Prem Nazir, to me, shone with a eerie glow and exuded this creepy chill every time he chose to take those roles that lived in the twilight zone – that grey area where morality for reasons best know to itself, chose to rest behind closed doors. I think he could have been one of the finest ‘villians‘ ( a rather broad term, if you please ) of Malayalam cinema, had he gravitated towards those, than the treacle-covered ones that we are all so familiar with and have come to love, but then, it wouldn’t have been the same story altogether. It is surprising that this facet of his gets hardly any mention, save for the oft-repeated role from Azhakulla Celina in 1973, as the movie scribes snow you down with his roles that had his trademark characteristics that regaled us. [ The movie title in English spells Saleena, but try as I might, just didn’t have the heart to spell it that way here :) ]
He was not all …………….. ( insert Sheela/Sharada/Jayabharathy as you please) + a lone tree + a great romantic song composition, you know, they just didn’t have the inclination nor the daring to use him for onscreen adventures that he had so proved adept at, given the chance and the opportunity. He was best when he was not always the perfect male onscreen. I am sure the surprise that evoked in us, the avid viewers also helped to make these adventures indelible in our memories, more than his cheesy, strait-jacketed romantic expeditions that replicated itself, over and over again, movie after movie.
The following are the ones, for me, that Prem Nazir did a fantastic job of reveling in the grey zone, and interestingly it bordered on broadly two sectors . It was either the quiet, malevolent, lustful badass coveting another one’s wife, from his immediate circle or the wimpy, weepy, indecisive soul bent by social obligations and who implodes by the end of the proceedings. Please note that these are the ones that stresses on moral ambiguity than the ones found across the fair and straight road to domestic nirvana that he traverses in the rest, and please do write in with the ones that you think are your favorites.
The legendary producer TE Vasudevan reveals in an interview that Prem Nazir had offered to do this movie for free as his previous movie with Associated Pictures, Sathyabhama (1963) turned out to be a ‘mythological nightmare’ financially. Kuttikuppayam was made with a paltry budget of Rs 98,000, but this time it ruled the box-office. Though Prem Nazir had played shades of the wimpy, malleable and ‘impressionable’ hero ( remember Ponkathir  ? ), Kuttikuppaayam was what brought it on, all cylinders firing. Based on a story by Moithu Padiyath, Kuttikuppayam explored the ‘one-sided’ stigma attached to infertility ( it was ALWAYS the woman’s fault ) and the manipulation of the institution of marriage against the backdrop of the traditional Muslim society.
Prem Nazir is Jabbar, a successful coconut trader, happily married, childless and dotes on his wife, despite the occasional taunts by his mother ( Philomena in one of her most memorable roles ). Her manipulations and emotional blackmail ends up getting … separated from his wife and getting remarried again to his mother’s niece that is soon headed towards Horrorville. His separated dear wife ( Ambica in a drenched-in-tears role ) gets married to an unsuspecting Madhu and soon becomes pregnant. Prem Nazir, devastated on getting to know this from a family friend, gathers courage to have himself medically examined and confirms his worst fears. It had always been him. But, back home, the family is overjoyed. The new bride is pregnant ! Right from the point where his mother introduces the possibility of a mutually agreed separation, we see Jabbar bend far over backwards, trying to appease everyone, specially his mother, as he gets slowly eaten away inside and the twist of fate in the end makes him almost lose his sanity and his bearings. His onscreen journey was a refreshing change from the staple ‘romances’ till then. I think Prem Nazir had an extraordinary ability to portray hearts in the doldrums, more than his perfect lip-synchs, hip-squeezes and generally looking dashingly handsome. There is a part in the movie where he almost loses his emotional bearings towards the end of the movie where he addresses his now-repentant mother, wife and himself – all at one go. That man was a sheer pleasure to watch.
The classic “Innente karaliley” from Kuttikkuppayam (1964).
