Cinema

The man who started the trend

K.R. Ramaswamy (left) with A. Nageswara Rao and T. S. Balaiah in Or Iravu  

His father ran a small business near Ammachathiram Temple in Kumbakonam, selling flowers for worship, and his mother was Kuppammal. Ironically, the temple flower merchant’s son became the first spokesperson for rationalist ideology in Tamil cinema. He also became the first actor-politician of Tamil cinema, a line that would see many stalwarts follow suit.

The man was K. R. Ramaswamy, or KRR, and this is his centenary year. Sadly, nobody in the political or film fraternity seems to have remembered him.

MGR recounts in his autobiography how he and KRR would often vie for the same roles; how once when he was given the role of Naradar even though KRR was the better singer, the latter left the company in a huff and joined TKS Brothers’ Sri Bala Shanmuganandha Sabha in 1928.

Like many of his contemporaries, KRR started life in theatre, joining Madurai Original Boys Company when he was 11, which also boasted of other actors such as P. U. Chinnappa, M. G. Ramachandran and Kali N. Rathinam. Here, KRR met Kalaivanar N. S. Krishnan and formed a bond that would last several years. He travelled to Ceylon with the troupe and played several roles. One memorable one was the title role in the play Menaka — yes, he was the heroine.

He was playing Hemanatha Bhagavathar in Siva Leela in Kumbakonam when he heard that his father was dying. He would attend to his father the whole day and turn up for his role at night. So conscious was he of his professional responsibility that even on the day his father died, he completed the rituals and turned up for the night’s performance of Ramayana, where he was playing Hanuman.

KRR’s first film was Gumasthavin Penn ( The Clerk’s Daughter) in 1941, where he played a troublesome film director called V. P. Var to great acclaim. It was during this time that he became a follower of Periyar and Anna. Anna wrote a review, praising KRR’s performance. The film’s assistant directors, Krishnan and Panju, promised KRR that they would cast him as hero when they directed a film. And in 1944, when they made Poompavai, they cast KRR as Thirugnanasambandar, a role he played to perfection, singing the songs himself.

Around this time, NSK handed over Yedhartham Ponnuswamy’s drama troupe to KRR to run. With the subsequent arrest of NSK, KRR fell out with T.A. Mathuram and S.V. Sahasranamam, left the troupe, and started his own Krishnan Nataka Sabha. He staged Anna’s play Velaikaari in 1946, which ran one full year at Ramanathan Chettiar Hall in Thanjavur. It was made into a film with KRR playing the lead in 1949. It had a court scene where the hero rids society of irrational beliefs and practices, repeated later by Karunanidhi in Parasakthi, Sivaji Ganesan’s launch pad.

KRR continued to act in plays even after he became a popular screen hero. A close follower and confidante of Anna, his plays were great fund-raisers for the fledgling DMK party.

He staged the play Or Iravu, written by Anna, and acted in the film version. He was with Anna and his party right from its inception in 1949. MGR has said that it was KRR who brought him to Periyar and Anna. Sivaji, too, considered KRR the senior actor in the party. In fact, Sivaji played the female lead when KRR acted as Manohara. Anna’s death in 1969 was a severe blow to KRR, who developed cancer soon after, and died on August 5, 1971.

His son Madhivanan recalls how in the last phase of life, after a chemotherapy session at Vellore, the frail KRR insisted on attending an election meeting at T. Nagar. He spoke during the meeting and when the crowd called out for him, he sang one last song. “He sang the famous, ‘Paada Maatten, Naan Paada Maatten,’ and he never sang publicly after that. We went through many hardships after his death but did not expect anything from anyone. At MGR’s insistence, we were given a small house in Nandanam.”

KRR’s daughter Kalaiselvi remembers how her marriage was arranged. “MGR called my mother; he had broken away from the party by then. He assured her that he would take care of everything and did so too. He arranged my marriage with Kalaivanar’s son, and even took care of all the expenses. My mother, thereafter, joined his party. After MGR’s death, her close association with V. N. Janaki continued.”

KRR acted in just 25 films, became a member of the legislative council of the party in 1960, and remained a party loyalist till the end. He called himself Anna’s shadow, and donated so much to the party he had little left for himself and his family, who were in deep financial trouble after his demise.

The politicians seem to have forgotten him, but will the film fraternity do something to honour his memory?

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 12:19:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/k-r-ramaswamy-the-man-who-started-the-trend/article6429708.ece

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