I wonder if actor Prathap Pothen, who passed away on Friday, would have become that popular celluloid hero that he was in his heyday if he were to make a debut today. Would he have fitted into the frames of most modern blockbusters that have so much blood and gore? So if Pothen was loved by the film-goers of those times, the halcyon days of Tamil cinema, it was because a spate of movies, tugging at the viewers’ hearts and tickling their brains, were being made by a generation of directors at one point of time. It was the phase after Kollywood came out of the stranglehold of the two legendary titans, M G Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, who had enthralled the audience with their kind of films.
Though I am not sure of the first Pothen film that I saw, my guess is that it was Azhiayatha Kolangal (Inerasable Patterns), which had so many things to remember. Despite being a takeoff on a 1971 Hollywood film, Summer of ‘42, which I knew much later, when Azhiyatha Kolangal hit the screens, it was a sensation. Not due to Pothen, whose endearing short presence on screen was undoubtedly impressive, but because the heroine was another extremely talented actress, the late Shobha, and the director and cinematographer was the late Balu Mahendra. Tamil film goers went gaga over visuals capturing the rustic charm of the village, in which the coming of age film was set.
Another memorable film of Pothen was ‘Moodupani’ (Mist), again featuring Shobha as the lead actress and Balu Mahendra holding the megaphone and the camera. That too was again inspired by an old Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho. But for me or any other Tamil movie goer of the time, the visuals and story line were out of the ordinary. So Pothen, sort of endeared himself to many like me for whom cinema in those days was the prime entertainment. He was the man next door who breezed into the film industry as a whiff of fresh air with his suave demeanour and intellectual aura, oozing with thespian talents.
Personally, he was the only film star I have met and interacted with before I became a journalist. He was brought to meet us, students of journalism and mass communication, by one of our guest lecturers, the late Mithram Devanesan, a leading theatre personality in Chennai at that time and a friend of Pothen. That was soon after the release of his first directorial venture, Meendum Oru Kathal Kathai, a revolutionary story on romance and marriage of two mentally challenged persons. The film, in which he also played the lead role, won critical acclaim for both his acting as well as directorial skills but Pothen, while interacting with us, was humility personified. He spent a lot of time answering our questions on cinema and film making.
However, about four years prior to that classroom meeting, Pothen had floored me by essaying the role of a student in love with his female lecturer in the Malayalam film ‘Chamaram.’ The film directed by the late Bharathan created a sensation across campuses, particularly co-ed colleges where women lecturers taught men. I, too, was then a student of a co-ed college. But I wonder if a movie like that could be made in the present day social milieu, in which people are too sensitive to such culture shocks and no one knows what hurts whom. Anyway, in 1980, Pothen pulled it off with aplomb and won the hearts of many students, particularly those who were taught by women teachers.
As a responsible teacher, driving sense into the heads of a pair of adolescent lovers trying to elope from a public school, Pothen appeared in the film ‘Panneer Pushpangal,’ another beautiful love story that unfolded on the screens in those times. That was also a film character that was widely discussed as he taught us how an ideal teacher should be to his students, thus making an impression on me in those student days when we generally resented the behavior and attitude of our teachers.
Another celluloid fare of that era that featured Pothen and was glowingly spoken about was ‘Nenjathi Killathey’ (Don’t pinch my heart), a slow-moving beautifully narrated story by the late Mahendran, who had once said that he developed the storyline after seeing a woman jogging one fine morning while he looked out of his hotel window in Mumbai and wondered if she would able to continue her exercise after marriage. Pothen played his part as a photographer with elan.
All such vignettes are still fresh in my mind since I was an ardent movie-goer as a student. Those matinees in the darkened cavernous cinema halls were far more exciting than the stifling confines of the laboratory or the post-lunch sleep-inducing lectures. But my interest in films waned slowly and I rarely went to watch them as years passed. But Pothen continued to travel in his chosen path and it crossed with mine at times. He was featured in the film Bangalore Days (2013) that I watched and then he came as the judge in the 2020 OTT offering, ‘Ponmagal Vandhal.’ Most of those who drew our attention through films in those years faded away from the limelight. Also I have to prefix the ‘late’ to the many names referred to in this column. It is sad Pothen joined them all so early....