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An antithesis on screen


An embodiment of villainy on screen and a devout do-gooder off it, Nambiar is one of the venerated veterans of showbiz. He will soon be seen in ``Vinnukkum Mannukkum'' with Sarath Kumar. RANDOR GUY writes.

ONE OF the most successful stars of Tamil cinema and perhaps the only actor who had remained at the top and active as ever for half century and more. A rare achievement in the here-today-gone tomorrow movie world of shifting sands. His name is synonymous with on-screen villainy. He has acted in so many films that even he cannot recall them all! The long-standing success sits lightly on him and his deep and singular devotion to Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala has kept him on even keel.

A bad guy on screen, off-screen he is the opposite. That's M.N. Nambiar, the Tamil movie star and icon of screen villainy. He is also a staunch patriot and devoted nationalist. He has climbed his way to the top through toil, sweat, and sheer perseverance.

He has created many unforgettable characters which are deeply etched in the public-memory bank. Mention must be made of his roles in ``Thigambara Samiyar'', ``Sarvadhikari'', ``Manthrikumari'', ``Enga Veetu Pillai'', ``Velaikari'', ``Arasilankumari'' and others. A versatile actor he has played a wide range of roles - hero, comedian, villain and more. He has played the villain in innumerable films of hero M.G. Ramachandran for nearly three decades. A rare feature in cinema.

M. Narayanan Nambiar hails from Chirakkal in Kerala and due to straitened circumstances of the family, he could not afford a regular scholastic education. Handsome and intelligent, he entered Tamil theatre as a boy and joined the famous ``Nawab'' Rajamanickam Pillai's Madurai Devibala Vinoda Sangeetha Sabha. It was one of the leading ``Boys' Company''. A theatre troupe in which all roles, male and female, young and old, strong and weak were played by boys mostly in their pre-teens.

Interestingly most stars and actors of early Tamil cinema came from one of the many Boys' companies. The glittering galaxy includes M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, M.K. Radha, M.R. Radha, S.S. Rajendran, S.V. Subbaiah, N.S. Krishnan and so on.

Nambiar took his bow in cinema in a most modest way when ``Bhaktha Ramadass'' was filmed at the famous Ranjit Studio in Bombay in 1935. The unique feature of this film produced by Parameswar Sound Pictures, Coimbatore, and directed by `Murugadasa' is that there are no women in the cast. Perhaps the only all-male movie made in India!

Nambiar received a princely salary of Rs. 75 for his role in the film, a fortune for him then. When the noted stage actor and later film star K. Sarangapani left Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai's troupe Nambiar began to get better roles. As young man he joined the well-known drama troupe of the day, ``Sakthi Nataka Sabha'' run successfully by the noted dramatist and later screenwriter, `Sakthi' Krishnaswamy. Then came the break that would to be the turning point in his career and life...

Nambiar was cast as the dictatorial despot in ``Kaviyin Kanavu'', written by S. D. Sundaram became a roaring hit.

One of those who came from Coimbatore to Nagapattinam to see the play was M. Somasundaram, the owner of Jupiter Pictures making movies at Central Studios. Popularly known as `Jupiter Somu', he was a keen talent scout and impresario. Impressed by the play and its cast he engaged some of the actors on contract to work for Jupiter. They were S.V. Subbaiah (who played the poet) and M.N. Nambiar. Thus Nambiar came to films after nearly 12 years.

His first film for Jupiter was ``Vidyapathi'' (1946). Based on a novel by famed Tamil detective fiction writer, Vaduvoor K. Duraiswami Iyengar, it was written and directed by the noted screenwriter and film maker with flair for comedy, A. T. Krishnaswamy. The cast included T. R. Ramachandran, K. Thavamani Devi, Trichur Premavathy and Nambiar who played a villainous Brahmin. His wife was played by M.S.S. Bhagyam, also an import from theatre, who would be paired with him in more Jupiter films in comedy and light roles. Attempts by Jupiter to build up `Nambiar-Bhagyam' as comedy pair like N. S. Krishnan-T.A. Mathuram and Kali N. Ratnam-C.T. Rajakantham did not take off.

