In lighter vein Friday Review

MGR's martial arts guru

Kali N. Ratnam essayed the role of the ‘Man Friday’ in the box office hit, ‘Sabapathi.’

The film which established Kali N. Ratnam as a top comedy artist, ranking equal with N.S. Krishnan, was the 1941 box-office bonanza, ‘Sabapathi.’ The ‘back story,’ (a familiar Hollywood expression) of the excellent comedy is worth narrating at some length.

Handy Andy is one of the popular comical characters of English literature created by Samuel Lover during the 19th century. Samuel Lover (1797–1868) was an Anglo-Irish songwriter, composer, novelist, and a painter of portraits, chiefly miniatures.

In fact, it was said that he was someonewho had the singularly ingenious knack of doing everything the wrong way!

The celebrated Tamil theatre person, Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar, wrote several plays called ‘farces’ built around a 'Handy Andyish' servant Sabapathi who is the ‘Man Friday’ for a not so bright young man also bearing the same name. Such farces were enacted by Sambandam Mudaliar with his troupe Suguna Vilas Sabha and proved to be popular.

A. T. Krishnaswamy, the neglected but talented writer-director-producer (‘Arivaali,’ ‘Vidyapathi,’ ‘Manam Oru Kurangu’) suggested to A.V. Meiyappan with whom he was working in Pragathi Pictures, to make a comedy built around Sabapathi.

Those were the days of the Second World War when life was grim. People, under these circumstances would love to laugh and AVM agreed to make the film.ATK wrote the story based on Mudaliar’s farces.



Like many other Tamil film artists of yesteryears who were part of boys’ drama companies, Kali N.Ratnam too, before he came into the movies was especially well versed in traditional Tamil martial arts like swinging the club, sword fighting, wrestling etc. Another person who learned these martial arts from Ratnam, was the cult figure,cultural icon and one of the leading personalities of modern Indian history, M.G. Ramachandran. He learnt the arts from him and considered Ratnam his guru. Later, when MGR became a hero and Ratnam was fading, MGR reverentially addressed him as ‘Anney,’ which surprised many people who did not know their back story.


T.R. Ramachandran who was on the rolls of Pragathi Pictures on a princely salary of Rs. 35 per month, was cast as hero with Kali N. Ratnam, played the Tamil Handy Andy. ‘Lux Soap’ beauty R. Padma was the hero’s wife, an educated heroine who teaches her duffer husband English. C.T. Rajakantham, then slim and saucy, played the Man Friday’s heartthrob.

Another noted comedian of the day, K. Sarangapani, played a Tamilschoolmaster who is ragged endlessly by his students. During that period, Tamil teachers were the buttof jokes for they were considered inferior to schoolmasters who taught English!

For the first time, the name ‘A.V. Meiyappan' appeared as director in the credit titles though the film was written and directed by A. T. Krishnaswamy.Padma was active in Tamil Cinema during the 1940s but sadly, she never made it to the top and is barely remembered today. However, Rajakantham made it as a comedian with Kali N. Ratnam and the pair was next in fame to N. S. Krishnan and T. A. Mathuram.

‘Sabapathi’ had contrived humour, jokes built around wrong usage of English, making fun of Tamil teachers and such. However, moviegoers of 1941 belly-laughed making it a big success. T. R. Ramachandran achieved star status with this film and was mentioned in the same breath as N. S. Krishnan.

For a while, even MGR called himself 'M.G. Ramachandar’ to be different!‘Sabapathi’ placed AV. Meiyappan firmly on the ladder of success and he was well on his way to movie stardom. It brought A.T. Krishnaswamy into prominence as a director and a talented writer of comedy.

Produced at a cost of around Rs. 40,000, ‘Sabapathi’ proved to be a cash-ringing box-office success. It is often screened on Tamil TV channels and quite familiar even after 70-plus years.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 8:09:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/mgrs-martial-arts-guru/article6834336.ece

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