At one point in Sathyan Anthikkad‘s Vinodayathra (2007), Murali‘s character Vijayan – the terminally injured, former Police Constable and loving father, muses with an air of weariness and despondency, “Who knows whether I’d be around to witness the next monsoon with you ?” at his favorite daughter, played by Meera Jasmine. If only one realised how ominous that had been, then. Though he was around to see the next, somehow, watching him mouth the lines in the movie seems to bring out a sense of surreality in the way the lines usually blurred between real and reel for Murali. Two years since his passing, if someone asks me as to what exactly is that I miss about this legendary performer in Malayalam cinema, I could start by explaining about the fundamental difference between an actor and a star.
Murali, to me, was an actor who was consumed by his performance at being someone else that reverting to Murali, was, in most cases, an excruciatingly painful process. His physical characteristics never subscribed to any of the established notions of our conventional ‘norms’ of a celluloid lead actor. Come to think of it, this has always been a unique feature of all the actors I have come to adore, be it Kuthiravattam Pappu, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Shankaradi – and they all came from a seasoned stint, battle-scarred from the punishing, grueling but equally glorious theater arena of Kerala. Murali’s childhood seems to have been steeped in theater, and it was amusing to learn recently that most of his roles in his early years were spent playing the leading lady characters! His redemption came with the lead role in SL Puram Sadandan’s Yaagashala, while he was in High School. And it continued, molded, chastened and corrected by influences of greats like NN Pillai‘s Naadakadarpanam, a treatise on theater that seems to have influenced the actor in him and gave it a new direction, and his association with Prof. Narendra Prasad‘s Natyagraha, one of the finest crucibles for emotive expression through theater as a medium ever witnessed in Kerala’s theater history.
It seems that it was his graduating, angsty teenage years at DB College, Shasthacotta that also set the foundation of his strong political principles and convictions, something that he proudly carried along in his journey as an actor. It i was a rare display of searing, daring honesty displayed by Murali the individual over his facet as an actor, an aspect that evokes deep respect for the man, who survived for 3 decades in domain that takes infinite care to keep their political aspersions and leanings way out of the way in the starry journeys. He also made sure THAT never got in in his way as an Actor. As he shared in one of his interviews, it was a part of his personality, it was a part that made him whole, and that was all there was to it. Why hide it away?
Murali, the movie actor defies all attempts at defining his ouvre. he was at the same time volatile, rebellious, endearing, gruff, crusty, impudent and cheeky, and there was an intangible method to it that seared it into your memory. To me, one could hardly try delineate the separation of reelity and reality in Murali’s onscreen characters. Every single one of them, was in a way, an extension of his real personality. It was natural and organic. And very, very rare !
Be it his debut in Bharath Gopi’s debut as a director, the cult Njattady (1979) where he played the disillusioned leftist activist and leader Raghu, the fiery Abu in Meenamasathiley Sooryan (1985), through Varavelpu (1989), and the more ‘populist’ Rakthasaakshikal Zindabad (1998), Garshom (1999), Neythukaaran (2001), Laal Salam (2002) – it all seemed to unconsciously project or in a way reflect the natural, graceful maturing of temperament of his political outlook and staunch convictions. These portrayals were also not far removed from the essence of his convictions in real life, and that is what made his characters brilliant and memorable. At least, for me. Also speaking of Njattady, the lost classic, I stumbled upon this fantastic set of articles and a small tribute to the movie online.documentary. You can read The Njaattady blog here.
This is the tribute documentary to Njattady (1979)
Though he came to his own with Aadharam in 1992, and struck gold in the commercial mainstream, he was flooded with the same type of characters for a while that almost had you wringing your hands in despair. With the smae smirk that one followed the Mammootty-Kutty-Petty in the 80’s, there was almost the genesis of another one, Murali-Kettu-Kaili-Beedi, but thankfully he rose above all that. Like any other consummate actor’s body of work, its next to impossible to write about your favorites when it comes to Murali”s characters brought to life on screen. Every single one of them pulsed with life, and amazingly, Murali the person who brought them to life was nowhere to be seen. All you saw was Bappooty, Kochuraman, Esthappan Aasan, Johnny or Anthony, and that is exactly the reason why it feels next to impossible!
A video clipping from Aadharam (1992)
One of his favorite roles, for me, was Esthappan Aasan in Chamayam, more so because, he got to ‘live what he loved to do off-screen, on it’, playing in a sweet-irony of sorts, a patriarch of local folk theater who loves the magnificence and overwhelming emotional quotient of the classic tragedies. This could go on. I am also yet to come across an actor who was so ‘complete’ in his profession, nurturing and nourishing his personality to be a wilful carrier of his chosen vocation. Four State Awards for Best Actor, Two State Awards for Second Best (!) Actor, the National Award for Best Actor in 2002, and a host of other recognitions from movie aficionados, societies and organisations.
Murali, one of the finest actors Malayalam Cinema has ever seen, will always be a beacon for those who have set their aspirations in theater and movies right up there, where he belongs.
A Video Clipping from Chamayam (1992)
Murali, a consummate and complete actor, if ever there was one.