Cinema Movies

Nambiar, a villain with a divine personality


The on-screen bad guy was a spiritual mentor of impeccable credentials in real life. Remembering M.N. Nambiar in his centenary year

Villain on screen, hero off it — that was M.N. Nambiar, who acted in 1,000 films, and a Hollywood film too. Nambiar was guruswamy to hundreds of Ayyappa devotees, including those from the film industry — Amitabh Bachchan, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, M.S. Viswanathan, Kannada actor Rajkumar, director Sridhar and his brother Rajendran, Nagesh, Srikanth, Thengai Srinivasan, V.K. Ramaswamy, Rajinikanth and a host of others.

Both his film career and spiritual journey took off because of Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai. Nambiar, who lost his father at the age of eight, went to live with his sister in Ooty, where he saw Nawab’s troupe doing a Surya Namaskaram. Drawn by this, Nambiar joined the troupe and was cast as a comedian in ‘Bhakta Ramadas,’ the play that had earned for Rajamanickam Pillai the title of ‘Nawab.’

Nambiar with MGR

Nambiar with MGR   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


Nawab was famous for his mythological plays such as ‘Sampoorna Ramayanam’ and ‘Ayyappan.’ It was Nawab’s play on Ayyappan, which brought about an awareness about the deity and the legend in Tamil Nadu all those decades ago. The family of this writer’s mother played host to the Nawab’s troupe, whenever he visited Kerala, and she reminiscences: “Nambiar did a variety of roles in Nawab’s company. In ‘Gnanasoundari,’ he played the role of the hero Bilendran. In ‘Raja Bhakti,’ he played the villain, who puts out the eyes of the king’s trusted servant. The play ‘Ayyappan,’ in which a handsome teenager called Krishnaji played the title role, was a huge hit in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. When the cardboard tigers came on stage, the actors would run helter-skelter, singing, ‘Kaattil ulla puligal ellaam naattil vannallo. Ini nyangal okka endu seyyum ayyayayyayo!’ The audience would go berserk.”

It was after a show of ‘Ayyappan’ in Alleppey, that Nambiar went on his first trip to Sabarimala, with Nawab. This was in 1942, and his pilgrimages continued till 2003. “He always went through the periya paadai,” says his second son Mohan Nambiar. “Father built three rest houses for pilgrims in Sabarimala. The grihapravesam of the first one happened in 1964.”

Sambandam and M.N. Nambiar in ‘Thainattai Kaakkum Thanayan’

Sambandam and M.N. Nambiar in ‘Thainattai Kaakkum Thanayan’   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives


“Father was not a strict parent. It was MGR who used to discipline us. We used to call MGR ‘pollaada maama,’” laughs Mohan. MGR was the best man (maappillai thozhan) at Nambiar’s wedding. He carried Nambiar’s son Sukumar on his shoulder to Maruda Malai, for his anna prasanam. For the famous Ayirathil Oruvan sword fight, Nambiar trained for two hours every evening in the backyard of his house, a stunt master guiding him. The family was attached to the other legend Sivaji Ganesan too. “Sivaji used to take us to night shows of English films,” recollects Mohan. “When Jayalalithaa turned 60, she came home to take father’s blessings. She told us that whenever she faced problems, Nambiar would cheer her up. He even taught her to play pallankuzhi. Father learnt how to play the harmonium, while in Nawab’s company. Nawab, however said to him, ‘You are cut out to be an actor. Stop playing the harmonium.’ He obeyed his guru, and bought a harmonium only after he became successful in films,” informs Mohan.

Nambiar ate only vegetarian, garlic-free food, cooked by his wife Rugmini, who took along a portable stove wherever Nambiar went. In summer, the family would go to Ooty, and stay in Dasaprakash hotel. Although guests were not allowed to cook, an exception was made for the celebrity! “Despite being health conscious, father ate fried potato curry every day. He would always give my mother a handful of food first, before he ate. Even when he was in Sabarimala, he would keep aside a ball of rice and say it was for her,” says Mohan.

