Portrait of a patriarch

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

Thilakan, who had an all-consuming passion for acting.-H. VIBHU

Thilakan, who had an all-consuming passion for acting.-H. VIBHU

Thilakan (1938-2012), the quintessential father figure in Malayalam cinema, stood out for his ability to bring raw and untameable energy into his performances.

FOR a generation of Malayalam film-goers, Thilakan was the quintessential father figurestern, demanding, unsparing, and even deeply ambivalent. In the past four decades, he essayed the role of the father umpteen times, bringing out in the process fatherhood in all its diversity, intensity and complexity. With his departure, Indian cinema has lost a great artist and a thinking actor whose passion for his art overshadowed everything else in his life.

Perunthachan (Master Builder, 1990, directed by Ajayan), the most celebrated of Thilakans films, epitomises the ambivalent spirit of the father persona that Thilakan was. In the film, he played the eponymous role of the mythical master-architect who kills his own son out of jealousy and rivalry. In the course of his career, he was the strict and punishing father/teacher, the wise patriarchal guru, the menacingly lecherous stepfather, the maverick church priest, the master of the black arts, the castaway rebel, and so on. In the last decade, he was the understanding grandfather figure, or sometimes the rebel and outcast who haunts the establishment with his defiant, and sometimes menacing, presence. His departure leaves Malayalam cinema orphaned in more ways than one.

Passion for theatre

Surendranatha Thilakan, born in 1938, became active in theatre from his teens. Theatre was his first love and he nurtured it throughout his life. He was part of several prominent theatre groups in Kerala, starting with the Mundakayam Nataka Samithy. He went on to perform with the Kerala Peoples Arts Club (KPAC), the Kollam Kalidasa Kala Kendram, the Edapally Prathibha Theatres of actor P.J. Antony, the Changanacherry Geetha Theatres, and the Chalakudy Sarathy Theatres. He travelled and performed all over Kerala, which helped him establish himself as an actor and also build a rapport with the audience.

He made his film debut in 1972 with Periyar, which was directed by P.J. Antony, his guru and mentor. In it, he plays the role of an intellectual who loses his mind after being rejected at the Civil Services interview that makes a mockery of his knowledge. His opening words in the film, addressing his father, played by Antony himself, was: To be or not to be: thats the question. In life as in art, he struggled with this life-and-death question.

His film persona emerged fully only in the 1980s through a slew of films directed by K.G. Georgesuch as Ulkadal (The Sea Within, 1979), Kolangal (1981), Yavanika (The Curtain, 1982), Lekhayude Maranam oru Flashback (Lekhas Death, a Flashback, 1983), Adaminte Variyellu (Adams Rib, 1983), Panchavadipalam (Panchavadi Bridge, 1984), and Irakal (Prey, 1986). The characters he portrayed brought out in bold and stark colours his unbelievable range as an actor. Here was a man who was not handsome in the conventional sense but who had something essentially Malayalee about him. And his histrionic talents immediately struck a chord with the viewers. Georges films mostly centred on the structures of violence in the patriarchal Christian families of central Travancore. Thilakan embodied many a masculine character from that milieu who ruthlessly asserted his power over the others in the family and in society.

The other director whose films found Thilakan in his element was the late Padmarajan. In his Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal (Vineyards for Us to Dwell, 1986), he played the role of a man lusting after his stepdaughter, while in Moonam Pakkam (On the Third Day, 1988) he plays an aged man whose life is lit up by the arrival of his grandson before fate snuffs out the young mans life. The contrasting nature of the two characters in a way encapsulated the deeply ambivalent nature of Thilakan the actor.

Peak of his career

The period between 1985 and 2000 marked the peak of his career. In films such as Kireedom (The Crown, 1989) and Chenkol (The Sceptre, 1993, both by Sibi Malayil), Perunthachan, Kattukuthira (Wild Horse, 1990, by P.G. Viswambharan), Santhanagopalam (1994, by Sathyan Anthikad), Sphadikam (Crystal, 1995, by Bhadran), and Kannezhuthi Pottumthottu (1999, by T.K. Rajeevkumar), Thilakan played the father with an intensity that was rare in Malayalam cinema.

He did not draw his authority and power from pre-existing sources such as the family or other social establishments and fought his way to the top as one who spurned mercy and was himself merciless.

His roles and acting style had close similarities with those of actors of an older generation, such as Kottarakara Sreedharan Nair, P.J. Antony, and Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, but were also radically different. Unlike their protective authority or power that was based on feudal, familial or traditional foundations, Thilakans characterson the strength of their own abilities, skill or statuswielded almost dictatorial power over others in the family.

Isolation and ban

During the last decade, one witnessed a lonely but assertive Thilakan fighting for his dignity and often crossing the limits in his passionate but always sincere outbursts against the powers that be in the film industry. In many cases, it seemed as if his screen persona was spilling over into worldly, organisational matters, irking all around. At one point, industry associations even went to the extent of imposing a ban on him. But he fought back vigorously and went on to give impressive performances.

Despite his increasing isolation and worsening physical ailments, many notable directors chose him, and he always came up with impressive performances. Some of his films of this period include Achan (Father, 2011, by Ali Akbar) where he plays the role of a frail old man left behind by his children, and who despite his failing health fights back. In Manjadikkuru (Lucky Red Seeds, 2008, Anjali Menon), he plays a grandfather whose presence haunts his grandson from beyond the grave. In Ividam Swargamanu (Here is Paradise, 2009, Roshan Andrews), Indian Rupee (2011), and Spirit (2012, both by Renjit) and Ustaad Hotel (2012, Anwar Rasheed), one can see resonances of the father figureoften ailing and weak but hauntingly persistent and powerful.

Thilakans acting style drew its intense energy from theatre. It employed the whole body in the emoting process, always creating a powerful presence in the visual and narrative field. Through his performance he always brought the best out of his fellow-actors, who always struggled to keep up with his energy and presence.

In many films in which he played father to leading actors Mohanlal, Mammootty, Jayaram and Dileep, one can see this chemistry at work. Thilakan was also a master of voice modulation, which was very much evident in his captivating performances in radio plays, where he effortlessly carved a character through well-timed and modulated dialogue delivery.

What distinguishes a great actor from a good one is that while the latter does justice to the role and fits perfectly into the defined scheme of the narrative at hand, the former breaks the barrier to go beyond, adding personal intensity and charge to his or her presence. The genius of a great actor like Thilakan rested on his ability to bring raw and untameable energy into his performances. For him acting was like sculpting each moment from the narrative mass, constantly modulating and mixing the levels of intensity of bodily movements and facial expressions, and the depth and intonations of his voice. He will be sorely missed, not only because actors like him are rare, but also because he had an all-consuming passion for art and the courage to speak out.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film/media critic based in Thiruvananthapuram, and a winner of the national award for film criticism.

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