A distinct feature of Nedumudi was that he was always a performer at heart, who in turn, also enjoyed performing and playing the performer on screen.
Many obituaries have already been written about Nedumudi Venu, hailing his acting talents and sterling performances. In a career spanning over four decades, he performed in more than 500 films, acted in plays, produced and directed television serials, and anchored some of the most important science education and cultural programmes in Malayalam. He was popular among the intellectual circles for his performances in the plays of Kavalam Narayana Panicker, a game-changer in Malayalam theatre, and for his charming recitals of modern poets. There is no doubt that in the loss of this thespian, we lost a great artist, actor, performer and human being.
It is also a sad fact that such a versatile actor – eclectic in his vision and very rooted in local performance traditions – was largely wasted or unutilized during the last two decades of his life. Almost all the most memorable roles he played were done in the first two decades of his career, i.e. from 1978 to 2000, and the best among them during the first decade.
A political being
Born in 1948, he belongs to the generation of ‘Midnight’s Children’, an actor who entered cinema during the turbulent post-Emergency period and continued to act till the advent of the digital era and OTT platforms. It will be interesting to look at Venu’s oeuvre to map its rise and decline, within the industrial and aesthetic contexts of Malayalam cinema during these periods. It is significant, though coincidental, that he entered cinema in the late 1970s when the sociopolitical atmosphere and cinema were witnessing radical shifts.
The post-Emergency period saw the rise of the Angry Young Man in all Indian cinemas; the new hero was the educated, unemployed (more often urban and upper caste) youth who had lost hopes in the Nehruvian nationalist project and was disillusioned with the System. The literary and art scene too was being transformed by the modernist movement: the keywords that characterize the period could be listed thus: Existentialism, Naxalism, Hippie movement and Vietnam resistance; and the icons: Che, Ho Chi Minh, Debray, Sartre, Camus. Such transformations had their resonances in cinema too, where a host of fresh graduates from the Film Institute entered the scene, and they were transforming the look and feel of cinema. Unlike the earlier generation, their influences were drawn not from theatre, Neo-realism or Hollywood, but from French New Wave and Third Cinema movements across postcolonial cultures.
Entering tinsel town
Venu made his debut with Thampu (The Circus Tent/1978) directed by G Aravindan with whom he was associated earlier in avant-garde theatre productions such as Daivathar and AvanavanKadamba. When one takes stock of Venu’s film oeuvre now, it is the earlier decades that stand out. This golden period in Venu’s acting career in the 1980s is also the decade of directors and stories in Malayalam cinema. It was a vibrant period when diverse themes, narrative styles, dramatic modes and acting methods animated the scene. Entering films at that moment when the industry too was soaring with an increasing number of productions every year, Venu had the ample opportunities to act in films from all streams – art, middle and commercial – and in the films of all the important auteurs of the time like Aravindan, KG George, Padmarajan, Mohan, Bharathan and Lenin Rajendran who made their landmark movies in this period.
The milieus in these narratives were diverse, cutting across religions, regions, lingos and social class (caste was an absent presence in the films of this decade). The box office was booming, more and more theatres were coming up all over Kerala, and production figures were soaring. In the acting department, the era of the first generation of actors such as Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Thikkurissi, Kottarakkara, Miss Kumari, Sheela, Sarada, Jayabharathi, etc. was on the wane. A new generation of young actors such as Sudheer, Soman, Jayan, Sukumaran, Raghavan, Ratheesh, Gopi, Mammootty and Mohanlal, and actresses such as Sobha, Jalaja, Seema, Shubha and Lakshmi had entered the scene.
Acting along such stalwarts in a period of great thematic variety helped Venu to hone his skills and to soon carve a niche of his own. He stood out among the lot due to his unique and versatile performance style that was cinematic yet had certain indigeneity to it. Like Gopi, his approach to film acting too was eclectic and deeply influenced by the experimentations in theatre by the likes of G Sankara Pillai, CN Sreekantan Nair and Kavalam Narayana Panicker, and the modernist turn in contemporary literature. Writers like O V Vijayan, Kakkanadan, M Mukundan, P Padmarajan, Madhavikkutty and Zachariah were exploring new realms of sensuality and desire. And in art, visionaries such as KCS Panicker had already created waves through their daring experimentations.
The golden era
It was in the 1980s and early 1990s that Venu essayed some of the most important roles in films such as Thakara, Aaravam, Chamaram, Oru MInnaminunginte Nirunguvettam, Parankimala, Marmaram (Bharathan), Kallan Pavithran, Oridathoru Phayalvan (Padmarajan), Vita Parayum Mumpe, Theertham, Aalolam, Rachana, Oru Katha Oru Nunakatha (Mohan), Kolangal, Yavanika, Panchavadi Palam (KG George), Thampu, Oridathu (G Aravindan), Kattile Pattu, Rugmini (KP Kumaran), Venal (Lenin Rajendran), Odaruthammava Alariyam, Poochakkoru Mookkuthi (Priyadarshan), Achuvettante Veedu (Balachandra Menon), Appunni (Sathyan Anthikad). These roles ranged from rustic rural simpletons and lecherous peeping toms to urban middle-class men, performers and romantic youth, from romantic youngsters to shrewd politicians and aged men.
