South Indian actor Thilakan. The actor died early Monday morning in Kerala, aged 77. Image Credit:

In the looks department, he was no oil painting, and during interviews he was famously acerbic, but that did not stop veteran actor Thilakan from scaling great heights in the Malayalam movie business.

The 77-year-old anti-establishment thespian died of heart failure early Monday morning in a private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, after suffering a massive heart attack on August 23. He is survived by two sons, including Shammi who followed in his father’s footsteps as an actor, and two daughters.

Billed as one of Malayalam’s top character actors, Thilakan was unique as a supporting actor whose gravitas could outshine South India’s lead heroes.

With over 200 films to his credit, Surendranath Thilakan began his journey in theatre. He did not graduate from college, but received top marks when it came to forming his own drama troupe, Mundakayam Nataka Samithy.

After staging numerous plays across Kerala, he bagged his first acting project with Ulkadal in 1979. But film folklore claims that it was his role as a despotic drama troupe manager in the acclaimed thriller Yavanika that put him on the acting map. The role won him his first Kerala state award in 1982. The next few years saw him take on character roles in acclaimed films such as Rithubhedam, Gamanam and Kireedam. In Kireedam, starring Mohanlal, Thilakan played an ordinary policeman who has to make peace with his brilliant son (Mohanlal) turning into a street hooligan. Though the drama belonged to Mohanlal, Thilakan held his ground.

Surprisingly, he didn’t fall into the trap of playing helpless-dad roles, thriving on injecting variety into his career catalogue. From a sadistic stepfather in Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal to playing an endearing grandfather who’s forced to grapple with his grandson’s drowning accident in Moonam Pakkam, Thilakan excelled in complicated, multi-dimensional roles.

He strengthened his hold on the Malayalam film industry with the 1991 hit drama Perumthachan (Master Carpenter), playing a pious, old-fashioned carpenter who kills his rebel son to prevent a scandal with admirable conviction. His portrayal made him a strong contender for the prestigious National Award for Best Actor. But despite superlative reviews, the National Award eluded him and he lost the trophy to Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan.

Thilakan did not accept defeat gracefully and cried foul. In an interview with Rediff, he openly alleged that it was political clout and lobbying that resulted in Big B walking away with the award.

His propensity to drop controversial remarks did not end there. In 2010, he hit out against Malayalam’s long-enduring superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal for squashing talented artists like him. His outbursts divided the industry and very soon he found himself being isolated from film projects and his own peers. The Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) – an actor’s guild comprising prominent Malayalam stars – also suspended his membership. Despite the unofficial ban, Tilakan made a stellar comeback in 2011 with the blockbuster Indian Rupee, proving that talent doesn’t stand in the way of politics. Though the leading hero in this real-estate drama was heartthrob Prithviraj, the seventy-something Thilakan continued his tradition of elevating his supporting role to hero material. His comeback response?

“Many film associations pecked and tried to take away my livelihood. But he [Renjith, director of Indian Rupee] had the guts to offer me that role and said I was the only who could do it. I came to the sets and the viewers have accepted me. My viewers are my weapon,” the actor said at a television awards presentation ceremony this year.