Today is the 75th birth anniversary of popular comedian Thengai Srinivasan. Mohan V.Raman speaks to some of his colleagues who cherish the moments they spent with him on and off screen

Today (October 21), popular actor “Thengai” Srinivasan would have celebrated his 75th birthday. After school, he joined the Integral Coach Factory. Like Nagesh, he too started his theatrical career in the Railway Dramatic Club. Srinivasan was also part of the drama troupe of “Kavarchi Villain” K. Kannan and gave such a splendid performance as a coconut merchant in one of his plays Kal Manam that the famous comedian K.A. Thangavelu announced he should henceforth be called “Thengai” Srinivasan.

Though Thengai made his film debut in 1965 with Oru Viral, he was originally cast in Thaliath’s Iravum Pagalum. The distributors were not supportive of the hero (Jaishankar) and the comedian, both being new faces and Thengai was dropped from this film. His wife Lakshmi remembers that he spent weeks in disappointment. He and Jaishankar, however, became close friends and Thengai was there in almost 80 per cent of Jai’s early films. Thengai’s was a close-knit family with parents, Rajavel Mudaliar and Subbamma, proudly watching all his films, first-day first-show.

Thengai was a great admirer of M.R. Radha and Chandrababu. As a stage actor, he persuaded Kannan to introduce him to Chandrababu and on meeting him, he fell at his feet and shed tears of joy. Years later, when Thengai had become a leading actor and Chandrababu was in the doldrums, Thengai often sent him food. Actor Sivakumar recalls, “Thengai had the height, complexion, curly hair, light brown eyes and sharp features of a hero, not a comedian. He could play any role with ease.” He essayed roles as varied as a crooked tea stall owner and a fake Swami in Kasethaan Kadavuladaa and an idealistic industrialist in Thillu Mullu to perfection. Who can forget his brilliant portrayal in director S.P. Muthuraman’s Mayangugiraal Oru Maadhu as a blackmailing photographer? Says Muthuraman: “When the film was remade in Kannada, Rajinikanth expressed his desire to play that role and did it. Such was Thengai’s ability to live a role and inspire people.”

Veteran Sachu, president, Iyal Isai Nataka Manram, who has acted with him in more than 25 films, recalls how he brought a stove and cooking utensils to Udupi, for the shooting of the MGR-starrer Meenava Nanban as he was going to Sabarimala. They set up a parallel kitchen in the hotel they were staying, which became so popular that even MGR wanted some items prepared there.

It was Valee’s play Sri Krishna Vijayam, in which Thengai played the protagonist, that truly brought out the hero in him. When it was decided to make this into a movie, they originally wanted to cast Sivaji Ganesan. But Sivaji impressed with Thengai’s performance in the play suggested that the latter be cast in the film. And the film, Kaliyuga Kannan (1974), went on to become a huge hit.

Thengai later produced Krishnan Vandhaan, which brought him a lot of financial distress. His daughters, Rajeshwari and Geethalakshmi, recall with gratitude how MGR mediated with the film’s financiers and got him out of the messy situation. Thengai’s son Sivashankar, daughters and grandchildren were with him in Bangalore when he suddenly collapsed following a brain haemorrhage and passed away on November 9, 1988, at the age of 51.

Had he been alive, Thengai would have been happy that his grandson Yogi and granddaughter Shruthika have made a foray into the tinsel world. Recalling Thengai’s role in Thillu Mullu (1981), veteran director K. Balachander says, “Normally I try to get all actors to modulate the dialogue in a particular manner but for this character I wanted Thengai to do it in his style, so instead of teaching him, I asked him how he would like to do the scene and then developed on it. I wanted him to play it as a character and not as a comedian for I felt that the humour would come out on its own through his unique body language and dialogue delivery. I can definitely say that this was one film where I enjoyed every moment of the shoot. He had already worked with me in Edhir Neechal and Vellivizha, where he played a role I had created for Nagesh.”

His co-star Sowcar Janaki fondly remembers how during a shooting, which took place in her house on Cenotaph Road, Thengai used to come into the kitchen and ask her what she had cooked. “He loved the rasam I made. He was a simple and genuine person without airs. It was here that Superstar Rajinikanth first met Latha, whom he later married.”

In 1972, he was cast in AVM’s film version of the successful stage play Kaasethaan Kadavulada written and directed by Chithralaya Gopu. “When he came to watch the play at The Music Academy, it was a full house. Thengai sat with the orchestra in the pit and watched the play. Such was his humility that after the release, the producers put up a huge cut-out for him in the Swamiji get-up. Thengai was very pleased but did not want the hero of the film Muthuraman to misunderstand. He asked me to accompany him and we went to Muthuraman’s house and he explained that it was the role that became popular and even apologised to Muthuraman who smiled it away. Thengai was such a simple man, who was friendly to all and bore no ill will,” recalls Gopu.