Thilakan was the second of the six children of Palapurath P.S. Keshavan (1904-1972) and Devayani (1912-2010). Thilakan was born in Plankamon, Ayroor Panchayat in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. He had his primary education from Asan Pallikoodam, Manikkal and St. Louis Catholic School, Nalamvayal and Sree Narayana College, Kollam Thilakan lived in Plankamon until he started acting in movies with which he moved to Ernakulam. He was first married to actress Santha with whom he appeared in several productions. Thilakan and Santha had three children Shaji Thilakan, Shammi Thilakan and Shoby Thilakan. Later, he married his co-artist Sarojam with whom he had a son, Shibu Thilakan, and two daughters Dr. Sonia Thilakan and Sophia Ajith. He was a staunch atheist throughout his life, and was a supporter of CPI (M).
He was a member of many drama troupes which actively promoted Communism in Kerala. When he died, his body was draped with CPI (M) flag and he was cremated without any religious ceremonies. Thilakan was admitted to a hospital in Thrissur on 1 August 2012 after he collapsed during the shooting of the film Scene Onnu Nammude Veedu. He was then shifted to KIMS Hospital, Trivandrum and was in critical condition after suffering two heart attacks. Besides having cardiac problems, Thilakan was suffering from pneumonia. He was put on a ventilator and died on 24 September 2012. He was cremated with full state honours at Thycaud Shanthikavadam crematorium.
Thilakan is regarded as one of the finest actors in Indian cinema, and popularly mentioned as the Perumthachan (master craftsman) of Malayalam cinema. He has won three National Film Awards and nine Kerala State Film Awards. The Government of India awarded him with the Padma Shri in 2009 for his contributions towards the arts. Thilakan is regarded as one of the finest actors in Indian cinema, and popularly mentioned as the Perumthachan (master craftsman) of Malayalam cinema He has won three National Film Awards and nine Kerala State Film Awards. The Government of India awarded him with the Padma Shri in 2009 for his contributions towards the arts. Thilakan began his career in cinema with a role in P.J.Anthony directed Malayalam movie Periyar (1973). He then worked in Gandharvakshetram and Ulkadal (1979). His first role as a lead character was as Kallu Varkey, a drunkard in Kolangal (1981). Thilakan was awarded his first State Award in 1981 for his role in Yavanika.
In 1988, he received the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Rithubhedam. Again in 1994, and in 1998, he won State awards for Santhanagopalam and Gamanam. He was strongly favoured to get another National Film Award for Best Actor for his performance in the movie Perumthachan. He has also acted in other South Indian languages, such as Tamil and Telugu (in "Palanati Brahmanaidu").
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