13 February 1944 – 27 May 2006 | Last Friday marked 5 years since Oduvil Unnikrishnan passed away and the mainstream media, save one, who usually celebrates memorials with a vengeance seems to have blissfully chosen to forget him. After all, he didn’t leave behind a legacy of Fan Associations, Real Estate endorsements, jewelry deals or for that matter crores-worth Post-production facilities. All he celebrated, lived for and left behind was an unabashed celebration of the simple life, simple values that always seemed to reach out and touch the innate goodness in all of us, way deep inside. Now, THAT, is something that is of no use to the mainstream media, and I guess, hence the silence.
The nephew of poet Oduvil Unnikrishnan Menon, a trained percussionist and vocalis ( he had a short stint with the KPAC and Kerala Kalavedi), his debut movie was PN Menon’s Darshanam (1973), a part-philosophical, part -melodramatic tale of a blind girl and her unseen benefactor . A Vincent’s brilliant Chenda (1973) also got him a brief appearance, but what really pushed him into mainstream commercial fare was his role in the block-buster Sarapanjaram ( 1979), and from there on, as they say, there was no turning back. The roles he portrayed have been so varied yet all of them a common undercurrent of simplicity and natural propensity to behave that way. I personally feel that his introduction into Sathyan Anthikkad‘s way of movie-making helped him to stay true to what his calling as an actor. From Appunni in 1984, it was as if he joyfully jumped into this ‘celluloid pond of rustic simplicity’, and was only happy languishing in the ‘familiar’ algae-green waters, just being himself, through each of his movies – a huge body of work. For my sanity, I have tried to broadly divide his movies into Sathyan Anthikkad’s movies and Others. The former will be discussed separately, and the latter, as we go along, right away !
Just as it made the Malayalam film industry sit up and take notice of the brash, macho, smoldering actor called Jayan, the almost cult popularity status also rubbed good on the rest of supporting cast as well, including Oduvil’s Subbaiyar, the lascivious, number-crunching accountant of the manor with an eye on every girl in the place but mortally petrified of expressing it. One must have had come across scores of the same in previous avatars but Oduvil gave it an extra bit of unscrupulousness and lust that was ‘refreshing.’ This role, following up the significant part-role he did in Bharathan‘s Guruvayoor Keshavan ( 1977) as mahout seems to have given his career the momentum that would by now, take it forward on a fairly rapid pace. By Appunni (1984), he seemed to have found his ‘true home’ in the Sathyan Anthikkad school of movies, which would give us some of the most memorable characters in Malayalam Cinema, only possible by an actor called Oduvil Unnikrishnan. Its not that he didnt shine outside this comfort zone – his award for the Best Actor by the Kerala Government was for Adoor Gopalkrishnan‘s Nizhalkuthu (2002), whose Kathapurushan (1995) had got him him his first State recognition as Best Supporting Actor in 1995. But Sathyan’s movies, now, that was an entirely different ballgame altogether! And what a joyride it was.
Oduvil was lucky enough to be a part of the cast in Jayaraj’s debut directorial venture Vidyarambham, a simple, sweet movie about starting a school in a small village, and the heartwarming friendship about four friends as its under current. Oduvil played the village potion man, addressed throughout the film as the Thallukolli Vaidyar :), it was also a portend of the kind of roles he would excel in, never overshadowing a co-star, but holding his own and performing with an energy and ease that seem to invigorate the rest of the cast. The ‘hunting’ sessions and the ‘card’ sessions in the movie are a treat to watch.
Kalikaalam Paramu Nair was the anti-thesis of his role in Vidyaarambham (1990). A no-holds-barred, in-your-face look at the dark underbelly of the dowry system prevalent in Kerala (even now), h played the owner of the local teashop, plodding between misery and penury, steadfast in his principles and at the same time helpless against the social ‘might’ of the dowry system. Continuously blaming the modern times ( hence the Kalikaalam prefix), he is finally caught in a vice grip between ‘what he wanted to do’ and ‘what will be done’ – and Lohithadas‘ screenplay ensured that he left you with ringing hurt deep inside as you left the cinema. If you would recall, he had shown us an entirely different take on the local teashop owner in Kamal‘s Peruvannaapurathey Visheshangal (1989).
A video clipping from the movie.
Oduvil was a regular fixture in Hariharan‘s early set of movies, but the role had for him in Sargam (1992) was unforgettable. Oduvil played the elder Uncle of the wayward and obstinate Kuttan Thampuran – a chronic bachelor who deeply cares for his family but keeps a very practical and acerbic outlook on life in general. He lives with the full realisation that he was a stick-on in the big squire’s manor but keeps himself active and useful involving himself in the daily activies of the house. Rational and practical, his character was a highlight of the movie for me.
Peringodu Sankara Marar has hardly 8 minutes of screen time in this cult movie, but if you ask me, in that time, Oduvil managed to show you the fascinating contradictions of the urge to break-off from bonds that tie him to this material life, and the ties of friendship that stay stronger than steel, both residing in the same soul longing to fly. Oduvil’s Peringoder comes twice to meet his dear friend, in the movie – once, in the good times, and the next, in the bad. The latter’s entry in the middle of the night, standing at the threshold and pouring his heart out is something that you can never forget in your lifetime. Maybe Ranjith‘s screenplay had it all worked out, but, you just couldn’t imagine anyone other than Oduvil in that role. The scene also stands as probably the greatest tribute to friendship ever portrayed on celluloid in Malayalm Cinema for me. Here is the video clipping in the haunting voice of MG Radhakrishnan.
