Innocent, a life laughed well
Innocent was an actor who danced in the world of humour like no one was watching
For a brief period during my childhood, whenever I encountered a Thrissur native, I assumed they were all imitating Innocent. At the time, in my mind, no one represented the region better or delivered the dialect better than him. I was enamoured by his signature style of dialogue delivery, with its distinct and instantly pleasing tune and rhythm, complemented by a body language that was, again, unique only to Innocent.
It goes without saying that Innocent belongs to that admirable league of actors who have no equal: neither was their style borrowed from their predecessors, nor would their style be successfully emulated by their successors. Innocent's performance achieved a perfect, harmonious synchronicity between his dialogue delivery, mannerisms, movements and gestures. Supremely confident, unencumbered by the camera's gaze. Innocent was, undoubtedly, a 'repeat value' actor.
Could any of today's young comedians in Malayalam cinema be counted on to recreate, exactly, Innocent's brand of comedy? No. Could any of today's actors be counted on to portray him in a biopic? No.
Being a 90s kid who grew up on a succession of VHS tapes that introduced me to the varied faces of Innocent, which remain ingrained in my mind even to this day, writing a tribute to this much-revered thespian of Malayalam cinema, who proved himself adept at doing both comic and sentimental roles, is not easy.
How does one compress a massive wealth of remarkable performances into a single tribute? Impossible.
One is always bound to remember, later, a role that didn't come to mind when writing a tribute. Is there any Malayali out there who has not turned to a funny scene or two of Innocent when feeling the blues?
For me, there are many, but if I have to pick, say, five scenes that I immediately reach out to, it's his scenes from Sarvakalashala, Kaattukuthira, Kilukkam, Ramji Rao Speaking, and Godfather. These movies are enough for being an introductory starter pack for those unfamiliar with Innocent's work — to illustrate his extraordinary comic timing.
Take Kaattukuthira, for instance. After revisiting it recently, I realised how great a performer he was. I took particular delight in those scenes shared by Innocent and Thilakan. As Shankara Menon, the personal aide of Thilakan's Kochuvava who is constantly walking on eggshells around his volatile employer or trying, in vain, to please him, Innocent was eminently convincing. The scenes where he delightedly gulped Kochuvava's toddy unbeknownst to him. The scenes where he listened to Kochuvava's cuss words each time with a grimace.
Now that I've brought up grimace, I tried to remember every film of Innocent where he conveyed grimace but made it look different each time. He possessed the ability to add a fresh dimension to the same expression. The grimace in Kattukuthira is not the same as the one in, say, Kilukkam or Godfather. One factor that enhanced his performances is his inimitable use of improvised pieces of additional dialogues: the internal ones audible to us but not the other character.
What about his sentimental roles? The most obvious choice during discussions is his character Warrier in Devasuram, the close confidante of Mohanlal's Neelakandan, who stood by him without judgement. That we saw iterations of Warrier in similar 'mass' movies but played by different actors speaks to the impact of Innocent's performance. But the one that moved me the most was his character in Kabooliwala. As a child, I recall seeing the paal nilavilum song alone and getting quite curious at how these characters — Kannas (Innocent) and Kadalas (Jagathy) concealed so much sadness underneath their smiles.
Be it individuals belonging to the higher or lower layers of the social strata, Innocent played all of them with commendable elan. He essayed the most approachable priest (the Kasargod Kaderbhai films), taxi driver (Nadodikattu, Pattanpravesham), bus driver (Varavelpu), drama troupe owner (Ramji Rao Speaking, Mannar Mathai Speaking)... And how can one forget the stoic, no-nonsense elder brother of Mohanlal in Mithunam?
Sigh. The list doesn't end here.
Adieu to the man who danced like no one was watching.