With his enormous physique and handlebar moustache P.K. Kaliyappan can easily pass for a yesteryear villain on the silver screen. He also has behind him half-a-century of association with the film world. Kaliyappan, however, had to be content with the role of a typical backroom boy: a driver for film companies and a silent witness to 50 years of change in the film and political worlds which complemented each other.

“I have worked as a driver for five Chief Ministers beginning with Anna, all of whom have had a close association with the film industry,” said Mr Kaliyappan, who entered Kodambakkam dreaming of a career in cinema.

Like many who cut their teeth in theatre, Kaliyappan, a native of Palladam, also had a brief stint in Nawab Rajamanickam’s theatre.

“I learnt driving so that I could become a driver of a film company. I thought it would bring me close to film personalities. But somehow, I remained where I had begun,” said 70-year old Kaliyappan, the honorary president of the South Indian Cine and TV Drivers Association.

A keen observer of men and matters, he had the opportunity to witness many a great incident that changed the face of cinema and politics.

“I still remember the day when MGR asked us to send in ‘Aasiriyar’ (Karunanidhi) immediately when he reached Sathya theatre. It was a time of political turmoil and power struggle. After his arrival, I went to the hotel to get walnut cake, a favourite of Aasiriyar. The next day, the newspapers informed us about Aasiriyar becoming the Chief Minister,” said Mr Kaliyappan.

He said before boarding the car, MGR would first ask the driver whether he had his meal. “He was a generous man and never forgot his modest roots and days of poverty. He had a genuine concern for the poor,” he said.

Mr Kaliyappan said it was he who picked up LTTE leader Prabakaran from his residence on direction from MGR after the Tamil militant groups had a fight in Chennai. “I remained silent when MGR chided him for creating problems,” he said.

Mr Kaliyappan, who worked as a driver for Mekala pictures, a film company owned by Mr. Karunanidhi and others, said the DMK leader would always sit in the front seat and read a book till the journey was over. Incidentally, according to him, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa too would always read while in the car. Mr. Kaliyappan said he had dropped her in Church Park where she was a student, stepping in for her mother Sandhya’s driver Madhavan. Later on, when she entered the industry, he has been her driver too.

“Mu. Ka. Muthu studied in Madras Christian College School and his school mate was P.S. Veerappa’s son. I was working for Veerappa’s company and many times, Muthu travelled with us. He would sing brilliantly in the car,” said Mr. Kaliyappan and went on to sing Mr. Muthu’s favourite song from the MGR-starrer ‘Nadodi Mannan’.

He said working with Anna gave him rare insights into the personality. “One day, I was asked to take Anna to a meeting in Perambur. I thought he was going to speak. But, in the car, he tied a towel around his head to hide his face. Then, he sat among the crowd to listen to late Communist leader Jeeva,” said Mr Kaliyappan.

On another occasion, during a trip to Tiruchi, the tyre got punctured. Before he could change the tyre, Anna had disappeared. “He had the habit of hitchhiking and I reached Tiruchi by travelling in a lorry,” he said, recalling how Anna would get off from the car to watch Therukoothu (street plays) at night.

Sivaji Ganesan and Telugu actor and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao were the other stars he worked with. “Both of them were very dedicated. You could see them long before the shooting began,” he said.

Asked whether he had any regrets about not becoming an actor, Mr Kaliyappan said everyone had a role assigned to them. “You would not have interviewed me today if I was not a driver for five Chief Ministers,” he laughed.

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