The Sathyan Tribute | Pappu from Odayil Ninnu (1965)

Sathyan in Odayil Ninnu (1965)

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.

Sathyan and Baby Padmini in Odayil Ninnu (1965)

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.”

Kaviyoor Ponnamma in Odayil Ninnu (1965)

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.

Sathyan smiles at life in Odayil Ninnu (1965)

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.

23 thoughts on “The Sathyan Tribute | Pappu from Odayil Ninnu (1965)

  1. I watched many films acted by Sathyan Master. I always compare his acting with other great actors like Dileep Kumar, SivajiGanesan, Nagesr Rao,, Utpal Dutt KamalHassan, Mommootty Mohallal, Thilakan etc. I think Sathyan is the Emperor Dileep Kumar being the closest rival

  2. Saw this movie a few days ago.
    Loved it!
    Pappu’s character as an unbending, ram-rod erect and stubborn old man (the latter part) was totally convincing. His sudden eruptions of anger towards all those who interacted with him was just the exterior, and then you see the tenderness beneath- like when he saw the girl for the first time and lifted her out of the gutter. Somehow, I felt that if the old man was a bit more flexible and little less unyielding, it would have made life so much better! But then the movie would not have been discussed now! haha! The ending where he vanishes was a bit… over-dramatised. I had hoped for a really more tragic ending!
    Kaviyoor Ponnamma’s song in this movie “Ambalakulangare Kulikkan”, was touching, to say the least- somehow the words, her aspirations, the warm company of her friends back home, and juxtaposed with her current life as a widow with a little child, but now with a visible man in her life (against her missing husband) made the song bitter-sweet.
    KS Sethumadhavan is now, indeed, along with Vincent, one of my favourite Malayalam movie Directors.

    1. not only in tamil, this film was remade in hindi (title is BABU if my memory is right) starring RAJESH KHANNA.

  3. A touching tribute Remy!He was the last word in underplaying the character with the maximum impact.Seen ‘Kadalppaalam’ Remy?

      1. Neither Tamil nor new Mal’m, for that matter, can handle such themes, the audience in either case having been hopelessly brainwashed.

        1. Let us hope that the current resurrection underway in the malayalam film industry manages to come up with something close… but the movies of old… i doubt if we shall ever come across anymore of that kind.

          1. That resurrection is somewhat superficial. More a matter of survival. That era relied, to some extent, on good fiction and imitations thereof. Though poorly adapted too often, they at least obeyed the saying, മുല്ലപ്പൂമ്പൊടി… സൌരഭ്യം.

  4. with due respect to Nadigar thilagam… i think it was an improper casting which made the tamil version a dud…the beefy, rolly-polly nadigar thilagam..was not the perfect choice of the rugged, street savvy rickshaw puller. i have always believed that Gemini Ganesan (though he is not as good as an actor as sivaji) would have been better (in terms of physical appearance) s the protagonist rickshaw puller.

    1. Yes, Sivaji was a wrong choice for the role. but i remember another movie where he played a taxi/lorry driver sentenced to help the family of the man he ran over. he played a rough man wracked with guilt, eventually revealing a softer heart. he was more convincing in that. i have no idea what the name of the movie is. Gemini GAnesan now.. that is a thought.

          1. neethi was also remade from hindi film DUSHMAN (1971) starring rajesh khanna… to be honest, RAJESH KHANNA was far better in this role as truck driver than sivaji in tamil version.. SATHYAN and SIVAJI ganesan had acted together in tamil film called PESUM DEIVAM. it was one of those rare movies where sathyan had a clean shaved face including moustache. only other tamil film sathyan acted was AALUKKORU VEEDU.

  5. Sathyan lives in our hearts, always reminding us what ‘Acting’ really is, and a lesson to all the actors! Forty one years haven’t made his presence any dimmer, only stronger!
    We love you Sathyan, the Master of Cinema and a very dear friend of my father, Mr A T John!

    1. You are absolutely right Dr. Elizabeth.
      I am sure your father had plenty of anecdotes to share with you about his friend. Would love to hear them:)
      Thanks for your comment.

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