Priyadarshan’s Monhanlal-starrer Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea, which finally hit theatre screens in December, 2021, won three awards at the 67th National Film Awards. The film has received mixed reviews and it’s hard to argue with those who find some glaring faults in a technically-brilliant film, but for fans of Malayalam cinema, there was something that will always remain priceless - Nedumudi Venu’s performance as the Samoothiri of Kozhikode
Released in theatres two months after Venu’s death, it was the great actor’s last film in a career that spanned almost five decades and included around 500 films. Given the fact that a lot of us were mourning his death, it was hard to see the character he played as the ruler of Kozhikode, who faced an aggressive foreign invader and dirty politics in his court, and not a man who felt like a family member.
The Samoothiri in Marakar was sidelined and pushed aside, much in the same way the actor was denied his due in the pantheon of Indian film greats. He may have been unwell and ailing while the film was being shot, so a lot of the physical pain and mental anguish that was visible in the character was not a mask. His roles as a ‘Karanavar’ in cinemas for many years automatically endeared him to Malayali families around the world.
Malayalam cinema and reality
For a state known for its exceptional art cinema, the brilliance of its commercial films has often been overlooked. What made Malayalam movies such a treat in the golden days of the 1980s and early 90s, was the fact that the people who acted in them looked and spoke like average Malayalis. The audience could see themselves in the actors, and few people had this kind of resonance with the public as Venu.
It’s not just his critically acclaimed roles that Malayalis will remember Venu for. How can a Malayalam film lover ever forget Advocate Kaimal who hired the thief Vishnu (Mohanlal) as Kalyani’s (Ranjini) husband in Chithram? It’s hard not to smile when thinking about the scene where Kaimal gets slapped by a foreigner, after Vishnu ran off with his clothes.
The combination of Venu and Mohanlal in films is something so many of us got used to in that era. Those of us living in the United States in the 1990s were thrilled when Dasan (Mohanlal) and Vijayan (Sreenivasan) from the Nadodikattu series came to Houston for Akkare Akkare Akkare. Venu was absolutely authentic in his role as Sivadasa Menon, an Indian diplomat. There was that brilliant dialogue between him and Dasan about who is more important in the hierarchy - a CID officer or a member of the IFS.
Mohanlal, Sreenivasan and Venu were together in serious films as well, such as the 1990 classic His Highness Abdullah, for which Venu for his performance as Maharaja Udayavarma won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Venu’s roles in art cinema showed the sheer depth of his acting talents. Thankfully a few of these are available on free streaming platforms online. One film that is difficult to find is Parinamam, which was produced by NFDC in 2003 and looks at loneliness faced by retired people.
A dying generation
The late release of Marakkar gave Malayalis around the world a chance to bid goodbye to one of the real greats of Malayalam cinema. Venu’s passing away takes away from us one more great in a long line. It’s been nine years since Sukumari passed away. M G Soman and Sukumaran died in 1997, while we lost Thilakan in 2012 and G K Pillai and Rizabawa in 2021.
Like Venu, these greats of Malayalam cinema represented an era when people had both limited means of entertainment and limited distractions. One can never underestimate the role cinema played in the lives of ordinary Malayalis post-Indian independence. It’s also the fact that Malayalam cinema was representative of all of the state’s communities and religious groups, and boldly looked at social ills that it had this kind of resonance among the populace.
For those Malayalis born post 1991 and live in a globalised world, the best way to understand Kerala and Malayali society is to watch some of Venu’s classics. The rest of us will always have these films to relive some of the most wonderful memories of years long gone.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)