The unconventional hero
Venu Nagavally, one of the most versatile artistes in Malayalam cinema, leaves behind indelible images that showcase his talent as actor, director and writer.
UNFORGETTABLE: Venu Nagavally.
Venu Nagavally was not the conventional hero Malayalam cinema was used to till then. Venu Nagavally belonged to an in-between period in Malayalam cinema, one that came after the era of Sathyan-Nazir duo and before that of Mammootty-Mohanlal. His characters were also never black or white, but endless varieties of grey in between. His screen persona was that of a melancholic hero, which also stood out from the rest of the popular male heroes of his time (Sukumaran, Jayan and Soman), who exuded a machismo that was totally alien to him.
Another aspect of his personality was versatility and success in many fields: he came to films as a singer (and continued to sing occasionally), and then turned to acting, directing and script writing. Later, he also led the production wing of a television channel. He also lent his voice to on-screen characters; he was the voice of Swati Tirunal in Lenin Rajendran's film.
Although he entered films as a singer in ‘Chottanikkara Amma,' it was in the late 70's that Venu Nagavally essayed his major roles, especially in ‘youth/campus films.' It was also a period when Malayalam cinema was at its peak – both economically and thematically. Politically, it was a turbulent and disillusioned period, one that followed the Emergency.
In these early films, the narratives of which almost invariably ended tragically, he played the role of the brooding, romantic hero in films such as ‘Ulkkadal,' ‘Shalini Ente Koottukari' (1978), ‘Yavanika,' ‘Chillu,' (1982) and ‘Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback' (1983).
His was a persona that reflected the existential and political angst of the post-70's Kerala youth. The feudal certainties and the idealistic anchoring of the earlier era were already behind them, yet they had not been able to find a new sensuality and expression of their own.
Obviously, he was never a ‘hero' in the conventional sense of the term – one who was extrovertly courageous, handsome and athletic. He was not the one to fight but to suffer; not one to rave and rant, but one to brood; not the lover to fight to win his love, but one to suffer and never forget. Such total self-denial seems to have had its resonance in his personal life too.
His acting career ran parallel to that of ace directors of the 80's, especially K.G. George and Mohan in whose films he played major roles. Their retreat from the scene was also the demise of the kind of ‘middle' cinema that found in Venu its alter ego.
It was only natural that his acting career reached its apogee with the lead role of the eponymous hero of ‘Devdas' (1989), which was a sort of rounding off of a period in his career. From there, he moved on towards playing ‘senior' roles and to direction and scripting. The superhit Priyadarshan movie ‘Kilukkam' stands testimony to Venu's success as a script-writer and prove that beneath the veneer of melancholy ran a strong current of humour.
Venu's first directorial venture was ‘Sukhamo Devi' (1986), which was based on his own experience. He went on to direct successful yet sensitive movies such as ‘Sarvakalasala,' ‘Ayitham' (1987), ‘Swagatham' (1989), ‘Lal Salam,' ‘Aye Auto' (1990), ‘Kalipattam,' ‘Aayirappara' (1993), ‘Agnidevan' (1995), ‘Rakthasakshikal Zindabad' (1998)and finally ‘Bharya Swantham Suhruthu' (2009). All his films were about love and friendship, its confrontation with different kinds of obstacles, and the aftermath.
His oeuvre also had a strain of his left leanings; in addition to acting in films like ‘Meenamasathile Sooryan' (about the Kayyur revolt) and heading the production wing of a pro-left television channel, two of the films he directed – ‘Lal Salam' (1990) and ‘Raksthasakhikal Zindabad' (1998) – were an introspective look at the rise and fall of communist ideals. Venu examines these issues by dealing with the cracks in political movements, its hopes and later degeneration, create in human relationships.
One significant aspect of Venu Nagavally's screen persona is that, despite the fact that he acted only in a handful of films during the span of two decades, his image tends to stay in our minds unlike many of the other male heroes of his time. In a way, he is more of a haunting presence, rather than an actor per se. Obviously, there was something about his persona that was essentially ‘educated, middle class, Malayali' that struck a deep chord within us. It combines within itself a curious mix of enchantment as well as resignation, yearning as well as withdrawal, all adding a peculiar charm or charge to his melancholy.
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