With the unexpected departure of Nedumudi Venu, Indian cinema has lost a unique and versatile actor who combined in his art the best of theatre traditions, the energy of folk performances and modernist literary sensibility. In a career spanning more than four decades, he acted in over 500 films including a few in Tamil and Hindi, played an important role in theatre movement in Kerala as an actor, directed and acted in television serials, and anchored, among many, one of the landmark science programmes in Malayalam. A great performer who played diverse roles in films, Nedumudi Venu’s acting persona transcends any kind of branding or slotting into any single category, and was marked by its fluidity and flexibility, one that always mixed and mutated through time and roles.
Here are some of the most unforgettable roles Nedumudi Venu essayed at the peak of his career: the disillusioned and extremely sensitive young man who silently leaves the village with the circus troupe in his debut film, Thampu, the wild and carefree hunter Maruthu who roams the forest and the village in Aravam, the crafty carpenter Chellappanasari who prods gullible Thakara to sexual adventures in Thakara, the gawky student-priest, who is mocked by all and caught in the tragic web of infatuation and passion of others in Chamaram, the shrewd village tailor who tailors other peoples’ lives and desires in Oridathoru Phayalvan, the feisty village thief who stumbles upon a treasure and is brought down by his lechery in Kallan Pavithran, the rustic villager who comes to the city and becomes a toy in the hands of a writer and his wife in Rachana, the stenographer in the city who brings life and joy to the lives of others in the face of death in Vida Parayum Munpe, the grumpy all-in-all in a village tea shop whose rustic love wins over that of the sophisticated and educated outsider in Appunni, the ‘scheming’ panchayat member adept in forging devious designs in Panchavadi Palam, the simpleton Nambudiri who drowns himself in drinks in Theertham, the lusty Travancorean overseer who comes to a remote village to establish an electric connection in Oridathu, the majestic lyricist at the royal court in Swati Thirunal, the imperious Rajaguru from mythology who propitiates the rain god through divine and other means in Vaishali, the aging and childless school teacher doting on the girl who enters his arid marital life in Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam, the randy police inspector who is caught between sexual and paternal instincts at the brothel in Rugmini etc.
All these roles he played in the first decade of his career between 1978 and 1988 stand testimony to his immense versatility and acting talents: they range from the rustic to the sophisticated, the mythic to the profane, the innocent to the devilish, the lyrical to the tragic, the romantic to the lecherous. He was equally at ease playing the tragic hero and the crooked villain, the lout and the guileless, the strong and the vulnerable, the majestic and the mundane.
Even from his college days, Nedumudi Venu was active in theatre, deeply interested in music and adept at playing percussion instruments, especially mridangam. Along with his college mate and friend Fazil — who later became a renowned director — he performed in a number of music and mimicry programmes in Kerala and outside. After graduation, he had a brief stint as a journalist and tutor, while being actively involved in theatre workshops and literary events.
He was an integral part of the new theatre movement in Malayalam led by stalwarts like G. Sankara Pillai, CN Sreekantan Nair and Kavalam Narayana Panicker. They were searching for a new and indigenous idiom in theatre, which involved exciting experimentations in scripting, acting style, visual treatment, set design, orchestration and choreography. Venu’s active engagement with Kavalam’s theatre troupes like Sopanam and acting in his landmark plays like Daivathar and Avanavan Katampa further sharpened his acting talents and stage skills.
Another influence was his lifelong engagement with poetry – folk, classical and modern, oral and written. He was known for his energetic and charming renderings of poems by modernist poets like Ayyappa Panicker, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, Satchidanandan etc. in literary and cultural gatherings. The sense of rhythm that he drew from his musical background, the acting skills honed through rigorous training and experience in theatre, and his passion for literature and poetry – all these had profound influence in moulding Venu’s approach to acting. All his performances – whether it be on stage, in poetry recitals, or on screen – are marked by their deep rhythmic sense, evocative utterance style, subtle gestures and dramatic body movements. Throughout his career, he had the acting instinct of a theatrical actor, with a keen sense of the stage as if performing for a live audience sitting in front of him. All the important playwrights, writers and directors of the period utilized and inspired Venu to enact plays, recite poems, and narrate stories.
