Remembering Sathyan, the Inimitable Master of Malayalam Cinema
by Elizabeth Menon
Remembering Sathyan, the Inimitable Master of Malayalam Cinema
It was 44 years ago on this day that we lost our beloved Sathyan, the uncrowned Emperor of Malayalam Films, and I think of him with tears in my eyes. The charismatic actor succumbed to Multiple Myeloma on 15 June 1971 -- Malayaalees still miss him with great admiration and fondness. The word 'Sathyan' is synonym to 'Best acting and Charisma’, and any of his films would be a lesson in acting! He has left us, but Pappu, Palani, Thampi, Sudheendran, Rajan, Prof.Sreeni, Chellappan, Raghu and many others like them are with us through his films, showing the greatness of his acting -- he could say volumes with just one look or one word! It did not make any difference what role he played; he would still have the whole film in the palm of his hands, and the audience too, which still holds ground even after 44 years of his passing – the other actors even now, fade away when compared to his magnetism and impeccable acting! Sathyan’s ‘Pappu’ in 'Odayil Niinu' is far superior to any Film Institute, it's only just one random pick from his films! If anyone has the desire to know what real acting is, all one has to do is watch Sathyan and listen to every word he says -- even the simple words that Pappu tells his adopted daughter in ‘Odayil Ninnu’, "Kunje, Avan Nallavanaanu, Pakshenki... Nee iniyavide pokaruthu...", becomes a classic magical delivery that one could only marvel at!
He was born Sathyaneshan Nadar on 9 November 1912, as the eldest son of Manuel and Emily, in Thrikkannapuram in Southern Travancore. Sathyan worked in St Joseph’s School in Trivandrum for a while and then joined the Secretariat. He served in the Army as a Commissioned Officer and was stationed at Malaya (Malaysia) during World War 11, following which he joined the Travancore State Police. Acting was always his first love and this made him resign from the Police, to pursue his acting career -- he decided to shorten his name to ‘Sathyan’ after joining the film industry. ‘Thyaagaseema’ was his first film, but it didn’t see the light of day! ‘Aathmasakhi’ was released in 1952, and then in 1954, P. Bhaskaran’s ‘Neelakkuyil’ won the National Award, Silver Lotus Award, which raised Sathyan to stardom, but during that time, Kerala did not have a provision for giving awards to actors – first Kerala State Award was only started in 1969, and Sathyan won the Kerala State's first Best Actor Award for 'Kadalppaalam' that year! Then came Thakazhi’s ‘Chemmeen’ that won the 'President’s Golden Lotus Award' in 1965, and Palani was born! But Sathyan did not get the best actor award for the year, in spite of his exemplary acting as Palani, and one can never forgive the authorities for overlooking Sathyan's talent!
And then on, it was Sathyan's name on everyone's lips – ‘Ashwamedham’, Thacholi Othenan, Cross Belt, Viyarppinte Vila, Vivaahitha, Chettathy, Dathuputhran, Unniyaarcha, Odayil Ninnu, Kayamkulam Kochunni, Yakshi, Kadalppaalam, Mooladhanam, Vaazhve Maayam, Ashwamedham, Naayaru Pidicha Pulivaalu, Thommante Makkal, Naadan Pennu, Velutha Kathreena, Adimakal, Mudiyanaaya Puthran, Thriveni, Aadyakiranangal, Bhaarya, Kara Kaanakkadal, Oru Penninte Katha, Naadan Pennu, Anubhavangal Paalichakal, Pakalkkinavu, Kadathukaaran and many more films, around 150 Malayalam films and two Tamil films, followed -- Anubhavangal Paalichakal was his last film.
He had this magical ability to bring out the best in the other actors -- Sathyan and Ragini in ‘Bharya’ and Unniyaarcha, Usha Kumari,and Sharada in ‘Kaattuthulasi’, Srividya in ‘Chattambikkavala’ are few of the examples. I believe that Sheela has given her best performances when she acted with Sathyan - Adimakal, Ashwamedham, Vaazhve Maayam, Kaattuthulasi, Velutha Kathreena, Naadan Pennu are such examples -- Sathyan and Sheela could set the silver screen on fire! I remember a scene from 'Velutha Kathreena', when they both are frolicking around during the harvest season while singing Sreekumaran Thampi's most explicit words, 'Makaram Poyittum Maanam Thelingittum Maarathe kulirottum poyille...' – and here Sathyan shows us that he is a great fantasist too, as this was only a dream, (I think the only time he dreamt on the silver screen!) -- one of the most erotic scenes, even surpassing ‘Poykayil’ from ‘Raajashilppi’! The chemistry between Sathyan and Sheela in ‘Vaazhve Maayam’ is classic and they both have given their best!
