GK Pillai | 58 active years as an Actor in Malayalam movies

GK Pillai in Agnimrugam (1971)
GK Pillai in Agnimrugam (1971)

58 active years as an Actor !

With the possible exceptions of the legendary TR Omana, who was already 6 movies old when GK Pillai debuted in Snehaseema ( 1954), and Santo Krishnan, there is no one who so aptly deserves the title of the living Patriarch of Malayalam films as this proud and defiant Army man-turned-actor from Chirayinkeezhu in Kerala. Then again, he is elder to her by almost 15 years ! It could be safely assumed that when G Kesava Pillai aka GK Pillai started his career in Malayalam film industry,   most of us were just whims in our parents’ imagination.Born in 1925 at Chirayinkeezhu to Perumpaattel Govindapillai and Saraswathi Amma, the  4th child in the family, he was attracted to the Nationalist movement while at school and he spent more time, out on the streets with the agitators against the Empire, in his younger years that his studies suffered badly. He studied till the old “6th Form” in Chirayinkeezhu itself, his hometown, and realising that his lost time in school can never be redeemed, he ran away from home. Taking the overnight boat ferry to Trivandrum, he walked into an army conscription center at the SMV Highschool premises,  and joined the army. This was  1940, and his first  salary was Rs 10 . He reminisces about sending  Rs 7 to his mother, along with a short note, reassuring her that he was alive, after all.With  the First Kashmir War ( Indo-Pak War) raging, he was stationed in Kashmir in 1948, where the legendary Lt Col CPA Menon was  his inspiration and mentor. It was after being posted to Wellington, Ootty, as a seasoned  Weapons Specialist/Instructor in 1951 that gave him ample opportunities ( as it was more or less a ‘peace posting’)  to host  theater productions, and their Army theater group even invited and got theater groups from South  India to perform at the Army base. He became a prolific writer of drama productions during the period at Wellington, so much so,  that every month, there was a production going live on stage.

His early years of conscription and life in the Army has a close companion in the way life’s events turned out for another of our celebrated “villains” in Malayalam cinema, Jose Prakash, who also got to witness some of India’s milestones in its pre-Independence years through his time in the Army.

GK Pillai and  Jose Prakash in Jesus (1973)
Malayalam Cinema’s most famous ex-Army Officers onscreen.

Evolving as an actor and a director of plays, along with the encouragement from friends, he gathered enough courage to leave  the Army and pursuing acting as a career for life. Those days, in order to be eligible for Army pension, one needed to be in service for 15 years. GK Pillai left army with one year to spare, and forfeited his pension for life. He was 29 years old. But he was soon to realise that the though the allure to tinsel world was magical, the entry was next  to impossible. He even applied for a movie casting of  Modern Theaters, Salem, who strangely, for that project, asked for a deposit of Rs 1000 from actors, which GK Pillai managed to organize through his elder brother who was in Singapore. But nothing much happened after the money was wired to them. Later came to know that the ones behind the project who had put the Modern Theaters moniker as a front, had folded up and disappeared.

It was at this juncture that   MA Rashid, a close friend introduced him to the manager of Vahini Studios where TE Vasudevan, the legendary producer was working as an Assistant Manager. He was planning to produce movies under his own banner, Associated Pictures and was looking around for talent for his debut production, Snehaseema (1954). All the members of the cast were finalised except for the elderly patriarch in the movie.  He debuted as the 65-year old Pooppally Thomas, the villainous father of the character played by Padmini, at the age of 29, and his remuneration was Rs 200 ! That must have taken some amazing daring and fortitude, I would say.

The reviews of the movie had praise for the new debut act, but soon realized that he had two unique traits to his advantage, which no one else had during those times in Malayalam movies –  an amazing grasp on voice modulation and a body language that conveyed fear and intimidation. He soon realized that he would be excellent for villain roles, it was almost his for the taking.

