A loss-making matchbox company created one of the most celebrated Mollywood actors. It was during his journeys to Sivakasi via Madras to collect raw materials for his matchbox company, Innocent Vareed Thekkethala (or simply Innocent) found the real calling of his life—to be something in Malayalam cinema. And, the Mollywood in return immortalised his name.
With his great timing of humour and a peculiar style of dialogue delivery—in his Thrissur accent—Innocent carved a niche place for himself on the silver screen. If films like Ramji Rao Speaking, Godfather and Vietnam Colony showed his easiness in handling comedy, his roles in Mazhavil Kavadi, Devasuram and Ravanaprabhu showed how safe character roles, too, are in his hands.
Born to Vareed Thekkethala and Margaret in Irinjalakuda on February 28, 1948, Innocent ran many businesses—from cement agency to stationary shop to matchbox manufacturing—before reaching the limelight of cinema.
Nrithasala (1973) was his debut film.
In the early 1980s, he produced four films—two of them won state awards for the second best film. It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that he established himself as a phenomenon in the comedy scene of Mollywood. In 1989, he won the Kerala state second best actor award for his performance in the film Mazhavil Kavadi.
Innocent presented himself as a witty story-teller—he never hesitated to crack self-depreciating jokes, too—and a man of diplomacy in his off-screen persona. And, that helped him serve long years as the president of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) and also become a Lok Sabha MP representing Chalakudy constituency in Thrissur.
Innocent became the president of AMMA in 2000. He stayed in that position for the next 18 years during which the organisation became financially sound. However, when various controversies, especially those related to the actress sexual assault case, came up, AMMA faced severe criticism for its alleged misogyny. Innocent also received heavy backlash related to his statements on casting couch back then. In 2018, Innocent quit the president post citing health reasons.
He was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2012. However, he beat cancer and two years later became a candidate for the Left Democratic Front in the 2014 general elections. His popularity reaped electoral dividends, and the actor laughed his way to the lower house of parliament with a margin of over 13,000 votes. It was a letter written by Innocent to then chief minister Oommen Chandy in 2013 that kickstarted the move for a cancer institute in Kochi. In 2015, on the eve of the government announcing that the cancer institute would start functioning from November of that year, signs of cancer recurrence were detected in Innocent. However, he asked death to wait for next eight years.
In 2019, Innocent was initially hesitant to contest the Lok Sabha elections. In an article written for the Malayala Manorama, he said: “First of all, my body has to allow me to contest an election. I am tired. There are several members of parliament who have to be carried off to their seats. Why can’t they just sit home and relax, I have often wondered. For many of them, it is a pleasant feeling to sleep in parliament.”
However, the LDF decided to retain him as its candidate, and he contested on the party symbol from Chalakudy. But this time, he faced loss.
Even during his days in Lok Sabha, he kept on acting in films. However, in 2020—for the first time after 1980—he did not act in a single film because of his treatment.
The thespian has also penned a book titled 'Cancer Wardile Chiri' which narrates his experiences during the cancer treatment in a humorous way.
Innocent was a man who faced life—during both its highs and lows—with a laugh, and had the rare talent to create instant humour. His physical body is dead, but the characters that he had given life to on screen will live forever!