indian cinema heritage foundation

Prem Nazir

  • Real Name: Abdul Khader
  • Born: 7 April, 1926 (Chirayinkeezhu, Travancore)
  • Died: 16 January 1989 (Chennai)
  • Primary Cinema: Malayalam
  • Parents: Asuma Beevi, Akkode Shahul Hamid
  • Spouse: Habeeba Beevi
  • Children: Laila, Rasiya, Shanavas, and Rita

Known by the title Nithyaharitha Nayakan or Evergreen Hero, Prem Nazir is counted among the most successful actors of Indian cinema, and arguably the first superstar of Malayalam cinema. Starting off as a stage actor, he went on to make his film debut with Marumakal (1952). Adopting the screen name Prem Nazir while working on his second film, Visappinte Vili (1952), he became one of the biggest superstars from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, known particularly as a romantic actor. Among his key films are Murappennu (1965), Iruttinte Athmavu (1967), Kallichellamma (1969), Nadhi (1969), Anubhavangal Paalichakal (1971), Azhakulla Saleena (1973), Vida Parayum Munpe (1981), Padayottam (1982), and Dhwani (1988). A mainstream superstar in Malayalam cinema for over 30 years from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, he won several honours including the Kerala State Film Award (Special Jury Award) for his role as Madhavan Kutty in Vida Parayum Munpe, and the Government of India’s Padma Bhushan award for his contribution towards the arts. Holder of two Guinness World Records: for playing the lead role in a record 520 films, and for playing opposite the same heroine—Sheela—in 130 films, he also holds the record for acting opposite 80 heroines, and for acting in lead roles in 30 films which were released in a single year (1973-1977). Moving to character roles with the passing decades, Prem Nazir continued to shine in a range of interesting roles. He is regarded as perhaps the most influential and trendsetting lead actor in Malayalam cinema. 

Born Abdul Khader on 7 April, 1926 in Chirayinkeezhu, Travancore, in present day Kerala, to Akkode Shahul Hamid and Asuma Beevi, he completed his formal education from Kadinamkulam Lower Primary School, Sri Chithiravilasam School, Trivandrum, SD College, Alappuzha, and St. Berchmans College, Changanassery. Garnering wide experience in theatre by the time he completed his education, he made his acting debut as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1951), while he was a student at SB College, Changanacherry. He even won the Best Actor award for his performance. Transitioning to cinema, he made his debut with Marumakal (1952), directed by S. K. Chari and produced by Paul Kallungal. He was rechristened Prem Nazir by Thikkurussi Sukumaran Nair, while working on his second film, Visappinte Vili (1952), a Mohan Rao directorial. He now began acting mainly for the Excel Productions (Udaya Studio) and Merryland Studios. 

When Prem Nazir started his career, theatre was the popular visual medium while films were still in a fledgling state. The young, debonair actor soon rose to become the heart-throb of the screen, adored by female fans for his emotional connect and accepted as a darling of the masses. Rehearsing and refining his talent through playing diverse roles, he was aided by his theatre background and fluency over Malayalam. Featuring in films with themes based on social and religious injustices in society in the late 50s, his popularity soared. Bringing him to the forefront in terms of acting prowess was the cinema-redefining Iruttinte Athmavu (1967), in which he played the role of an imbecile youth with intensity. It is regarded by critics as not only Prem Nazir’s masterpiece but one of the finest onscreen performances ever. The film Iruttinte Athmavu was a landmark in other ways as well. It heralded the birth of the low-budget film, gave Malayalam cinema new direction, and was culturally rich enough to inspire a slew of family dramas. 

Prem Nazir was known for his portrayals of historical characters in films such as Aromalunni (1972), Kannappanunni (1977), Thacholi Ambu (1978) and Padayottam (1982). He played Hindu deities like Rama, Krishna and Ayyappa, and also essayed the eternal romantic hero, who stood up for the right. He was also known for his romantic roles, drawing from the tradition of pastoral poetry of Changampuzha and G Sankara Kurup. Fortunes of great Malayalam songwriters like O N V Kurup, P Bhaskaran and Vyalar Rama Varma were intertwined with Nazir's rise to stardom.

Moving to character roles in the 1980s and playing supporting roles to the superstars of the day such as Jayan, Sukumaran, Shankar and Soman, Prem Nazir continued to make an impact playing several powerful characters. He won the Kerala State Special Jury Award for his supporting role in Mohan's Vida Parayum Munpe (1981). Completing his last film A T Abu's Dhwani (1989), his last release was Priyadarshan's Kadathanadan Ambadi (1990), in which he co-starred with Mohanlal

To Prem Nazir also goes credit for ushering in two popular film genres—the CID series and the Vadakkanpattu series. He played a James Bond-like character in the CID series of investigative films such as Lanka Dahanam (1971), teaming up with comedian Adoor Bhasi. This series spawned several adaptations featuring Mammootty, as well as the Mohanlal-Sreenivasan combination. Nazir’s series of films based on Vadakanpaattu, which are part of the traditional folklore of Kerala, was also highly popular. Initiated by Sathyan in Thacholi Othenan (1964), Nazir played various martial warriors from Vadakkanpattu

Winning his only Kerala State Film Award in 1981, Nazir also bagged the Filmfare Special Award - South for numerous films, also winning a Special Jury Award for the supporting role he played in the film Vida Parayum Munbe. He was also awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in recognition of distinguished services of a high order to the nation in his field (acting). He also held the position of National Film Award jury in 1985.

A great humanist and philanthropist, Prem Nazir was known to help colleagues, relatives, and well-wishers alike. He wrote a book on the film characters he played, called Enne Thediyethiya Kathapatrangal, while his autobiography is titled Anubhangal Oarmakal. Filmmaker and lyrist Sreekumarn Thambi also wrote a book on Prem Nazir, titled Prem Nazir Enna Prema Ganam

On the personal front, Prem Nazir was married to Habeeba Beevi. The couple had four children—Laila, Rasiya, Shanavas, and Rita. Prem Nazir's son Shanavas acted in few films as well, while Shanavas's son Shameer Khan has acted in a Malayalam film, Uppukandam Brothers Back in Action (2011). 

Prem Nazir passed away on 16 January 1989, aged 62 due to complications after contracting measles while campaigning for a friend who was running for elections. He was buried with full state honours. The Prem Nazir Award was initiated in his memory in 1992 for excellence in contributions to the Malayalam film industry.