Sukumaran, the gentle lion in Malayalam cinema

 Sukumaran and Kaloor Denis
Combo image of Sukumaran (L) and Kaloor Denis

He made his acting debut in MT Vasudevan Nair’s directorial debut, ‘Nirmalyam’. I can’t believe that this year is his 25th death anniversary. For a man who rarely went wrong with his life’s plans, his unexpected death at such an early age was a shock for the industry. I still can’t get over his last days at the Indira Gandhi Hospital. I still recall it with a heavy heart.

Though time is said to be a great healer, some losses will continue to haunt you for a long time. When it comes to Sukumaran, he was such an allrounder in Malayalam cinema and was playing really well when death suddenly snatched him.

Born on June 10th, 1948, Sukumaran left us at the age of 49 on June 16, 1997. It was in 1973 that Sukumaran made his debut in my guru, MT Vasudevan Nair’s directorial debut, ‘Nirmalyam’. I remember watching the matinee show out of my reverence for MT as well as to watch the new actor in the film. I was accompanied by my Chithra Paurnami colleagues including John Paul, Sebastian Paul, Antony Chadayanmuri, and Artist Kitho.

I still remember his introduction shot—a night shot at a Temple where he is lighting a beedi. His face comes alive on screen when his father who is a Velichapadu calls his name.

We were all impressed by this new actor. He seems to be a fine representation of a new generation of actors.

Sukumaran family
Sukumaran (2L) with Mallika (R), Prithviraj (L) and Indrajith

“Where were you all this while,” his father asks him to which Appu (Sukumaran) replies without interest— “What’s the point of sitting here?” That was his first dialogue. Velichapadu didn’t really have an answer to that.

In the years to come, Sukumaran made a mark for himself in Malayalam cinema. More than the soft-spoken characters, he seemed more at ease playing arrogant, no-nonsense characters who spoke fiery dialogues.

Though PG Antony won a National award for ‘Nirmalyam’, it was Sukumaran who gained the most from his debut film. During that period, it was a novelty to have a hero who spoke dialogues so stylishly. He had the unique ability to floor the audience with his superb dialogue delivery. In fact, a lot of actors tried to imitate this style.

With films like ‘Sathrathil Oru Rathri,’ ‘Kochu Kochu Thettukal,’ ‘Varikuzhi’, ‘Bandhanam’, ‘Azhizhatha Valakal’, ‘Valarthu Mrigangal’ his market value rocketed high in Malayalam cinema.

I never expected to meet him or become a scriptwriter in Malayalam cinema. Our meeting happened four years after he made his debut in Malayalam cinema. I was there in the capacity of a journalist from Chithra Paurnami.

That meeting went well. We met at Hyderabad where he was shooting for IV Sasi’s ‘Angeekaram,’ which starred Sridevi, Vincent and Ravikumar. Sasi introduced me to everyone except Sukumaran, who was sitting alone in the garden. I felt he was an introvert. Maybe because he was sitting amidst egoistic and elite people.

I approached him and introduced myself as a journalist. For some reason, the minute he heard my publication name, he started talking freely. “Oh! I Have heard of Chithra Paurnami. Isn’t it the very publication started by NN Ramachandran under the guidance of Nasir sir? Are you the one running it now?”

I informed him that I had brought the newspaper. “Yes, I am aware of it. I do see it,” Sukumaran told me in his characteristic style of speaking. That day he gave me a long exclusive interview.

It’s after I spoke to Sukumaran that I felt he would be apt to play the role of Madhu’s brother in ‘Ee Manohara Theeram’ and recommended him to IV Sasi. That’s how he got the role.

After that, we have met at various locations. That was also the beginning of a great friendship. So you can say that friendship paved the way for my entry as a scriptwriter in Malayalam cinema.

“Don’t you write a lot of film articles and features? I think you should be able to write a script. Do give it a try,” he told me. As if to validate that, I managed to become a scriptwriter after two years.

He has acted in at least 15 films scripted by me including ‘Akalangalil Abhayam,’ ‘Sambhavam’, ‘Witness,’ ‘Sandharbham,’ ‘Souhridam,’ ‘Koodikazhcha,’ ‘New Year,’ ‘Uppukandam Brothers,’ ‘Unnikrishnante Adyathe Christmas’ and ‘Boxer.’ If he was alive he would have been part of many of my films. One has to listen to his stylish dialogue delivery in ‘New Year’, in which he plays a cop. That’s one reason I call him for my films, just to listen to his stylish dialogue delivery.

During the shooting of ‘New Year,’ we also got an opportunity to spend some time together. We were staying at the same hotel in Ooty.

After the shoot, I would spend time in Sukumaran’s room. Not that he is someone who will make friends easily. He was a special guy. He was very straightforward and would say what was on his mind. He was also very strong-willed and would keep his word no matter what. I think Prithviraj is also like that. When it comes to salary, he was uncompromising. And a lot of producers had issues with him over this. This is Sukumaran’s take on that: “Dennis, why are we working? To live, right? And you need money to live. So how is it fair that we should not get paid for our work? He also has an allegory to reinstate that theory— “money is like our 6th sense. Without that rest of our senses won't be able to function. Without money, we will be considered worthless.”

It was always fascinating to listen to Sukumaran’s philosophy about life. Having said that when he learnt that we had some financial constraints during ‘Unnikrishnante Adyathe Christmas’ produced by Kitho and me, he reduced his salary. Even for that, he had an explanation— “Aren’t we all artists? I don’t think you should be cruel towards your co-artists for money.”

That way Sukumaran was always a fighter who always fought for his rights. During the first year of AMMA, Sukumaran gave a case against the organization saying that its selection process was faulty. That resulted in an unannounced ban for Sukumaran in the organization. At that time we were in the middle of the pre-production work of ‘Boxer.’ Babu Antony and Sukumaran were the main leads and Dinesh Panicker was the producer. When Amma organization tried their best to remove Sukumaran from the film, he called me.

“Won't you land in a soup if I act in this film, Dennis?” I told him—“If the main hero isn’t there, we would be in trouble. So you have to act.” Hearing this he agreed to act in the film.

Two days after the shooting started, a few members from AMMA met me at Kavitha Tourist home and demanded the expulsion of Sukumaran from the film. But I stood my ground. When things started getting out of hand, there was a meeting chaired by different film organizations. The meeting was at Ernakulam Lotus club. MACTA was represented by Joshi, Fasil, John Paul, Jesy, SN Swamy, Shibu Chakravarthy, and Hari Kumar while AMMA was represented by Mammootty, Mohanlal, Madhu, Soman, Ganeshan and TP Madhavan.

Sukumaran came amidst a lot of drama and refused to apologize for filing a case against AMMA. Not just that he also gave a strong speech in English against the working of AMMA and left. Finally, the matter was resolved with the intervention of Madhu.

Despite that, a lot of people had animosity towards Sukumaran. He wasn’t getting enough offers. During the dubbing of ‘Boxer’, he confided to me that he was hurt that a lot of people he thought were his friends were plotting against him.

“There are very few people with individuality in cinema, Dennis. The ones who claim to have individuality are all pretentious. It is when I had a difficult time that I realised who are my closest friends. But Sukumaran won't admit defeat. Would rather die than get browbeaten.” I was reminded of Mahabharata’s Karna when I heard his words. 

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