The Perumthachan Of Malayalam Cinema: 10 Inimitable Roles That Defined Thilakan’s Career

On the great actor’s 85th birth anniversary, Meera Venugopal looks back at a few of his iconic characters that deserve a place among Malayalam cinema’s best.
The Perumthachan Of Malayalam Cinema: 10 Inimitable Roles That Defined Thilakan’s Career

A villain, comedian, perfect father/grandfather, evil relative, male chauvinist, helpless uncle or a concerned neighbour — there is no role that Thilakan couldn't own. The strict, retired judge in Kilukkam, the plain-speaking astrologer in The Truth, the underworld don in Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam or the selfish aristocrat in Rithubhedam, all of these characters had a signature that was distinctly Thilakan.

It is a known fact that writers would sketch roles keeping this master performer in mind, and directors would patiently wait months to work around the actor's busy schedule. Here's a look at a few of the many masterpieces he breathed life into.

Achutha Menon from Ekantham

Two great performers came together in this award-winning film, which explored the lonely, declining years of two brothers. Thilakan plays Achutha Menon while the late Murali plays Ravunni Menon, his younger brother. After the death of his wife, Achutha Menon moves to his ancestral home where Ravunni, also a widower, lives alone. By reminiscing their childhood memories and catching up on the years spent apart, loneliness is slowly replaced by companionship — a thread of motivation that keeps them going. They are fragile but content even when they move to a palliative care centre for Ravunni's treatment. The beauty of Ekantham (solitude) is in the nuanced performances by its lead men, who makes you empathise with the vulnerability, insecurity and solitude that comes with old-age. Thilakan was honoured by the jury at the National Film Awards for his portrayal of Achutha Menon, and rightly so.

Ananthan Nambiar from Nadodikkattu, Pattanapravesham

Perhaps the most hilarious set of mobsters who haven't lost their charm to time has to be Pavanayi and Ananthan Nambiar from the Nadodikkattu series. Ananthan Nambiar is a dreaded gangster, but it's still funny when he shudders as the phone rings. He is a ruthless smuggler but you also see him in an insanely human light when he goes about trivial things in daily life ("Ninnodu njan chaya chodicho kunjiramaaa……….kondu poda……." ). This mix of personalities could easily have passed off as ludicrous but not for Thilakan's balanced performance. When a Malayalee reads 'Hello Mr. Perera,' or the rib-tickling 'Angane pavanayi shavamayi', is there any other way to do it without Thilakan's baritone ringing in your head?

Paul Pailokkaran from Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal

This Padmarajan classic gave us one of the finest love stories, and along with it, a metonym for a vicious, cold-hearted villain. Paul Pailokkaran lusts after his step-daughter and will stop at nothing until he satiates his desire. He makes you flinch with his screen presence and leaves you with no concession of it being fiction.

Valiammavan from Thaniyavarthanam

One of the finest performances by both Mammootty and Thilakan, Thaniyavarthanam is a gut-wrenching take on how even the most sane and intelligent person can be pushed into doubting if he/she is mentally stable. Thilakan plays the patriarch of an orthodox Nair family who believes that the family is cursed and that one male member of every generation will turn a lunatic. Slowly conditioning himself and his family to believe that his nephew (Mammootty) is turning unstable, he plays a man blinded by superstition and succumbs to it without questioning reality. His genius comes across in the fact that this character, if not played carefully, could easily pass off for a negative one; instead, we see a helpless, god-fearing man who is disillusioned by myth.

Achutha Menon from Indian Rupee

A character written keeping the fantabulous actor in mind, Thilakan was the major driving force in this Prithviraj starrer. Subtle with an enigmatic charm, Achutha Menon was one of the last few Thilakan films that expertly explored his instinctive acting.

