Biju Parameswaran, a film buff, reviews a new book on local legend, Jagathy Sreekumar
‘Enter Trivandrum City’ – prominent director Priyadarshan once recalled the name of a play staged by his seniors at his school, when he was in lower primary class. Little Priyan instantly felt that the main actor of the play, who was also its writer, would one day scale the peaks of acting. Ambili to his inner circle, Jagathy to his vast legions of admirers and Jagathy Sreekumar Achary for the records, this man showed early promise indeed. This record setting thespian of Thiruvananthapuram is the subject of a recent biography ‘Jagathy Chiriyude Nityavasantham’ by film columnist Suku Palkulangara.
Jagathy Sreekumar was born on 5 January 1951 in Jagathy, Thiruvananthapuram to renowned playwright Jagathy N.K. Achary and Prasanna. He was educated at Model School and later at Mar Ivanios College. In a film career spanning 37 years from 1975 to 2012, he acted in more than 1100 movies. He directed two movies and wrote screenplays for two. The Kerala State government honored him with the Second Best Actor award twice (1991 and 2002), Special Jury Award twice (2007 and 2009) and the Best Comedian Award for 2010. After separating from first wife Mallika he married Shobha with whom he has two children, businessman Rajkumar and lawyer Parvathi. He has a daughter Sreelakshmi with another wife Kala. Parvathi is married to Shaun George, son of colourful Kerala Congress politician P.C. George.
Jagathy’s literary lineage is impeccable. His father Jagathy N.K. Achary who was with All India Radio, wrote the spectacular dramas of Kalanilayam like Raktharakshass, Kadamatath Kathanar and Kayamkulam Kochunni. Some years back Jagathy and Padmanabhan, son of Kalanilayam founder Krishnan Nair, revived the theatre. N.K. Achary who passed away in ’97, also wrote fifty screenplays and appeared in cameos like the innkeeper in Desadanakkili Karayaarilla. The Corporation named a road in Jagathy near their Krishnavilasom tharavad house after him. He had a strong ambition to make his son an IAS officer. The junior Jagathy was as good at academics as he was in the extra-curricular. While in high school he staged a play as we saw. Jagathy was active with K.S.U. in college, where the top politicians of today like Oommen Chandy, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan and the late T.M. Jacob were seniors. Ironically he, who nursed political ambitions, ended up an artist while his friend K. Jayakumar (retired Chief Secretary and present Vice Chancellor of Malayalam University) whom he thought would earn a living writing for films, went on to be a top bureaucrat. Jagathy was the Arts Club Secretary and excelled in drama, mimicry and mono-act. An inveterate filmgoer, he frequented cinema houses like Sreekumar, Shakti (now Kripa) and the now defunct Chitra over in Aryasala.
After college he ran away to Chennai. This was an era when Adoor Bhasi and Bahadur reigned as kings of Malayalam comedy. The book informs us that the learned Bhasi who inherited the genes from his father, satirist E.V. Krishna Pillai and his maternal grandfather, the historical novelist C.V. Raman Pillai was always a hero of Jagathy. After many futile knocks at film makers’ doors, he became a medical representative but was duly fired as he failed to make appearances, leave alone meet targets. The legendary Merryland P. Subramaniam gave him a part in a movie called Yovvanam in which glamorous star Vijayasree was to play an actress. He was to be her make-up boy character. It was a non-starter as Vijayasree committed suicide before they could even shoot a combination scene. In ’74 he did get to show his face in a couple of scenes in K.S. Sethumadhavan’s Kanyakumari but the real break was to come the next year. Jagathy met Sreekumaran Thampi who had written and was producing a movie titled Chattampi Kalyani to be directed by Sasikumar. Nasir and Lakshmi were the lead pair and Bhasi led the comedy thread. There was a sidekick character of his called ‘Payyans’. Thampi wanted to give the part to Jagathy, egged on by his wife Raji who was the daughter of drama great Vaikom Mony who incidentally was good friends with the father Jagathy. The director was against experimenting with a newcomer for the part and insisted on the original choice, Pattom Sadan. On the designated day of shooting, Sadan could not turn up as he was nursing a jumbo hangover from the previous night’s excessive drinking and the film makers decided to give his understudy, Jagathy Sreekumar, a chance. He did not look back. Jagathy considered himself blessed to have had his arengetam in the company of Bhasi who mentored him by pointing out the flaws in his acting. Over the years, Jagathy went on to achieve greater versatility and influence than his early stage mentor. The Sadan incident was an early lesson for him, about alcoholism, as this reviewer once heard the him state in a TV interview. Even though he loved his drink, Jagathy has never appeared in even a single scene, in any of his thousand odd movies, drunk on even a drop of liquor. Bahadur was a busy actor who hid untold personal pains beneath his infectious laughter. Jagathy learnt this when he went to borrow money from him. But lend him money someone did – Prem Nazir, that too big time. Years later when he tried to repay it, was met with a polite refusal.
