Remembering Oduvil and a life that was a celebration of unabashed Simplicity

Oduvil in Devasuram (1993)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.
Darshanam(1973)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 !

Sarapanjaram (1979)

Oduvil Unnikrishnan in Sarapanjaram(1979) 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.

Vidyarambham (1990)

Oduvil Unnikrishnan in Vidyarambham (1990) 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.

Maalayogam (1990)

Oduvil in Malayogam (1990)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.

Sargam (1992)

Oduvil in Sargam (1992)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.

Devaasuram (1993)

Oduvil Unnikrishnan in Devasuram (1993)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..’

Kathapurushan (1995)

Oduvil and KPAC Lalitha in Kathapurushan (1995)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)

Oduvi Unnikrishnan in 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)

Oduvil Unnikrishnan in 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)

Oduvil Unnikrishnan in 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.

Nizhalkuthu (2002)

Oduvil Unnikrishnan in Nizhalkuthu  (2002) 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.

Related  : Oduvil Unnikrishnan in Sathyan Anthikkad’s Films.

22 thoughts on “Remembering Oduvil and a life that was a celebration of unabashed Simplicity

  1. Brilliantly written, thanks for sharing all that!

    I guess recognition, remembrance and love from fans trumps the lack thereof from the mainstream media? In my family at least, the likes of Oduvil, and another legend Shankarady, are always remembered with a respect and fondness afforded to actors who transcend the boundaries of cinema by becoming a part of our every day conversations.

    Whither that naturalism, that effortlessness, that “touch” that these consummate artistes managed to leave on each one of their characters? Oduvil, with that height and lankiness, and that amazingly mobile face, was in a class of his own. I loved his character in Sandesham as well – or rather the sweetness and maturity with which he rendered that role. And as you’ve so beautifully expressed, Devasuram’s Peringoder – let me expose my fan-girlism to say that despite the towering presence of Mohanlal in that movie, Oduvil managed to leave such an indelible impact! Such a versatile performer. Glad that whatever work he did, he was offered a range of characters to play, and he made each one of them so memorable. Shankarady, for me, is another one of those breed of actors – not the lead, sometimes just part of the background, but conveying so much with each dialogue, each gesture – I can recall Shankarady conveying an emotion just by the flick of his dhoti/lungi.

    Sometimes, reading/hearing about how Indian cinema=Bollywood, I think of gems like Oduvil and Shankarady, and another personal favorite Philomina, and I think “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air”. But it’s wonderful that at least in such virtual spaces, these talents are being appreciated.

  2. oduvil was a master craftsman and an artist supreme in his work.i am a keralite born and brought up in Pune and we never had much chance to watch good malayalam films early on, but as i grew up and when i started watching the whole canvas of these legendary malayalam actors,i am shaken up to the core.oduvils role of a toddy tapper,his short lungi ,his perfection in each and every role is unmatched in world cinema for a supporting actor.I have always adored him and was shocked when i heard that he had passed away.It was as if he had passed away at the right time bcoz characters like his were also fading away from kerala. there is no longer a simpleton,principled and morally upright like his characters.believe me,there is nobody to replace him and the masterpieces he created will be the only source of reference for all of us.Cinematters,you have written brilliantly about him.Hats off to you.

    1. Dear Roy,

      Thank you for passing through and writing in. Actors like Oduvil, as you mentioned were exceptional masters in their own way of the celluloid craft. Sathyan Anthikkad muses in his memoirs as to where he would go now to find characters to play the ones written for the likes of Shankarady and Oduvil for starters. Conversley, as you rightly mentioned, it might be in the celestial plan that along with the passing of the likes of these patriarchs and matriarchs, even the characters that they portrayed onscreen have also started disappearing from real life too, in some perverse mode of consolation 🙂 Its great to know that, for someone born and brought up in Pune, you have enthusisastically pusued your ‘explorations in Malayalam cinema’ with delight. Hope to see more of you in these parts..cinematters

  3. Dear Cinematters,

    Oduvil is my favourite actor..Simply a great great artist. The other day I was watching Sathyan Anthikadu film ‘Thooval Kottaram’ on Asianet………I managed to find a Video after searching here and there as I could not help playing it again and again. The character rendered by Oduvil (Achuthan Marar) was so touching and so true. The story and the entire cast including Jayaram made me wish if I could live this story! Oduvil, we really miss you…..

