Thilakan, one of Indian cinema’s finest actors, speaks to KK Moidu about his personal experiences in showbiz
A two-time National Award winner for film acting, Surendranath Thilakan, was in town recently to receive an award for his lifetime achievement and contribution to Malayalam cinema at a star-studded AMMA Award function held at Sharjah Cricket Stadium. This rare honour came at a time when the thespian is facing a boycott from those of his ilk following a war of words. An acclaimed actor, known for speaking his mind, Thilakan has just chosen to ignore the industry reaction but alleges that the actors’ guilds were being used to safeguard the interests of a few people. He has said this before and in September, except director Thulasidas and some small-screen artistes, none of the Malayalam film industry personalities attended his daughter’s wedding. But even his detractors cannot deny the fact that he is a brilliant actor.
In his own estimation, the creative freedom that film-makers give him has helped him breathe life into the characters he portrays. Osteoarthritis has imposed physical limitations and he has fewer assignments now but he still managed a national level special mention performance in 2007 for Ekantham. Even the film technicians’ guild, MACTA, made an exception recently and honoured him though he is not a technician. His boundless talent is likely to bring him into reckoning once again. In an acting career spanning over five decades, he has gifted the audience many memorable characters. The first screen character he portrayed in 1973 mouthed famous lines from Shakespeare’s works like Hamlet’s words “to be or not to be.” He fondly recalls the dialogues as well as each frame of that film. In the climax, after both the character’s father and sister die, he wonders aloud “Two deaths for one love, so how many deaths for love since the beginning of the world."
Thilakan has always held the audience spell-bound, irrespective of the type of role. Whether it is the lead role, villainy, comical role or character role, the fate of the film has never affected his career because he always excels. He is admired, in particular, for his roles in Kolangal, Kireedam, Rithubedham, Perumthachan, Sphadikam, Moonnaam Pakkam, Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal, Randaam Bhavam, Kaattu Kuthira, Maya Mayooram, Yavanika, Ekantham, Santhana Gopalam, Mugha Mudra (double role), Gamanam, etc. to name a few. His terrific dialogue delivery in villainous roles in Tamil films inspired the audience to refer to him as “super villain.” While other artistes beg directors for a role, the pricey Thilakan has had roles falling into his lap. Directors and producers count on him for important roles, which they believe only he can portray. The actor was paid his full fee for his role in Oru Yathramozhi, directed by Priyadarsan, although he has only one or two scenes in it. He dubbed for SP Balasubramaniam for the children’s film Magic Magic on the singer’s insistence and again received the full fee that he charges for a film. The seventy-three year old actor suffers from many ailments and says that he has to have at least 30 tablets a day. Last month he had to be hospitalised and was in ICU for a couple of days, but ill-health has not robbed him of his appetite for challenging work. Recently he completed a telefilm and three other movies — Orkkuka Vallappozhum, Red Chilies and Makante Achan. He played the lead as the seventy-five year-old Sethumadhavan in Orkkuka Vallappozhum, directed by debutante Sohan Lal. Next he was to reach the location of his forthcoming film directed by Thaha. During this interview for Time Out, he was in his hotel room in Dubai, relaxing before taking an early morning flight home. Here are the excerpts:
Tell us about your entry into filmdom?
I made my film debut in the lead role in Periyar, released in 1973. The film was written and directed by PJ Antony and produced by Hassan-Rasheed. Their earlier choice for the lead was the late Prem Nazir.
How did you get selected for Prem Nazir’s role?
I was working in PJ Antony’s theatre troupe and he recommended my name for the role and they agreed with some reluctance. Although PJ Antony was confident about my talent, the producers had their doubts about casting an unknown actor like me in the lead role and they also feared the audience reaction.
Tell us about your character in Periyar?
My character’s name was David and my father’s role in the film was played by PJ Antony. David was an intelligent youth, who dreamt of becoming a collector. He attends the civil services personal interview fully prepared to answer every possible question. However, his interviewer asks him questions outside his syllabus like “How many buckets of soil does the Himalaya have.” This shocks the bright young man and after the incident, he starts asking strangers odd questions like “How many litres of water does the Periyar river have” and he also advises them “If you don’t know, measure it and find out, then you can become a collector in future."
Did you get many offers after Periyar?
The same year I appeared in four scenes in Madhu-Sharada starrer Gandharvakshethram as the hero’s friend. I also got another offer from a leading banner, Udaya, but the project was shelved and in the next six years I didn’t get a single film offer.
How did you return to the silver screen after six years?
I returned to the film industry by playing a minor role in Ulkadal, directed by KG George and released in 1979. After two years I played the lead in a challenging role as a drunkard, Kallu Varkey, in Kolangal directed by KG George.
Did you receive any kind of training in acting?
