In a way, Venu Nagavally, the veteran Malayalam movie-maker who passed away Thursday, is happy now. He has finally met the object of his affection -- death -- one of the two central characters of most of his movies. The other being destiny.
Nagavally's persona was best portrayed perhaps by Lalettan, the lead character of 'Sarvakalashaala', arguably his best movie. Lalettan, played by the then fantastic Mohan Lal, spends close to seven years in the same college, going through his under-graduation, graduation and post graduation.
It's not that the lonely orphan loves studies or is ambitious about his academics. It's just that he doesn't want to leave his venerable alma mater -- his only support system.
Like Lalettan, Nagavally never really passed out of his college days. He survived on sheer nostalgia; nostalgia for his own days of youth, when Castro and Marx were his gods and an ever expanding flock of friends his family. In the process, he kindled our memories. And how!
As an actor, he was not great. His brooding, lifeless characters were almost always depressing -- the typical self-destructive 'Devdas'. He was perhaps the quintessential art-house actor.
But behind the camera Nagavally let his hair down. He loved to portray the camaraderie among friends and neighbours (and no one could beat him at that). Be it 'Swagatham', 'Ayitham', 'Sukhamo Devi', 'Kalippattam', 'Sarvakalashala' or 'Hey! Auto', youthful banter and frolicking friends were recurring leitmotifs of his movies.
Nagavally was the typical 'thinking moviemaker' of the 1980s Kerala. Yet, he also was intellectually honest. We get an indication of this in one scene in 'Sarvakalashala' - a movie about campus life in the 1980s.
The otherwise chirpy, impish and affable Chakkara -- a sidekick played by Manianpilla Raju -- one fine day turns (pseudo-)serious, complete with a kurta, oiled hair, a side-bag and a thoughtful look.
Asked what the problem was, he claims with a stone-faced look that he wants to get 'serious' in life. And then hilariously adds: 'I'm in a Venu Nagavally mood.'
Rarely has any moviemaker made fun of himself in such a fashion and yet come out unscathed.
No single character really took centrestage in Nagavally's movies. They all played their parts. Yet they beautifully complemented the plot itself.
But wait. Of course there were central characters. Unmistakably yes. And they were destiny and death. Nagavalli's movies were the visual manifestation of 'man proposes, god/destiny disposes'.
He would charm us with witty dialogues, which he often also wrote for other directors like Priyadarshan, that were virtually lifted from lay Malayalis' routine conversations. Once he had lulled us this way, he would unleash the tormenting twists and turns in the plot, leaving us all with a lump in our throat.
Be it the accidental death of one of the friends in 'Swagatham', the passing away of Mohan Lal's character in 'Sukhamo Devi', or the freak shooting of Siddhan -- the eccentric vagabond poet played by Nedumudi Venu -- in 'Sarvakalashaala'. The dying character usually left behind so many incomplete tasks and profound thoughts that they changed almost everybody's life overnight. Talk about vacuum.
Death indeed was the harbinger of unimaginable changes in Nagavally movies. It was the point of deflection in his narratives, or the culmination of the storm kicked up his other muse, destiny.
Consider the shock the mortuary van gives us when it passes by her gate just as Devi, the central character of 'Sukhamo Devi', sets out to elope. The very person who was supposed to help her in the mission is lying in the van, cold dead.
Or this: Lal's elder brother in the same movie, reaches home on hearing of his death. After exchanging compulsive pleasantries with his dead brother's buddies, with a quivering voice, he asks: 'Will someone please hand me a cigarette?' And then his trembling hands cannot light the cigarette. Unmatched, till this day.
Lal Salaam, comrade Nagavally.
(Harish Menon can be contacted at [email protected])