    1. Dear Ravi,
      Thank you for writing in with your perspectives on the acting prowess of the legendary actor. Couldn’t agree with you more. Hope what you read through did some amount of justice to the range of characters and emotions he portrayed onscreen. I couldn’t agree with Sathyan Anthikkad’s moving tribute to Oduvil in his book where he says that actors like Oduvil are irreplaceable . Coming generations would surely use him as a textbook for performances on screen, am sure.Hope to see more of you in these parts..Regards..cinematters

  4. Dear Cinematters,
    Just a question. Do you know anything about Oduvil’s family, where they are and how they are now after his passing ?Many of our older actors and actresses’s families had a comfortable life when they were around and then after their passing, go through tough times. I really wouldn’t want Oduvil’s family to go thru any such situation if I could help.We, and I am sure there will be a lot of people who loved Oduvil would be ready to pinch our own lifestyle for the privilege to help his family if they were going thru a bad patch.It would go for Sankarady’s family, Kuthiravattom Pappu’s family etc. am not really sure how AMMA works in this matter.

    1. Dear Rajesh,
      I was able to speak to Sreedevi P Aravind, the director who made the documentary on Oduvil and from what I could gather, the family then and now have always been looking out for themselves, within relatives – the usual emotional support that most of us rely on. From what I understand, there is a pension system called Kaineettam for senior artistes insituted by AMMA, the page you can find here – his name to be missing. Considering the last time the site was updated, you just can’t rely on these guys. The best way would be to form a Trust and then take it from there..Regards..cinematters

  5. Many of us know Oduvil as an actor, but he also was someone who had a good grounding in music as mentioned by CM above. I think it is more of a coincidence that there are many movies where he was seen with either a chenda or a table or some percussion instrument. He scored music for an hindu devotional album titled Poonkavanam in the early 80’s with lyrics by Chittoor Gopi, i think. The songs were sung by Jayachandran if I am right.. It was a beautiful album with lots of songs based on carnatic ragas.

    1. Dear Felix,
      Very true. That was also a part of the whole ‘talent package’ called Oduvil. I do surely intend to share whatever I have gathered on him being a Musician, and I am told that he did close to 20 devotional albums ( as cassette tapes) in the music circuit. I know of another one called Dashapushpam which he did with Jayachandran and Bichu Thirumala. I had the good fortune to speak with Sreedevi P Aravand, who directed the documentary on Oduvil ( yes, there is one and I would be writing about that too).She too confirms the existence of this aspect but sadly not a single copy could be among Oduvil’s personal possessions. His reel life blurred into the real in Bharatham, where he played the mridangam artiste and maternal uncle to Mohnalal’s character ( more on that next 🙂 ) Thank you so much for writing in. Regards..CM

  6. I am sure that the role essayed by Oduvil unnikrishnan in sandesham will find a mention. Its one of my all time favorite movies. which was a satire on the political situation in kerala at that time. This film is also note worthy for character played by siddique.

    1. Dear Rajesh,
      Thank you for writing in. Yes, the role of Achyuthan Nair aka Achuvettan in Sandesham is not that anyone can forget so easily. Will be certainly mentioning it too ..Thanks again..cinematters

  7. Long ago Sathyan Anthikad had said in an interview that he considered himself lucky to have lived in the same time as that in which Yesudas lived. I agree. Would like to add that I have been blessed to have lived in the same time when many legends of Malayalam cinema lived at the peak of their glory-Adoor Bhasi, Jayan,Bahadur, Prem Naseer Kuthiravattom Pappu, Allummoodan, Jayan, Balan K Nair, Achan Kunju, Jos Prakash, Oduvil Unnikrishnan. We Malayalees are blessed that even so called comedy actors in our movies could be counted among the greatest actors in indian cinema in the sheer range of roles they did. Oduvil- you have shared his acting gems. Adoor Bhasi, Bahadur & Naseer combo made me go to all their movies.Used to ask if Jayan is acting then if confirmed would agree to go for a movie with my parents. Pappu and his wheezy laugh, Allumoodan and his exageratted actions in the old Udaya studio movies, Balan K nair in Alkoottathil Thaniye, Bahadur & Adoor Bhasi who used to make me roll on the floor with their antics, could make me self-consciously clear my throat all misty eyed in their portrayal of the father in the family. All malayalees who grew up in the 70s and 80s will always remember these giants of Malayalam.

