Rude, outspoken and brutally honest. These were the masks he chose to adorn many a times on the stage and sometimes, off the stage too. An actor par excellence, Surendranath Tilakan gave life to many characters that will refuse to fade away from the memories of movie aficionados. He is no more now; but no death can snatch away the outstanding roles he moulded with the precision of a great sculptor on the silver screen.
He was the master carpenter whose professional jealousy made him drop his chisel on his own brilliant son ('Perumthachan'). We watched him, hated his ruthless act, and at the same time, empathised the plight of a hapless man who was forced to kill his son who defied the traditional values. When 'Moonnampakkam' (Third day) came, we wept in despair along with this old man when the sea took away all his hopes, but brought back the dead grandson .
For many years, he was the loving father ('Kireedam'-police constable), 'Sphadikam' (award-winning teacher) and 'Narasimham' (retired judge), embodiment of all good virtues who had to endure the trauma of his son becoming a criminal. He mesmerised us when he broke the dictatorial, rebellious and sombre image and appeared as a breakout from a mental hospital ('Mookilla Rajyath'), a cowardly underworld don ('Nadodikkattu' and 'Pattanapravesham'), womaniser (Kuttettan) and a tantric expert ('Manichitrathazhu', 'Drona').
A master actor he was; like a magician he left the audience spellbound each time with his astounding skill to shift from one role to another with much ease. An acting life spanning five decades, with more than 200 films and 900 dramas in his credit, he ruled Indian cinema with superior quality.
Thilakan was born in Ayroor in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. Though he started his career as a theatre artiste, he became full-time professional after leaving intermediate college mid-way in 1956.
His tryst with films began with a role in P J Antony’s movie 'Periyar' in 1973 and bagged the first state award for his role in 'Yavanika'.
He was not the hero all the time, still directors weaved stories depending on the disciplined performance of Thilakan who stole the show each time he came on screen. In 1988, he received national award for the best supporting actor for his performance in 'Hrithubhedam'.
He lost the best actor award for 'Perumthachan' in 1990, reportedly due to the north Indian lobby which batted for Amitabh Bachchan. The country honoured him with Padmasri in 2009. He won the state award six times.
Highly rated by critics and common man alike, sometimes Thilakan failed to come out of the mask of the rebellion in real life. Controversies were part of his life, with the recent spat with the Actors’ Federation resulting in his suspension. A section of artistes were evidently irked by his candid remarks about the “superstardom disease” having affected the film industry.
Despite cornered by co-workers, he refused to bow down. The realisation that nobody can replace the legendary actor must have prompted some of the directors to approach him again. The recently released movies ('Indian Rupee', 'Ustad Hotel', 'Simhasana'm) too reassured that “Thilakan touch” would withstand the test of time.
Legends do die, but the footprints they leave behind us fail to fade.
The void caused by the inevitable truth of nature is irreplaceable. He is dead, but his reel life will tell the real-life tales with an admirable dexterity to the generations to come.