Nambiar, a villain with a divine personality

Nambiar was physically fit even in his old age. Grandson Siddharth Sukumar Nambiar says, “Once, when I saw him trying to get up from a chair, I ran to give him a hand. He pushed me away, and sent me flying ten feet across the room. He was 88 then! He would joke — your grandmother has diabetes and high blood pressure. I think she wants to pay for my sins.” Nambiar, who read a lot of history and geography, would quiz the grandchildren, when they got home from school.

The family of Nambiar had organised an event to commemorate grandfather’s birth centenary. The accent at the function on November 19, death anniversary of Nambiar, was on the guruswamy but inevitably, the spotlight fell on the actor as well. Some highlights:

Music composer Ilaiyaraja, chief guest, said, “I first went to Sabarimala with Nambiar in 1980. I have a guest house in Gudalur, Theni district. Nambiar and his sishyas used to stay there on their way to Sabarimala. I think it is due to his blessings that a Vedapatasala with 16 students has come up there. Vedic scholars from all over India come there and chant Vedic mantras.”

M.N. Nambiar and M.G. Chakrapani in ‘Rani Samyuktha’

M.N. Nambiar and M.G. Chakrapani in ‘Rani Samyuktha’   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES


Guest of honour, K. Vijay Kumar, retired IPS officer, said, “Nambiar was my guruswamy. As a police officer, I could not have a beard, and Nambiar gave me an exemption. Four or five buses full of Nambiar’s sishyas would go each year to Sabarimala. The journey was full of laughter, great fun. I liked being the butt of Nambiar’s jokes. Whenever my wife warned that I would put on weight if I ate 10 almonds a day, I would retort that Nambiar ate 20, and was perfectly fit. Nambiar never once sought a favour from MGR, despite their long-standing friendship.”

Director P. Vasu said that while shooting the Telugu film Maa Deivam, NTR got carried away, and gave Nambiar, who played the villain, such a hard whack that Nambiar’s nose was badly injured. Lying in the hospital bed, Nambiar, laughed and said, “ If the idea was to bash me, why not hire some cheap local goon? Why pay so much to NTR?” Vasu stressed that Nambiar was never the target of gossip, because his conduct was impeccable.

A liberal sprinkling of saffron dhotis at the event was proof of Nambiar’s influence as a Mahaguruswamy, and the audience’s adulation of their spiritual mentor was evident throughout. Veeramani Raju and his group sang some of Nambiar’s favourite Ayyappan songs. After Nambiar, his son Sukumar became a guruswamy, and after the latter’s demise, the mantle has passed on to Mohan.

From the documentary, which was screened at the function: and a DVD of the same was released.

Nambiar’s ancestors stood by Pazhassi Raja, when he resorted to guerrilla warfare against the East India Company.

M.G. Ramachandran and M.N. Nambiar in ‘nga Veetu Pillai’

M.G. Ramachandran and M.N. Nambiar in ‘nga Veetu Pillai’  


MGR wanted Nambiar to finish the sword fight scene in Nadodi Mannan, before going to Sabarimala. Nambiar reluctantly postponed his trip, finished the shoot, and then left for Sabarimala. When he returned, and went to the preview, it was found that while the rest of the film was fine, no frame of the sword fight scene had been exposed and the screen was blank.

Bhagyaraj offered Nambiar a role in Thooral Ninnu Pochu, where he played a mischievous grandfather, addicted to goat’s milk. There is one particular a scene where Nambiar says, “ I am afraid of no one. I have tangled with Mannadi Mannan and dealt with Madurai Veeran.” Both were films with MGR as the titular hero, and Nambiar chuckled with Puckish delight at the lines.

When wife Rugmini’s diamond jewellery was stolen, Nambiar sang, ‘Koduthavane parithukondaandi’ a line in the C.S. Jayaraman song ‘Aarambamaavadu Pennukkulle’ from the film Thanga Padumai.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 10:29:22 PM |

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