GK Pillai in Snehaseema (1954)
GK Pillai as Poopally Thomas in Snehaseema (1954)

MA Rashid, his friend who introduced him to the Malayalam film industry wanted to produce a film, which was directed by JD ThottanKoodapirappu (1956) which was also Ambika’s debut film in a leading role. Prem Navaz played the lead role and it was also Aranmula Ponnamma’s first ‘mother ‘ role. He movie also saw the debut of Vayalar Rama Verma who would go on to become an integral part of Malayalam Film Industry’s playback Music. Interestingly, GK Pillai also has a namesake in Malayalam films, a theater veteran who also has a handful of movies to his credit, as a comedian, that includes our first 3-D film My Dear Kuttichathan  – Kollam GK Pillai.

Kollam GK Pillai in My Dear Kuttichathan (1984)
Kollam GK Pillai in My Dear Kuttichathan (1984)

A career that began in 1954 still goes strong in 2012, spanning close to six decades ! GK Pillai’s character traits  that bode well for him onscreen, and ensured a steady stream of movies and thereby a healthy career, also seemed to be his undoing too, in a curious sort of way.

If you close your eyes and really try to recall five popular movies of GK Pillai that stuck with you amongst that huge library you have in your head, chances are that all the 5 that you pick would look exactly the same.

His natural characteristics that gave him a unique disposition as an actor amongst his peers of his times had directors flocking to him to do the same kind of roles, over and over again. It was always a screen character of regimented social authority that he portrayed, and it is exactly through these countless derivatives of the same cluster that we bumped into him, movie after movie. It was either a police officer, a  conceited father, a conniving  villain, a helpless provincial chief – there were only so many roles that  Malayalam cinema had for the actor in him, and its amazing that for 6 decades, he consistently delivered these variations on the same bunch, movie after movie.

GK Pillai in Harischandra (1955)
GK Pillai as Sage Vishwamitra in Harischandra (1955)

Right from Merryland‘s mythological blockbusters to Udaya’s Northern Ballads and his fixed repertoire in between,  playing leading roles in the most popular TV soaps ever, his output has been amazingly prolific, to say the least. The very name GK Pillai brings to your mind the clipped, authoritative tones and a matching demeanor that is only reserved for the authoritative figures in our social domains, be it official or domestic. And it is in these roles that GK Pillai lives as an actor, and has been successfully doing it since Prem Nazir‘s  heydays to Dileep‘s, with the same commitment and statuesque, wholesome confidence. That covers a lot of generational stars and their constellations in Malayalam cinema, doesn’t it?

Generally known in the industry as a principled,  thorough gentleman who never thinks twice to speak his mind, it is no wonder that he is one of the few who has never been secretive about  his political ideologies, having been been a staunch supporter and activist of the INC, even taking part in the 1957-58 Vimochana Samaram, till date.

GK Pillai received his first award from the Madras Film Fans’ Association, and as he proudly emphasizes in an interview some time back on Surya TV, “the first ever AWARD for any Malayalam actor from Chennai “, and was recently awarded  the RAGAMALIKA – JAYAN AWARD for 2011 , instituted by the Jayan Samskarika Vedi in memory of the late Jayan, actor, who passed away on 16 November 1980.

GK Pillai with the Ragamalika -JAYAN Award 2011
GK Pillai with the Ragamalika -JAYAN Award 2011

GK Pillai was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Asianet  TV Channel in May, 2012. It is true, across TV  channels in Malayalam, his is a face that forms the common denominator in their most popular soaps. I do not know of any other awards from the “official domain” being awarded to GK Pillai in his 6-decade long career.

GK Pillai awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Asianet, 2012
Pix Credit : Kerala.tv

Maybe, that is also, in a way, a reflection of the ‘supportive’ roles that came his way and helped him sustain the long and fruitful career in Malayalam cinema. The long road taken had always its blessings too, though rarely planned – GK Pillai also got be a part of some of the productions that became milestones in Malayalam cinema. In some it was an important role in the supporting cast while in others, he held the pivotal roles that formed the crux of the narratives. Imagine being a part of Nair Pidicha Pulival (1958) and Karyasthan (2010). Not everyone, except for maybe Madhu, gets to adapt and perform across generations.