How can one forget ‘Pakalkkinaavu’ and Thriveni’ with Sharada, ‘Mudiyanaaya Puthran and Chettathy’ with Ambika, ‘Bhaarya’ and Unniyaarcha’ with Ragini, ‘Vivaahitha’ with Padmini … thus the list goes on and on! Sathyan and Srividya riding in a car, singing ‘Mayilppeeli Mizhikalil’ is unforgettable in Muttathu Varkkey’s ‘Chattambikkavala’ – Sathyan at his most handsome, even Srividya’s beautiful eyes ('Mayyilppeeli-mizhikal') finding it very hard to keep up! Kayamkulam Kochunni' gives a powerful performance, quite different from any of his other films, and Malayalees took to his handsome rugged looks -- Sathyan as the handsome Kayamkulam Kochunni was an answer to the very few critics who dared to comment on his looks – perhaps he didn't conform to the typical 'Malayaalee concept of a hero', but for most of us, Sathyan was , and always will be, 'Ruggedly handsome' and inimitable!
Sathyan received the first Kerala State Best Actor Award in 1969 for his double role in ‘Kadalppalam, and the second Best Actor Award was bestowed on him posthumously in 1971, for his magnificent performance in ‘Karakaanakkadal’. It is a generally accepted fact that Sathyan should have received the National Award for his performance in Chemmeen, Odayil Ninnu, Kadalppaalam, Anubhavangal Paalichakal and Adimakal, to mention a few! He may not have received many awards, but Malayaalees have honoured him with their ‘Best Actor Award’ for most of his films – the first Kerala State Award was only started in 1969, and Sathyan died on 15 June 1971, and therefore, it could be argued that time was against him, but he had the ‘People’s Award’ every time!
When I think of Sathyan, I think of my father! They joined Kerala Police, Travancore State Police then, on the same day and were roommates at the Police Training School in Trivandrum. Sathyan started his acting career after resigning from the Police. I was only 4 or 5 years old when he came home with my father, but I still remember him singing a song while I sat on his lap -- I can only remember one line from that song, and I think it went like this: "Ormma venam ormma venam oro nimishavume...” and I still treasure those moments! I still remember feeling so proud when my father took us for Sathyan's films as soon as they were released! I am sure the two friends are together now in a better place, talking about Police, Cinema and the Army, and of course their children!
I would say, God broke the mould after creating Sathyan, His perfect creation for the acting world, so that there would never be another actor like him born to this world! Forty four years on, and they are all still trying hard to emulate that smile, his style of delivering the dialogues, or just that look, but Sathyan is still an invincible enigma! There is one song that haunts me more than the others, and it is of course, “Pravvachakanmaare Parayoo Prabhathamakaleyaano..” – the larger than life actor showing a sea of controlled emotions without even uttering a word is spellbinding, and the ultimate lesson in acting – and the celestial voice of Yesudas renders the magical touch and no other voice would have done justice to the 'Imperial stature' of Sathyan! 'Kayamkulam Kochunni' gives a powerful performance, quite different from any of his other films, and Malayaalees took to his handsome rugged looks -- Sathyan as the handsome Kayamkulam Kochunni was an answer to the very few critics who dared to comment on his looks! But, the great film directors and writers such as, P Bhaskaran, M. Krishnan Nair, Vincent, K S Sethmadhavan, Sasikumar, Kunchako and Thakazhi, only had high esteem for his unrivaled acting ability and personality!
Sathyan never looked as if he was acting in any of his films -- he just lived the part so much that people remember each character by name even after all these years -- only Bharat Murali came close, but he too was taken from us much before his time! Jack Nicholson is the only other actor whom I would compare to Sathyan, but Sathyan reigns supreme, now and forever! Jessy, his beautiful wife passed away and my thoughts are with their three sons, Prakash, Satish and Jeevan.