Tribute M.G. Chakrapani, who is remembered on his birth centenary, played many memorable roles. Randor Guy

He had the talent to hit big time and enter the glittering league. But stardom and success, which he richly deserved, somehow eluded him in spite of his fairly long career in Tamil Cinema. One reason was his younger brother happened to be the iconic M.G. Ramachandran.

Marudur Gopala Chakrapani, affectionately known as ‘Yettan' (elder brother in Malayalam), was in his own way popular and left behind interesting performances in Tamil cinema of the 1940s and the following decades - which are remembered to this day. Chakrapani was born in Vadavanur, Kerala, on January 13, 1911, to Gopala Menon and Sathyabhama. Initially, he was named ‘Neelakantan,' but because his father was a staunch ‘Vaishnavaite' he was renamed Chakrapani. The family migrated to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where Gopala Menon became a magistrate in Kandy (where MGR was born). However there were problems in the family and he passed away early leaving his wife, two sons and a daughter virtually penniless in a strange land. The daughter also died young. The mother and her two young sons returned to India and relocated to Kumbakonam where Sathyabhama had a brother. Life was so harsh that it affected the education of the two brothers. Chakrapani studied up to the seventh standard in Yanaiadi School (Kumbakonam), while MGR had to drop out of school even earlier. Left with no option, the mother entered them into professional Tamil theatre in a ‘Boys' drama company. It was a popular, cultural movement at that period, thanks to its founder, Sankaradas Swamigal. At one time there were around 300 Tamil drama companies and the two brothers joined the most famous of them – the ‘Madurai Original Boys' Company (MOBC).

Madaras Kandaswami Mudaliar was a leading playwright, producer, coach and the moving spirit behind MOBC. One of their successful plays was ‘Pathi Bhakthi'. When this play was being planned to be made into a movie by MOBC in the early 1930s, Mudaliar was no longer with the group. He was a kind of guardian to the Marudur Brothers. (His son, M.K. Radha, was the hero of the drama troupe and later a successful film star of the ‘Chandralekha' and ‘Apoorva Sahotharargal' fame.)

A wealthy man, A.N. Maruthachalam Chettiar from Coimbatore, who was interested in theatre and cinema, was the force behind ‘Chellam Talkies.' He was keen to produce ‘Pathi Bhakthi' as a film. For several reasons the plan was not working out and so he engaged Mudaliar for the job. Mudaliar soon came up with a solution. Chettiar acquired the rights of ‘Sathi Leelavathi,' which was being serialised in the weekly Ananda Vikatan . The author was the up-and-coming writer and magazine publisher S.S. Vasan. It had a similar storyline to ‘Pathi Bhakthi' and in both the stories the heroine was called Leelavathi. (Both the stories were inspired by a novel by prohibition activist Mrs. Henry Wood.)

Chettiar, who had already made a successful film, ‘Bhama Vijayam,' in Calcutta, hired a young, enterprising and talented American filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan to direct ‘Sathi Leelavathi.' While MGR took his bow in it, Chakrapani did not because of lack of a proper role. But he hung around watching the shooting in Madras and absorbing the new art form that was cinema, which had begun to talk Tamil in 1931.

Chakrapani's debut in Tamil cinema came with the next Dungan movie ‘Iru Sagotharargal' (1936) produced by Parameswaran Sound Pictures in Bombay. Both the brothers acted in it.

Films such as ‘Maya Machindra' and ‘Thamizh Ariyum Perumal' followed, in which he had better roles but they did not earn him a name. However, he was blossoming as a character actor playing the villain and his impressive dialogue delivery, facial expressions, and body language brought him fame in ‘Mahamaya' (1944).

