Innocent was not merely an actor. South First looks at the life of the man of many hats who left an indelible mark in several fields.
Alice first encountered Cheshire Cat in the Duchess’s kitchen.
Though the phrase, “smile like Cheshire Cat” was in vogue much before Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the feline — which can appear and disappear at will — became popular after the novel had hit the stands in 1865.
The philosophical — and often annoying — cat’s ear-to-ear grin lingers on even after the animal disappears. The peals of laughter Malayalam actor Innocent Vareed Thekkethala had sparked on and off screen, too, will remain for long, like Cheshire’s smile.
Incidentally, the actor’s wife is also named Alice.
Innocent passed away in a Kochi hospital late on Sunday, 26 March. He did not go, as Dylan Thomas puts it, “gentle into that good night”.
He “raged” — even against cancer — on and off the tinsel screen: In business, politics and literature, penning five books, before embracing that “short sleep”, as John Donne says in his Holy Sonnet X. For the record, the actor named his son Sonnet.
The metaphysical poet best describes the “eternity” of the actor in Kerala, especially for movie aficionados.
Like Cheshire Cat, Innocent, too, had appeared and disappeared in different “locations” or fields.
At first look itself, on 4 March, 1948, Vareed Thekkethala, knew that his newborn would get into trouble, Innocent had later said about his name.
Vareed named the baby Innocent so that he could claim “I am Innocent”, whenever he found himself in a sticky situation.
Innocent was quick to realise his business acumen — or the lack of it — after he had taken over the Shamannur Match Factory at Davangere in Karnataka. It was after he had acted in AB Raj-directed Nrithasala in 1972.
He reckoned that his calling was in the performing arts, and was active in Davangere Malayali Samajam’s cultural activities.
After the match factory had slipped into the red, he returned to Kerala in 1974 and tried several businesses.
He opened a stationery shop, before becoming a wholesale footwear distributor. He later set up a leather business and even a cycle-renting unit. All of them failed spectacularly.
For a while, Innocent was the coach-cum-manager of a volleyball team, a game too alien to him!
Little has been said about Innocent’s stint in the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). He was the party’s Thrissur district secretary in 1970, and successfully contested to Irinjalakkuda Municipal Council in 1979.
In 2006, there were rumours that he would contest the state Legislative Assembly election as an LDF-backed independent candidate for Irinjalakuda. It remained a rumour.
The LDF, however, nominated him in 2014. But it was after Malayalam megastar Mammootty declined the Front’s offer to contest the Lok Sabha polls.
Clad in his trademark sandalwood-coloured jubba — or kurta — and white dhoti, Innocent hit the campaign trail in Irinjalakuda Lok Sabha constituency, traditionally a UDF citadel.
The contest drew statewide attention since Kerala had not favoured — barring KB Ganesh Kumar in 2001 — cine stars to represent it in governing bodies.
The state had then even the record of nipping the political ambitions of the evergreen star, Prem Nazir, in the bud in 1987, though his campaign meetings for the Congress drew huge crowds. Nazir was the hero of Innocent’s debut movie, Nrithasala.
The LDF had then registered a decisive majority despite Nazir campaigning for the UDF, drawing huge crowds across the state for 11 days, at Rajiv Gandhi’s behest.
Mourning the loss of character actor, comedian & one-time Kerala MP Innocent, who has just passed away at age 75. Aside from being a brilliantly inventive & gifted actor, he was a fine human being whom it was a pleasure to interact with in the Lok Sabha. RIP. Om Shanti. pic.twitter.com/m9mFGI8DwM
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 26, 2023
Mammootty is known to be an actor who maintains the image of a macho, invincible man.
The LDF approached the actor in 2014, requesting him to contest as its candidate to the Lok Sabha from Chalakudy constituency in central Kerala.
Fearing that contesting from a UDF stronghold would be suicidal, the actor declined the offer. Chalakudy (previously the Mukundapuram constituency) had a track record of backing Congress stalwarts.
The current state chief of the Nationalist Congress Party, PC Chacko, was then the Congress candidate.
Chacko, then a blue-eyed boy of 10, Janpath, had represented Thrissur in the previous election. He used his influence to shift to Chalakudy since he feared a defeat in the neighbouring Thrissur.
The LDF wanted a non-political candidate to win over the majority of Christians in Chalakudy. The CPI(M), the big brother in the alliance, again consulted Mammootty, who suggested Innocent, then the president of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA).
The suggestion was acceptable to Pinarayi Vijayan, the then-state secretary of the CPI(M) since Innocent belonged to Irinjalakuda, which comes under the Chalakudy constituency. He also had good family relations with several influential Christian households.
However, there were doubts over whether a comedian could take on Chacko, a seasoned politician with excellent oratory skills.
The passing of actor, parliamentarian, and fellow comrade Innocent leaves us deeply saddened. His effortless onscreen performances and strong political interventions have made him an indelible part of our cultural memory. In mourning with family, friends, and fellow film lovers. pic.twitter.com/90Ta8m4aNE
— Pinarayi Vijayan (@pinarayivijayan) March 27, 2023
As soon as Innocent, now the Left-backed independent candidate, hit the campaign trail, the scene changed. The comedian outsmarted the seasoned politician with quirky remarks, travelling across the length and width of the constituency.
