The Inimitable Master of Malayalam Cinema! (19.11.1912 – 15.06.1971)
(By Dr Elizabeth Menon)
The 50th Remembrance Day of Sathyan on 15 June was thought of with great love and reverence by Malayalees around the globe! The memory of the inimitable and irreplaceable actor, whom we so lovingly call ‘Sathyan Master’ was celebrated as ‘Sathyan Smrithi 2021’ by the Sathyan Foundation on 15 June in Thiruvananthapuram! It was organised by his granddaughter, Dr Asha Jeevan Sathyan, his two sons, Jeevan Sathyan and Satheesh Sathyan, who are behind the ‘Sathyan Foundation’ based in Thiruvananthpuram. There was also a medley of songs from Sathyan’s films, rendered by popular singers! ‘Sathyan Smrithi’ is arranged every year on this day!
It took 47 years for the ‘Kerala State Chalachithra Academy’ to make a memorial for this great actor who wrote ‘Malayalam Cinema’ in golden letters across the horizon of India! But, the name ‘Sathyan’ was engraved in gold in the hearts of all Malayaalees since the 50s! The decision of the ‘Chalachithra Academy to make the ‘Sathyan Smarakam’, the ‘Centre for International Film Research and Archives’ (CIFRA) at Kazhakkuttam in Thiruvananthapuram, to honour Sathyan is a great memorial for the inimitable actor, but I am surprised that it took this long, till the 47th Remembrance Day of Sathyan in 2018, which was inaugurated by the Kerala Chief Minister, later in the year! Yes, it honours the great actor, the ‘Emperor of Malayalam Cinema, but rather late’!
It was 50 years ago on 15 June that we lost our beloved Sathyan, the uncrowned ‘Emperor of Malayalam Cinema’, and I think of him with tears in my eyes. The charismatic actor succumbed to Multiple Myeloma on 15 June 1971 and Malayaalees still miss him, remembering him with great admiration and fondness! And I am not ashamed to admit that I cried when I received my father’s letter telling me about Sathyan’s passing and I still feel a lump in my throat everytime I see him on the TV screen and stand up or sit on the edge of my seat in awe even after all these years — perhaps, more so because I think of my Father too, as they both joined Kerala Police on the same day and were roommates at the Police Training School in Trivandrum! They were great friends and they used to discuss everything and my father often talked about Sathyan’s wife Jessy and the three sons!
My Father was 10 years younger to Sathyan and he talked so often about Sathyan so fondly, especially about his singing and their time together — he too would have gone with Sathyan to join films, but my grandfather said “No”!! They both were planning to go to Madras, but my grandfather stopped my father joining films! I still remember my Father taking us children to see Sathyan’s films on the first day of release, and I considered it as a special day, even as a small child! I treasure the precious moment when I met Sathyan on the day when my Father brought him to inaugurate the Library in my village and Sathyan acting in the drama, ‘Akavum Puravum’ (T N Gopinathan Nair), in a cameo role!
As there were no libraries in our village then, my father felt the need for one and took the initiative. He decided to bring his friend Sathyan to inaugurate the library, which is part of history now! But the most precious moment for me was when he came home for lunch and then singing to us, keeping the ‘Proud little girl’, yours truly, on his lap! I remeber feeling very special when he called me “Mol-e” and put me on his lap and sang. “Ormma Venam Oro Nimishavume…”, but now I feel it was the teacher in him choosing those words — such memories are what dreams are made of, and better! I will never forget that day and I still feel honoured just thinking about sitting on his lap while he sang! And my Mother always told us with great pride how Sathyan told her that he liked her beef fry, which he had for the first time! Now, sadly they all have passed through the veil to the other side and having a good time while looking over us, I am sure!
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, Steedharan Nair, Thampi, Sudheendran, Rajan, Jayarajan, Dr.Thomas, Prof. Sreeni, Chellappan, Raghu, Kaimal, Thacholi Othenan, Kayamkulam Kochunni, Benny and many others like them are with us through his films, showing the greatness of his acting, or rather him living as each character, making all his characters immortal! He could say volumes with just one look, one word, a smile or even a “hmmm”!! 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 50 years of his passing – the other actors fade away even now, when compared to his magnetism and impeccable acting — I don’t mean any disrespect to any of our highly talented actors!