GK Pillai in Karyasthan (2010)
GK Pillai in Karyasthan (2010)

It would be interesting to see how the career path and contributions of GK Pillai, the actor to Malayalam cinema would be recorded for posterity, being an actor who was content enough to portray the supporting roles that came his way for six decades to the best of his abilities.

Maybe his debut role at the age of 29 was an indication of what his career would turn out to be in the days ahead. I think it was somehow ominous, looking back, at the number of authoritarian, “patriarchal” roles that  became a part of his career, which still follows, even as an active, productive octogenarian, content parent and a doting grandfather to 14 grandchildren.

Related : GK Pillai | Across the years onscreen in Malayalam cinema

Related : GK Pillai | In Conversation with TN Gopakumar, Asianet (2012)

23 thoughts on “GK Pillai | 58 active years as an Actor in Malayalam movies

  1. Capt.Alexander Francis,
    Thanks for succinctly giving Great Contributions of Shri GK Pillai, the Army Veteran and Stage/Screen Actor for almost 7 decades. In the maiden film itself he had acted with another Army veteran,the late Shri Sathyan.We all Malayalees should ask all political parties of India to give LONG OVER DUE RECOGNITION TO THE SERVICES OF Mr..PILLAI to the nation as a FREEDOM FIGHTER,, World War II Soldier, and fighting the first Independent India’s war against Pakistan and his contributions in the stage and screen acting and writings.


    1. Dear Captain,

      Thank you for writing in. Always a pleasure. With even the 100 Years of Indian Cinema’s official committee feigning ignorance when it came to GK Pillai as far as the history of Malayalam cinema is concerned, one can only wonder as to where appreciation on his services to theatre, film and the nation. One can only hope. Thanks again,cinematters.

      GK Pillai responds to him being excluded from Malayalam cinema’s celebrations. From 3 : 04.

  2. Went through the history of Mr.G.K.Pillai.What a comprehensive description! It’s hard to pick up his best, for me, it’s RAMAN THAMBI of UMMINITHANGA the historical movie of Marthanda Varma is the best. Who can forget his sword-fight when he is stabbed by cruel RAMAYYAN? Though seen when I was only below 10,I remember his last words while falling down “Ramayya,Chathi Nallathalleda”. He was able to fight with 2 swords in both hands. Another character I keep in mind is that of Othenante Makan,as a distant relative of Ragini,who teaches fighting to her. The list will go a long way further so I stop with couple of characters. Thanks to all behind this endeavour. Ravi.C.V. Ambalapara, Ottapalam.

  3. Cinematters
    Thank you for a special on a really deserving subject. After all GK Pillai has been a common factor in most films in a bygone era, which is an achievement in itself. His career needs to be officially recognised.

    Thanks for clearing up the confusion about the two “GK Pillai”s, and for the two Army Actors pic. I barely knew anything about this actor before this OMC special. 🙂

  4. That was an era when your looks rather than acting mattered. And cinema as such hadn’t lost its magic; even a dull documentary, if exhibited at some local auditorium, attracted crowds. The more dramatic you looked, the more you appeal. If some actors still were good, that meant they were born actors. The man under discussion was of the former type. (Not forgetting the then films were more straightforward and less pretentious.)

    1. Quite didn’t clearly get what you said, Kris Tee. Is it that GK Pillai was mediocre as an Actor, but sustained his career by just being dramatic onscreen all through the years?Or is that he was a born actor and hence, he endured ? Thanks..cm

      1. Am I not clear there? Hope I’m! I’d not go as far as mediocre. There were of course worse customers. Still, for instance, see his role in മിണ്ടാ പെണ്ണ്. The only thing he does justice to it is about the looks, among all those characteristics ഉറൂബ് so vividly furnishes in his novel. And that’s the case with his performance in general.

