Nagesh — actor nonpareil

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COMEDY sPELL: Nagesh (right) with Sivaji Ganesan in the Tamil film ‘Galatta kalyanam’
COMEDY sPELL: Nagesh (right) with Sivaji Ganesan in the Tamil film ‘Galatta kalyanam’

Meera Srinivasan

His humour was contemporary and refreshingly new throughout his career

CHENNAI: He could make the audience laugh in amusement or shed a tear in empathy. One of the best comedians and character artists of Indian cinema, actor Nagesh, passed away here on Saturday after a brief illness.

An inspiring example of doggedness and enthusiasm, Mr. Nagesh had immense confidence in himself even before making a mark in the industry. As an actor who began his career playing small roles in Tamil plays, he would tell his friend, Vietnam Veedu Sundaram: “One day I will make them [directors] wait for my call sheet.”

He was right. Debuting with Thamarai Kulam by Muktha V. Srinivasan in 1958, he got so busy in the sixties and seventies that about 35 of his films were released in one year. “In a day, he had to shoot for six films. He would have just enough time to finish one, quickly change his shirt and rush to the next spot,” says ‘Film News’ Anandan, senior public relations professional.

The endearing actor had several friends, including theatre personality Y.G. Parthasarathy, actor Balaji and director Sridhar, who helped him in his initial years. Teaming up with veteran director K. Balachander, Mr. Nagesh acted in several films that have an important place in Tamil cinema. Many of these were first staged as plays.

“He was very passionate about theatre. He asked me to give him a role in my plays and I told him that I would write one, with him as the protagonist. That is how Server Sundaram happened,” veteran director K. Balachander recalls.

Speaking of the special bond they had, he says: “He would think through me, and I would act through him.”

“The greatness of the man is that even as we are mourning his passing away and crying, you are reminded of some ‘Nagesh joke,’ which will make you laugh instantly,” actor Kamal Haasan, says. “The only photograph I have in my office is that of him and me. I am such a huge fan,” he adds.

Nagesh’s much-hailed comedy sequences in films such as Kadalikka Neramillai, Ooty Varai Uravu, Anbe Va and Thiruvilayadal set the trend for humour in Tamil cinema for decades that followed. His voice modulation, facial expression, unbelievably swift bodily responses and innocent smile were his assets.

Just as his best comedy tracks flood one’s mind, you also hear him saying “Naan Maadhu Vandirukken!” His performance as the gullible and well-meaning youngster Maadhu in Ethir Neechal is one of the best character roles remembered in Tamil cinema. Server Sundaram was yet another gem on his crown. His performance in Nammavar later, particularly in the scene where he dances after his daughter dies, reemphasised why he is an actor nonpareil.

Mr. Nagesh’s humour was contemporary and refreshingly new throughout his career. Be it the make-up man in Avvai Shanmugi or Yugi Sethu’s father-in-law in Panchatandiram in his later years, he had viewers roaring in laughter. Even while playing a corpse in Magalir Mattum, it was in such style.

His ready wit often sparkled off-screen, too. Recalling a television interview he did with Mr. Nagesh, actor Y.Gee. Mahendra says: “I asked him, ‘So, are there different kinds of comedians?’ Pat came his rely. ‘Oh, yes. There are those whose time is good and others, whose timing is good!’ It is regrettable that the Indian government failed to recognise an artist of his stature.”

“It is rare to find an actor like him and rarer to find a friend like him,” recalls actor V.S. Raghavan, a close friend of the actor. “He could be very child-like sometimes. Once, he wanted a brass ear bud. He insisted that we drive down to Triplicane and get one immediately,” he smiles.

All the same, when it came to business, Mr. Nagesh had no qualms asking producers to pay him on time. Actors preferred being paid before the dubbing session fearing producers may forget later.

“Once, when a producer kept postponing making the payment to Nagesh, he pretended to have a very bad throat ahead of the dubbing session. As soon as the payment reached him there he cleared his throat and proceeded,” he recalls.

As a youngster who came to Chennai, he shared a room with lyricist Vaali and actor Srikanth in the late fifties and early sixties. A fan of Jerry Lewis, he along with his friends, would watch all Lewis films.

Describing his friend as a “genius,” Mr. Vaali says: “He knew carnatic and western music. He was a good table tennis player. He was amazing at carroms, too. He is a fantastic dancer. There cannot be another actor like him.”

Tamil cinema’s pride, Mr. Nagesh, will be missed, and very dearly.

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