It's always tough to meet icons whose work you've seen and admired while growing up because a work of art or cinema need not necessarily reflect the real persona of the creator, also stars in real life may not be as effervescent as we see them on-screen. But it was a joy to know Prathap Pothen. He never bothered to hide his feet of clay and that genuine honesty apart from his good nature makes this tribute a tough one to pen. Nothing prepared me for his passing away as there was no news of hospitalization or illness and you don't expect a person who texts you to meet up on a project, to never wake up seven days later.
Prathap Sir, as we called him, belonged to a rare list of actor-directors whose films combined commerce and aesthetics in equal measure. He was one of the new wave directors of the 80s who knew how important cinematography was to a story as leading cinematographers often made their debut in his films or advertisements. Heroines looked breathtaking in his movies (eg: Khushbu in My Dear Marthandan, Amala & Silk Smitha in Jeeva, Gautami in Chaitanya) and his heroes reflected his sense of style (Sathyaraj, Prabhu, Nagarjuna & Kamal Haasan). Oh, and Ilayaraja gave him great songs (my favorite one being 'Adhikaalai Nerame' from his first film Meendum Oru Kadhal Kadhai).
Prathap Pothen was a good filmmaker and great company for conversations on cinema, literature, music, art, and of course food and fashion. His home was an eclectic, creative zone and he was a great host, where free-flowing exchanges of ideas were peppered with his whacky anecdotes. He respected only the best among the talents because he had high standards himself and he also had a huge regard for off-camera, humane qualities in stars. He had his favorites among his peers, having directed huge stars himself (he made Oru Yathramozhi, the only film that brought Sivaji Ganesan and Mohanlal together) and he also has the distinction of directed by legendary filmmakers like Barathan, Balu Mahendra, K Balachander and Mani Ratnam, but, in his heart, he reserved a special place for Kamal Haasan.
He used to reminisce how they all (the 80s stars) began as struggling actors who would bump into one another on consecutive film sets, sometimes even on a single day (as actors did work three shifts a day) and that's how they all became friends. Kamal Haasan's Eldams Road residence became a hub of sorts and evenings would be spent in discussing cinemas of the world or a latest short story or performance of an actor. He had fondly recalled how they had all become one "Alwarpet clique" which mostly discussed the "non-Kodambakkam stuff" – meaning The Beatles & Broadway musicals and not just Hollywood but also European new wave filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Godard, and Fellini. Prathap sir's key behind-the-scene anecdotes revolved around how he and Kamal Haasan jammed up in Bombay with Sivaji Films Ramkumar (for whom Prathap Sir reserved his whole-hearted affection), Santhanabarathi, and Prabhu during their Vettri Vizhaa days (a photograph of these good times hangs outside the first-floor conference room in Eldam's road).
I first met Prathap Pothen when I had to interview him for a series of shows we were doing on the 80s stars for Radio Mirchi in 2004. I took his number and reference from Siva Ananth (director/writer/EP – Madras Talkies) who also told me how "cool and modern" Prathap Sir was (he played a role in Siva's Telugu film Chukallo Chandrudu). I was anyway a big admirer of his filmmaking and his smiling demeanor and friendly nature made us connect instantly. A few years later, I worked with him when I was an EP of Vellithirai (2008) and I recall how exuberant he was to work with younger actors like Prithviraj.
He hardly went to his caravan and preferred to hang around with a relatively new team like us during shoot breaks. He was punctual and professional in his working style and had a lateral angle in which he viewed scripts.
As an actor, Prathap Pothen found his second innings with the Malayalam super hit 22 Female Kottayam and by the turn of the millennium his acting assignments took precedence over his directorial ones. Also, he was always ready to do that one odd guest appearance or key role in any project whenever his friends requested him albeit without any further query of payment too at times. He was if I may say, the first filmmaker to dabble rather successfully in television advertisements as well. His ads for the MRF group which had famous cricketers starring in them had won many an award worldwide. He was actively in touch with his Lawrence Lovedale school and Madras Christian College groups, as he always felt he owed his education and upbringing to his two alma maters, Prathap sir held his own niche in the Tamil & Malayalam film industries. He combined his English theatre background and penchant for filmmaking and made cinema his overarching medium of creative expression, making movies that cut across genres.
Anyone who knew Prathap Pothen well would remember how generous he was in sharing his knowledge and craft with his associates and fellow filmmakers. What struck me as unique in his persona was also his open-mindedness. He never judged you for what you were or where you came from. He never let your judgments about his life bother him either.
His life was an open book as his Facebook profile would tell you.
Prathap Pothen is one of those good hearts who would genuinely cheer for you when you had any new initiative to announce, irrespective of whether he was part of it or not. Sometimes it did seem that he had more confidence in our abilities than we ever had in ourselves! He is that good word and good presence we miss today for he knew to celebrate our victories better than us. His ingenuity, intelligence, and poshness are reflected in his films.
Farewell Prathap Sir! Thank you for showing us how to live life on one's own terms, like you lived yours in style and solitude. Your films, your life, and in the end, your death, speak of a mighty sophistication desired by many but attainable only by brave hearts like you.