Nedumudi Venu, the celebrated actor who died in Thiruvananthapuram aged 73 on Monday, was a complete artist. In over four decades and five hundred plus films, mostly in Malayalam, he performed every conceivable character on screen and, however small the role, left an indelible impression. For Malayalam cinema, Venu set the benchmark for excellence, a fact acknowledged by his peers Kamal Haasan, Mammooty and Mohanlal and younger artists such as Manju Warrier, Prithviraj and Parvathy Thiruvothu.
The artist was shaped by the cultural milieu of his village. Nedumudi near Alappuzha was surrounded by the waters of Vembanad lake and numerous rivers. The rhymes and rhythms that emerged from the vast paddy fields and several waterways as well as the classical performance traditions of temples contributed to his making as an actor. The theatre of Kavalam Narayana Panicker was the finishing school, where Venu excelled as the lead in plays such as Avanavan Kadamba and Deivathar. He was also associated with performances that took modernist Malayalam poetry to the streets, as a reciter, performer, and percussionist. Kavalam’s plays provided the entry point to cinema — G Aravindan cast him in Thambu in 1978. Soon, he became an integral part of Malayalam cinema, the favourite of a new set of scriptwriters and directors, including Bharatan, KG George, Fazil, P Padmarajan, Mohan, Lenin Rajendran, Priyadarshan, who started making films in the 1980s. They recognised his potential and found roles for him that varied from romantic lead (Palangal) to rustic thief and charlatan (Kallan Pavitran, Thakara) and comic hero (Poochakkoru Mukkuthi). He played father, grandfather, uncle, brother, husband, son, but no two characters of his were similar. As he aged, he kept evolving, compelling new script writers to imagine different roles for him.
Venu’s comic timing, his ability to transcend age and physique and live in the character endeared him to both filmmakers and audiences. Six Kerala state awards and three national awards are acknowledgement of his contributions as an actor. But Venu’s master class in acting extends to every single role, including in many forgettable films, that he got to play.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 13, 2021 under the title ‘The complete artist’.