‘Mahamaya' was produced by Jupiter Pictures and written by the first star screenwriter of Tamil cinema, Elangovan, who was basking in the success of ‘Kannagi' (1942). The same successful lead pair, P.U. Chinnappa and P. Kannamba, was cast again. Kannamba as Mahamaya and Chinnappa as the king who lusts after another man's wife, who was his former love. In his hunt, he is encouraged by his wily minister Neelan, played superbly by Chakrapani. This character of a manipulating genius was believed to have been based on the historic figure, Kautilya, who wrote the ‘Arthasastra' and was the famous adviser to Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta. His expressions and the subtle and cunning way he spoke the dialogue dripping venom were superb and made an impact. For a long time after this movie, which was a flop at the box office because of the storyline (a man desiring another's wife), the lines spoken by Chakrapani were repeated by moviegoers in conversation with friends when trying to be sarcastic!

The wily villain

The other memorable role, somewhat similar to that of the scheming, wily villain, was played by Chakrapani in ‘Thaai Magalukku Kattiya Thaali' (1959). It was based on a story written by C.N. Annadurai and brought to the screen by cinematographer-filmmaker R.R. Chandran. Rama Arangannal wrote the dialogue. MGR was the hero. It is about a property grabber (Chakrapani), whose dastardly deeds included murder and arson. When a low born woman (P. Kannamba) stands up to him, he burns her house down. Her daughter (Jamuna) is in love with an upper caste man (MGR), who marries her secretly.

Chakrapani as the villain was excellent. His character was named ‘Kutilan,' an excellent play on the name Kautilya, the master manipulator.

His other films

Chakrapani's other memorable movies include, ‘Sri Murugan' (1946), ‘Aayiram Thalaivangiya Apoorva Chintamani' (1947, this film ran for four hours and was a big hit), ‘Abhimanyu' (1948, as Balaraman), ‘Raja Mukthi' (1948), ‘Ponmudi' (1950), a Modern Theatres production directed by Ellis R. Dungan and based on a novel in verse by the rebel poet of Pondicherry, Bharathidasan. In it, Chakrapani played a tribal chief who abducts the hero and heroine to offer them as human sacrifice. Featuring Narasimha Bharathi and Madhuri Devi in lead roles, this film had intimate lovemaking scenes which people considered in bad taste at that time.

‘Marudha Naattu Ilavarasi' (1950), a well-woven story about a king (Veerappa) with two wives and an evil-minded Minister (Chakrapani), whose sister is the younger queen. The two queens become pregnant and the evil genius tries to turn the king against the senior queen. When his attempt fails he tries to eliminate her, but she is saved by a courtier whom the Minister kills. The pregnant queen escapes many trials and gives birth to a son (MGR). He grows up and falls in love with a young woman (V.N. Janaki). Chakrapani as the villain attracted attention. Written by Mu. Karunanidhi, it became a huge success.

Another memorable film that attained cult status was S.M. Sriramulu Naidu's box office hit, ‘Malaikallan' (1954), based on a novel by the noted writer Namakkal Va. Ramalingam Pillai, which in turn was inspired by the film ‘Mark of Zorro.' Chakrapani played the duty conscious police inspector who is out to get Malaikallan, the bandit. His performance invested that role with dignity.

In the MGR hit film, ‘Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban,' Chakrapani worked as a production adviser and his voice can be heard at the beginning of the film. Another major hit was ‘Nadodi Mannan. This film faced many initial difficulties, but ultimately MGR directed the movie to success and was well on his way to becoming an icon. Saroja Devi, who was brought on board at a late stage, became a success and acted with MGR in many films.

Turning director

For a variety of reasons, some of the projects of MGR and Chakrapani were abandoned and one such film was ‘Bhavani' with MGR in the lead role. Written by A.K. Velan, it was directed by the noted cinematographer and filmmaker Masthan. Chakrapani turned producer with this film. However it got shelved after some progress. Years later, Chakrapani remade it as ‘Arasa Kattalai' with MGR in the lead and directed it too. It attracted considerable attention.

With advancing years, he moved away from acting and concentrated on running the family business of the brothers' movie production and similar activities. After a successful career he passed away on August 17, 1986, at the age of 75. After the demise of his first wife, he remarried and had 10 children in all including seven sons and three daughters.

Chakrapani may have gone but many of his movies such as ‘Mahamaya' and ‘Malai Kallan' will always remain evergreen.