May 27th 2012 marked Oduvil Unnikishnan’s 6th year of passing. Rather than resorting to the usual ‘memorial platitudes’ quoting the obvious movies, directors and roles, I figured it would be more interesting to sit down and put down in words my sincere appreciation for a young film student’s efforts in keeping the memories of Oduvil, as we know him, alive. Sreedevi P Aravind put all her creative resources, passion and ardent love for cinema to put together a documentary feature on Oduvil, by the same name, and was kind enough to send across a copy to me. The production is a bit dated and it took a while for me to track down the source to procure a copy, and then it some more time to put in words, my thoughts thoughts on it.
Currently pursuing her PhD in film studies at the University of Calicut, it is a commendable effort by Sreedevi, who, I have been told has pooled in her entire resources she could gather to realize this little dream project of hers.
And barring a slightly ‘bumpy’ screenplay, it comes off as an brilliant effort that does justice and bringing to light little – known aspects of the legendary actor which makes us love and respect him more.
Sreedevi, through the docu-feature, in my opinion, broadly divides his life and times into 5 parts – His Early Years, Oduvil the Musician, Oduvil the Film Actor, Oduvil the Theater Actor Extraordinare’ and Oduvil, the Father.
His Early Years
Oduvil Unnikrishnan’s early years are seen through the eyes of his close circle of friends, ( sadly none of them are identified in the production)who speak with equal parts of heartbreak and glee about this insanely talented friend of theirs who played most of the roles – musician, actor and director in most of the school talent programs, of the “Judas’’ who played the pivotal role in all the events for the school Annual Talent Day and disappeared just before the final rehearsal , his life of penury and how the local folks provided him sustenance, a place to curl up and fed his creative fire.
Alamcode Leelakrishnan who introduces the docu-feature so rightly places Enkakad as the perfect environment that nurtured the childhood of Oduvil Unnikrishnan, being lucky and fortunate enough to have been born in the quaint hamlet steeped in natural folk art traditions, temple rituals and local art, all of it pulsing with a healthy dose of percussive art and theater.
Oduvil the Musician
The core of Oduvil’s creative fount was music. He had developed into an exceptionally talented tabla player in his teen years that he had started imparting lessons through the Kala Samithis that he was associated with, composing music for musicals, theatre productions and then onwards to music albums. In between, he also churned out plays, found himself in lead roles for many of the popular theater productions in the Malabar circuit and was one of the pioneers in Impromptu Theater. ( Kuthiravattam Pappu was another brilliant performer of this unique art ). One of Oduvil’s musical creations was a full-length concept album for Southern Railways, specifically for the Parasuram Express – which was a sonic journey that familiarized the traveler about the uniqueness of each station (along the route) composed in a musical structure appropriate to that region !
Thrissivapuramey from Parasuram Express.(1984) ( Track Excerpt courtesy MSI )
Music: Oduvil Unnikrishnan
Lyrics : Bichu Thirumala
Sung by : Krishnachandran
P Jayachandran, a dear friend and collaborator in most of his music albums commercially released recalls his deep, incisive knowledge in Carnatic music and the delightful experimentations he attempted while composing some of his most popular numbers. He would listen intently and pick out the wrong notes, expressing his displeasure in strong terms, according to Sathyan Anthikkad. Tilakan recalls how he made him sit and listen to his first set of professionally recorded compositions ( 8 of them ). Amazed at the compositions, Tilakan insisted that he take it to Devarjan Master, which he did and got restless, as the Maestro’s long, meditative silence after listening to every single one of them. Devarajan Master broke the silence after a while with a profound question that dispelled all his doubts. He asked, “Enthey Oduvilaayippoyathu?” ( With such exceptional talent, how come they call you ‘the one who finishes last’ – a pun on the term Oduvil.)
