Pratap Pothen; Aaravam of a career of four decades subsides

In the face of the heart wrenching loss of a person, the only possibility of consolation is to think back at the life they lived. Pratap Pothen(1952- 2022) remained a contemporary to many generations of actors. And, this isn’t something that could be said about all the actors of the industry. In his acting career that spans almost five decades, Pothan was never the one to settle for niche roles. Rather, he was more interested in bringing about a versatility through his choice of roles right till the last films of his career. 

Pothen’s choice of characters were very iconic and irreplaceable. He made his debut through the renowned and revered auteur director Bharathan’s film Aaravam(1978). This was followed by other critically acclaimed films Azhiyatha Kolangal(1979), Chamaram(1980), Lorry(1980), Nenjathai Killathe(1980), Madhu Malar(1981), Novemberinte Nashtam(1982), Onnu Muthal Pujyam vare(1986). Almost three decades later, the protean actor still proved his acting prowess through films likeIdukki Gold(2012), 22 Female Kottayam(2012), and AyaalumNjanum Thammil(2012). Especially with Pothen’s prominence alongside a younger generation of actors like Sreenath Bhasi, Reema Kallungal and Sunny Wayne, he was a part of what is called ‘New Generation Cinema’, a term also holding many bitter-sweet connotations. New Generation Cinema is a demarcation of a period in Malayalam cinema commencing roughly from the 2010s.  It defines itself as a beginning where the malayalam film industry saw numerous innovations in narratives and cinematic techniques also marking the rise of directors like Aashiq Abu, Alphonse Puthren, Lijo Jose Pellissery and a range of younger generation of actors, among whom Pothen becomes a contemporary through notable roles like Michael(of Idukki Gold) and Hegde(of 22 Female Kottayam) that made him stand out. 

Pratap Pothen with actor Madhavi in the movie Novemberinte Nashtam

Pothen’s spoken Malayalam with a tinge of English accent made him a perfect fit as Natasha’s Anglo-Indian dad in Banglore Days(2014). The same charm of approachability made him a loathful and dangerous menace that we don’t see coming in 22 Female Kottayam. And it would be an injustice not to mention Pothen’s immensely heartening portrayal of the mentor, Dr. Samuel of Ayaalum Njanum Thammil

An odd mix of these villainous as well as extremely sweet, and wholesome characters of Pothen commemorates him as an actor of the newer generations, as eminent as he was for the older generations. The ease at which Pothen blends into these characters is the same reason that made him positively stand out even in the infamous era of New Generation Cinema, even after three and a half decades after his debut. Tinsel town being notorious for its ageism, and actors persistently cast in roles way younger than their age, Pratap Pothen stands out for his distinctive choice of roles that is unparalleled in its own sense. Brought to life through his performative perfection. 

As he tugged at our heartstrings in each of his irreplaceable performances, Pothen’s acting prowess in his earlier films like Chaamaram and Takara won him consecutive Filmfare Awards South under the category of Best Actor in the years 1979 and 1980 respectively. 

In the duration of his career, he also spread out into almost the entirety of the South Indian cinema industry both as an actor and a director. He directed eight Tamil, three Malayalam and one Telugu film.  He won the National film award for the Best Debut Director for the film Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kathai(1985) and Filmfare Awards South under the category of Best Direction for Rithubhedam(1987). He later made his presence felt in Bollywood through a brief role in the 2007 Mani Ratnam film Guru(2007)

Early Life

Pratap Pothen was born on the 15th of February 1952 in Trivandrum, Kerala, to Ponnamma Pothen and Kulathunkal Pothen. His father was a businessman who died when Pothen was 15 years of age. But it was only after the loss of his mother, that Pothen felt the pangs of bereavement. He stated that he felt like an orphan after her death. 

Pothen is the youngest of 5 children. His brother Hari Pothen also works in the film industry as a producer. Pratap Pothen did his schooling in Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty, an alma mater to many actors especially in the South Indian film industry. Pothen’s interest was initially piqued by painting only to later shift towards acting in his college years. He pursued his degree at Madras Christian College, a period which marked the commencement of his acting career. During his college days, he started acting in plays. After graduation, he did a brief stint as a copywriter at an ad agency in Mumbai. 

It was his time with The Madras Players, an English language theater group based in Chennai that catapulted him into the film industry. After seeing Pothen’s performance with The Madras Players in the play Androcles and the Lion(by George Bernard Shaw), director Bharathan offered him a role in the film Aaravam.  Afterwards, he also subsequently landed roles in  Thakara(1979)Lorry(1980) and Chamaram(1980) also directed by Bharathan.

Family and Personal Life

Pothen was briefly married to the famous Tamil actor Raadhika in 1985, which ended in 1986. In 1990 he got married to Amala Satyanath, with whom he had a daughter Keya Pothen. His marriage with Amala Satyanath which lasted for a little more than two decades, ended in divorce in 2012. 

Pothen held all his friendships very close to his heart. In a  Manorama piece on Pratap Pothen, in conversation with the actor Kamal Haasan, the actor recalls the fond memories that he shared with Pothen. He talks about the depth of their long-lasting friendship that goes back four and half decades. A friendship that was developed through their shared interest and passion for cinema and deeper existential questions. Haasan reminisces over the good old days of a friendship that was forged in their youths. Haasan spoke about how Pothen was effervescent with glee even in his final days, promising to send over duck curry in one of their phone calls. On this trip down memory lane, Kamal Haasan recalls how Pothen used to say that he would want at least all of his friends to be present at his funeral. Haasan stated that the funeral, which was attended by everyone(almost all of the southern film industry), in itself speaks for how Pothen was loved.

The last couple of years saw the loss of many artists creating an irreplaceable void in the film industry. We are at the loss of a generation of steller actors who defined an entire era of Malayalam cinema. Now the loss of Pothen only leaves us thinking of the glory and legacy that these doyens have left us with. Pothen would go down the history of the South Indian film industry as a renowned and beloved virtuoso actor and director. A veteran with a distinctive ouvre, spanning almost five decades working with different generations of directors from Bharathan to Aashiq Abu. 

The word Pratap(am) in Malayalam means ‘glory’. The ‘prataapam’ that his artistic talent has bestowed on the industry would remain nonpareil, even for the decades to come.

Lakshmi R Pillai is a final year student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts (Pune). She is majoring in Media Studies.