58 active years as an Actor !
With the possible exceptions of the legendary TR Omana, who was already 6 movies old when GK Pillai debuted in Snehaseema ( 1954), and Santo Krishnan, there is no one who so aptly deserves the title of the living Patriarch of Malayalam films as this proud and defiant Army man-turned-actor from Chirayinkeezhu in Kerala. Then again, he is elder to her by almost 15 years ! It could be safely assumed that when G Kesavan Pillai aka GK Pillai started his career in Malayalam film industry, most of us were just whims in our parents’ imagination.Born in 1925 at Chirayinkeezhu to Perumpaattel Govindapillai and Saraswathi Amma, the 4th child in the family, he was attracted to the Nationalist movement while at school and he spent more time, out on the streets with the agitators against the Empire, in his younger years that his studies suffered badly. He studied till the old “6th Form” in Chirayinkeezhu itself, his hometown, and realising that his lost time in school can never be redeemed, he ran away from home. Taking the overnight boat ferry to Trivandrum, he walked into an army conscription center at the SMV Highschool premises, and joined the army. This was 1940, and his first salary was Rs 10 . He reminisces about sending Rs 7 to his mother, along with a short note, reassuring her that he was alive, after all.With the First Kashmir War ( Indo-Pak War) raging, he was stationed in Kashmir in 1948, where the legendary Lt Col CPA Menon was his inspiration and mentor. It was after being posted to Wellington, Ootty, as a seasoned Weapons Specialist/Instructor in 1951 that gave him ample opportunities ( as it was more or less a ‘peace posting’) to host theater productions, and their Army theater group even invited and got theater groups from South India to perform at the Army base. He became a prolific writer of drama productions during the period at Wellington, so much so, that every month, there was a production going live on stage.
His early years of conscription and life in the Army has a close companion in the way life’s events turned out for another of our celebrated “villains” in Malayalam cinema, Jose Prakash, who also got to witness some of India’s milestones in its pre-Independence years through his time in the Army.
Evolving as an actor and a director of plays, along with the encouragement from friends, he gathered enough courage to leave the Army and pursuing acting as a career for life. Those days, in order to be eligible for Army pension, one needed to be in service for 15 years. GK Pillai left army with one year to spare, and forfeited his pension for life. He was 29 years old. But he was soon to realise that the though the allure to tinsel world was magical, the entry was next to impossible. He even applied for a movie casting of Modern Theaters, Salem, who strangely, for that project, asked for a deposit of Rs 1000 from actors, which GK Pillai managed to organize through his elder brother who was in Singapore. But nothing much happened after the money was wired to them. Later came to know that the ones behind the project who had put the Modern Theaters moniker as a front, had folded up and disappeared.
It was at this juncture that MA Rashid, a close friend introduced him to the manager of Vahini Studios where TE Vasudevan, the legendary producer was working as an Assistant Manager. He was planning to produce movies under his own banner, Associated Pictures and was looking around for talent for his debut production, Snehaseema (1954). All the members of the cast were finalised except for the elderly patriarch in the movie. He debuted as the 65-year old Pooppally Thomas, the villainous father of the character played by Padmini, at the age of 29, and his remuneration was Rs 200 ! That must have taken some amazing daring and fortitude, I would say.
The reviews of the movie had praise for the new debut act, but soon realized that he had two unique traits to his advantage, which no one else had during those times in Malayalam movies - an amazing grasp on voice modulation and a body language that conveyed fear and intimidation. He soon realized that he would be excellent for villain roles, it was almost his for the taking.
MA Rashid, his friend who introduced him to the Malayalam film industry wanted to produce a film, which was directed by JD Thottan – Koodapirappu (1956) which was also Ambika’s debut film in a leading role. Prem Navaz played the lead role and it was also Aranmula Ponnamma’s first ‘mother ‘ role. He movie also saw the debut of Vayalar Rama Verma who would go on to become an integral part of Malayalam Film Industry’s playback Music. Interestingly, GK Pillai also has a namesake in Malayalam films, a theater veteran who also has a handful of movies to his credit, as a comedian, that includes our first 3-D film My Dear Kuttichathan – Kollam GK Pillai.
A career that began in 1954 still goes strong in 2012, spanning close to six decades ! GK Pillai’s character traits that bode well for him onscreen, and ensured a steady stream of movies and thereby a healthy career, also seemed to be his undoing too, in a curious sort of way.
If you close your eyes and really try to recall five popular movies of GK Pillai that stuck with you amongst that huge library you have in your head, chances are that all the 5 that you pick would look exactly the same.
His natural characteristics that gave him a unique disposition as an actor amongst his peers of his times had directors flocking to him to do the same kind of roles, over and over again. It was always a screen character of regimented social authority that he portrayed, and it is exactly through these countless derivatives of the same cluster that we bumped into him, movie after movie. It was either a police officer, a conceited father, a conniving villain, a helpless provincial chief – there were only so many roles that Malayalam cinema had for the actor in him, and its amazing that for 6 decades, he consistently delivered these variations on the same bunch, movie after movie.
Right from Merryland‘s mythological blockbusters to Udaya’s Northern Ballads and his fixed repertoire in between, playing leading roles in the most popular TV soaps ever, his output has been amazingly prolific, to say the least. The very name GK Pillai brings to your mind the clipped, authoritative tones and a matching demeanor that is only reserved for the authoritative figures in our social domains, be it official or domestic. And it is in these roles that GK Pillai lives as an actor, and has been successfully doing it since Prem Nazir‘s heydays to Dileep‘s, with the same commitment and statuesque, wholesome confidence. That covers a lot of generational stars and their constellations in Malayalam cinema, doesn’t it?
Generally known in the industry as a principled, thorough gentleman who never thinks twice to speak his mind, it is no wonder that he is one of the few who has never been secretive about his political ideologies, having been been a staunch supporter and activist of the INC, even taking part in the 1957-58 Vimochana Samaram, till date.
GK Pillai received his first award from the Madras Film Fans’ Association, and as he proudly emphasizes in an interview some time back on Surya TV, “the first ever AWARD for any Malayalam actor from Chennai “, and was recently awarded the RAGAMALIKA – JAYAN AWARD for 2011 , instituted by the Jayan Samskarika Vedi in memory of the late Jayan, actor, who passed away on 16 November 1980.
GK Pillai was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Asianet TV Channel in May, 2012. It is true, across TV channels in Malayalam, his is a face that forms the common denominator in their most popular soaps. I do not know of any other awards from the “official domain” being awarded to GK Pillai in his 6-decade long career.
Maybe, that is also, in a way, a reflection of the ‘supportive’ roles that came his way and helped him sustain the long and fruitful career in Malayalam cinema. The long road taken had always its blessings too, though rarely planned – GK Pillai also got be a part of some of the productions that became milestones in Malayalam cinema. In some it was an important role in the supporting cast while in others, he held the pivotal roles that formed the crux of the narratives. Imagine being a part of Nair Pidicha Pulival (1958) and Karyasthan (2010). Not everyone, except for maybe Madhu, gets to adapt and perform across generations.
It would be interesting to see how the career path and contributions of GK Pillai, the actor to Malayalam cinema would be recorded for posterity, being an actor who was content enough to portray the supporting roles that came his way for six decades to the best of his abilities.
Maybe his debut role at the age of 29 was an indication of what his career would turn out to be in the days ahead. I think it was somehow ominous, looking back, at the number of authoritarian, “patriarchal” roles that became a part of his career, which still follows, even as an active, productive octogenarian, content parent and a doting grandfather to 14 grandchildren.