Forget PK Kunjalu, I don’t think even the name Bahadoor would mean much to the current wired generation. There was a time when those rubber jaws, the wide expressive eyes, the predominant ears, all packed into a manic wiry frame had the movie-going public rolling in the aisles in laughter. More of slapstick and borderline buffoonery, Bahadoor ‘redefined’ the way Malayalam Cinema looked at comedy, as he weaned the audience away from the heavily borrowed scenes and syntax from across the border, to a more earthy and closer-to-home approach, along with Adoor Bhasi. Together, they were our answer to Laurel and Hardy, who literally frolicked ‘to the directors & producers’ demand of what they thought the audience expected of them, but as you watched Bahadoor on screen you were amazed by the ‘stripped-to-the-bare-bones-approach’ in everything, be it comedy, slapstick or the emotionally wrought.
He performed all of them, even the mindless buffoonery with convincing ease, and he kept it simple. To me, there were no ‘complexities’ when one thinks of Bahadoor on screen. He was a delight to watch. There is a certain degree of similarity when you look at the career graph of Kuthiravattam Pappu and Bahadoor – sultans of slapstick in their right – both came into movies after charting a popular course in theater, both got relegated to the ‘loud burlesque’ that passed for comedy in the early years, and both found their deserved place in the arc lights in the later years, but by then, time was already running out.
Battling poverty, with the ‘domestic responsibility’ of his younger and elder siblings ( all sisters), Kunjalu was brilliant in school ( having passed SSLC in First Class), dropped out of Feroke College and was working as a Bus Conductor, when he got noticed in a play hosted by his school alumni association, by a distant cousin Abdullah who was also the deputy Collector of Trivandrum. He was in the audience. Kunjalu’s introduction to P Subramaniam of Merryland studios was through him, and ended up doing obscure roles ( you can find him in a blink-and you-miss role in Harischandra) in the first few movies (His first being Avakashi (1954) directed by Antony Mitradas, a Neela Production). It was a chance meeting with Thikkurissy Sukumaran Nair (whose sister now worked under Abdullah, promoted to Collector) that changed everything, including his name. Thikkurissy changed his name to Bahadoor and he went on to get his first popular role as the wiry Beedi roller Chakkaravakkan in Paadatha Painkili (1957), an incurable ‘loveholic’ who falls in love with every girl he meets and almost gets to the altar to get married to the leading character ( Ms Kumari) in the movie. From there, there was no turning back .
Bahadoor also made use of his ‘flexibility to adapt’ to other realms in acting as well – the fact that he was an adept dancer comes as a delightful surprise (Thanks to Dr. Susie Pazhavarical for bringing it back on the ‘mainstage’). The ease with which he does a spot-on impression of Chaplin and does an effortless jive is something that just goes to show the dexterity of the wiry, lanky, immensely talented Kunjalu.
Here is Innu Nalla Laakka from Veluthambi Dalawa (1962)
Bahadoor’s influence on silver-screen comedy spilled over to real-life with the introduction of the ‘Bhasi-Bahadoor‘ Comic book series ( I think I still have a tattered copy at home) that hit the market in the early 80’s. Only another actor was accorded that luxury to be immortalised in print – Prem Nazir! That was his star value in his best years in the commercial circuit. Bahadoor never forgot his theater roots and even helped start a theater company when the going was good. Maanikya Kottaram was adapted for the screen in 1962, and Ballatha Pahayan was adapted to screen owing to his huge popularity, produced and directed by TS Muthayya in 1969.
Here is Aliyaaru Kaakka from Ballatha Pahayan (1969)
Though seemingly stuck in the ‘comedy track’ paired with Adoor Bhasi in most movies, Bahadoor always managed to squeeze your innards when presented with roles that he delightfully sunk into, specially in the hands of KS Sethumadhavan – it is interesting to note that some of his best popular roles in his career were all directed by him. Vazhve Mayam (1970), Yakshi (1968), Kadalpaalam (1969), Anubhavangal Palichakal (1971) are some of his best. There was a period of utter despondency and financial trouble in the late 70’s where a series of ill-timed initiatives, like his starting of a B&W film processing lab when Malayalam cinema had already started transitioning to Color that laid him almost bankrupt. Added to the fact that the couple of films he helped produce during this time sank without a trace. Bahadoor’s most prolific output came between 1970 – 1985. A sample – in 1973, he had 27 movie releases – that is roughly 2 releases a month, on an average!
The prolific output seems to have augured well for Bahadoor, with a handful of characters amongst them brought him State recognition too. The State Award for the Best Comedy Artist in 1970 and 1972, State Award for the Second Best Actor in 1973 for Madhavikkutty ( directed by Thoppil Bhasi), which he received again in 1976 for Aalinganam (directed by IV Sasi) and Thulavarsham ( directed by N Sankaran Nair). The last decade of his active years in professional acting was relegated to bit parts of cliched elderly characters, though he tried his level best to bring an element of freshness, weary as he was, in all of them. It trickled to far and few in between, but when Lohithadas cast him as Abukka, the mentally-unstable, delusional aged clown in his movie Joker (2000), though it would be his last movie as an actor, it was easily his Best Role in his Career. That is what I believe, personally. The character was to me, a composite of Kunjalu‘s life in Malayalam Cinema as an Actor called Bahadoor, and what a brilliant role it was. (Will have to speak in detail about this!)
Joker was sadly Bahadoor’s last movie. In a career that spanned over 40-odd years donning greasepaint, I believe he passed on for his eternal gig on the Other Side with a role, so profound and dense, a blessing that comes to rare and few.
Generous with his heart and wallet in real life, with humor and pathos in reel, he will always be remembered as an Actor who lived and passed on, leaving a legacy rich and varied for generations to love and learn.