proved to be the proverbial last straw.

Thilakan, a vocal and acerbic critic of the activities of the Association and other trade bodies found support from a few directors and litterateurs, notably the stormy petrel of Malayalam literature, the late Sukumar Azhikode, who lambasted the Association bigwigs for banning an actor of repute like Thilakan. An avowed supporter of the Left, Thilakan also had the backing of the Communist parties in his fight against the ban imposed on him. Eventually, however, an uneasy truce ensued and the actor could resume his career but the infirmity that followed a fall and a minor stroke found him in and out of hospitals many times, before his serious illness drew the curtains on an illustrious career.

A Padma Shri awardee in 2009, Thilakan will certainly not be forgotten in a hurry, for, as one of his industry colleagues opined in a tribute, there are certain roles that only he could play. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine another actor reaching the lofty heights achieved by Thilakan in films like Kireedam, Rithubhedam, Perunthachan and Indian Rupee. Ustad Hotel and Simhasanam, directed by Shaji Kailas, were among the last films featuring Thilakan that hit the screens, and at the time of his death, he still had a few films on hand, which unfortunately he could not complete as fate played its hand. Among his sons, Shammi Thilakan and Shobi Thilakan are associated with Malayalam cinema, with the former having acted in a number of films as a villain or a cop.

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