Man who had the magic touch

MGR in Adimaippen. Peethambaram had to camoufalge the bullet wound scar the actor had on his neck. Photo: Special Arrangement  

This should have been written when the great man was alive. His magic touch transformed actors, legends during their lifetime, into the characters that they played. Muthudhuta Peethambaram (MP), who passed away recently, was a master of the craft. Known as the personal make-up man of MGR, it was possessive affection that the legend had for him, a feeling Peethambaram reciprocated.

MGR and MP were neighbours at Elephant Gate in Chennai and were bosom pals. Both mothers were friends too and it was to MP's mother to whom MGR turned after the passing away of his own.

Young Peethambaram accompanied K.V. Mahadevan to the studios to learn the nuances of music but destiny had something else in store for him. He ended up as costumer assistant but the turning point came when Hari Babu, renowned make-up artist was brought over from Calcutta by director K. Subrahmanyam for Gemini Studios. Peethambaram joined him as assistant, thanks to the intervention of M.G. Chakrapani.

Ranga Rao transformed

MP joined Vauhini in 1945 and the make-up that transformed S.V. Ranga Rao into a 105-year old man for “Paadhala Bhairavi” announced the arrival of Peethambaram, who did not look back.

Peethambaram shifted from Elephant Gate to Pudupet and thereafter to Triplicane to finally settle down (1960) at No.1, Ganesh Street, Gopalapuram, Chennai. MP's son, film director P. Vasu, recollects his having seen Gemini Ganesan, Savithri, K.R. Vijaya, Ranga Rao, Sheela, Sowcar Janaki and others waiting for their turn to have make-up done. MP was personal make-up artist for Hindi actors Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Pran whenever they had their shooting in Madras.

Peethambaram's association with MGR began in 1962 with the film ‘Paasam' and continued till the legend's last film ‘Maduraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandiyan' in 1978. It was for art director Angamuthu to draw a sketch of the character MGR was going to play and MP would bring that alive. The first stop was at wig maker Model Chandra's with the sketch. Only after MGR was satisfied with the wig would MP start his work. M.G. Naidu was in charge of costume. Nagaraja Rao, still photographer, would click MGR as the film's hero. All these took a month and then began shooting. This regimen never changed.

MP took special care to cover the bullet mark on MGR's neck when he acted in ‘Adimaippenn.'

The real test came whenever MGR played a dual role – ‘Kudiyirundha Kovil,' ‘Neerum Neruppum,' ‘Enga Veetu Pillai,' ‘Maatukkara Velan,' etc – but Peethambaram passed with flying colours. Once, MGR wanted to appear as Jesus in a film. All make-up formalities were done and photographs taken.

They had a stunning likeness to the image of Christ so much so that MGR backed out saying that it was not correct to leave pictures that might confuse the younger generation.

And there was a sentiment that MGR strictly followed. Every heroine he was introducing would have her first make-up done by MP and the photograph taken by Nagaraja Rao. If Sivaji Ganesan needed a beard to be fixed after make-up was done, it was Peethambaram who had to do it.

MP was also the personal make-up artist for NTR from the film ‘Lava Kusha' in 1947 to ‘Eenadu' in 1982.

Both NTR and MP would observe vritham whenever the former played Krishna or Rama. The work was laborious and invariably Peethambaram would develop painful blisters on his fingers. But undaunted he would continue with ten of his assistants engaged in the task of making the blue paste. It was work round-the-clock. Was there no conflict with the same make-up man serving two icons? No, thanks to the excellent rapport NTR and MGR shared.

Peethambaram decided to quit when both MGR and NTR stopped acting. It was only after great persuasion personally by A.V.M. Saravanan and Rajinikanth himself that he decided to apply make-up for Rajini in Lord Krishna's get-up in the film ‘Murattu Kalai' (1982). That, incidentally, was his last assignment.

All his make-up materials came from Calcutta and the right combinations from T. Nagar, Usman Road's KRISHCO. MP has left a number of disciples - Chakrapani who is Sridevi's make-up man, Sundaramoorthy and others.

It is unbelievable that Peethambaram did not receive high level recognition, apart from Kalaimamani as late as in 2004 (the then Chief Minister Jayalalitha expressed regret for the delay), and the lifetime achievement award from the Andhra Pradesh film industry. “One of life's ironies,” observes son Vasu.

Peethambaram was the founder of the Make-up Artists Union in 1964 and he was its president. He was the vice-president of FEFSI in the 1970s.

Director S.P. Muthuraman, whose association with the late Peethamabram dates back to the days of “Anbe Vaa” has this to say: “He led a life of contentment. He was the best in the field, his skill honed to perfection. His profession rose to new heights thanks to his dignity.”

Director S.P. Muthuraman, whose association with the late Peethamabaram dates back to the days of ‘Anbe Vaa' has this to say: “He led a life of contentment. He was the best in the field, his skill honed to perfection. His profession rose to new heights thanks to his dignity.”

Act of generosity

Director P. Vasu reminisces:

My father was one of the few artists, who had a car, in the 1950s. So successful was he in his career. Our house teemed with people, at least 40 of us living together.

My father loved to be surrounded by relatives – sisters, their children and so on. Food was excellent and it was my father who bought vegetables and meat. Thus it came as a rude shock (1973-74) to be served gruel and something equally unpalatable to go with it. What had happened?

A Telugu film my father had produced had flopped and there was a possibility that the palatial house wouldn't be ours anymore. MGR, who had learnt about the situation from a friend, was furious that he was not informed. He was hurt that his close pal did not take him into confidence. At once he arranged the announcement of a film to be produced by my father. Presto! Distribution rights were snapped up even before details were made known and my father cleared all the debts.

But that was not all. NTR was indignant that he was not informed and insisted that he should be the one to do a film for my father. MGR found a solution by giving away the dates to Sethu Madhavan, allowing NTR to have the privilege.

The Telugu film was a hit and so was ‘Naalai Namade' of Sethu Madhavan.

The make-up that my father had done for MGR in ‘Engal Thangam,' where he appears presenting Harikatha intrigued many. The tonsured head with a small tuft was the talk of the industry for a long time.

Recently I was told that in Andhra Pradesh a picture of NTR was used to make a statue of Krishna.

(As told to Geetha Venkataramanan)

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 4:05:59 AM |

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