It’s not a nickname; it’s not a surname, middle name or even a first name. It’s a unique phenomenon that takes a film you became famous with, or a character you played, adds it to your name and lo and behold — you get a totally different name. It’s the process by which Villupuram Chinnaiah Mandrayar Ganesha Murthy becomes Sivaji Ganesan. It is this new name that I call the nom du film or simply the film name phenomenon that’s fairly unique to the Tamil film industry. We see something similar only in the world of American sports or gangsters perhaps — Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson; Scarface Capone or Bugsy Malone come to mind.
There’s a logic to these names. They could be based on physical attributes like ‘Gundu’ Karuppaiah or Kalyanam, ‘Semia’ Mani, ‘Kulla’ Mani and ‘Omakuchi’ Narasimhan. Smitha supposedly had skin as smooth as silk and became ‘Silk’ Smitha. It could be based on the actor’s ability — thus, Mani's talent for quick repartee got him the moniker ‘Counter’ Mani, which was soon corrupted to ‘Gounder’ Mani and then ‘Gounda’ Mani.
‘Kutty’ Padmini, who attained fame as a child star, retained her nom du film even after she grew up. Since there were quite a few Subbiahs, we had a ‘Vellai’ Subbiah as opposed to a ‘Karuppu’ Subbiah or the more famous S.V. Subbiah.
‘Sandow’ Chinnappa Thevar, as is obvious, was a wrestler. One of Tamil’s earliest action heroes was ‘Battling’ Mani — a leading star like his female counterpart in Bollywood ‘Fearless’ Nadia.
Then there’s the category of names that come from the films that made them famous. Brothers Raja and Ravi, who directed and acted in Jayam , became ‘Jayam’ Raja and ‘Jayam’ Ravi. Not to be confused with ‘Nizhalgal’ Ravi, the star of Bharathiraja’s Nizhalgal; while CID Shankar gave us CID Shakunthala. Murthy the comedian and Nirmala, one of the female leads, got their names from the film Vennira Adai . ‘Pasi’ Narayanan, ‘Pasi’ Sathya, ‘Poovilangu’ Mohan, ‘Thalaivasal’ Vijay and ‘Sangili’ Murugan all got their prefixes from the films that made them popular.
The Telugu film Shavukar launched a young girl Janaki, who would soon become the famous ‘Sowcar’ Janaki. Another Telugu film Sakshi was added to Ranga Rao to differentiate him from S.V. Ranga Rao; his son Siva, a popular TV star, has added Sakshi to his name, a rare case of the nom du film moving to the second generation, another example being that of ‘Isari’ Velan and his son Ganesh, where ‘Isari’ came from the line ‘ adhu seri ’.
Which brings us to the next category — dialogues or phrases that made them famous. ‘Ennatha’ Kanniah, ‘Danaal’ Thangavelu, ‘Kaakka’ Radhakrishnan, ‘Ayyatheriyaadhayya’ Rama Rao, ‘Pakodah’ Khadar, ‘Aleik’ Nirmala, who later dropped ‘Aleik’ and became just Vijayanirmala (the Guinness record holder for lady director with the maximum number of films in the world), ‘Fatafat’ Jayalakshmi and ‘Achchacho’ Chithra are some examples.
Another lot got their names from the place they came from, the most famous of these being ‘Gemini’ Ganesh, who took the name of the studio he represented. AVM Rajan made the studio name his initials. Some, like the famous stage actor Viswanathan, added the city he lived in, Calcutta, to his name. ‘Delhi’ Ganesh was christened thus by his mentor K. Balachander to distinguish him from Sivaji, Gemini and Jai, all Ganeshs. Then, there’s ‘Delhi’ Kumar on television, while from Balachander’s company we got ‘Kavithalaya’ Krishnan.
Then there are the roles they immortalised on screen — ‘Major’ Sundarrajan played Major Chandrakanth in a play and film by K. Balachander, and there were ‘Nawab’ Rajamanickam, ‘Typist’ Gopu, ‘Thengai’ Srinivasan, and ‘Kaththadi’ Ramamurthy.
Inspector Javert of Les Miserables, when played in Tamil by Seetharaman, became Jhaver Seetharaman. T.K. Shanmugam and Rathinam became ‘Avvai’ and ‘Kaali’, respectively, with even a road named Avvai Shanmugam Salai today.
We also have ‘Judo’ Rathinam, ‘Stunt’ Somu, ‘Gana’ Ulaganathan, ‘Joker’ Ramudu, and ‘Buffoon’ Shankara Iyer — from the stuff they do in films.
The tradition continues. For his role as Captain Prabhakar, Vijaykanth forever became Captain Vijaykanth, just as Vikram became ‘Chiyaan’ Vikram after Sethu . Of course, as we said, the most famous of them all being the man who played the title role in a play by C.N. Annadurai, after which Periyar christened him 'Sivaji' Ganesan.
‘What’s in a name,’ the poet famously asked. If it’s Tamil cinema, then quite a lot, we think…