    1. Dear Rajesh,
      Couldn’t agree with you more. The singular objective of this humble effort of mine is to leave a note in memory of all of them that you mentioned with so much fondness and affection, for the coming digital generations. I was recently watching a documentary titled ‘Frame within a Frame’, a quick trip through our tradition of film making, narrated by PK Nair, the founder of our Film Archives, where he says something very insightful. He says most of the talk about the so called “Golden Age” and so forth are based, most of the times, on sheer nostalgia, as you could find 10 equally crappy movies for one great piece of work. It is just the requirement and the natural evolution of the times, I believe, what we see now and what we get to watch. But, the saddest part is that, it would be criminal to live and not make any effort to pass on atleast a fraction of how it was to the future generations. Just my 2 cents.. Thanks again..cinematters

  8. Impressive indeed, CM. It took me about 5 minutes to write the first two words, just goes on to show how beset I am by the complexity of thoughts that this post inspired. Oduvil was my Achan’s favorite actor, like you said the other day his rustic goodness was something very prominently recalled, and I don’t differ either from what he thought about him as an actor.

    Of all the parts he played, Peringoder must qualify as being quintessentially Oduvil all the way. That is how I like to imagine him as a person and I am told he was this good soul who did exactly what destiny expected of him and then walked out into the embrace of the night, his task fulfilled. This is not to take away from him the credit of having essayed several epic performances on screen. He was beyond all that and somehow I like to believe that ‘thanks’ and ‘good byes’ would remain hugely inadequate to honor this colossus.

    1. Dear Soni, oduvil had this innate ability to touch you with his simplicity, regardless whether it was reel or real. He could shake with the sheer power of simplicity and I guess it reflected in all the roles he played. This, is just the beginning, of a fond set of tributes to the ‘epic performer’ as you said – we hope to reach there slowly but surely. Thanks again..cinematters

  9. The Adoor interview is actually by Deep Focus. They have one with Aravindan as well.(Im sure you would know this 🙂 ) Any light on Deep Focus?

    1. Dear Rajesh,
      I only know that as the one by the author of Cinema of who seems to keep an extremely secretive profile. DEEP FOCUS is news to me 🙂 The site is registered to a certain Mr R Rajmohan.But, try as I might, my search online returned empty along with a mail sent to him. Regards..cinematters

      1. The Adoor interview you shared,is a part of

        The Aravindan interview is here

        Both as you can see is by Deep Focus.
        I had done some investigation in Deep Focus while doing preparation for my quiz.I could understand that it is/was a movie journal published from Bangalore

        This might be a useful start 🙂

        1. Dear Rajesh,
          Thanks so much for that. have already sent him a mail from his Blog. Lets wait and see. Might even try get as much as of it digitized and online :)..Regards..cinematters

  10. A good tribute. Oduvil had the knack of making impact even with small roles. Jagathy’s father in Yodha is one movie that comes to mind where his role was short but just a bit of dialogue (‘ninte mooon’) makes it enjoyable. I’m hope you will discuss about the man who lost his cow in your next version.
    I remember reading Sathyan Anthikad’s tribute to him (probably in Sathyan Anthikadinte Grameenar) . Oduvil used to call him in midnight and tell some jokes which he saw in a recent movie. Once Sathyan was very sleepy and told they will talk later. Oduvil replied ‘Ennal njan ini Adoorine vilichu samsarikaam’

    1. Dear Rajesh,
      Who can ever forget the Midnight Chess Lessons from Yodha? 🙂 As I mentioned, it is those delightful nuggets that makes his roles memorable. The vain “ninnte moooon” is as much a memory byte of Meena as Oduvil.And what follows – “Ashokanu ksheenamaakam” is guaranteed to make you explode. I just couldn’t help but share it once again. 🙂

      And yes, the next is about his movies with Sathyan Anthikkad which close to 26 , half of his total filmography! There is also a documentary that has been made on Oduvil Unnikrishnan, which is also anothr topic of discussion, hopefully with its director. Thanks again…Cinematters

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