Veteran Malayalam actor ‘Innocent’ Vareed Thekkethala, a household name in the south Indian state of Kerala with an outsized impact on the state’s popular culture, died at the age of 75 at a private hospital in Kochi on Sunday.
The actor, mononymously known as ‘Innocent’, was placed under extracorporeal membrane oxygenation support after his condition turned worse, according to Indian media reports that cited a bulletin issued by the doctors attending to him on Saturday. A cancer survivor, Innocent was in hospital for nearly three weeks owing to cancer-related complications.
‘Innocent’ has starred in over 750 movies in a career spanning five decades, primarily in Malayalam, and a few in Tamil and Hindi. Known for his roles primarily as a comedian, he served as president of the artistes’ guild, Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes, during 2003-18. He last acted in the Prithviraj Sukumaran, Vivek Oberoi-starrer ‘Kaduva’ (2022).
Innocent is known for a unique style and voice of comedy and a favourite among mimicry artistes. He played memorable roles in the epic box office hits ‘Ramji Rao Speaking’, which spawned remakes in Tamil and Hindi; ‘Manichitrathazhu’, ‘Sandesam’, ‘Vietnam Colony’, ‘Kilukkam’ and ‘Devaasuram’. In ‘Ramji Rao Speaking’, his role as Mannar Mathai, the irritable theatre owner who gets bombarded with “wrong calls” — a legacy of the pre-mobile phone era — continues to inspire memes and holds its place in popular culture to this day.
Born in Irinjalakuda in 1948, Innocent made his acting debut in the 1972 movie ‘Nrithasala’, headlined by the yesteryear stars Prem Nazir and Jayabharathi. He played a minor role in the movie and in a few more movies to come before his talent was recognised by filmmakers.
In his heyday, he was a regular in projects of the leading directors of Malayalam cinema, including Sathyan Anthikkad, Fasil, Priyadarshan (who would later branch off to Bollywood) and Kamal. He had acted alongside stars like Mammooty and Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi and Jayaram. Directors, in the years to come, would often recount his knack for improvising the scenes narrated to him. He and the veteran comedienne KPAC Lalitha made a hit pair and have starred together in many movies. He ventured outside Malayalam cinema to play memorable roles in the Tamil movie ‘Lesa Lesa’ — a remake of the Malayalam hit ‘Summer in Bethlehem’ — and the Bollywood movies ‘Doli Saja Ke Rakhna’ and ‘Malamaal Weekly’.
He appeared as himself in other memorable movies like Prithviraj Sukumaran’s ‘Driving License’, which found a Bollywood remake in ‘Selfiee’.
He is the recipient of many an award, including three Kerala State Film Awards and seven Asianet Film Awards. He is married to Alice, and the couple have a son, Sonnet.
Innocent had an equally colourful career in politics. He won elections to the Irinjalakuda Municipality in 1979. In 2009, he contested the 2014 elections to Lok Sabha, India's Parliament, from Chalakudy constituency in Thrissur district. Five years later, he lost to a candidate backed by the United Democratic Front.
The actor has authored five books: 'Njan Innocent' (I am Innocent), 'Cancer Wardile Chiri' (Laughter In The Cancer Ward, a biography), Irinjalakudakku Chuttum (In And Around Irinjalakuda)), Mazha Kannadi (Mirror Of Rain, a collection of short stories) and Chirrikku Pinnil (Behind The Laughter).