No. Talent is inborn and nobody can train a person in acting. However, one can be trained in the technical aspects of film-making. I started acting in my school days and was the best actor in college after which I began my career as a theatre artiste. I was expelled from my college for misconduct and left my home and struggled in life without proper food or shelter. That struggle made me determined to succeed in my chosen vocation.
After becoming a full-time theatre artiste I honed my acting skills by reading books on cinema authored by Russian and American masters. This included the works of Academy Award nominee, Michael Chekhov, and literary scholar AC Bradley, who is best known for his criticisms on Shakespeare. I also watched many foreign films, which had famous actors like Sir Sidney Poitier which helped me to experiment and improve my acting skills.
Why did you leave home?
I was born into a rich family but had very little freedom to pursue my interests, especially acting. My father was the employee of a plantation company. I didn’t have the freedom to talk to people from my surroundings and left home at the age of 19 to pursue total freedom. My obstinacy that I would not return helped me reach this position today.
You have worked in several drama troupes like KPAC, Kalidasa Kala Kendra, Changanassery Geetha, PG Theatres etc. Did that help in shaping your film career?
My theatre experience helped me in films and that gave me an entry into films. But acting in dramas and films is very different. If an actor continues the same drama style of acting in films it would have a negative impact. As a film actor I have done my best to avoid the drama style of acting in films. PJ Antony, the first National Award winner for Best Actor from South India, later told me that as an actor he was not fully successful in outgrowing his drama style of acting even after entering films.
Who is your mentor?
Zoology Prof. Shivaprasad in my college offered me constructive criticism for my performance as Mark Anthony in the college drama.
After closely watching my performance, an imitation of Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Mark Anthony in the Hollywood film, he told me that the applause from my colleagues belonged to Marlon Brando as I was not visible in the role. Prof. Shivaprasad headed the Arts Club and he was in charge of selecting the final plays. Himself, a good actor, he told me that acting was not imitation. He encouraged me by saying “I want to see your performance as Mark Anthony and you can do better.” I took pains to switch from Marlon Brando’s Mark Anthony to my Mark Anthony and finally won the best actor award from the college. This gave me an opportunity to rethink and closely watch the audience response to my performance.
Is a good physique and handsome appearance a must for an actor?
No. If beauty and physique were crucial for an actor, I would not have been in the industry because I am not a handsome man, but I have been active in the industry for so many years. Others who are alive and started their acting careers along with me are still in the industry. Acting is more important since beauty is visible only on the face of the character. If beauty is indispensable, the Academy Award winning black actor, film director, author and diplomat Sir Sidney Poitier would not have been a box-office star. He is not at all good looking and when he smiles his gums are visible. However, I was really impressed by the actor’s performance especially in To Sir With Love. Many actors, who are not good looking, have proven their mettle as actors in Indian and world cinema.
How important is voice for an actor?
Voice is extremely important and that is the identity of an actor.
What about today’s music and film songs?
Music is the basis of all other arts and a good actor has to have a good sense of rhythm. Mohanlal is an example of this. However, most of the current film songs are a challenge to society.
Are you satisfied with the present state of Malayalam cinema?
Malayalam cinema reached world standards 15 years ago, but the standard of Malayalam cinema is declining with each passing day. A good movie should have a good story with a message for society and there cannot be any exceptions to this.
Who is responsible for the low standard of Malayalam cinema?
Producers and directors.
Film-makers say the audience is more interested in commercial entertainers and meaningful films have no audience?
Who says so. Kazhcha and the recently released Kadha Parayumbol etc. are good films and have done good business at the box office.
Do directors respect you as a senior artiste and give you the creative freedom or do they interfere in your work and come up with suggestions?
Most of the directors know each artistes’ capabilities and how much they can trust them to come up with a worthy performance. Even very efficient and experienced directors trust me because of my vast experience. Director Fazil gave me full freedom during a scene in Ente Mamaattikuttiyamma, where a priest is told by the girl’s adoptive mother that he should not visit their home. My character’s smile in the scene has sarcasm and conveys the message that the lady has finished him for good. The scene was appreciated by Fazil and also well-accepted by the audience.
The director duo Anil-Babu were doubtful about the audience reaction to the sentimental expressions of my character Madhavan Nair in the climax scene of Santhana Gopalam. But the audience reacted positively. I believe that a sad scene does not necessarily require lengthy dialogues. The expressions and situations are sufficient to convey the feelings to the audience.
I prepare for a role by studying the script well. Some directors accept my performance while others express their doubts about the audience reaction. I never make changes and it has proven to be successful.
Can you think of any National Award-worthy performances in your past films?
Many of the roles that I played had the potential of fetching me the National Best Actor Award especially the ones in Moonnaam Pakkam, Irakal, Kireedam, Kolangal, Ekantham, Rithubedham etc.
Most of the Malayalam artistes have appeared in the recently released multi-starrer Twenty 20, but you are not there?
They did not approach me for a role.
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