A meeting in memory of Innocent organised in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday by a group that calls itself Prem Nazir friends might seem odd. Innocent, after all, was a popular character actor in the post-Nazir era.
It was therefore not a surprise that anyone who was part of the Prem Nazir Suhruth Samithi nor anyone who spoke during the meeting had even a minor anecdote that would place Innocent anywhere in the vicinity of the yesteryear superstar. Yet, Prem Nazir's presence, in the form of a smiling black and white photograph, at the meeting in honour of Innocent looked appropriate.
It is true that Innocent became a notable presence in Malayalam films in the nineties, after Nazir passed away. Ramji Rao Speaking, his first big film as lead and the film that generated a kind of Innocent mania and launched a thousand mimicry artistes, was released in August 1989, six months after the death of Nazir.
But Innocent was born as an actor in a film starring Nazir, the 1972 A B Raj directorial 'Nrithasala'.
He had a small role, as a journalist who sounded jarringly artificial, not in the Irinjalakkuda slang he later immortalised but in the upper caste slang that Adoor Bhasi employs when he played dumb Brahmin roles.
Innocent himself had once said that Nazir had called him aside and told him not to imitate Bhasi. "You have a peculiar body and a very special way of speaking. Use them to good effect," Innocent spoke of Nazir's advice in a magazine piece.
"Once when a director insisted that I speak like Bhasi chettan, Nazir sir objected. 'Why do you want to block him from developing his own style,' Nazir sir told the director like he was making a humble request on my behalf," Innocent had once said.
Innocent's second and third films - Football Champion (A B Raj - 1973) and Urvashi Bharathi (Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair - 1973) - were also with Nazir.
And the first film he produced, the classic 'Vidaparayum Munpe', had Nazir in the lead. "I too had a small part in the film and even then Nazir sir would tell me that I would succeed as an actor only if I shook off Adoor Bhasi from my body," Innocent had written.
Had Nazir been alive to witness some of Innocent's performances, he would have been pleased. Nazir would even have had a hearty laugh if he were to be told that Innocent was the most mimicked actor after him.
However on Wednesday, with a smiling Nazir looming over the meeting, the speakers dwelled mostly on Innocent the family man.
"If he speaks for 10 minutes, he would have repeated Alice's name four times," said higher education minister R Bindu. "Thanks to Innocent's frequent mention of her, Alice is a familiar name in Malayali households," the minister said.
Deputy speaker Chittayam Gopakumar, too, referred to Innocent's deep bond with his wife. "Whether it is a cultural or literary or political event, Innocent cannot complete his speech without taking his wife's name," Gopakumar said.
Innocent's close friend and actor and filmmaker P Sreekumar said he was the person who made it cool for an actor and an artiste to be a family man. "It was usual for artistes in general to abandon their families in their quest for artistic success. Such behaviour was even romanticised," Sreekumar said. "But Innocent held his family tightly close. His commitment to his profession was perhaps even more than matched by his responsibility towards his family. He was a model for the rest of us," he said.
Filmmaker Balu Kiriyath who cast him as the heroine's father in the 1984 hit 'Paavam Poornima' remembers the day he met Innocent to book him for the film. "At that point, he had decided to quit films. The films he produced, though critically acclaimed, had caused him huge losses," Kiriyath said.
He met Innocent at his friend's house in Madras on the day he had booked a ticket back to Kerala. "My producer was with me and we told him that he should play an important role in our film. At that time he was not offered any big roles and so he looked at me a bit suspiciously. So my producer gave him a packet and said this was his advance. He had a hint of a smile on his face but he did not open the packet. There was disbelief on his face. I asked him to open the packet and count the money," Kiriyath said.
Up until then, Innocent had received nothing more than Rs 2000 for a role. This packet had Rs 10,000. "There were tears in his eyes. He didn't say anything for a while and then he said 'let me call Alice' and got up to book a trunk call to his house," Kiriyath said.
After this, Innocent had never thought of quitting films.