Vande Mukunda Hare from Devasuram ( 1993)
The subtitles given can send anyone with a reasonable knowledge of English and an equal degree of self-respect ito clinical depression. Please ignore them! For those who look forward to a fair English translation of the lyrics, I am attaching a good job done at it by Gopal Viswa.
‘ Krishna, the destroyer of agonies,
where is your moonlight lit Dwaraka ?
where is the glitter of peacock feathers,
the song in your flute and the cows of Ambadi ?
Here, I lay my offerings (as a salve) on a heart traumatized by the sharp arrow of a tribal..
And my tears, on the feet of a friend who is the embodiment of love..’
Oduvil’s first brush with State recognition on individual level, the movie went on to win the Golden Lotus for the Best Film in National Level.This is one film that I have missed and though there are half-baked summaries floating around, I wouldn’t want to speculate till I have personally watched it. Like most of Adoor’s earlier works, I’m sure the only way to catch it would be a re-run on the Sate Television and I hope to get to do it soon. Meanwhile there is an exhaustive interview with Adoor on the movie at Cinema of Malayalm which I have attached alongwith.
You could read an interview with Adoor Gopalkrishnan on the movie Kathapurushan here
Aaram Thamburan (1997)
One of the rare handful of movies that Shaji Kailas seemed to get it right as far as commercial box-office ingredients were concerned, it was Ranjith again who created Krishna Varma Thampuran, the sagely soul and a loving, foster father to a girl disowned by the entire family, and now the unofficial chambermaid of the crumbling manor. Grovelling in penury and trying to find happiness in the simple things in life (like his music ), he also goes through a classic O Henry moment as he goes to sell his most prized possession to buy something for his foster daughter. The playfully sarcastic interactions with the father-daughter duo is a delight to watch, and we were lucky enough to get him in reprise the role, albeit in a different environment, probably much more deep and intense in MT Vasudevan Nair‘s Oru Cheru Punchiri (2000).
Maattuppetty Machan (1998)
There is a reason for this to be here – Maattuppetty Machan (1998) was a movie that Oduvil managed to amaze me with his daring and the willingness to explore unknown frontiers as an actor. Oduvil, whose natural North Kerala dialect and style of dialogue delivery was in a way, part of his actor’s signature constitution, bravely took on a character, the pompous, cashew-nut magnate Prabhakara Prabhu, from way down south, dripping of the ‘Thirronthoram plural’ Malayalam, matching his rival Kumar Kubera, an equally pompous and loud peer ( Jagathy in a howlarious role), dialect for dialect, ‘enthirappi’ for ‘enthirappi’. The strain and effort that he involves himself in to faithfully stick to the accent is evident throughout the movie, though at times the real Oduvil slips through the cracks, but I am always amazed at his daring, everytime I catch a re-run of this runaway comedy hit. To put some perspective, Mammootty had to get himself a local accent coach in the form of Suraj Venjarammoodu to get him to speed in Rajamanikyam. Oduvil, you see, had none.
A video clipping from the movie.
Oru Cheru Punchiri (2000)
A definite treasure in Malayalam Cinema – I cannot find any other expression that comes anywhere close to that. Based on Sriramana’s short story Mithunam, this was MT Vasudevan Nair‘s sixth outing as a Director. A poignant, heart-warming story about an old couple who celebrates their sunset years with earthy, sarcastic, impish, naughty humor and joi-de-vivre, with a bond of mutual affection that almost makes you well-up, its a story that makes you say, “This is how I want to be” everytime you watch the movie. Unlike the usual melodramatic twists and turns, the story follows the simple narrative of a couple, both retired from active professional life, living and celebrating every day in each other’s company, with their the children, well-heeled and spread out in different parts of the world. According to MT Vasudevan Nair, ” The first and only face that came to him for the central role was Oduvil Unnikrishnan. ” If you haven’t yet watched it, NOW would be a good time to do it.
A video clipping of the movie.
Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s Nizhalkuthu (Shadowkill) earned Oduvil his State Award for the Best Actor in 2002 and it is a mesmerising, heart-wrenching performance. Oduvil plays Kaliyappan, the King’s hangman from pre-independent India, who grapples with guilt of taking lives of other human beings ordered by law and the king as his karmic sin. Meek, weak, depressed and and a raging alcoholic, Adoor counterweighs his character with that of his son, (Narain’s debut role I guess) a Gandhinan, freedom-fighter who despises the ways, methods and the purpose of life of his father. The master story-teller that he is, Adoor’s tale of the hangman is as caustic and harrowing as it comes, with Oduvil’s wife played by Sukumari and son played by Narain slowly forming the three focii around which the unsettling elliptocal orbit of his life goes around. Oduvil’s Kaliyyappan is one of his best roles in his 30-odd years in Malayalam Cinema.
- Two interviews about the film, that you can read here and here
- A fantastic writeup/ review by Sen on the movie here
- You can buy a DVD of the movie here
Adoor Gopalakrishnan, talks about films then and today.