Sunday marks the National Award-winning Malayalam actor Nedumudi Venu‘s first birth anniversary, after his demise in October 2021. In a career spanning five decades, Venu has acted in over 500 films. He died at the age of 73 from post-Covid-19 complications and stomach-related ailments.
On this day, some of the technicians from the film industry spoke to Silverscreen India about their experiences and memories of working with the legendary actor in the recent past. Words fall short to explain how good an artist and human being Venu was. But they remember him as “a director’s actor, a man of improvisation and a filmmaker with a great vision”.
Filmmaker Anil Radhakrishnan Menon, who directed Venu in the national award-winning film North 24 Kaatham (2013), hails him as “a director’s actor and a visionary filmmaker.” Venu played a significant role named Gopalan, a retired school teacher, in the film.
Talking about why he opted to cast Venu, Anil says, “Venu chettan was a very safe choice. Before him, I approached two other people, and out of both, one said he did not understand the role and the other said something else. When I approached Venu chettan, I told him that I didn’t know how to narrate it to him, but I could make it. He encouraged me to tell the story in whichever way I could. After listening to me, he agreed to come on board.”
Speaking about his favourite scene of Venu’s in North 24 Kaatham, Anil says that it was his last scene in the film, where he walks home and sees that his wife was dead.
“In the scene, after a long walk, Venu stands in front of his wife’s body. Actually, he was standing in front of wooden boxes. There was no actor lying down. I did not want to show the wife. We shot that at midnight and there was no dialogue. He gave one of his best performances in that shot. There was a crowd while shooting that scene and almost all of them cried, after seeing his performance.”
The filmmaker notes that Venu had a great memory and observed the minute details to maintain continuity even while shooting in a non-linear pattern. Before the above-mentioned shot, there is an auto sequence, in which Venu gets offered a tissue by Fahadh Faasil.
“Venu chettan remembered that and carried it to the next scene, which was shot much later. He was a director’s actor. While dubbing for his last scene in the film, he said he wanted to see it fully. After watching it, he said he needed a break. He came back after some time, and told me that he might have acted in the film but the emotions he portrayed are so true to his own. While leaving the studio, he hugged me and said that every time, after dubbing for a film, he dug a hole and buried the character but he would always carry this character with him.”
Later, Anil went on cast Venu in three other films – Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Lord Livingstone 7000 Kandi and Diwanjimoola Grand Prix.
“Venu chettan was there in all my films. I always write a character for him in my films. I feel I could bring out the best in his presence. Recently, I was writing a script and when he visited me, I told him about his character. He suggested another name for that character and said it would be apt. Now that he is no more, I have erased that character from the film because I cannot think of anyone else other than Venu chettan.”
Anil adds that the late artist had told him about his idea to direct a film, again. “During the shoot, Venu chettan used to give me suggestions that were so helpful for a debutant filmmaker. When I explained a scene to him, he first processed it as a filmmaker, and then, as an actor. He had a great vision for filmmaking. The last time that Venu chettan had come home, it was sometime back in January or February, 2021. He was very close to me. His loss is so personal to me.”
A few days before his demise, Venu completed shooting his part for Puzhu, starring Mammootty and Parvathy Thiruvothu, in Ernakulam and returned to his home in Thiruvananthapuram. Puzhu’s director, Ratheena, in an earlier conversation with Silverscreen India, said that she considers herself fortunate to have directed such a legendary actor. “It was a memorable experience working with him. He told me that he was happy to hear a woman’s voice calling out ‘action’ and ‘cut’. He also said that many more women should come into this field, and predicted that in the coming years, the differentiation between ‘male filmmakers’ and ‘female filmmakers’ will fade away.”
She added, “He was not keeping well at the time, but I was so amazed by his performance. We shot with sync sound and the way he remembered his lines and enacted scenes was flawless. He was such a great actor that when we set frames, he just knew how to move accordingly and use the right expressions.”
Bheeshma Parvam was another film of Venu’s that was released posthumously on March 3, 2022. The actor played an antogonistic character named Kochery Iravippilla, and one of his expressions, which was used in the trailer, received great appreciation.
In conversation with Silverscreen India, Ravi Shankar, the additional scenarist for Bheeshma Parvam, says, “When we wrote the script, it was our dream to have Venu chettan and KPAC Lalitha chechi pair up for those two characters. We were so excited to work with him, and thought that it would be good to have him for the role of Iravippilla, as he has not done a negative character, in the recent past.”