Innocent trekked tough terrains to reach out to the tribespeople living in the Malakkapara forests. They were seeing a politician — that too a man familiar to them in cinemas — in flesh and blood for the first time.
Across the constituency, Innocent termed Chacko a “migratory bird”, visiting the constituency only when he felt the need. He also highlighted Chacko’s shifting from Thrissur to Chalakudy, terming it fortune-seeking.
Soon, the political equations in Chalakudy changed. Even as Innocent went all guns blazing, Chacko lost steam, and connect with the people.
The Congress candidate also made one cardinal mistake: His campaign harped on Innocent’s educational qualification and lack of proficiency in the English language. The actor-politician was a Class 8 dropout.
Chacko forgot Kerala’s support to VS Achuthanandan, now the last living founding leader of the CPI(M), who had to discontinue school while he was in Class 7 and take up tailoring after his father’s demise.
Innocent hit back at Chacko, addressing campaign meetings in functional Hindi. The other time he spoke Hindi, he had Kerala in splits.
In the 1991 Sathyan Anthikad satirical movie, Sandesam, Innocent played a cameo, portraying Yashwant Sahai, the national president of a political party that resembled the Congress.
Sahai, on a visit to Kerala, demands nariyal ka pani — or coconut water.
His Hindi-illiterate party workers for a while suspected that he was asking for a woman — naari — before multiple people, on realising his demand, climbed the same coconut tree to impress the leader with tender coconuts.
The dialogue was a humorous take on Kerala’s complete literacy claim.
The voters accepted Innocent’s Hindi. The actor-politician revealed that his frequent travels across North India as a businessman helped him pick up the language, and it was enough to communicate in the Lok Sabha.
Chacko also questioned Innocent’s political experience. The actor retorted, pointing out his family’s Left leanings.
He also made an emotional appeal, highlighting his fight against cancer. Innocent said he wanted to use the remaining days cancer would allow him to serve the constituency.
Innocent’s campaign was a box-office hit. His speeches, peppered with dialogues from his films, went down well with the voters, especially women, and youngsters.
When the result was declared on 16 May, 2014, Chacko, who had fled Thrissur fearing a certain defeat, was left licking his wounds. He lost by more than 13,000 votes, even as Innocent booked his flight ticket to Delhi.
Thrissur, as the Congress leader had expected, went to the CPI.
Innocent’s performance in the Lok Sabha was below average. Available Lok Sabha secretariat data reveals that he participated in 42 debates, most of them on national issues. He raised 218 questions, way below the national average.
His attendance was 69 percent, while the national average was 80. He did not move any private Bills during his five-year term.
Other than regional and local affairs, the subjects he raised at the national level were limited to railway infrastructure, cancer care, and rubber prices. In politics, he questioned only the continuous attacks on minority communities in North India.
However, his emotional appeal during Zero Hour for mobile diagnostic centres across India and free medicines to fight cancer won the appreciation of both the treasury and Opposition benches.
Innocent found himself caught in the crosshairs after he, as the president of AMMA, openly supported actor Dileep aka Gopalakrishnan, an accused in the infamous actor abduction and rape case.
A popular actor was abducted and raped in a moving vehicle near Kochi on 17 February, 2017. It has been alleged that the crime was carried out on Dileep’s directive.
Dileep, arrested on 10 July, 2017, has been arraigned as the eighth accused in the case, which still is in the trial stage.
Criticism mounted against Innocent, even as AMMA steadfastly remained reluctant to act against Dileep, though the majority in the state bayed for his blood.
Innocent eventually had to issue a public apology at a news conference. But the damage had been done, since the LDF has been projecting itself as a champion of gender equality.
As a Lok Sabha member, Innocent was accessible to anyone, though several Left leaders rated his performance below par.
In the 2019 general elections, Innocent played the same cards. He sought one more chance — referring to cancer — saying he was in his sunset years. The voters rejected him and elected Benny Behanan of the Congress to the Lok Sabha.
Other than cinema, what endeared Innocent to Kerala was his ability as a communicator. He had authored five books to engage with society.
Cancer Wardile Chiri (Laughter in the Cancer Ward), Chirikku Pinnil (Behind the Laugh), Mazha Kannadi (Mirror of Rain), Irinjalakkudakku Chuttum (In and around Irinjalakuda) and Njan Innocent ( I am Innocent) are his literary works.
While Cancer Wardile Chiri detailed his fight against cancer, Chirikku Pinnil narrated his experience in the Malayalam film industry. All of his books follow a first-person narrative with extreme simplicity. He has a straight-from-the-heart writing style — similar to his down-to-earth personality.
Irinjalakkudakku Chuttum is partly autobiographical. The actor even revealed some interesting tricks he had employed to get along comfortably with fellow actors, directors and others in the tinsel world.
Filmmaker Sathyan Anthikad wrote the foreword for one of his books: “No one can defeat Innocent by any means other than with love. He has exemplary skill in detecting humour from everything he sees. It is a talent,” it read.
Cinema and Innocent were inseparable. He never altered his bond with cinema even as he left indelible marks in whichever sphere he had been involved with.
Indelible like the lingering smile of Cheshire Cat.