All that was required was an apology from Thilakan. But it never came!

Kaloor Dennis-Thilakan
Kaloor Dennis (L) and Thilakan

It’s difficult not to get overwhelmed by some of the performances of our great actors. You can’t help but marvel at their amazing talent. And to think that such powerful characters were written by mere humans. Thilakan and Sathyan are two of our greatest actors who have the ability to deliver beyond what’s written on paper. They can stun you with poignant silences as well as power-packed dialogues.

If Sathyan amazes us with his spontaneity, effortlessness, and voice modulation, Thilakan’s versatility and subtleness are a sight for sore eyes. And I would like to believe that Thilakan is a notch higher than Sathyan when it comes to his craft. Interestingly Thilakan who was an active theatre artist entered cinema much later than Sathyan.

It was only after the death of Sathyan that Thilakan came to Malayalam cinema. He debuted in the 1973 PJ Antony directed ‘Periyar.’ But unfortunately, neither the film nor Thilakan got noticed. Though he appeared in several significant and brief roles, Thilakan’s biggest career breakthrough turned out to be Sibi Malayil’s ‘Kireedom’ (1989). It was his powerful performance as Mohanlal’s father that really changed his standing in Malayalam cinema. To this day, that heartbreaking dialogue he tells Mohanlal remains a favourite (including a meme favourite)— “Kathi thazhe idada, Ninte Achanada parayane.” His brilliant voice modulation and body language not only stunned the moviegoers but also opened new avenues for the actor in Malayalam cinema.

If you take some of the iconic characters in ‘Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal’, ‘Irakal’, ‘Ennenum Kannettende’, ‘Ponnu’, ‘Thaniyavarthanam,’ ‘Rithubedham’, ‘Sandesham’, ‘Perunthachan’, ‘Chenkol’, ‘Vender Daniel’, ‘Manichithrathazhu’, ‘Sphadikam,’ ‘Veendum Chila Veetukaryangal’, ‘Mookilla Rajyathu’, ‘Kilukkam’, ‘Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu,’ ‘Spirit’, ‘Ustad Hotel’ or ‘Indian Rupee’, they are the kind of roles tailor-made for the actor. He was always revered as an acting guru in Malayalam cinema and was much sought after by writers and directors.

I first met Thilakan at Varkala. He was shooting for PG Vishwambaram’s ‘Onnanu Nammal’ that I had scripted. It was a very brief meeting, and we hardly exchanged a few words. But during my next meeting at the location of Sajan’s ‘Kootinilam Kili’ which was again scripted by me, we managed to have a more detailed conversation.

We became closer on the sets of ‘Ponnu’ which was filmed at Pala. It was a very interesting experience. I reached the location by dusk. The shooting was outdoors. As I walked towards PG Vishwambaran, I noticed a middle-aged man talking to someone. Ashokan and Sithara were also present there. When I inquired to Vishwambaran about Thilakan he told me— “Hey, didn’t you see Thilakan? He was the one who was talking to that guy.”

“Oh was that Thilakan,” I was surprised.

It never crossed my mind that one of the men was Thilakan.

“That is Thilakan. Other actors should learn a thing or two from Thilakan about transitioning into a character,” PG Vishwambaran gushed.

I was astonished by Thilakan’s makeover as a goldsmith. He had the uncanny knack to be the character. You can never see traces of the actor in any of them. While I was talking with Viswambaran, Thilakan came by our side. That’s when Viswambaran told Thilakan about my blunder. But strangely Thilakan didn’t seem to be too overwhelmed about my disclosure.

Since I was at the location for two days, it gave me the opportunity to get closer to the actor. PG and Thilakan shared a warm bond. And Vishwambaran kept ribbing him now and then.

Whenever Thilakan kept conversing about theatre and theatre artists, we would be dismissive. But Thilakan would continue his reverence for theatre and theatre artists. While he would stand by his opinions, we would also put up a good argument.

“Dear Thilakan, drama is not cinema. Both are diametrically different. So please chuck drama out of your mind. "

Not that Thilakan was unaware of it. He understands that cinema doesn’t need the loud acting required on stage. And his performances were a clear indication that he is aware of that demarcation.

Our friendship blossomed on the sets of various films we collaborated on like ‘Oru Kuda Keezhil’, ‘Witness,’ ‘Kadha Ithuvare,’ ‘Ee Kaikalil,’ ‘Thammil Thammil,’ ‘Upaharam’, ‘Iniyum Kadha Thudarum,’ and ‘Alorungi Arangorungi’. That was the time I came to know the man behind the actor. Though it was Lohitadas who has given Thilakan some of the finest characters, when it comes to the number of films, I think we have had the most associations.

He was someone who wouldn’t really show his emotions and would talk about some of the difficult experiences of his life with a smile. His face was so deadpan that I once told him in jest—"Laughter comes spontaneously for everyone. It cannot be shared, borrowed, or sold. Is it because of the bitter experiences that you are not able to smile easily? Maybe it's because you're constantly battling with yourself that you are able to reach the threshold in acting. "

Even if there is some truth in what I am saying, he will be always ready to challenge it with words. Towards the end, he will recite a philosophy: “Our life is only a repetition of the Mahabharata. We are all surrounded by the characters from the Mahabharata. And it will remain like that until the end of the world.”

I have often felt that Thilakan was highly perceptive about the world and was a treasure of knowledge. So many people have found his bluntness uncomfortable and therefore would keep a distance. But when I tell them that it is because they don’t know him enough, that is met with disapproval.

Thilakan is actually like a teenager, very temperamental and moody. He can be arrogant; pick fights aggressively and also sulk. I have heard many people say that Thilakan had this habit of picking a fight with everyone, be it his parents, children, or co-stars. But during those rare instances when he cools down, he would have words of comfort for you.

He has had the maximum fights with the AMMA organization. He has no qualms in calling a spade by its name and would often flare up for issues that he thinks weren’t fair. He has his own rights and wrongs, and he will stick to them vehemently. That resulted in a ban and disciplinary actions from the organization. Even FEFKA had also banned Thilakan during that time. Though AMMA only wanted an apology from Thilakan to end that dispute, he was not prepared to give it. No one supported Thilakan from AMMA. Though there were a few who were fond of him, they were too scared to challenge the organization. I don’t think there was an actor like that in Indian cinema who had the audacity to call out superstars in their own organization. He fought alone.

It was painful to watch the elderly actor direct and act in theatre plays braving ill health as he wanted money during the last stages of his career. But even then, he wasn’t prepared to admit defeat.

In the end, he won. It was when director Ranjith called him to act in ‘Indian Rupee’ disregarding the ban from AMMA and FEFKA that they decided to revoke the order. He played a powerful character in ‘Indian Rupee.’ He was like VS Achuthanandan, the former Chief Minister of Kerala. He would even pick a fight with the younger generation of actors.

“An artist can never be banned. Nor his talent. Art is like an ocean. Boundless. That’s what history says. It will be recreated through words, writing, and books—” this was something Thilakan always used to say.

In the history of Malayalam cinema, Thilakan will always be an encyclopedia for students of cinema. His outstanding performances stand testimony to that. 

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