MT Vasudevan Nair | Photo: Mathrubhumi
My initiation to the world of MT Vasudevan Nair was through movies. The only piece of writing I have read was part of our school syllabus, Kadugannawa Oru Yathra, a fascinating little memoir about his childhood, and his father’s stint in Sri Lanka. Being an avid movie fan at a very young age, without really registering his name or the magnitude of his myth, I intuitively became a fan (my mother, who was an avid MT reader, had a big hand in this). Nirmalyam was the first MT film I watched, and it remained a vague memory, not realising that I had just witnessed a classic. Iruttinde Athmavu, which I saw on TV that had a mentally deranged Prem Nazir shouting to be chained, disturbed me for days. Neelathamara about a young domestic help in a decadent Nair Tharavadu, who has a clandestine affair with the scion of the family and is left in the lurch, was too complicated for an adolescent to interpret. And later I remember devouring most of his films on TV, and I loved his world-building and felt a kinship with his characters. There was a strange pensiveness that seemed to encompass the stories. As the writer is set to celebrate his 90th birthday, I decided to make a list of my favourite MT Vasudevan Nair characters.
My first impression of Chandu (Mammootty) in Hariharan’s Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha (1989) was that of a victimised hero—the 16th-century warrior who was always let down by people he trusted. Right from his childhood, Chandu felt inferior and obligated to people. From his guru who adopted him to his childhood sweetheart Unniyarcha to her brother Aromal, the reclusive Chandu was always fighting to belong. There was a dichotomy in the fact that despite being a matchless fighter, who believed till the end that he was unbeatable, Chandu was an emotional wreck, who constantly weltered in self-pity. All his life he hankered after love and acceptance and eventually, he achieved that only through death, ending up as an epic hero.
Sathyanathan (Mohanlal) in Sibi Malayil’s Sadayam (1992) is an orphan like Chandu, bitter and angry with the world for snatching away his childhood. Both are deeply scarred, unhappy men. Though, unlike Chandu, Sathyan also had to carry the cross for being the child of a sex worker. He grows up with a deep-rooted hatred for sex workers. Despite having a kind priest to mentor him, you can see that he takes time to trust humans. It is perhaps the ghosts of his past that blindly drive him to slaughter two adolescent girls, though in his mind he was rescuing them from a life of misery. There was something very perplexing yet compassionate about this talented, morbidly gloomy man who teeters on the verge of sanity.
If Sathyanathan internalised the humiliations and rejections, Jayakrishnan (Mohanlal) in IV Sasi’s Uyarangalil (1984) used it as an excuse to take up a life of debauchery and greed. He is bitter, ruthless, and doesn’t have a single kind bone left in his body. From using women and men as pawns to further his ambitions and later disposing of them, what’s unnerving about Jayakrishnan is his deathly calm even when he is cornered. And till the end, he remained remorseless and cursed the world for his misdeeds.
Adiyozhukkukal’s (1984 directed by IV Sasi) Karunan (Mammootty) turned out to be a trope for brooding, angry heroes in Malayalam cinema (later used by AK Lohitadas in so many films). The one who hid a kind heart craving to be loved under the garb of a rude and rough exterior. Haridas (Mohanlal), who battled with guilt all his life and yearned for redemption in Hariharan’s Amritam Gamaya (1987), and Harikumar directed Sukrutham’s (1994) Ravishankar (Mammootty) who realises that the greatest mistake he did was to come back from the jaws of death are characters that endlessly haunt me. More than the fiery Indira in Hariharan’s Panchagni (1986), I felt drawn towards the sensitive Rasheed (Mohanlal) who carried a torch for her.
The Naxal activist (Devan) in Hariharan’s Aranyakam (1988) complemented the irreverence of the irrepressible Ammini (Saleema). Only he seems to understand the reveries and oddities of the teenager who finds a kind ally in the stranger she meets in a forest. Perhaps he saw himself in her. Janakikutty (from Ennu Swantham Janakikutty directed by Hariharan) and Ammini would have been soul sisters—both are lost in their own worlds, trying hard to decipher the ordinariness of people around them.
MT’s women have always learned the fine art of balancing—they bargain, contest, and flourish while staying within the patriarchal structures. They are never ordinary. Unniyarcha (Madhavi) in Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha is the proverbial femme fatale, who uses her feminine wiles to ensnare Chandu and cannily throws him away from her life. Yet she smartly turns the situation in her favour. Aarcha is a skilled fighter but plays the coy game in front of Chandu and manages to retain an air of mystery.
It's difficult to forget Ammukutty (Seema) in IV Sasi’s Alkootathil Thaniye (1984)–the serene, gentle, compassionate woman who was so giving in relationships. Even when her lover cowardly forsakes her for better prospects, Ammukutty silently moved on but never married again. It’s almost astonishing to come across someone so selfless, tirelessly helping people without expecting anything in return. But having said that she was no doormat. When her former lover’s wife offers to pay her back for babysitting their son, she throws the money right back at her. Only Ammukutty can call out her ex-lover for being selfish and narrow-minded, advising him to support his wife’s ambitions.
There are traces of Ammukutty in Sunanda (IV Sasi’s Anubandham). Both are women who have loved and lost and yet trying to come to terms with their reality, without nursing grudges against anyone. Being a single mother in a village reeked of casteism and patriarchy, she has to regularly deal with lecherous men and gossipy women. True, she finds an anchor in Murali, unlike Ammukutty, but even there it is not easy for her to choose, being a woman. Yet Sunanda keeps her head high, enterprisingly running a kindergarten and gratefully grabbing what life has to offer her, even amidst adversity.
If there is one MT female character that left me wanting more, it has to be Saleena (Suparna) in Pavithran’s Utharam (1989). The forlorn and dreamy award-winning poet who buried her nose inside books, and one fine day decides to end her life. That, we are piecing her together with the help of her friend Balu, after her death, makes her even more of a delicious mystery. The one with a mad sense of imagination but was painfully naïve, who never really got around to understanding the cruelty that occurred in her teenage years. Saleena settles happily in domesticity, with a husband who indulged her and then there was this beautiful bond with Balu. People had only good memories of her. MT sketches her in such a way that each of us gets a separate image in our minds. She could be all that and more.
And then there is my all-time favourite couple of Malayalam cinema—Krishna Kuruppu and Ammalukutty in Oru Cheru Punchiri (2000), who somehow lend wistfulness, naturality, and infinite charm to the concept of growing old together with your partner. The aged couple who continued to uphold love in all its profundity, despite wrinkles and warts. I, for one, will be eternally grateful to MT Vasudevan Nair for giving us Malayalam cinema’s most loved couple!