As a contract actor with Jupiter, Nambiar was cast in more films during the late 1940s. In 1947, he was cast a hero in ``Kanjan'' (``Miser'') in which many new faces appeared in major roles. S. V. Subbaiah played the elderly title role of the miser. But the film bombed at the box- office. In the hit film ``Rajakumari'' (1947, the first film of MGR as hero, and directorial debut of the noted writer-director, A.S.A. Sami) Nambiar played the supporting role as the hero's do-gooder pal. Though his role was small he attracted attention. Then came another hit ``Abhimanyu'' (1948) in which he played the evil genius of the Kaurava clan, Sakuni.

Then came the stunning film in 1949, a watershed in the history of Tamil cinema, ``Velaikari.'' Written by the reformistic writer and fast- rising charismatic leader, C.N. Annadurai and directed by A.S.A. Sami. It was a hit and also hailed as cult film leading to significant changes not only in Tamil cinema but even elsewhere. Nambiar played two roles, as the feudal `Shylock-like' rich man's son in love with the poor housemaid, and also as a lecherous guru (shades of Rasputin again!).

Meanwhile the Salem-based movie mogul, T.R. Sundaram, also a hawk-eyed talent scout called Nambiar. Nambiar went to Salem and while he waited to meet the Modern Theatre's boss outside his office he heard sounds of somebody being beaten inside! Feudal and dictatorial in outlook Sundaram `enjoyed' the unenviable and uncomplimentary reputation of beating and slapping his employees including actors. Aware of it all and scared stiff by the sounds, Nambiar began to beat a hasty retreat! But the boss was not one to give up his targets and sent his men on Nambiar's trail and took him back to his office! And Nambiar joined Modern Theaters on an attractive and remunerative contract, another turning point in his life.

The first film he appeared in was a major hit of 1950 ``Manthrikumari'' in which he played the king's preceptor, Rajaguru. Nambiar showed his talent and skills in portraying the guru with high ambitions of taking over the kingdom. The character had many shades to it and subtle political propaganda brilliantly conceived and written by Mu. Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Nambiar became a star with this film and afterwards there was no looking back for him.

Meanwhile another film was under production at the studio, ``Thigambara Samiyar'' (1950) based on a popular detective novel by Vaduvoor Duraiswami Iyengar. The role involved donning many disguises and Nambiar excelled in the role. The film was a hit and Nambiar won laurels as a fine actor possessing a wide range of acting skills.

Another Modern Theatre's hit ``Sarvadhikari'' (1951), a rehash of a Hollywood cloak-and-dagger movie, ``The Gallant Blade'', witnessed Nambiar firmly establishing his stardom.

In ``Sarvadhikari'' Nambiar was the wily cunning manipulating minister. Even though the film had stars like Chittoor V. Nagaiah and MGR, Nambiar dominated the film true to its title! ``Sarvadhikari'' was a hit and Nambiar's careergraph fast-curved upwards. He was now a major star of Tamil cinema. With his increasing fame Sundaram cast him as hero in ``Kalyani'' (1952) directed by the noted lawyer-turned-filmmaker T.G. Raghavachari. B.S. Saroja was his heroine. But the film failed and Nambiar went back to his villain and character roles.

Many roles... many films... with each film he honed his talents and skills. Indeed he became the personification of villainy in Tamil cinema. He acted in some Malayalam movies too. And in TV serials too.

A deeply-religious person, Nambiar has became a guru and initiator to many and has come to be hailed as ``Guruswami''. He persuaded many film-world folks to become Ayyappa devotees and visit the shrine in Kerala annually following a rigid code of discipline and self-denial.

Now in his seventies he is still active with his television and film assignments. As they say a true artiste never retires.

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