King of comedy

September 24, 2016 04:12 pm | Updated November 01, 2016 08:31 pm IST

With the death anniversary of K. A. Thangavelu falling this week, we take a look at the life and times of the ace comedian

K. A. Thangavelu as he appears in a comedy scene in Padma Films' `Valar Pirai' (Tamil).

K. A. Thangavelu as he appears in a comedy scene in Padma Films' `Valar Pirai' (Tamil).

The 100th anniversaries of many stalwarts of Tamil cinema have gone unnoticed in recent years. The centenary years of S.V. Venkatraman in 2011, S.V. Sahasranamam in 2013, T.S. Balaiah and K.R. Ramaswamy in 2014, were not recognised and celebrated by the Tamil film industry. The century of yesteryear comedian, Karaikal Arunachalam Thangavelu, is coming up in January 2017. This Wednesday, meanwhile, marks his death anniversary. , and demands that we remember this ace humorist.

For somebody who went on to become a legendary comedian, Thangavelu’s beginnings were mired in quite some tragedy. Hailing from Karaikal, and belonging to the goldsmith community, Thangavelu settled in Thirumalairayan Pattinam, with his parents, Arunachalam and Karumammal, and two brothers. His father’s alcholism meant that the the family struggled for even one meal every day. Thangavelu’s mother passed away when he was six, and his father remarried. The woe continued as he was treated badly by his step-mother. Starvation and abuse continued, despite being sent to a relative’s house.

Thangavelu, who was fascinated by music, spent much time standing outside houses in which gramophones played, and at times, would even sneak into drama halls to watch plays. His father left for Singapore to seek better prospects, and caused his step-mother’s abuse to get worse. Around this time, Thangavelu joined a drama troupe called ‘Rajambal Company’, where Yedhartham Ponnuswamy Pillai, and later on, M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar, taught him the nuances of theatre and mentored him. He spent nine years here, and when Kandaswamy Mudaliar shifted to films, he followed suit. The Ellis R. Dungan film, Sathi Leelavathi (1936), was his launch pad. This film, interestingly, also marked MGR’s debut.

However, no matter his hard work, Thangavelu failed at landing plum roles, and couldn’t quite make a living. As frustration took control of him, he quit and went to a Murugan temple near Kanchipuram, where he survived on alms.

As chance would have it, actor M. M. Marappa spotted him and brought him back to acting. This time around, the stage provided him with a decent living. His father returned to live with him and was well looked after by the actor.

The big break came when in 1951, N. S. Krishnan (NSK) started the film, Manamagal , and Thangavelu approached him for a role. NSK, who had already seen his stage performances, obliged. Till his death, Thangavelu wore a locket with NSK’s picture in a chain around his neck and worshipped him, according to journalist Major Dasan. This was followed by the film Singari , where he played the role of a ‘Nattuvanaar’ . Director T. R. Raghunath gave his character importance, and also the freedom to improvise. It was in this film that he repeated the word ‘Danaal’ — and after this film he came to be known as ‘Danaal’ Thangavelu. He went on to act in a number of films like Amarakavi , Panam , and Mappillai , in all of which he played an elderly man. It was in the 1953 film Anbu that his real age was revealed on screen. The 1954 films Ponvayal and Panam Paduthum Paadu were instrumental in establishing him as a comedian.

Thangavelu was a father-figure to editor Mohan (the father of director Mohan Raja and actor Jayam Ravi). Mohan says, “Venus Pictures, Vijaya Vauhini and many leading producers had a soft spot for him. Sridhar, in his directorial debut Kalyana Parisu , gave him a lot of freedom. The famous comedy scene where he narrates to M. Saroja was conceived as a single shot. He gave the dialogues to Thangavelu but asked him to improvise and add to the humour.” Thangavelu was also a very generous person, says Mohan. “During Navarathri, he converted the huge plot of land he had next to his house in Rajambal Street into an open-air auditorium. Every evening, there were music concerts, dances and even a drama open to the public. On one such occasion, at the end of a play, he wanted to laud the performance of a lady character in the play, and when he called her on to the stage, he was shocked to know it was actually a young boy who had donned the role of a woman. The young man said his name was Nagesh. Thangavelu wished him well. Nagesh, of course, went on to become Thangavelu’s main competitor.”

Chandrababu and Gemini Ganesan (who named his second daughter) were two of his best friends. In his brand of humour, there was no slapstick, no insulting. His gratitude and respect for NSK was immense. While he was in Kumbakonam to attend the wedding of his younger brother, he got the news that NSK had passed away. Upon hearing the news, he immediately left the wedding venue and attended the funeral.

Thangavelu, who had earlier played elderly roles, smoothly transitioned into playing ‘father’ roles. Then Nilavu , Vietnam Veedu , and Thillana Mohanambal are some of the best examples. A versatile comedian, a great character actor and a generous human being, Thangavelu is among the greats of Tamil cinema. Perhaps the film industry and government will celebrate him on his birth centenary?

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