Ashwamedham ( 1967)
The spine-less weepy, wimp resurfaces again in a role, adapted for the screen from KPAC’s popular theater production. Prem Nazir‘s Mohan, the smitten-lover who even decides to go ahead with his wedding to his beloved against his parents’ wishes ( they cave-in at the last moment ), powered by mutual affection and attraction so strong that it even gave us one of the ‘finest songs of anticipation’ in Malayalam cinema – the eternal “Ezhu sundara rathrikal” . The lover boy does an amazing back-flip when he comes to know that his soon-to-be bride has contracted leprosy and puts the wedding on hold, but still refuses to be convinced when his dear friend assures him that the malady has been banished and she is normal and healthy. His moot question, “Err..ദാക്ടെര്, നിങ്ങള് പറയുന്നത് ശരിയായിരിക്കാം, പക്ഷെ err..എനിക്ക് വിശ്വാസം വരുന്നില്ല.” ( in typical Prem Nazirspeak ) has to be one of the classic lines in Malayalam movies ever, for turning tail and slinking away. Though the onscreen adaptation turned out to be a watered-down and mostly plastic rendering of a hugely successful theater production, Prem Nazir‘s Mohan still managed to salvage some semblance of dignity of the role from the original. And a memorable wimpy one, nevertheless.
One of the ‘finest songs of anticipation’ in Malayalam cinema, courtesy Ashwamedham.
Kalli Chellamma (1969)
Kunjachen from Kalli Chellamma proved male chauvinism and cowardice could beautifully co-exist, if given a suitable nourishing environment like country toddy. Prem Nazir was Kunjachen, the motor-pump operator contracted by the village agricultural co-op to drain out the flooded paddies. It doesn’t take long for this handsome and dashing young man to smile and flirt his way into the loner Kalli Chellamma’s heart, and soon her bed. He leaves the village after the job is over ( no pun intended) and is conspicuously absent for over an year after which he re-appears, showing us the peek into the real slippery personality of the man. Kalli Chellamma sticks through his arrogance, plain stupidity and haughtiness to the extent of helping him escape after a drunken brawl that almost ends up in murder, to even leaving her home and trying to build a life together with her wayward, chauvinist ‘husband’. But events take an interesting turn with the appearance of a young lady with two children, in tatters and a-begging, searching for her husband, and the kids, their father. Kalli Chellamma‘s life is just about to take a careening, skidding step sideways into the abyss, all thanks to a career alcoholic, dashing handy man called Kunjachen.
I couldnot think of any other actor who could depict the “love-to-hate” personality of Kunjachan other than Prem Nazir. he gradual revelation of the real personality of the character across the movie was a treat to watch – specially the evolution of the lover boy-turned-drunkard-turned blabbering coward-turned-infuriatingly arrogant chauvinist , Prem Nazir excelled as Kunjachan. P Bhaskaran, I guess should be credited with giving Prem Nazir two of his career best roles ( according to me ) – Velayudhan in Iruttinte Aathmaavu (1967) being the other. After lulling you into a sense of false security with some memorable compositions set to music by Raghavan Master, P Bhaskaran just yanks the carpet off your feet.
Maanathey kaayalin from Kalli Chellamma.
Rajendran, the painter/ singer refuses to let go. He is in his elements, comfortably wallowing in his own misery, carrying the proverbial millstone round the neck of a past love-affair, even after the love of his life becomes the wife of another man. The Malayalam remake of the Sunil Dutt – Ashok Kumar – Mala Sinha starrer Gumrah (1963), Prem Nazir played the part done by Sunil Dutt in the original. He follows his love Meena (
Ragini Padmini..thanks Viju :) ) to Chennai, who is now married to one of the leading barristers of the city, Barrister Ashok (Sathyan) and continues to meet her, not exactly knowing where to take it from there. he is mortified at the thought of having his love out of his sight and that is all that he cares for. The lackey whom we see pining onscreen with “Sumangali, nee ormikkumo “, is the happy hound reveling and pleasurably lost in the new found warmth of his secret rendezvous with his now -someone-else’s wife beloved, happily musing on “Mayaajaalka vaathil thurakkum” after he stalks her down. Ah, the weasel’s nerve ! :)
Here is the part-delirious, part-pining stalker on the Piano.
Listen to the one that comes in the Hindi original here.
