Manivannan is no more. He was not just an effortless actor, but the best narrator of scripts

He endeared himself as an effortless actor, but the Manivannan I knew was the best narrator of scripts I’ve encountered. With the ubiquitous cigarette in his hand and smoke swirling from his mouth, his narration, shot by shot would be spellbinding. With his hands shaped to form a film frame, the story unfolded in typical cinema parlance with cuts, pans and pull backs. It was all in his head with not a shred of paper to refer from.

I first met him after he signed his directorial debut, ‘Gopurangal Sauvadhillai’ starring Mohan and Suhasini. He’d already written the sensitive ‘Nizhalgal’ and the soppy super-hit ‘Alaigal Oyivadhillai’. He was a pleasant guy whose attitude never changed on the sets. He would have the unit in splits with his razor sharp repartee. Actors loved him because he told them what to do not how. With an insatiable thirst for knowledge he was a voracious reader devouring books of any genre. He lamented the lack of opportunities to watch world cinema. He worked hard, fast and churned out movies in quick succession. He plucked out the mike that Mohan held in every other film and replaced it with a dagger, turning him into a psychopath in ’Nooravdhu Naal’.

In the days when communication depended on landline, Manivannan would excitedly call to narrate a story idea that had just struck him. He once called me to Hotel Palmgrove to show off his spanking new silver coloured, air-conditioned Maruthi 800. “First of its kind in Madras,” he proudly claimed before taking me for a drive. Fame and fortune beckoned, as did Bacchus. He didn’t change as a person, but the chain smoking and drinking binges took their toll. I remember visiting him in hospital once with Mohan. His worried family was hovering but Manivannan winked and requested me in jest to take the nurse out so he could sneak a smoke. He was out and back to his old ways in a few days.

I had interviewed Mrinal Sen for a Bombay tabloid which Manivannan liked immensely. A couple of weeks later he handed me a popular Tamil weekly. Manivannan had translated the interview and got it published. I told him we should have taken permission, but he waved his hand and said, “They can sue me but this interview deserves to be read by more people.” Mrinal Sen, in those days would have all his films processed at Gemini Studios and after the interview I had become acquainted. Manivannan wanted to meet him so the next time Mrinalda visited I told him. Mrinalda invited me to watch the ‘first copy’ of his film ‘Kharij’ and said I could bring Manivannan along. It was a film about a domestic help who dies because of carbon monoxide poisoning. Mrinalda sat between us and translated every spoken word. Manivannan was touched by the humility of the great director as much as the films social sensibility. “I don’t know how to thank you,” he said holding my hands.

I wasn’t surprised when he became a popular actor. Everyone who listened to his story narration felt he’d make a terrific actor. With S.V. Ranga Rao as one of his idols the ease with which he emoted and his terrific sense of timing came naturally. Direction took a backseat as he became one of the busiest character actors around. He now had a fleet of cars. He dabbled in politics and fell out with his mentor Bharathi Raja over some ideological issues. Never one to look after his health, he defied death but could not dodge it. I’ll miss that rasping voice delivering one-liners that had everyone in splits.

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I squirmed with anger while watching a reality show to judge young singers.

A music director duo and a popular female singer were making fun of a girl from Bangalore for getting her Hindi grammar wrong while speaking. She’d just sung a Lata Mangeshkar classic with perfect diction.

Now this coming from a populace that’s struggling to pronounce ‘Meiyappan’ for the past month is ridiculous. Every actor from the South be it Kamal, Sridevi or Dhanush off late have taken the effort and spoken their own lines in Hindi films. Can you imagine a Hindi actor coming here and doing it? The other day, Shahrukh Khan after thanking Kamal for breathing the same air as he did, humbly confessed that he took more than 40 takes to deliver a couple of Tamil words in ‘Hey Ram’.

“I remember the words and still can’t get it right,” said Shahrukh. We can understand and speak Hindi, while Mumbaites can’t even make out which language we ‘Madrasis’ speak.

sshivu@yahoo.com