It is no wonder that Babu, the 1971 Tamil film failed to do well despite having the Titan of Tamil cinema Sivaji Ganesan in the lead role. The film was a remake of the 1965 Malayalam film Odayil Ninnu, based on the novel of the same name by Keshava Dev. With all due respect to Nadigar Thilagam (I do have a very sweet spot in my heart for him) and at the cost of sounding sacrilegious to my brethren from across the border, I have to say this: the lead role in Malayalam was assayed by the incomparable Sathyan. Enough said. The loudly theatrical and overboard Sivaji could never have done what the master of understated acting, Sathyan carried off to perfection in the original.
It can be safely said that it was Sathyan who brought to Malayalam cinema, its hallmark of realistic and natural acting or rather, ‘living’ the character than ‘acting’. Therein lies a world of difference.
As for Pappu the Rikshawalla of Odayil Ninnu that Sathyan immortalized on screen, it is one of those landmark characters that shine like a beacon to guide any aspiring actor. Pappu turns up every time you think of the top ten roles of not just Sathyan, but of Malayalam cinema itself.
And what is it with a struggling man and his rickshaw? It seems to bring out the best in Indian cinema every time. Remember Do Bhiga Zameen?
I just love that scene where the rough and tough Pappu pulls out a piece of cloth from the shop where he takes young Lakshmi to replace the stuff she had lost when he ‘bumped’ her into the gutter and ties up the young Lakshmi’s loose tresses like it was the most natural thing to do. All that roughness and toughness simply vanishes before the little girl and what is revealed is the tender heart within. And that one scene simply endears him to the viewer.
A lot has been said about Pappu’s relationship with his adopted daughter and how he brings her up like a princess, never exposed to any of the hardships of life. But enough can never be said about the discreet understated relationship between Lakshmi’s mother played by Kaviyoor Ponnamma (I always find it rather hard to imagine her as ‘young’) and Pappu. It is simple and ‘just there’. And you get glimpses of it during moments like when Pappu goes, “അവള് ഒരു സുന്ദരിയാ..അവളുടെ അമ്മയും.”
As Lakshmi (an ethereally slender KR Vijaya) sings her way into the heart of the handsome and rich young man, her adopted father is seen running to hear her sing. The sight of a shabby old man, his frail body wracked by coughs, is definitely unwelcome there and he is pushed away from having a glimpse of his daughter sing. He moves away and pauses in a corner where he can just hear her and a bright smile breaks across that craggy face. And with that smile he conveys it all, like no one else could: pride at where the girl he had helped out of the gutter – both physically and figuratively – has now reached, the irony of his present decrepit, poverty ridden, disease wracked state just when his daughter’s star starts blazing across the sky of youth, prosperity and happiness.
The evergreen Kattil ilam Kaattil.
Fearing for what his daughter is heading for, he warns her with the quiet conviction of a man who has seen the world, “കുഞ്ഞേ അവന് നല്ലവനാണ്, പക്ഷേങ്കില് നീ ഇനി അവിടെ പോകരുത്.” No temper tantrums and strictures. And definitely no threat delivered in high decibels. Just a line delivered with power packed into it.
Pappu exuded rawness and masculinity, of the silent brooding kind and stood in stark contrast to the refined, polished young man at the other end of the spectrum – Prem Nazir playing Lakshmi’s love interest. And no prizes for guessing who it was that tugged at heartstrings and had the womenfolk swooning over him. The uncut diamond of course!
As expected, Lakshmi grows up arrogant and shuns the man that bled to feed her. She is ashamed of Pappu and discards him like the proverbial ‘kariveppila’. But then of course, the universal laws of justice come into play and she regrets her actions. She begs Pappu’s forgiveness and invites him to come live with her. But of course the proud ‘rebel’ declines her offer. In that same rasping voice, he bids goodbye to her and melts away into the night, broken, but still with his head held high.
Just like that. No drama, no histrionics, just the raw power of sheer naturality that won Pappu a permanent niche among the pantheon of classic heroes.