J.P. Chandrababu was also loved for the way he sang the songs — gruff and rustic. He was the first comedian in the history of South Indian cinema to command a salary of Rs. 1,00,000 per film, something unheard of in those days.

“Onnume puriyaley ulagatthile... ennamo nadakudhu marmama irukkudhu...!” (‘Kumara Raja’)

“Pirakkum podhum azhuginraai ...irakkum podhum azhuginraai...oru naalenum kavalai illamal sirikka maranthaai maanidaney....!” (‘Kavalai Illatha Manithan’ )

So he sang in two of his films, and they express the state of his mind, heart and soul, and also his life.

Chandrababu, the celebrated singing and dancing star comedian of Tamil Cinema, was on top for a few seasons before he faded away into near obscurity and poverty to which he contributed himself.

His attitudes, his sharp tongue and also the compulsive desire to kick at the sacred cows of the Tamil film world did not endear him to movie moguls.

Now, for an evening at the Rajakumari Cinema in Madras city. ‘Maaman Magal’ in which he had acted was released on that day and the producer-director, a much respected senior film person of south Indian Cinema, R.S. Mani was standing to greet moviegoers and find out their opinion after seeing the first show. Along with the crowd out walked Chandrababu and his friend V. Gopalakrishnan towards the smiling director.

Much to the shock of Mani, Gopi and everybody else, Chandrababu held the filmmaker’s chin with both hands and pinching his cheeks he exclaimed loudly, “Ennamma kannu, epdikiirey?”

Poor Mani was speechless, turning red in the face while the comedian nonchalantly walked away with another pinch of his cheeks to his car parked a few yards away. Such was the man behind the comedian.

Meeting the President

Another similar incident, much more shocking, took place in 1965 in New Delhi soon after the Indo-Pakistan war had come to a close. To entertain the Army heroes, a large contingent of movie persons of South India went to New Delhi. The team included top star Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesh, Savithri, Jayalalitha, Padmini, Devika, P. Suseela, Kannadasan, Al. Srinivasan, M. S. Viswanathan, P.B. Sreenivos and many others. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan invited the team from Madras to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan for an evening.

Chatting with the team, the President asked MSV to sing a song. A harmonium was brought and while MSV played, Chandrababu sang his famous hit song ‘Pirakkum podhum azhuginraai...’. Deeply touched by the song and the way the comedian rendered it, the President showered praise on the singer and the lyricist Kannadasan. Chandrababu jumped onto the President’s lap (all were seated on the floor) and pinching his cheeks, exclaimed in Tamil, “Kanna, nee periya rasiganda!” The philosopher took it in his stride, thoroughly amused of course, while others watched in shock and dismay. That was Chandrababu.

Indeed he was the first comedian in the history of South Indian cinema to command a salary of Rs. 1,00,000 per film, something unheard of in those days when even cult figure comedians such as N.S. Krishnan received only at best five figure salaries. He held sway until he was overtaken by another talented comedian K.A. Thangavelu, who received such a high fee.

Dramatic entry

Chandrababu’s entry into movies was indeed dramatic. A day in 1952 at Gemini Studios canteen? it was crowded as usual when in walked a slim young man and asked the canteen-in-charge ‘Gemini’ Manian for a glass of water. Somewhat impressed by the young man, Manian gave him the water which he drank in a corner swallowing something he had in a small packet. Crystals of copper sulphate, a deadly poison.

Within a few minutes, he collapsed and was moved to hospital. Among those who helped was the studio’s casting supervisor R. Ganesh, later Gemini Ganesh.

The police arrested the man and in his pocket was a letter stating that he wanted to act in movies and could not meet S.S. Vasan and therefore was ending his life.

He requested that his body be handed over to the noted Tamil writer, playwright and film person B.S. Ramaiah. (Chandrababu’s maiden appearance was in a small role in Ramaiah’s ‘Dhana Amaravathi’ which few remember today).

He was produced before a Presidency Magistrate who took a liking to the accused, and much to the surprise of many, he permitted the future star to do a mono-acting scene from a Shakespearean play.

Impressed, the Magistrate bound him over for good conduct without sending him to jail, asking him to report to a nearby police station every week.

The Gemini Studio’s boss came to know about it and gave him a single sequence role in his film ‘Moondru Pillaigal’ (1952) in which his performance was stunningly remarkable and Vasan told his friends that this boy would go a long way. He proved to be a prophet.

(This writer is grateful to his friend and well wisher ‘Gemini Canteen’ A.N.S. Manian who narrated the incident in graphic detail.)

Joseph Pichai Chandrababu was born in Thuthukudi in 1929 into a well-known Christian family. His father was involved in the Freedom Movement courting imprisonment often.

The family was related to the well known Congress leader of that area, Joseph Roche Victoria. With the father being away from home often the son’s education did not take off and he was packed off to Colombo where the family had relatives. Here he went to school for sometime but felt drawn to the heady atmosphere of the highly westernised city.

Ceylon was a crown colony of the British Empire unlike India because of its strategic importance, and a highly westernised ambience prevailed in that country and more so in its capital.

Chandrababu was attracted to such ambience and honed his skills in Western dance and singing, which would help him in a big way later in his career as a singing star in Tamil cinema.

Indeed to this day the only singer in South Indian cinema who could yodel during a song is Chandrababu.

(To be continued)