Anubhavangal, Paalichakal (1971)
One of the enduring classics of Malayalam cinema, from the Manjilas‘ stable. Based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai‘s novel of the same name, the powerful screenplay was written by Thoppil Bhasi – that man was sheer genius, someone who somehow knew exactly the sensibilities of writing for the screen and for the stage. [ Trivia : Thoppil Bhasi holds the credit of writing the screenplays for the maximum number of Thakazhi‘s works adapted for the big screen ]. Prem Nazir as Gopalan, was back in “Covet-thy-neighbor’s-wife” territory, this time being his dear friend Chellappan‘s (Sathyan in one of his best roles ) comely, brash and buxom wife Bhavani ( Sheela, who else ? ), The way they address each other as ‘Aliyaaa!‘ is endearing, coming from both of them especially, if you remember the opening scene at the toddy shop. Both the characters are male chauvinists in their own levels, not scared to stray, the degree of suspicion runs only a shade deeper in Chellappan’s case.
Prem Nazir is a widower, and makes no effort in masking his ‘desire’ to possess Bhavani, even at the risk of inviting the hellish fury of his dear friend, whom, deep down, he knows to be a prisoner of his own devices – his political ideals forming the heaviest balls and chain. In one of the early scenes where both flirt and keep pinging on each other, Chellappan is absolutely clear in what he desires, when he tells her, “എന്റെ ഭാര്യ നല്ലവളായിരുന്നു.പക്ഷേ മരിച്ചുപോയി.” Bhavani’s response is also equally encouraging, as she bursts into forced laughter, as to somehow hide those very words that just slipped out, “എന്റെ ഭര്ത്താവു ഒരു കൊള്ളരുതാത്തവനാണ്. പക്ഷെ ജീവിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു.” It essentially becomes the building block for their ‘new life together.’ Gopalan, even though is all testosterone and wiggling his plumage in order to possess Bhavani, is also equally scared out his wits at the ruthless, terminal and severe reactions it would evoke in his dear friend, who is now gone underground fearing a police crackdown. But the demands of the flesh inevitably wins over fidelity. It’s a bag of mixed emotions that all the three carry in their hearts, there are no black and white zones, its all grey, just like in real life. Gopalan doesn’t even think twice, though, now husband to his best friend’s wife, to pledge all their possessions together to accord his friend the dignity he deserves in the final scenes of the film. The interactions between them, especially Sathyan, who speaks volumes with a gaze, at two instances that seem so crucial – at the jail and after the sentence is passed out. is heart-rending. Come to think of it, this should also be up there in one of Sheela‘s best performances.
The agonising “Agniparvatham Pukanju” from the movie.
In the beginning of all psycho-medical thrillers was Punarjanmam. Yes, Manichitrathazhu (1993) wasn’t a unique, watershed moment as far as the genre is concerned. Rather than cloaking it in pop iconography, KS Sethumadhavan, with a gripping screenplay by Thoppil Bhasi, put it right out there as a case study from acclaimed hypnotherapist and applied psychologist, Dr AT Kovoor’s case diary, in 1972. It even had the good doctor appearing in the beginning of the movie onscreen, explaining as to what the movie was all about, who did a cameo as the therapist that sets matters right – a first in Malayalam cinema, I think.
Prem Nazir played Aravindan, the dashing ( can he be anything else? :) ) college lecturer, who falls in love with his student and marries her. Problems arise after the marriage as he clings on to her like a child, never getting around to consummate their marriage but is found in bed with the maid of their house. His entire life revolves around his wife Radha ( Jayabharathy) , resembling more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder – the man is absolutely fixated on her. Yet, the bedroom resembles a walk-in freezer. Aravindan also refuses to discuss the demons that are plaguing hem, choosing to weep, moan and go a-begging to Radha ( who has by now has enough and walks out of the house ), again pitching his undying love for her to bring her back. Watching Prem Nazir as Aravindan, am amazed at the limits this actor must have travelled, with an encouraging nudge from directors with daring such as KSS. He is absolutely amazing as he plays probably The ‘Clingiest’ Husband onscreen in Malayalam movie history :)
Another gem from Devarajan Master, “Prema Bikshuki”.
