Rajaguru of villains

Nambiar ruled Tamil cinema for more than half a century, perhaps the only actor to do so. And as villain, he outdid himself, says the writer

Updated - April 21, 2016 03:50 am IST

Published - August 09, 2014 07:57 pm IST

M. N. Nambiar in Karpukkarasi

M. N. Nambiar in Karpukkarasi

A multi-talented star, Nambiar played many memorable bad guy roles with his powerful eyes, scintillating voice, and excellent delivery of Tamil dialogues despite being from Kerala. He was also the handsome guy who played hero in a couple of movies, although these did not do as well. After making his debut in 1935, Nambiar acted in around 1000 films. (I had the honour of directing him in a Tamil television documentary titled Nadippisai Pulavar K. R. Ramasami. Nambiar’s sequences were shot in his bungalow in Gopalapuram.)

Born in Chirakkal, now in Kerala, on March 5, 1910, Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar lost his father early and moved to Ooty to live with his sister and brother-in-law. Drawn to theatre, he soon joined the famed Boys’ Company Madurai Devibala Vinoda Sangeetha Sabha owned by Tamil stage icon Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai.

Nawab’s famous drama Bhaktha Ramadas, in which Nambiar played more than one role, was made into a film and Nambiar took his bow in movies, for a salary of Rs. 75, a fortune in those days. An interesting feature of the film, directed by Murugadasa (Muthuswami Iyer), was that all the roles were played by men and boys.

Noted playwright, Tamil scholar, and later film producer S. D. Sundaram wrote a play called Kaviyin Kanavu , whose underlying theme was the Indian freedom struggle. Nambiar was cast as the dictatorial despot and the play was a roaring hit. A line in this play uttered by Nambiar, ‘ Naatu makkal... semmariyaatu manthaigal ! ‘(People of the kingdom! A flock of sheep!) became famous. M. Somasundaram (‘Jupiter’ Somu), the boss of Jupiter Pictures, was impressed and hired Nambiar. And with this, Nambiar’s long career as villain was launched.

One of the most successful stars of Tamil cinema and perhaps the only actor who remained at the top for more than half a century, Nambiar’s name soon became synonymous with on-screen villainy. His roles in Digambara Samiyar, Sarvadhikari, Manthirikumari, Enga Veettu Pillai, Velaikkari,Arasilankumari , Nadodi Mannan , and Nenjam Marapathillai are memorable. A versatile actor, he also played hero and comedian, but he played the villain in innumerable MGR films for nearly three decades, a rare feature in cinema.

His first film for Jupiter was Vidyapathi (1946) directed by A.T. Krishnaswami (ATK) where Nambiar played a villainous Brahmin, with his wife played by M.S.S. Bhagyam. In 1947, he was cast as hero in Kanjan , which flopped. In the hit film Rajakumari, Nambiar played the supporting role as the hero’s do-gooder pal. Though his role was small, he attracted attention.

Then came another hit Abhimanyu , followed by the stunning film Velaikkari in 1949, a watershed in the history of Tamil cinema, written by C. N. Annadurai and directed by A.S.A. Sami. Nambiar played two roles in it, as the feudal ‘Shylock-like’ rich man’s son in love with the poor housemaid, and as lecherous guru (shades of Rasputin).

Salem-based movie mogul T.R. Sundaram, who was also a hawk-eyed talent scout, soon grabbed Nambiar for Modern Theatres on an attractive contract, which was another turning point in his life. As the king’s Brahmin preceptor, Rajaguru, in their cult film Manthirikumari, Nambiar displayed his exceptional talent with his portrayal of the ambitious guru who wants to take over the kingdom. He became a star with this film and there was no looking back after this.

Meanwhile, another film was under production at the studio called Digambara Samiyar (1950). Based on the famous novel by Tamil writer Vaduvoor K. Duraiswami Ayyangar, it explored the theme that a man kept awake for three consecutive nights will reveal all his secrets. A greedy lawyer (D. Balasubramaniam) pursues this theory but does not succeed, thanks to the detective played by Nambiar, who exposes him by donning many disguises. The person first cast in the role was character actor Kali N. Ratnam, but studio boss T.R. Sundaram was unhappy with his performance and brought in M.G. Chakrapani. His performance was not up to the boss’s expectations either, and then entered Nambiar, to create Tamil film history.

The film was a hit and Nambiar won laurels. With another Modern Theatres’ hit Sarvadhikari (1951), Nambiar firmly established his stardom. Even though it had stars such as Chittoor V. Nagaiah and MGR, Nambiar dominated the film. Sarvadhikari was a hit and Nambiar’s career graph curved upwards. He was now a major star. With increasing fame, Sundaram cast him as hero in Kalyani with B.S. Saroja as his leading lady. However, the film failed and Nambiar went back to villain and character roles.

Interestingly, Nambiar acted in an English film, The Jungle (1952) in which he played a maharajah. Modern Theatres and Hollywood producer William Berke, who also directed it, jointly produced the film. It had famous Hollywood stars Rod Cameron, Caesar Romero and Marie Windsor in major roles.

A staunch and deeply religious person, he was an ardent devotee of Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala. He visited the hilltop shrine for 65 continuous years and slowly an Ayyappa cult began to grow with Nambiar hailed as Maha Guruswami. Nambiar was married to Rugmini and had three children. One of them, Sukumar, tried his hand in politics, but did not succeed and he passed away some years ago. Nambiar passed away in 2009 at the age of 89. He is survived by a son and daughter.

He was full of charm, and very different from his on-screen persona, with an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes. Fame and fortune sat lightly on this actor, who left his imprint on cinema.


In response to the article ‘The ultimate bad guy’ written by Randor Guy on July 27, 2014, Radikaa Sarathkumar says: ‘I would like to bring to your notice that some facts were misquoted and some other important facts did not get any place in the article. An important incident which is probably the turning point of his life was not mentioned, i.e. he had left home at an early age due to a quarrel with his mother because she did not give an extra piece of fish to eat, he then joined Dapi Rangasamy Drama to support himself. In regard to the shooting incident, he had never spoken in public nor written any book as quoted. About his marital life, he had married Mrs. Saraswathi at a temple, whose son is M.R.R Vasu and Radha Ravi is his step-brother, quoting them as brothers is incorrect. He was legally married only to Mrs. Geeta Radha, whose children were not mentioned properly.’

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