He could transform himself into any role very easily, and true to his theatrical roots, he always excelled in combination roles; some of his most memorable performances are with Gopi in the 1980s and with Mohanlal in the next decade. Gopi and Venu had a lot in common in terms of acting style and inspirations, for both of them came from the same theatre troupes and experiences.
In the 1980s and 90s, they performed together in a number of films like Yavanika, Appunni, Kallan Pavithran, Rachana, Panchavadi Palam, Akkare, Palangal and Aalolam. Similarly, since the 1990s, Venu did several films with Mohanlal: they performed as friends, rivals, enemies, partners, brothers, buddies, father and son. in films like Orkkapurathu, Bharatham, Chithram, Sarvakalasala, His Highness Abdulla, Thalavattam, Vandanam, Thenmavin Kombathu, Dasaratham, Thamatra, Midhunam etc.
One can see an incredible chemistry at work in his combination roles: between the wily Chellappan Asari and the young, innocent Thakara (Prathap Pothen) in Thakara, between the calculative Mestri and the wrestler (Rasheed) who comes to the village in Oridathoru Phayalvan, between the professionally senior singer who envies his younger brother (Mohanlal) in Bharatham, between the conspiratorial politician and the leader (Gopi) in Panchavadi Palam, between the thief and his rival Mamachan, the mill owner (Gopi) in Kallan Pavithran, the aged and lusty master vying with his brotherly servant (Mohanlal) to win his woman in Thenmavin Kombath, between the evergreen playful father and his son (Dileep) in Ishtam – these pairings bring out the best in Venu, where he vibes with and vies for the other actor, each provoking and prompting the other.
Unlike many of his colleagues who were careful about preserving their ‘youthful’ image, he played old-man roles at a very early age, so much so that, he remained ‘age-neutral’ on screen, someone who could be a playful trickster in one and a dotard in the next, a cunning lout in one and a detached youth in the next.
Interestingly, it is difficult to find such outstanding combination roles with female actresses. He was not consistently paired with any particular actress; the sole exception may be Jalaja, with whom he started his career and has acted together in a few films in the early years. This lack of a heroine-pair may be due to the actor persona that Venu embodied and enacted. He was not a romantic hero who attracted women (sringara), or a valiant hero who saved damsels in distress (veera), a tragic hero who died for a cause (or a woman). He was also not a mere sidekick or comedian (hasya) though humour forms an essential part of his art, nor was he capable of arousing extreme fear, disgust (bhibhatsa) or anger (roudra) in the spectator. He was rather a combination of all the navarasas.
Most of the time we see him seeing, looking and gazing at others, women and the world. He is the eternal gazer, the peeping tom who desires the woman but doesn’t have the courage to approach her directly; and so, when a woman spurns him, he schemes against her through devious means. Even when he is a killer, he remains behind the façade like in Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu and runs away from life when he finds himself being outclassed by his brother as in Bharatham. In Achuvettante Veedu, though he controls everything in the family, he dies without completing his mission, leaving the responsibility behind, and in Theertham he succumbs to alcohol. Rather than directly confronting his opponent – in life, profession or love – he finds other means to do it; in many films he seduces women through other men, for example in Thakara, Aalolam etc.
In the post-1990s and post-liberalisation decades, Malayalam cinema was undergoing radical changes within and without. If the earlier decades were defined and dominated by the presence of writers and directors, in the 1990s when television captured the screen and kept the family audience at home, stars began to dominate the scene. With most of the thematic terrains of cinema till then being usurped by television serials, Malayalam cinema was getting into a different mode of production and imagination that was centred around the superstars. ‘Stars’ became more important than ‘actors,’ stories or directorial vision. Cinema got into a repetitive spiral with macho superstars at the centre; the very concept of co-actor vanished, as all other actors were either a fan club within the narrative, villains to be decimated or just decorative presences.
If Venu acted in about 190 films in the 1980s and more than 100 films in the 1990s and 2000s, it slumped further in the last two decades. During this period, Venu did some very interesting roles in television shows, features and serials, apart from anchoring path breaking science and development programmes like Sastra Kouthukam (1993-97). He also returned to theatre whenever a challenging opportunity arose. The predicament of Venu in the last decades says a lot about Malayalam cinema, of the period that took refuge in star spectacles and communal themes and could not challenge and inspire the actor or performer in him.
