Innocent, a versatile film actor and former member of the Indian Parliament, who also served as the president of A.M.M.A for 15 years, passed away on Sunday, march 26th, 2023, ending a long career as an actor who has touched millions of lives through his brilliance and ability to make people laugh though his innovative natural talents. The iconic actor will be cherished for his flawless ability to elicit laughter, both on and off-screen.
Innocent breathed his last on Sunday at the age of 75 after battling cancer several times over the last 10 years. The former Lok Sabha member, who also served as the president of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (A.M.M.A) from 2003 to 2018, was taken to the VPS Lakeshore Hospital in Kochi on March 3 due to breathing issues and uneasiness.
Cancer Wardile Chiri (Laughter in the Cancer Ward) was the title Innocent gave to his memoir which detailed his battle with cancer, and it was a fitting one. “Innocent is the cure to cancer. His comedic approach to the illness proved to be more successful than the medical care he had, I can attest,” cancer specialist Dr VP Gangadharan, under whom the actor began the treatment in 2012, said commenting on the book.
An actor par excellence, Innocent was, for many decades, the epitome of comedy for Malayalam film audiences. In his illustrious career spanning over 50 years, which started with AB Raj’s Nrithasala (1972), Innocent has acted in 750+ films.
Though Innocent started his journey in the early 1970s, his acting career didn’t really take off until 1981. That year, he donned the hat of a producer for the first time and, along with David Kachappilli, brought to life the film Vida Parayum Munpe which was directed by Mohan and scripted by John Paul.
Innocent, the actor, too turned a lot of heads when the movie debuted to widespread critical acclaim. With Bharathan’s Ormakkayi (1982) and K G George’s Panchavadi Palam (1984), he continued the run. Although Innocent received only three to four films a year till 1984, the tide turned in 1985 and the actor starred in at least 17 films that year. The number increased further in 1986 when he appeared in over 30 movies, becoming a staple of Malayalam cinema, and Innocent was never forced to look back.
The most appealing aspect of Innocent was his ability to effortlessly adopt any persona and reveal all of its nuances. Some of the characteristics that made Innocent an unrivalled talent included his facial expressions, gestures, diction, and how naturally he used his body. This was demonstrated by his roles in movies like Akkare Ninnoru Maran (1985), Gandhinagar 2nd Street (1986), Unnikale Oru Kadha Parayam (1987), Nadodikkattu (1987), and Vadakkunokkiyantram (1989). He rarely dropped any stones while performing comedic scenes. Because of the pair’s no-holds-barred performances, people still chuckle at Innocent and actor Jagathi Sreekumar’s superb combination scenes in Priyadarshan’s Mukunthetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu (1988).
Innocent’s career, however, peaked in 1989 with Siddique-Lal’s debut film, Ramji Rao Speaking, in which he played a character named Mannar Mathai, the owner of a theatre troupe. Much attention was drawn to his comedic timing and the subtleties he added to the character. To put it into other words, for non-Malayalis to understand how great his performance was, it was based on this character (and the movie) that Priyadarshan later developed the character Baburao Ganpatrao Apte aka Babu Bhaiya (and the 2000 film Hera Pheri). Due to the abundance of humour the director duo Siddique and Lal, who also penned the story, managed to include in the film, the part offered Paresh Rawal one of his biggest career hits and did the same for Innocent. Since Ramji Rao Speaking was a slapstick comedy, the character Mannar Mathai had various scenes that were exaggerated versions of actual events. But Innocent demonstrated his mastery of comedy by never going overboard and staying in line at all times while making sure the exaggerated components persisted.
Further, his performances in Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal and Mazhavil Kavadi (1989), Thoovalsparsham, Gajakesariyogam and Dr Pasupathy, No.20 Madras Mail, and Kottayam Kunjachan (1990) awed spectators.
The year 1991 witnessed a never-seen-before Innocent as he played a wide range of characters that appeared to be outside of his comfort zone, but in reality, never were. While his portrayals of Kittunni in Kilukkam and Yashwant Sahai, a politician from north India, in Sandesham brought about laughter, the actor’s performances as Lazer, the crooked antagonist, in Bharathan’s Keli and Sheshadri Iyer, a corrupt police officer in Priyadarshan’s Adhwaytham, made it clear that he could play any role and that he was underutilised. Innocent replicated the feat in 1993 as well with his outstanding performances in Siddique-Lal’s Kabooliwala and Vietnam Colony, and IV Sasi’s Devaasuram. Warrier in Devaasuram is considered one of the best performances of the veteran actor.
Even while associating with filmmakers who predominantly made comedy movies, Innocent was always one of the favourites of parallel cinema makers too. He also worked in the films of master directors like K G George, G Aravindan, Padmarajan, Bharathan and Lenin Rajendran, among others. In addition to Vida Parayum Munpe, the actor produced three movies at the beginning of his career: Ilakkangal, Ormakkayi, and Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback; and, needless to say, all of them were unconventional works that later gained a cult status. Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback by K G George, said to be based on the tragic life of yesteryear actor Shoba, is now regarded as a seminal work in Malayalam cinema. The actor also penned stories for two films – Pavam IA Ivachan (1994) and Keerthanam (1995).
For Malayali moviegoers, his collaborations with actors Mohanlal, KPAC Lalitha, Jagathi Sreekumar, Thilakan, Kalpana, Urvashi, Jagadish, Mukesh, and Nedumudi Venu are still highly memorable.
Yet with all of this, the most potent weapon in his arsenal was his capacity to make people laugh, both on and off-screen. Even when his battle with cancer was at its worst Innocent never missed an opportunity to make people laugh, including those who were taking care of him at the hospitals and his colleagues within the film industry and political circles.
Speaking to Mumbai Mirror in 2015, Kerala Minister M B Rajesh dearly recalled Innocent’s humour sense while the two were members of the Lok Sabha. “In the middle of a heated debate, when tempers are high, Innocent will creep up behind you and slowly whisper, ‘Shall I jump into the well? I am not scared of anyone.’” According to the Mumbai-based newspaper, stories about him were legends in the Central Hall of Parliament. He, apparently, once asked businessman and then Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Mallya to get him three cups of coffee, confusing the latter for a Coffee Board waiter.
At the same time, the actor’s bravery in his fight against cancer and the way he used to talk about it without inhibitions have been praised numerous times by people, including his coworkers. He was also one of the first Malayalam celebrities to openly discuss his battle with cancer, an illness that still carries a lot of taboos. In one of the episodes of Kairali TV’s JB Junction, a Malayalam chat show hosted by CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP and the channel’s managing director John Brittas, Innocent spoke candidly about this and stated: “I think a lot of people gained from that (him addressing his disease). Fear ebbed away for them. There is a lot of false information floating around regarding cancer. There are a lot of fake doctors who offer bogus medical care around us.”
But the one time Malayalis witnessed an entirely broken Innocent was when his wife Alice was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even then, the two did not concede defeat and both of them emerged victorious yet again. The three-time recipient of the Kerala State Film Awards shared a close with his family, especially his grandkids Anna and Innocent Jr.
Even after being diagnosed with cancer, Innocent never left the silver screen. Even while receiving treatment, he balanced acting with his duties at the A.M.M.A. Since 1980, the only year in which Innocent did not appear in any movies was 2020, as he was undergoing treatment. But he returned to the world of motion pictures in 2020 and did five more movies. The actor was last seen in Shaji Kailas’ Kaduva (2022). Nonetheless, thousands of moviegoers will have the opportunity to bid farewell to the legend as his final movie, Paachuvum Albhuthavilakkum by Akhil Sathyan, will be released posthumously on April 28.