Basheer, Chanthu or Sethumadhavan – who do you recall?

Lal in Kireedam

Mohanlal’s Kireedam marks its 25th year of release this month. A terrific act that continues to live in the minds of Malayalis, a wonderful character that lost his charm only when then makers tried their hands at a sequel.

Sethumadhavan is the crowning glory of three people – the late scriptwriter AK Lohithadas, director Sibi Malayil and actor Mohanlal, perhaps necessarily in that order.

There is a fourth man in the scene – a veteran actor, who gave the right emotional quotient to the scenes to help elevate Lal to live through the role of Sethu. And that of course is none other than Thilakan. The evocative performance of late actor Murali, as the sub-inspector too stands out.

If you look at it, Thilakan (and come to think of it, Murali too) has been the one of the consistent presences in Mohanlal’s career – who subtly helped bring out the best of performances from Lal. Even in Mohanlal’s character of Joji in Kilukkam, the perfect foil came  from the strict retired judge played by Thilakan.

Today, 25 years later, when you look back on Kireedam, you can still well up on the powerful emotional pull of that moment – when between the anguish of seeing one’s father being beaten up and sacrificing one’s life and career, Sethu unhesitatingly opts for the latter. It is a moment that becomes even more celebrated by the response of Thilakan – to watch his son squander away his life to save his own respect. (Watch that climax, one of the best in cinema, here)

Sethu loses everything in the process. And in Chenkol, the tragedy becomes even more horrifying, as the former head constable dad must play the pimp to his own daughter, even as Sethu, as an outcast, lends a helping hand to the orphaned family of Keerikaadan Jose. Somehow, the punch that Kireedam packed is lost in Chenkol for the simple reason that the characters suddenly become cliched, melodramatic and supra-mundane.

Thilakan and Mohanlal

Sethu, however, is anything but cliched. He is mundane, if you may, because he is one of us. He dreams, reacts and acts perhaps like anyone of us. He is a winner and yet a loser. He sees everything in his life slipping away from his hands, and yet he holds on with grace and dignity. This, unarguably, is one of Mohanlal’s most nuanced performances.

When the National Film Awards were announced, Mohanlal won a Special Jury Award, with the best actor laurel going to another stalwart actor of Malayalam. Mammootty was the undisputed choice for his performance as Chanthu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha and Vaikom Mohammed Basheer in Mathilukal.

Yet, today, as I look back – why does my mind root for Sethu? With no disregard to the power-packed energy of Chanthu and the philosophical self-indulgence of Basheer, I still believe that Sethu got a raw deal.

If movies stay afresh in your mind 25 years later, with all its subtexts and subtleties, surely that must be more deserving than a few state honours.

To Sethu, I salute. And to the four talent powerhouses – two beyond reach, and the other two,now trying hard to find their bearings.


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