Most importantly, these characters were firmly situated in their milieu and social setting. In most of these films, the time and space occupied by characters were also well-defined and layered. And Nedumudi, who had a keen sense of cultural nuances, social behaviours, and regional lingos, excelled in these roles. Playing all kinds of roles, he was never the conventional and ‘proper’ film hero. He could neither be slotted as the tragic, romantic /valorous hero, or a comedian/sidekick, nor was he the conventional villain we often encounter on the screen who are more the counterpoint to the hero rather than being themselves. He combined in his acting all these elements and rasas, and more importantly, gave them all a local colour and flair. As someone said, even his body language was Malayalam.
But by the late 1990s, all these were under threat. This era of globalization, whose visual sensibility was defined by television, saw the retreat of many talents from the field. Both G Aravindan and Padmarajan met with an early death at the peak of their careers; auteurs such as KG George and Mohan were on the withdrawal mode (they made only a handful of films in the post-television era).
Changing for worse
The Malayalam film scene itself was undergoing radical change, as an industry as well as in its choice of themes. The authority and prestige of directors and writers were giving way to stardom and stars. The plurality of milieus and themes were shrinking, both due to the competition from television serials, and the rise of macho, communal figures and themes in cinema. With the superstars ruling over the industry and its narratives, everything else – stories, themes, other actors – were tailored to revolve suit and around them. In the changed scenario of one-man shows, versatile actors such as Venu and Gopi had limited space.
Consequently, the period saw Venu being cast in stereotypical roles such as the thampuran, patriarch, grandfather, ageing performer, etc. In film after film, we see him as a relic from the past, a vestige of feudal values, often as an outdated connoisseur of arts or music, an ageing patriarch who is surrounded by greedy successors and children, and as someone who has outlived the past and merely survives in the present. It was a despairing journey for him and for his admirers to see him descending from strong solo and combination performances to stereotypical and decorative roles.
Sidelining the directors, Malayalam cinema was getting into a repetitive spiral with macho superstars at the centre; the very concept of co-actor vanished, with all other actors in the film either becoming a fan club within the narrative or villains to be decimated or as mere decorative set pieces. 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 pathbreaking science and development programmes such as Sastra Kouthukam (1993-97); he also returned to the theatre whenever a challenging opportunity arose.
Venu did some of his most memorable roles in combination with other actors: Gopi in early films and then with Mohanlal. (Yavanika, Appunni, Kallan Pavithran, Rachana, Panchavadippalam, Akkare, Palangal, Aalolam, etc. with Gopi, and in Orkkapurathu, Bharatham, Chithram, Sarvakalasala, His Highness Abdulla, Thalavattam, Vandanam, Thenmavin Kombathu, Dasaratham, Thamatra, Midhunam, etc. with Mohanlal). One can see a strange kind of synergy at work in these films where the duo vies with each other, reacting and responding to each other. Similar is the case with many actors he worked with, such as Prathap Pothen (Thakara), Rasheed (Oridathoru Phayalvan – who can forget the scene where the Mestri played by Venu bargains Phayalvan’s price as the latter stands wobbling with his huge body on the plank across the canal?), Dileep (Ishtam), etc. But with the rise of superstar-centric narratives, even such roles became rare and impossible, for there was no equally significant space for others within their film narratives. Everyone and everything was designed to be below and under the star character.
Gone with the grind
It says a lot about Malayalam cinema that in the last two and a half decades, the roles Venu was offered or the narratives he played in(to) seldom challenged his versatility as an actor or as a performer. Those were mere shadows of the vibrant roles he played earlier that feebly repeated ad nauseum certain aspects of the acting persona he had created in the earlier decades. Though he did his best to animate all these roles with the inimitable ‘Venu touch’ by infusing certain vivacious humour and dramatics into each character, they only helped to entrench the stereotypes more firmly and deeply in the popular mind. Only a very few filmmakers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Nizhalkutthu, Oru Pennum Randanum, Pinneyum), MP Sukumaran Nair (Kazhakam), Mangamma, Susanna, Bhoomi Malayalam (TV Chandran), Saira, Valiya Chirakulla Pakshi, Orange Marangalude Veedu (Dr Biju), Margam (Rajiv Vijayaraghavan), Arimpara (Murali Nair), Nottam (Sasi Paravoor), Punyam Aham (Raj Nair), etc. gave him challenging roles in the last decades.
A distinct feature of Nedumudi was that he was always a performer at heart, who in turn, also enjoyed performing and playing the performer on screen. In many films we see him performing the performer with a special flair, singing songs – classical and folk, performing classical arts, reciting poems or playing percussion instruments of some kind or other (Thampu, Venal, Bharatham, Chithram, Chakkikotha Chankaran, Sargam, Devasuram, etc. immediately come to mind). If his ability to be ‘indigenous’ was usurped into the stereotype of the Thampuran/upper caste patriarch roles, his penchant for performance and passion for traditional arts and folk songs were usurped by another stereotype: that of the ageing performer, either a connoisseur of a bygone era or an outdated master outliving his age.
Maybe, the new-gen filmmakers who did away with superstars and brought Malayalam cinema back to human scale, common lives, everyday locales and ordinary situations had much to offer Nedumudi Venu. But by that time, he was too typecast for them to unmould him into their narratives. His age and ailments also stood between them.
If we lost Nedumudi Venu in his physical demise now, we had already lost him as an actor two decades ago.