Oduvil the Film Actor
The composite picture that his former onscreen colleagues and off-screen friends paint of Oduvil is not much different of what we know of him, today. He was part sage, part simpleton and he clung to those qualities as an Actor as in real life. He never acted, he just became his characters that we so cherish today so effortlessly as they were all so ordinary and simple like his personality. Jayaram recalls how he made the entire crew choke back tears while shooting for one of the key moments in Thoovalkottaram, and the same actor had made Sathyan Anthikkad and Cinematographer Vipin Mohan literally flee, breathless with laughter from a live shoot with one of his impromptu dialogues during one of the key scenes in Mazhavilkavadi.
A Clipping from Thoovalkottaaram. Watch from 2:00
Tilakan fondly recalls their most memorable onscreen association from Sandesham, where Oduvil played his dear friend, neighbor and confidante. ‘’I never felt that we were shooting for a movie with him around,” he says, “ it was always like speaking to your dear friend.’’
Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who handed him one of career’s best and memorable roles through Nizhalkuthu is effusive about the actor and his method of acting. The documentary also lays to rest the facts behind the insane buzz that once did the rounds of Oduvil bringing alive Njeralathu Narayana Poduval, the legendary edakka vidwan, music sage and spiritual gypsy alive onscreen. His son, Njeralathu Harigovandan goes on record to refute it, saying even if Oduvil had expressed his desire to portray the legend onscreen, his efforts never went beyond that, as neither him nor anyone associated with the legend were ever contacted to learn more about him, his life and times. Mohanlal and Innocent too are on record recalling Oduvil Unnikrishnan, the actor.
Oduvil the Theater Actor Extraordinare
It is interesting to note that Oduvil’s first foray into stage was in a female role, strikingly similar to the career of another legend of the Malayalam screen, Murali.His output was prolific as a playwright, and equally productive was his stint as a stage actor.His stint in theater ranged from being the playwright, actor, music director and even production-cordinator, more often than not, all these coalesced into one. His huge circle of friends were in themselves local celebrities when it came to theater and folk music and it was a symbiotic relationship.In their teenage years, Oduvil and Abbobacker used to bring the house down with their impromptu stage acts in north Malabar.
He was his most active in the mid-50’s with the Engakkad Kala Samithi, playing the lead role in the two most popular theater productions of those times, Pocket Lamp and Moorkhan Paambu, both scripted by KR Vaidyar. Later, branching out to professional theater and his active years with KPAC helped him perfect the craft as an Actor. His years with KPAC also fit well in context with his strong Leftist ideologies and had always followed the political fortunes of the Left in Kerala with conviction. It was this same fervor that made him, along with Kalamandalam Hyder Ali and CO Devassy campaign for his dear friend in the 2004 Lok Sabha bye-elections in Wadakkancherry.
Oduvil, the Disciplinarian Father and the Doting Grandfather.
Oduvil comes across as a firm and a tad orthodox parent, as the two daughters of the legend recollect their childhood and their times with their father.Finicky and fussy about order and discipline, he would always insist everyone at home to stay indoors after sundown, and never liked to see anything out of place around the house. Oduvil’s wife, Padmaja recollects his penchant for crabmeat and ice-cream during his days under dialysis, and even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to taste a bite, he would insist they get it for him. It would inevitably be cheerfully donated to one of the hospital nurses attending on him.
The finality of his affliction had already shaken him to the foundations and the daughters recollect his frequent mention of him not being around much longer.The staunch disciplinarian was like putty in the hands of his grand daughter whom he wanted to be an IPS Officer. It is a delightful image of Oduvil at home that emerges through the collective recollection of his loved ones, but on after thought, one realises he was not much different from your father back home.
Oduvil – the documentary, as I mentioned earlier is a great attempt in bringing together the memories of the legend from his personal and social circles of influence, helping us understand a great deal more on Oduvil Unnikrishnan, the legend. I only wish that Sreedevi P Aravind had devoted a bit more effort in the English subtitles that leave a lot to be desired.
Procuring a Copy.
All I can do is forward your requests to her mail address and hope that she contacts you to take it forward.