Having seen generations of film insiders, Jagathy is also witness to the erosion of values in the industry. Hard work, commitment and quest for knowledge have given way to shameless imitation, ingratitude and easy money. Jagathy himself bore the brunt of witch-hunting by the very industry he belonged to when he was implicated in a sex scandal, in which he was acquitted later. This led to a memorable public snub of him, by the then Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan who treated him, an official invitee, like a pariah. Jagathy was old school in that he never incurred extravagant expenditures for his producers by making unreasonable demands even though he could have got away with such behavior.
Jagathy carved a niche for himself with cartloads of characters that mostly belonged to the comedy genre. But he has been outstanding in the many movies where his character hardly evoked the haasya rasa, including the award winning Apoorvam Chilar and Ramanam. He is better described as a great actor – one can safely say one of the ten best movie actors to have graced Indian screens. With the exception of a dozen films including Thovala Pookkal, Champion Thomas, Witness (the last two he wrote), etc he was always a supporting or character actor. But even in minor parts he has made memorable contributions. Writer-director Padmarajan tapped his talent with roles like the bordello madam’s son in Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil, the foul-mouthed Kavala in Moonampakkam, the cameo of the neo-rich Tamizh businessman in Innale, etc. If in the ‘80s he formed a laughing triumvirate with Pappu and Maala, later it was to be a new sparring partner in Innocent which whom he paired in Kabuliwala. Jagathy essayed the most entertaining character in family hit man Rajasenan’s Meleparambil Aanveed.
A most fruitful association of Jagathy’s has been with Priyadarshan, the man who has the pulse of comedy like none else in Indian cinema today. If Mohanlal played hero in almost all of Priyan’s comedies, Jagathy provided effective foil to him and even grabbed centre stage by sheer exuberance in a few of them. The biggest tribute was paid by Mohanlal himself when he told his senior friend that he is in reality the hero of Kilukkam. Who can forget the dismissed health-care attendant Narayanan who goes drunk to meet the doctor in Thalavattom, the workshop owner in Aram + Aram = Kinnaram, the wily friend of the naïve hero in Dhim Tharikita Thom and his characters in Poochakkoru Mukkuthi, Mukundetta Sumitra Villickunnu and Mazha Peyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu! Lal and Jagathy further rattled sabres in Sangeeth Sivan’s Yodha where their battle rap song Padakali is a shining hallmark of the on screen chemistry of the duo. The Thiruvananthapuram slang which is the U.S.P. of today’s comedian Suraj Venjarammod was tried and tested to perfection by Jagathy in movies from Mazha Peyyunnu…. to Mattuppetti Machaan long back. The scene involving Pachalam Bhasi teaching Saroj Kumar rasas in Udayananu Thaaram was taken in one shot without retakes, it is said. Like Bhasi and Sreelatha, Jagathy paired well with Kalpana. But it was absolute fireworks when he teamed with Sukumari, an equally versatile actor with more than 2000 movies to her name. Jagathy’s own idol was the Thamizh actor Nagesh. Jagathy Sreekumar’s endurance and longevity can be attributed to his ability to adapt to the changing times.
The 280 page biography by Suku which throws much light into the making of the actor, is priced at a reasonable Rs 210. A lot of research and the long association of the writer Suku with his subject are evident. Nostalgic pictures from Jagathy’s life and career, and a filmography appendix, make it a well-rounded offering.
The movies that Jagathy directed, Annakkutty Kodambakkam Villickunnu and Kalyana Unnikal, fared only moderately well. Rushing from one set to another to meet his many commitments, this hard working actor was cruelly cut in mid flight in March 2012 when he had a serious accident at Malappuram early one morning leading to long hospitalization and treatment. Even as he is slowly recovering, his acting future is a question mark. Multitudes of his fans and admirers the world over offer prayers for the speedy return to normal life of their beloved Ambili, who had brought immense joy and laughter to their lives for so long.