Chacko Maashu from Spadikam

If you're a 90s Malayalee kid who had a strong aversion for your Math teacher, Chacko Maashu probably had a huge role to play. Chacko believes that Math is the universal truth and overlooks his son's brilliance and natural affinity towards other interests. He is loud, arrogant and selfish, and this fuels Thomas Chacko (Mohanlal) into running away from his father, only to return as the notorious goon Aadu Thoma. Though a major chunk of the film features him as a pompous person, Chacko later seeks redemption upon realising his flaws. Chacko Maashu's character arc is one for the books, and even without his trademark bushy eyebrows, we'd still only love to hate Thilakan in this role.

Achuthan Nair from Kireedam

Sibi Malayil's Kireedam was appreciated in all departments. From its characterisation and direction to music and, of course, award-winning performances, Kireedam not just established Malayalam movies at the National level but also gave Mohanlal and Thilakan one of THE roles of their career. Achuthan Nair is the proud father who dreams of his son becoming a police officer, and supports him in every limited way he can. But when unexpected events happen, he helplessly bears witness to Sethumadhavan's (Mohanlal) life withering away in front of him. "Kathi thazhe idada, ninte achanada parayunne kathi thazhe idada…" — this climatic sequence where a powerless Achuthan Nair pleads with his son to put his knife down takes the word 'heartbreaking' to a whole new level.

Thampi from Moonnam Pakkam

Moonnam Pakkam delves into the aftermath of a tragedy, portraying hope, despair, and heart-wrenching pain. Thilakan plays Thampi, an octogenarian living in solitude, whose eyes light up at the mere mention of his grandson Pachu (Jayaram). So when the young man writes to him about returning home after five years, Thampi is ecstatic. Through Ilaiyaraaja's 'Unarumee Gaanam', we see the compassionate depth of their relationship over the years. But after a few days of boundless joy, when Pachu is sucked in by the sea, Thampi collapses. He breaks down yet puts on a strong face, hoping against hope that Pachu will return alive and not as a corpse on the 'Moonnam Pakkam' (third day). Needless to say, Thilakan's character essays a myriad of emotions and continues to leave a soul-stirring impact with every viewing.

Keshavan from Mookilla Rajyathu 

Given his superlative performances in various intense roles, it could've been easy to box Thilakan as one meant to do 'serious' roles. But, time and again, he surprised us with comedy, which, in retrospect, could not have been performed by any other actor. When you first see Keshavan, he is treating inmates at an asylum for the mentally ill, but you soon realise that he's one among them. There is a candidness in his performance that makes his character come across as believable. Remember the scene where Keshavan addresses a gathering as a millionaire boycotting foreign products? It is just one of the many instances from the film which still gets us to ROFL.

Raman Perumthachan from Perumthachan

Any list about Thilakan's great career would be incomplete without mention of his portrayal as the legendary sculptor Raman Perumthachan. The movie explores the complex relationship between Perumthachan and his son Kannan (Prasanth), whose sublime skills initially make the father gleam with pride. But the relationship turns sour when Kannan begins to question his father's traditional outlook, which he dismisses as blind belief. Is it Kannan's parallel views on the craft or is it his fear of his son outgrowing his stature? We see the once modest architect astray, which eventually results in a tragic climax. The thespian's acting prowess is preeminent and just like Raman Perumthachan was considered the reincarnation of the architect of the Gods, Thilakan continues to be remembered as the Perumthachan of Malayalam cinema.

Kareem from Ustad Hotel

The last great film in the legend's career was a reminder of his consistent on-screen brilliance, even after 40 years of being an actor. Kareem is a man with immense passion for cooking. He is content with his small food joint and firmly believes in serving society. He is also a strict grandfather to Faizi (Dulquer Salmaan), who is facing an identity crisis because of a sudden turn of events. While Kareem is guilty of not bringing up his son by teaching him empathy, he nurtures Faizi, imparting him with valuable life lessons. Ustad Hotel is all about its brilliant screenplay and terrific performers. Dulquer's Faizi could possibly not get a better on-screen Uppupa than Thilakan!

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