His lifelong passion and commitment for theatre, acting and performers is also evident in the only feature film he directed, Pooram (1989) which is about a theatre troupe and the tense relationships between the actors and also between them and the outside world.
Some of the other notable roles he played in the last decades include those in Perumthachan (1991), Vietnam Colony (1992), Manichithrathazhu, Devasuram, MIthunam, Ghazal (1993), Sammohanam, Parinayam (1994), Ormakalundayirikkanam (1995), Kazhakam (1996), Chandralekha, Mangamma, Janmadinam (1997), Daya (1998), Garshom (1999), Susanna (2000), Kakkakuyil (2001), Arimpara, Margam (2003), Nizhalkuthu (2004), Thanmathra (2005), Saira, Nottam (2006), Mizhikal Sakshi, Oru Pennum Randaanum (2008), North 24 Kaatham (2013), Munnariyippu (2014), Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal (2015), and Pinneyum (2016). Even though the commercial-mainstream sidelined him, serious and parallel filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, TV Chandran, MP Sukumaran Nair, Padmakumar, and Dr. Biju, continued to utilize his talent.
Even within the mainstream, whenever a challenging role came his way, one could see Venu coming into his element. Take for instance the aged, disillusioned revolutionary unable to untangle himself from memories, dreams and nightmares from his past in Margam (directed by Rajiv Vijayaraghavan), the aging policeman who tells spicy stories to keep the hangman awake through the night before the hanging in Nizhalkuthu, the corrupt and crooked policeman in Oru Pennum Randanum who traps the innocent man through legal tangles, the old man who in his greed for money, becomes an accomplice in a cold-blooded murder in Pinneyum (all by Adoor Gopalakrishnan), the despairing ghazal singer in Saira (Dr. Biju), the landlord whose growing wart takes a life of its own and haunts him in Arimpara (Murali Nair), and the Koodiyattam actor who is lost in the present world in Nottam (Sasi Paravoor).
Coincidentally, in one of the last films he acted in (‘Rani’ in Aanum Pennum, directed by Aashiq Abu), he plays the role of a lecherous old man who finds pleasure in putting young lovers in trouble and shares a hearty laugh over it with his aged wife. This brief but stinging performance of his in a way reminds and pays homage to many such roles Venu has played in his early career.
Strong and persistent sense of rhythm and humour were the hallmarks of his acting style. Though he brought a certain kind of humour into all his roles, it was not the ‘filmy’ kind but drawn from theatre, one that arises out of his body language, sly looks, subtle gestures and speech modulations. To every role he brought a kind of swagger and style in action and dialogue that was true to the character’s milieu, manners and lingo. Even the villain roles he played were rooted in time and space, and had a rustic charm and spontaneity to them. The rural villains and lechers he played with elan were all too real both in their inanity and in their diabolic potential for evil and jealousy. The villains in Thakara, Parankimala or Kolangal have no moral qualms, nor do they seek redemption; like the genuine actor he was, they too splurge in their own villainy.
All this made Nedumudi Venu a unique actor whose characters/characteristics neither lend themselves to easy identification for the viewer nor offer them any kind of moral acquiescence. He relished playing the agent provocateur, one who prods and pushes gullible youth into sexual and other adventures which he himself never dared to do, and at the other end, he was also equally at ease being the incorrigibly noble, one who is all kindness, innocence or wisdom. Traversing such diverse roles, Venu could easily transform himself into the commonest of men, a rural idiot, a campus Romeo, a serial killer, an upper caste patriarch, a singer or a royal figure.
Nedumudi Venu’s actor persona seems to combine all the rasas, and defying easy categorizations, it occupies the grey area between the utterly black and the blithely white, representing a dark aspect of Malayalee masculinity that is unable to rid itself of its rural moorings and feudal nostalgia, voyeuristic tendencies and sexual jealousies, one that is caught between tradition and modernity, fear and desire, cowardice and violence. Through his performances, he connected Malayalam cinema with the classical roots and folk idioms of performance and narration. As an actor par excellence, he will be adored and remembered for the rhythmic energy, stylistic vitality and sophisticated rigour he brought to every aspect of acting.