100 years of laughter

How would you describe an actor who could play villain, comedian or a straight emotional role, all with consummate ease? Genius? Tamil cinema was blessed with such an actor in T. S. Balaiah. Like his close friend and senior M.R. Radha, Balaiah could excel in all roles. Radha had different voices, but Balaiah modulated his — changed the pattern of delivery ever so slightly to move from menacing to endearing.

As the sleazy jewellery seller in Thookku Thookki singing ‘ Arre pyaari nimmal mele namki maja’, as the veteran thavil player in Thillana Mohanambal who said “ enakku anga oru beeda kadai kaarana theriyum” or as the driver Manickam Pillai falsely accused by M.R. Radha in Paava Mannippu, his performance always stood out as being very true to life and sans theatricals. Who can forget the sheer arrogance he portrayed in Thiruvilayadal as Hemanatha Bhagavathar and Balamuralikrishna singing ‘Oru Naal Podhuma’? Balaiah’s voice could tremble or be a sing-song flow… Add to the voice a face that lent itself to every type of character from lecherous to lovable and you are left with brilliant performances.

Balaiah was born on August 23, 1914; and not 22 as many websites claim. This is based on an interview he gave in 1950, where he mentions his birth star as Uththiram, which I can verify as falling only on August 23.

His parents were from Sundankottai, from the Nadar community, but he seems to have moved to Tirunelveli and was adopted by one Subramania Pillai, accounting for the initials ‘T.S.’.

When I visited Sundankottai, I met his older brother’s wife who introduced me to many others in the family. According to his son Junior Balaiah, himself a popular actor and turning producer to launch his son in the industry, “My father was a very private person and never spoke of his early years. We came to know of the Sundankottai link in his later years when he went there to meet his relatives.

Balaiah went to Manthiramurthy High School in Tirunelveli but never really liked to study. Seeing a circus performance, he decided to sign up. Balaiah stole some money from home and ran away with a friend. They finally reached Manamadurai, where they ran out of money. Balaiah found work in a small restaurant and a butcher shop, before going back to Tirunelveli.

At the time, Jagannatha Iyer’s famous drama company was working in Tirunelveli, and Balaiah decided that acting suited him better than a circus career. Sadly, the company dissolved, but one Nagalinga Chettiar decided to start Bala Mohana Sangeetha Sabha with some of Jagannatha Iyer’s cast and crew. Balaiah joined them at the age of 15 as an apprentice without a salary for six months, after which he got paid Rs. 6 a month.

A mischievous and rebellious boy, he was not given many roles. Then, the company staged Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. The actor who was to play Pesanio gave the role to Balaiah challenging him to get applause at least three times. Balaiah’s performance was so riveting he received huge ovation each time he came on stage. This was his first taste of success.

The company was soon dissolved and Balaiah joined Rajambal Company, where he met the famous M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar, father of M.K. Radha. They staged Pathi Bhakthi over 150 times and Balaiah’s performance was greatly acclaimed. Sadly, this company too folded up but Kandaswamy Mudaliar roped him in for a film he was writing and where his son was the hero. This was Sathi Leelavathi, directed by the American Ellis R. Dungan. This was the film that saw MGR introduced to cinema.

Impressed by Balaiah, Dungan continued to cast him, and finally Ambikapathy established him as ‘villain’. He went on to act in Uththamaputhiran (1940), Bhoologa Rambai, Manonmani, and Aryamala. The stage bug bit him and he started Sri Sai Bala Gana Sangeetha Sabha but lost a lot of money and gave it up.

He was living like a hermit when he was offered work again. He did Burma Rani, Saalivahanan, Chithra, Valmiki and many others, some even as hero. Velaikkari and Oru Iravu saw him move to the dialogue era with ease. Bhim Singh used him later in several of his ‘Pa’ series films, while Sridhar exploited his comic timing in Kathalikka Neramillai and Ooty Varai Uravu.

K. Balachander’s Bhama Vijayam (1967) saw him excel as the concerned head of the family. His song ‘Varavu 8 anna, selavu 10 anna’ rings so true in these days of plastic economy... I can't think of a character actor who has immortalised so many songs.

Balaiah was to act in a movie made by M.R. Radha called Suttaan, Sutten, where Radha’s son is played by Junior Balaiah and Balaiah’s son by M.R.R.Vasu. Sadly, Balaiah fell ill and passed away on July 22, 1972 when he was just 58.

I wish the film fraternity and the government will commemorate this great actor’s centenary in a fitting manner.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 11:25:45 AM |

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