A character actor par excellence

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Nedumudi Venu Photo: H. Vibhu

Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from Sivaji Ganesan at the Filmfare Awards in 1999. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Nedumudi Venu (1948-2021) was well-known for the variety and depth of characters he portrayed both in parallel cinema, which launched him as an actor in the early 1970s, and in popular movies, which brought him much recognition as a character actor.

During a career spanning over five decades, Nedumudi Venu, one of India’s most versatile actors, often liked to talk about his childhood in the villages of Kuttanad in central Kerala, a place of great natural beauty where “even within a radius of 10 to 15 kilometres, one would come to know an umpteen variety of ‘characters’, all with their own quirks and foibles.”

Venu would delight audiences by talking about these real-world characters who had so caught his fancy as a young man that whenever he was required to give life to a fictional character in a film “a lot many of those rural folk would queue up in my mind, as if saying ‘why don’t you pick me as your model?’ or ‘how could you choose him when I am here?’ “

It was typical of the man to talk about striking character traits in the people whom he met every day, and surely, in later life, it was his habit as an actor to knock at the doors of directors and fellow actors in the middle of the night in order to discuss the details about the character he was supposed to play in the film.

Nedumudi Venu, who died in a private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram on October 11, had made for himself a special place in the hearts of moviegoers in Kerala. At the time of his death, aged 73, he had acted in over 500 films, a majority of them in Malayalam and some in Tamil, and was well-known for the variety and depth of characters he portrayed both in parallel cinema, which launched him as an actor in the early 1970s, and in popular movies, which brought him much recognition as a character actor.

Venu was equally at ease switching from stylised acting in plays such as ‘Avanavan Kadamba’ to popular roles such as that of the carpenter, Chellappan Asari, in Thakara, one of his most celebrated early movies.

Surely, his grounding was in folk arts and theatre, and his parents, both schoolteachers, were particular that their five children, all boys, got the best gurus to teach them in a variety of art forms from a very young age. It was especially his father, Kesava Pillai, who nurtured in him a liking for folk arts and music and theatre, and Venu actively took part in organising and acting in plays during his school and college days.

The turning point was a drama contest held at the S.D. College in Alappuzha, in which Venu and his collegemate (later popular film director) Fazil excelled and were “discovered” by poet, dramatist and theatre director Kavalam Narayana Panicker.

Venu often said that the days he spent with Kavalam and the other talented artists who flocked to the troupe did a lot of good to him and gave him rich experience and exposure, and that there was never a dull moment in his later life because he needed only to rewind and recall those early days for him to feel contented. “Only after I came into Kavalam’s theatre group did I realise that acting is indeed a greater calling,” he once said.

At that time, Kavalam’s plays were not the ones Kerala was familiar with. It required stylised dialogues, there was dance, and music, singing and the playing of musical instruments and it was very hard work for the actors. Though Kavalam had invited both Fazil and Venu to his group, the former slowly withdrew from the troupe. Venu thought it was the place for him to gain the right exposure and a golden opportunity for him to present his talents before an elite audience and win their appreciation.

It was a dream come true for Venu when Kavalam invited him to join the experimental theatre troupe he was forming in Thiruvananthapuram in the mid-1970s, which soon attracted all the big names, including the legends in Malayalam cinema and theatre such as the directors Aravindan, Bharathan, Padmarajan, John Abraham, Mohanan, poets such as Ayyappa Paniker and Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, and a variety of actors such as Narendra Prasad, Gopi, John Paul and so on.

It was Aravindan who directed Panicker’s play 'Avanavan Kadamba', and ‘Deivathr’ in which Venu played prominent roles. He made his debut in Aravindan’s Thampu, a film released in 1978, and quickly became a regular in the films directed by stalwarts such as Bharathan and Padmarajan.

Nedumudi Venu once described the period as ‘the most beautiful phase in his life.’ “We would get together regularly, we had a lot of fun, seemingly, but at the same time we all learnt a lot, and it was an important experience for me. Kadammanitta, Ayyappa Paniker, C.S. Sreekantan Nair, Bhaskaran Master, all of them used to come there. I saw Mrinal Sen for the first time in their company. It was a brilliant period. It was from there that a lot of films and plays originated, a lot of stories were written there. Nobody knew from where the food came or who bought the liquor. But such things had only secondary importance. It was the friendship and camaraderie there that we found inebriating. Musicians, painters, writers, sculptors all used to come there. They never considered me as a junior person and treated everyone equally,” Venu once told an interviewer.

He also mentioned that quite early in his career this friendship helped him differentiate between the requirements and subtleties of acting for the theatre and for films and was fortunate enough to have entered the film world with the support of great directors and film-makers such as Aravindan, Bharathan, Padmarajan, K.J. George and Mohanan, who knew him well personally and hence knew his potential and limitations and how to mould him well as an actor.

Malayalam parallel cinema, too, was discovered by critics at the same time and the seats in theatres were filled by common people who came to appreciate the new-wave classics, from directors such as Aravindan, Bharathan and Padmarajan, and the plays and folk music directed by Kavalam Narayana Panicker and the tongue-in-cheek poetry of the likes of Ayyappa Paniker.

A teacher and a journalist

Meanwhile, Venu had to find other ways to earn a living. He first taught in a tutorial college and then found a job as a journalist in the popular Malayalam journal Kalakaumudy. There, too, his background stood him in good stead, and he was given a free hand to write about “things that were important but were little known at that time”. He was the first to write about the Kathakali singer Kalamandalam Hyder Ali, the Tayambaka expert Trittala Kesava Pothuval, about the Padayani festival at the Kadammanitta temple, about musicians like M.D. Ramanathan, and conduct interviews with most of the well-known playwrights such as N. Krishna Pillai, N.N. Pillai, Toppil Bhasi, K.T. Mohammed, G. Sankara Pillai, C.S. Sreekandan Nair and Kainikkara Kumara Pillai.

