One of Tamil cinema’s brilliant actors, T. S. Balaiah was not only a star villain but also an outstanding character actor capable of playing all kinds of roles. He had a way of delivering his lines, lacing them with wit and humour, and a characteristic mannerism of repeating lines for effect, which won much appreciation and millions of fans across the country and outside. Some of his portrayals in films such as Sridhar’s Kathalikka Neramillai, K. Balachandar’s Bhama Vijayam, A.P. Nagarajan’s Thillana Mohanambal,Ooty Varai Uravu and Thiruvilayaadal are deeply embedded in the minds of Tamil moviegoers.
Balaiah, a stage actor from a ‘Boys’ Company’, entered films as a villain with Ellis R. Dungan’s Sathi Leelavathi. Soon after, he made a splash in Ambikapathi and gradually rose to heights of popularity. He did an amazing variety of roles in a career spanning nearly four decades.
Tirunelveli S. Balaiah was born in Sundankottai, now in Tuticorin District, on August 12, 1914. (Interestingly, this is his birth centenary year, and this article pays homage to his memory.) Hailing from the community of Isai Vellars, he had some kind of training in playing the thavil, but adverse family circumstances made it impossible for him to pursue this career, and he took to the stage. According to historians of Tamil theatre, there were as many as 500 drama companies in South India, most of them in the Tamil-speaking districts of the sprawling old Madras Presidency.
Moving from one company to another, he joined the famous Madurai Original Boys’ Company, which had several talented youngsters who created history in Tamil cinema, including M.K. Radha ( Chandralekha ), MGR, N. S. Krishnan and T. S. Balaiah. Radha’s father, Madaras Kandaswami Mudaliar, was the ‘master’ (known in Tamil as Vaathiyaar) , writer, producer, director and also took care of the boys under his wing.
One of the plays of this troupe was Pathi Bhakthi , which was to be made into a film. However, owing to some dispute between Mudaliar and the owners over the casting of Radha as the hero, the master along with his disciples walked out. In an interesting turn of events, Mudaliar found a novel titled Sathi Leelavathi by S.S. Vasan, serialised in the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan . Both Pathi Bakthi and Sathi Leelavathi had similar storylines; even the name of the heroine was Leelavathi! Mudaliar found sponsors among the rich mill owners of Coimbatore and launched the production. Sathi Leelavathi (1936) was directed by Ellis R. Dungan, an American who came seeking his fortune in India and found it in Tamil cinema. The others who took their bow in Tamil cinema along with Dungan were M.K. Radha, MGR, NSK, and T.S. Balaiah. The then pencil-slim Balaiah played villain. The film was a huge hit but stardom was still far in the future for the actor….
It was Velaikkari (1949), written by C.N. Annadurai and directed by A.S.A. Sami, that brought Balaiah fame and fortune. Playing the smart companion of the hero K.R. Ramasami, Balaiah literally stole the thunder, and, as they say, he never looked back….
Balaiah acted in several hits, including Paava Mannippu, Baagha Pirivinai, Madurai Veeran, Mana Magal (a superb performance as a lecherous music teacher), and Kavalai Illaadha Manithan …
Many critics rate his performance in K. Balachandar’s Bhama Vijayam as his career best, where he played the father of three sons, all of whom are henpecked husbands with dominating wives. The song ‘ Varavu ettana selavu patthana ’ became a huge hit, and the line was later used as the title for a Tamil film.
Another role that deserves mention was in the superhit Thillana Mohanambal, with Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini in the lead roles. The hero was a nagaswaram player, and the film had song sequences that became very famous. One of the thavil players was played by Balaiah, the other by K. Sarangapani. In one song, the famous Tyagaraja kriti in Abheri, ‘Nagumomu Kanaleni’, Balaiah played the thavil in excellent sync with the background song that was recorded earlier in the studio, revealing how adept he really was with the instrument. The film was a super hit, and a copy of the movie was acquired by an American cultural association for their archives to represent quintessential old-world Thanjavur culture.
Though only 58 when he died, Balaiah lived a full life and enjoyed it to the hilt. Agasthiyar , his last film, was released the same year as his death in 1972.
Balaiah lived in a palatial bungalow in T. Nagar, and left behind a sizeable fortune. However, what happened to it is a mystery because his son Junior Balaiah, who showed early promise but faded away, is believed to have lived in poverty.