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The Malayalam actor Thilakan, who passed away last Monday, didn't just use his fabled voice to good effect;it was also the perfect foil to the sly ventriloquism he practised. People who knew him - in so far as anyone could claim to know someone like Thilakan and as if there are people like him anymore - reveal that during conversations he acted as though he always knew better. The hidden bait was that once the conversation was over he knew everything you knew as well!
This ability to absorb the world like a sponge accounted for the refreshing reality he brought to a regional genre which, for all its slick production and seductive memes, in the end left you as if cuffed over the ears with a Steadicam.
Early this year, Ustad Hotel, Thilakan's last released film was being shot in north Kerala. The beach in Kozhikode was like a sauna with the fresh asphalt nearby adding another 100 degrees. Thilakan was in and out of hospital, and as the director, Anwar Rasheed, recalled, the aging actor, with his work ethic and passion for the character he depicted, was a tremendous inspiration for everyone on the sets.
The movie is about a pampered young man and his down-to-earth grandfather and how the latter, Kareem (played by Thilakan) helps the youngster realise why the heart matters more than appetites. It's a rite of passage story with a difference and Thilakan, as usual, was an actor better than his material, with the director knowing better than to get in his way.
Whether as the sufi Kareem or as the satanic Antony Pailokkaran in Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (the legendary Padmarajan who made the movie, seeing Thilakan's performance, exclaimed, "This man is evil. It's beyond what my wildest imagination could concoct.") Thilakan at his expressive best was unrivalled. The salty language, the caustic nasal tone with the faint watermark of his southern drawl, together with his gestures, never overdone even when they seemed exaggerated, always provided a special tempo to the scenes he portrayed.
"I remember Kamal Haasan staying back after his shoot for the film Chanakyan. When I asked him why, he said, 'I want to watch Thilakan's acting. ' No doubt, he was an irreplaceable artiste, " says Jayaram, one of Malayalam cinema's top stars.
Though he never went to college, Thilakan proved to be a terrific autodidact. Many coworkers recall the presence he had, how he used to suck the air out of a room and, more interestingly, the odd occasion when someone like Nedumudi Venu (another accomplished actor) did something to upstage him. Their rivalry was well known which makes Venu's praise all the more valuable. "Of course, we had differences of opinion. But on stage or in front of the camera, he was a total actor.
We tended to bounce off each other. If the other person is a brilliant actor like Thilakan you will also improve, " Venu said.
But as an unapologetic theatre snob, Thilakan had a petulant streak - a 'me against the world attitude' - that, later in his career, got him into controversies. For the last few years he was in virtual exile following his open rupture with the actors' association and riling the likes of Mammooty and Mohanlal.
Ostensibly, he took on the 'superstar' culture and paid a big price for it, but critics may have a point in that in some respects Thilakan was not different either. Noticeably in that he seemed to lack an inner filter, a reluctance to examine his choices. The intensity he brought to his roles, paradoxically, hid a lack of introspection, and the result was an inability to push the envelope where his considerable acting abilities were concerned. A less theatrical Thilakan, one who transcended the view of performance as a one-act show without an interval, could have added to his repertoire and made him, if that were possible, an even greater artist.
All the same, his place in posterity is sealed. The line between generations, to paraphrase Zadie Smith, is not always clear and, in the years to come, it is possible for his fans to inflate their claims on Thilakan the same way that everyone in '60s Liverpool claimed to have 'met' John Lennon. For someone who made cinema so alive, that will be the real tribute.
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