Shankar adds that Venu shot with the team for four days in a mana (traditional mansion) and the mood during the shoot was very surreal. “It was a memorable experience to see him perform for four days. He was a man of improvisation. For his character, we were able to establish that he was a kingpin in the past only with his mannerisms and dialogue delivery. No one better than him would have fit this role. All the expressions and mannerisms were his own improvisations.”
Shankar says that besides acting, Venu was also interested in process of filmmaking, adding that the late actor observed the new-age working style, and was curiously learning the types of cameras and lenses used.
Further, Shankar notes that during Venu’s introduction scene, when Dileesh Pothen’s character enters the mana, a pre-lap voice of Venu reading Ramayanam is heard. “Venu chettan randomly took that Ramayanam book from the mana for the shot. Coincidentally, he happened to open the Aaranya Kaandam portion, which begins with a brief about death. It was apt for the film’s story. He showed it to us, and read a portion of it for the sound recordist to record. Later, after he passed away, our team reminisced this incident.”
The scenarist also mentions that Venu was young at heart, very punctual for shoot schedules and got along well with everyone on the sets. “At the time, Lalitha chechi was not well and had difficulty in hearing. So, while performing Venu chettan used to cover up for her if there was anything missing from her end. Before leaving, he gave us a hug and told us that he had enjoyed working with us. But it is upsetting that both of them were unable to see the film,” he adds.
A few months after his demise, Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham was released in theatres. Venu essayed the role of a Zamorin, a humble king, who was caught between family tiffs and foreign forces.
Ahead of its release, Venu had said that he was happy to be a part of this historic film, in a video byte released by the makers. “Themes like love, romance, revenge that are adopted for works of art like cinema, theatre, poetry, and stories, are accepted across the world. Patriotism or love for the motherland is one such theme that is accepted on par with or even one step higher than those.”
He also revealed that he played the role of Kozhikode Samoothiri (aka Zamorin), the hereditary monarch of the kingdom of Kozhikode, after previously doing so in films like His Highness Abdullah (1990) and Daya (1998).
Reminiscing the memories with the actor, Marakkar’s co-writer, Ani Sasi, son of late Malayalam filmmaker I.V. Sasi, says, “For the Zamorin’s role we couldn’t think of anyone else so regal, other than Venu sir. We did not want Zamorin to be like a typical, standoffish king. We wanted him to have a graceful, calm demeanour, who naturally portrayed the aura of ownership. Venu sir got that instantly. When he came in for the first shot, it was so natural and perfect.”
Ani was associated with Venu for a decade and worked with him in films directed by Priyadarshan.
“My father taught me Malayalam alphabets and Venu sir taught me to read stories. He encouraged me to read a lot to become more fluent. That is one of my most cherished memories. While shooting, he would call me to the caravan and ask me to read his lines. That’s how he encouraged me to incline toward reading. Once, I remember, I was not able to get a Malayalam word. I didn’t even know what it meant. But he taught me that. It is called ‘Mizhikasya‘.”
The filmmaker also says that Venu was an extremely committed actor that even when he read the script, he used to analyse how that particular character would deliver the lines and more. “His acting was profound. Besides, in between shots he used to tell old stories from his life and I remember some of the funny anecdotes shared by him.”
Venu also worked in a family musical film titled Ente Mazha directed by debutant Sunil Subramanian. On working with the late actor, the Sunil says, “It was a wonderful experience. I remember the Katcheri song in the film that was planned to be shot in two days. But, with the cooperation of Venu sir and Manoj, we were able to finish it within one day.”
Venu made his acting debut in the 1978 film Thambu directed by Aravindan. He later rose to fame with his performance in filmmaker Bharathan’s Aaravam, Padmarajan’s Oridathoru Phayalwan and Kallan Pavithran. Venu had also acted in some television serials.
Venu had also written screenplays for films like Kattathe Kilikkoodu, Theertham, Sruthi, Ambada Njaane!, Oru Katha Oru Nunnakkatha, Savidham and Angane Oru Avadhikkalathu. He also directed the 1989 film, Pooram.
Venu is the recipient of three National Film Awards for his performance in His Highness Abdullah (1990), Margam (2003) and his narration in Minukku (2006). He also won six Kerala State Film Awards for films Chamaram (1980), Vidaparayum Munpe (1981), Oru Minnaminungite Nurunguvettam (1987), Bharatham and Santhwanam (1991), Thenmavin Kombath (1994) and Margam(2003). He had also acted in several Tamil films including Sarvam Thaala Mayam, Silambaattam, Poi Solla Porom, Anniyan, Mogamul and Navarasa in the part titled Summer of ‘92. His upcoming films include Jack N’ Jill and Koppam.