Azhakulla Celina (1973)
Kunjachan, the filthy-rich owner of the plantation, is under his smiling visage, the perfect beast. Suave on the surface and savage within, Prem Nazir‘s characterisation of this wild beast is right up there amongst my favorite trinity of his’ in Dark Grey. Directed by KS Sethumadhavan, based on a story by Muttathu Varkey, adapted for the screen by Thoppil Bhasi, the music director was KJ Yesudas himself. Kunjachan is a chronic flirt and a womanizer ( he can afford it :) ), accommodated to a large extent by his beautiful wife Lucy (Kanchana), who regardless, loves him unconditionally, even is in awe of her ‘super husband.’ Kunjachan, the ever-smiling, generous, helpful gentleman, wastes no time in offering his support and assistance to the young Johnny ( a tepid Vincent ), his clerk who had eloped with his childhood sweetheart on the eve of her wedding and seeks refuge at the plantation.
You can almost see The Beast Inside licking his lips in the eyes of Kunjachan as he first lays his eyes on the exceptionally beautiful young bride Celina ( Jaya Bharathy), vulnerable beautiful and umm..glowing like a bride. Kunjachen doesn’t have to work that hard to earn the complete, unquestionable, inherent trust of the vulnerable couple and from here own, the classic game of the cat-playing-with-the mouse begins, though the mouse is hardly aware that there is a game afoot. Hell, the mouse doesn’t even know that it is certified prey. Kunjachan bides his time, falling over himself to have them married off at his own expense at the church in the nearby town, put them up at the place’s best hotel for the night, and then ‘planned tragedy’ strikes. The groom is bundled away by the local police on unspecified charges and the benevolent patron, grinds his teeth and feigns helplessness when the hapless bride rushes to him for help. The groom is in the jail for the night, the disoriented bride-to-be and Kunjachan are in adjacent rooms and he has his favorite blend open on the table, nursing his next drink. The stage is set.
Prem Nazir was perfect as the suave beast, and I always wish he had gotten more of them. He would reprise the role in Bharathan‘s Parvathy (1981), but the young,raging libido had been then replaced with a far more aged, mature(?) and more sinister constitution.
I always break into a smile watching PN giving the good ol’ jive an earnest and good-natured shot. KJ Yesudas gets the bass runs for the boogie right down pat.
Darling, Darling from Azhakulla Celina (1973)
Parvathy ( 1981)
Urumees from Parvathy somehow seems to be Kunjachen, matured in a fine oak cask, acquiring depth and complexity across a decade or you could call him Ol’ Randy :) . That is, if you are comfortable in keeping aside the usual connotations that one would associate with a Bharathan movie that discusses eroticism on his own terms (with the commercial ingredients needed, thank you very much ). Parvathy was the onscreen adaptation of Kaakkanadan‘s Adiyaravu, one amongst the two creations of his Bharathan adapted for the screen, the other being the gag-worthy Parankimala. Even if you look at it as a B-grade just-above-average skin flick ( and I wouldn’t blame you ), it was still a win for Prem Nazir as far as the character he played – this was the 80’s, and he had all the time to now explore options at his will. Urumees was the local money bag businessman who requests the assistance of Parvathy Thamburatty ( Latha – an uncanny(!) resemblance to Surekha ) to home-tutor his little girls in music and dance.
To Parvathy and the dilapidated, rambling old aristocratic manor that she is a part of ( she has two elder sisters ), this is a godsend, financially. It doesn’t take long for the employer-employee to cross lines that should never have been crossed, which drives the lady of the house to attempt suicide ( KPAC Lalitha), post which a repentant Urumees tries to recoup what is lost, but leaves a window open hoping that they would meet again. Watch the movie only for Prem Nazir. That should be more than enough. The rest is a train wreck. [ Trivia : Parvathy was the debut film of Raj Kumar, and I’ve read somewhere that Latha was the enigmatic lady in Jayan‘s life ( more details please ! ) ]
The Grand Seduction. Please try not to stare ! :)