        1. Now you are :). Its exactly the very same thoughts that make me wonder on “how the career path and contributions of GK Pillai, the actor to Malayalam cinema would be recorded for posterity, being an actor who was content enough to portray the supporting roles that came his way for six decades to the best of his abilities.” :).Thanks..cm

          1. cinematters, well, that was a time when your survival relied less on your acting. A competition was not on, to be precise. if സത്യന്‍, കൊട്ടാരക്കര or Antony was still better than many on show today, that meant they were born actors. Which was a point I made in my first comment. And thanks for responding.

  5. I remember GK.Pillai in Snehaseema with Padmini and in Nayaru Pidicha Pulivaalu with Ragini.These were the two character roles which Iikes a lot.Also he has done marvelous part with Sathyapal in Umminithanga as Padmini’s annan(brother).
    Also in Sthanarthi Saarama….i remember him as villan…..!!!

  6. CM thanks for this excellent write up on GKP. Especially the stills from his old movies. Hopefully this December I will meet him.

  7. He is a great artist with a deciplined style in his talk. it may come through his millitary experience. In one of his interview he said for joining army he went to the army recruitment center in trivandrum . He was rejected because his weight was less. then he come out and from a nearby shop he ate some bananas and drink pipe water inorder to gain the weight.After that he again go for the recruitment and was finally selected.His performance in Snehaseema, Sthanarthi Sarama,Ponnapuram kotta,Kadathanattu Makam,Nirthsala,Ee nadu,August 1 and Karyastan was excellent.The malayalam film industry should again give him roles .

  8. he’s been around for a while, hasn’t he? truly worthy of being called a patriarch, like you said. i love the way he speaks. the ‘army man’ comes through in his authoritarian voice. and i think the roles that came later, did more justice to his acting abilities. hats off to this grand old man, still going strong!

  9. good article cm… to be frank i am not a person who admire G K PILLAI.. yes he was a good villain but somehow (may be bcoz, i have watched many pathetic performance of him in early 1950s movies) he is not my favorite stars of those times.. i loved his role in AUGUST 1 more than many of his black & white films. anyway, he is a veteran actor and whoever speaks about malayalam cinema cant ignore his name..

    1. That was the whole idea, Gopalji. He may have probably been relegated to those supporting roles right since the satrt of his career, but to keep yourself active in your profession for close to 6 decades have to be acknowledged. And its not that he is doing B-grade soft porn. He has an envious brand value as far as TV is concerned, and the movie projects he finds himself in these days are with the A-class directors/actors. Regards..cinematters

      1. It seems that GK Pillai, Madhu and Paravoor aBharathan are the only actors (male actors) left with us from the b& w era. the hallmark voice (gambheeryatha) is his speciaiity..but few mimicry artists have emulated him on stage. In the Nineties his career went downhill..and for about 10 odd years, we heard nothing from him till he bounced back with some tele-serials. Nairu Pidicha Pulival, Sancharam, Karyasthan are three movies i would say that shows GK Pillai in other avatars rather than the stereotyped villian.

        1. I guess he mentions about that “lost decade” in his interview with Kairali TV, Narayan.Says he wasn’t one who would go around asking for work. Must have been the proud and defiant Army-man talking rather than the actor there 🙂 Also I think you meant Boban Kunchacko’s Jayan-Mohanlal (!)-Prem Nazir starrer Sanchari (1981). Will watch it again. Thanks so much..cinematters

          1. ooopss.correct- its SANCHARI- the only movie (i believe- and subject to correction) in which our Lalettan acted alongside Jayan. If my memory is correct- GKP portrayed the role of Mohanlal’s father

    1. Divenita ( or is it Nivedita ? 🙂 ), thank you for putting a smile on a Tuesday evening. Anytime is a good time to start watching them, I guess. It is a riot.Thanks again..cinematters

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