Any of Sathyan’s films could be considered a ‘University’ in acting! His ‘Pappu’ in ‘Odayil Ninnu’ is far superior to any Film Institute and 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’s films 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… Hmmm…”, becomes a classic magical delivery that one could only marvel at! How could anyone forget the way he called his son, “Raghoo..” with such fury, in ‘Kadalppaalam’, in which he plays the double role! I could only watch the scene in ‘Oru Penninte Katha’, in awe, when Sathyan stands at the foot of the staircase very much like an emperor and tells Sheela “Njaan Madhavan Thampiyaanu, Nee Verumoru Pennu …”! (Perhaps not very politically correct now, as it may offend sensibilities of a gender!) These are just a few examples! Both Sheela and Sathyan excelled in their acting in this film, almost as if they were competing with each other in acting!
Just one film ‘Chemmeen’ with its charismatic character ‘Palani’ was enough to bring Sathyan’s name on everyone’s lips! ‘Neelakkuyil’ ‘Aathmasakhi’ and ‘Snehaseema’ came before Chemmeen! Miss Kumari and Sathyan acted together in ‘Neelakkuyil’, the film that won the President’s Silver medal in 1954, for the first time for a regional film! They also acted in ‘Aathmasakhi’ and then ‘Arakkillam’ in 1961! Sathyan and Ragini attained cult status in the film ‘Bhaarya’! Sathyan and Padmini (Ragini’s elder sister) gave such brilliant performance together in ‘Snehaseema’, that it’s still thought of as a classic example of perfection in acting even after 67 years!
Then followed, films such as ‘Ashwamedham’, Thacholi Othenan, Cross Belt, Viyarppinte Vili, Vivaahitha, Chettathy, Dathuputhran, Unniyaarcha, Odayil Ninnu, Kayamkulam Kochunni, Yakshi, Kadalppaalam, Paalattukoman, Mooladhanam, Vaazhve Maayam, Ashwamedham, Naayaru Pidicha Pulivaalu, Thommante Makkal, Naadan Pennu, Velutha Kathreena, Adimakal, Mudiyanaaya Puthran, Thriveni, Daaham, Aadyakiranangal, Kara Kaanakkadal, Oru Penninte Katha, Anubhavangal Paalichakal, Pakalkkinavu, Kadathukaaran, Kaarthika, and many more films, around 150 Malayalam films and two Tamil films! ‘Anubhavangal Paalichakal’ was his last film, but he bid farewell before he could complete the film and they had to use a dupe, for the first time for Sathyan in the last scene, which ofcourse was done in good taste! He was the recipient of the first Kerala State Award in 1969 for the Best Male Actor for his double role in ‘Kadalppaalam’! His second State award for the Best Male Actor was given posthumously for his brilliant performance in ‘Karakaanakkadal’!
He had this magical ability to bring out the best in the other actors — Sathyan and Ragini in ‘Bhaarya’, ‘Palaattukoman’ 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 – ‘Oru Penninte Katha’, Adimakal, Ashwamedham, Vaazhve Maayam, 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 Sathyan and Sheela 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 fantasizer too, as this was only a dream, perhaps the only time he dreamt on the silver screen! — one of the most erotic scenes, even surpassing ‘Poykayil’ from ‘Raajashilppi’ or ‘Julie’ from ‘Chattakkari! The chemistry between Sathyan and Sheela in ‘Vaazhve Maayam’ is classic and they both have given their best, just as in ‘Oru Penninte Katha’!
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! Fifty 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! I always remember that hilarious scene in Sethumadhavan’s ‘Adimakal’, with Adoor Bhasi and Sharda, when Sathyan walks in on them, putting a stop to what Adoor Bhasi’s character is doing, as only Sathyan could!
There is one song that haunts me more than any other, and it is of course, ‘Pravvachakanmaar-e Parayoo Prabhathamakale–yaano…’, from ‘Anubhavangal Paalichakal’, the larger than life, actor showing a sea of controlled emotions, without even uttering a word is spellbinding and the ultimate lesson in acting – the words of Vayalar to the powerful music of Devarajan Master and ofcourse, 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 I always thought only Sathyan had the rugged handsome look and a smile that could mesmerise anyone and he had a presence wherever he was! His electrifying performance on the silver screen was sheer magic, and still is, even after 50 years of his passing! We still think of Sathyan whenever ‘Kayamkulam Kochunni’ is mentioned and it’s only Sathyan’s face that comes to mind! 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 unrivalled acting ability and personality, and of course his perfect time keeping — even the great Cinematographer, Melly Irani and anyone who met him even once, spoke of Sathyan with great admiration!
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 and his eldest son Prakash passed away and my thoughts are with the other two sons, Satheesh Sathyan and Jeevan Sathyan, his granddaughter Dr Asha Jeevan Sathyan and other family members!
We still miss you and love you!
May your soul rest in peace with our love and reverence!
Watch the function ‘Sathyan’s 50th Remembrance Day’ held on 15th June