Venu’s Chellappanasari in the Padmarajan film Thakara, was a role that found him a lot of fame and soon he grew to be an actor who could at once be at ease in parallel cinema as well as popular movies such as Kallan Pavithran, Odaruthammava Aalariyaam, Panchavadippalam, His Highness Abdullah, Bharatham, Chitram, and Tenmavin Kombathu. He had great on-screen rapport with his fellow actors, among them the superstars Mohan Lal and Mammootty, and Gopi and Tilakan and female artists Kaviyoor Ponnamma and ‘KPAC’ Lalitha.

Venu had a deep knowledge of Malayalam culture and literature and poetry, and folk songs were second nature to him. He would recite poetry beautifully, and sing those songs, and the whole troupe would enjoy a wonderful evening at the sets or in their hotel rooms. He was also an accomplished percussionist who could play the Mridangam, the Ghatam and the Idakka with felicity and this gave his performances in many films and videos an authentic ring.

Priyadarshan, who directed many of the popular films in which Nedumudi Venu played a key role, said, “To him, acting was like breathing. I have never seen an actor who would constantly change his face or expression to suit the characters he played. He would ask in great detail about the character he was to portray. We would then reach a consensus on how the character should act under each circumstance in that film. He would take photographs of himself in that role and send them to me. If we requested any change, he would do it meticulously.”

Once Venu was asked what the factors that sustained him for so long in the Malayalam film industry were. “Two things,” he said. “The variety of characters that came my way and the friendships I maintained throughout my career, and the lack of inhibitions in any of them.” He also believed that the Malayalam film industry was so rich in talent, unlike those in many other languages where there was dearth of good actors to do character roles.

Venu was often required by his directors to portray characters much older than his age. But he would deliver. “I thought only about doing that character well enough. After all what is the fun in acting like an old man after you have really become old? The fun is to do it before you grow old,” he used to say.

Venu believed that there was a lot of innocent mischief, and roguishness even, within everyone, which made good actors do bad characters with conviction. He had portrayed a number of them, for instance, in films such as Kallan Pavithran, Odaruthammava Aalariyaam, Chambakkulam Thachan, and Dhanam

Awards galore

He never went after awards or recognition and believed that they should, if at all, come in search of a deserving artist. He won the State award for Best Supporting Actor in 1990 (for his role in the film, Chamaram), for the Best Actor in 1981 (Vidaparyum Munpae), 1987 (Minnaminungintae Nurunguvattam), and 2003 (Maargam), for Second Best Actor in 1994 (Tenmavin Kombathu), Special jury award in 1990 (Bharatham and Santhwanam) and the TV award for best actor in 2001 (Avasthandarangal). He won the National Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1990 (His Highness Abdullah), Special Jury National Award in 2003 (Maargam) and the National Award for Best Non-Feature Film Narration in 2006 (Minukku).

Many of his fans and admirers find it difficult to believe that Nedumudi Venu never got the national award for best actor. In response, Venu said in an interview: “It is not like only those who are good get such awards or that all those who are good get such awards. But there are several occasions when people tell me they wonder why I did not get the award for my role. This oft-repeated concern itself feels like I have got the award many times.”

Venu has been extremely reluctant to act in advertisement films. “It is likely that people may buy a product just because Nedumudi Venu endorsed it. At least some people will develop a trust just because I said it. But I am not okay with it. I cannot imagine myself endorsing a product just like that,” he would often explain.

People have described him as the most diplomatic person in Malayalam cinema and he agreed with that view saying that he would deliberately keep himself away from saying or doing things that would hurt anybody or cause them harm. “I do express my opposition to things I do not like. But not in a loud way, or provocatively,” he said. He also believed that actors should keep away from party politics, often quoting the example of Prem Nazir, the evergreen hero who was always remembered as a gentleman in real life, who he felt did not get a good deal from politicians.

There is no end to the kind of characters Nedumudi Venu has portrayed in films, but when asked what kind of a person he was in real life, he would reply: “I definitely do not want to be the many persons I have portrayed on screen. They are people confined to a frame, people who are very strict about their beliefs and so on. Instead, I have left myself roam free to be whatever I want to be.”

On another occasion he spoke about how strictly he dealt with the characters he was required to enact. “It is my nature to make a portrait of the character I am asked to play. I would want to know a lot of things such as where this character was born, who his parents were, his educational background and so on. Once I fix the character, then he should move only as per my dictates. A character is only a puppet, and an actor must always have a good hold on the strings. The puppet should move only as the actor commands. That must be all that happens there. The character should be under your control. He has no life of his own.”

Nedumudi Venu had a way with words and was a charming speaker and was equally at ease when speaking about cinema, theatre, art, development, climate change, urbanisation or spirituality. Sometime back, an interviewer in a prominent television channel abruptly asked Venu, ‘Do you pray?’ And Venu replied without any hesitation: “At night, I look up at the sky. There is something called the ‘subjective shot’ in cinema. It is something like filming you from my subjective view. Naturally there should be a counter-shot. So I try to pretend as if I am looking down and seeing things from the perspective of a star. That is the most interesting part. From there, even the solar system is a speck. Only then comes the earth, and only thereafter comes Nedumudi Venu, the so-called great actor in Malayalam. Such an exercise is very useful to remind one of one’s own importance in this world.”

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