(A monthly column on the comedians of the Tamil screen. In this series, the spotlight is on T. S. Durairaj)
T. S. Durairaj, one of the most talented comedians of Tamil Cinema, did not receive the recognition he deserved. The main reason was that he was a contemporary of N. S. Krishnan (NSK), ‘the Charlie Chaplin of India,’ with whom he was often teamed. One famous film of the two was Ellis. R. Dungan's musical extravaganza with M.S. Subbulakshmi and G.N. Balasubramaniam, ‘Sakunthalai’ (1940).
It was only after the temporary absence of NSK following his arrest in the sensational Lakshmikantham Murder Case and his imprisonment for 30 months that Durairaj came into his own in films such as ‘Meera’ (1945).
At first, NSK and his wife Mathuram along with Durairaj were cast in ‘Meera.’ But after the murder case and jail term for NSK, the couple was dropped and Durairaj played the main comedy role.
T.S. Durairaj was born in 1910 in a struggling family of goldsmith workers, in Thanjavur district. He had no interest in studies and joined one of the many ‘Boys’ companies prevalent in that era. The ‘Boys’ companies were drama groups, which hired only boys, before the age of puberty, for all kinds of roles including those of females and the aged. At that time, there were no women in these troupes.
Most of the successful Tamil film actors of the 1940s and ’50s invariably belonged to one of the Boys’ Companies including Sivaji Ganesan, MGR, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, P.U. Chinnappa, K. R. Ramasami, S.S. Rajendran, N.S.Krishnan, T.K. Shanmugham and T.K. Bhagavathi. Durairaj acted on stage and became closely associated with NSK, who was making his way ahead. In ‘Rambayin Kaadhal’ (1939), NSK and T. A. Mathuram took over the comedy parts along with Durairaj, who made a mark with his debut film. It was a hit and featured the top star of the day, K.L.V. Vasantha and ace comedian K. Sarangapani in lead roles.
He shot into prominence with ‘Sakunthalai’ (1940). In it, Durairaj and NSK are a pair of fishermen who go out to sea for their daily catch and fight over a gold ring belonging to Sakunthalai. She was on her way to join her husband King Dushyantha, when the ring was swallowed by a fish, which the fishermen catch. They quarrel over the ring and NSK slaps Durairaj around while Durairaj repeats this line sobbing, “Adippayo. ungappan mavaney… singandaa!” (You dare beat me…you son of a loafer, I am a lion!) The dialogue in the sequence proved a big hit.
Some years ago, Ellis R. Dungan had told this writer that during the shooting of this sequence on the Adyar River, M.S. Subbulakshmi, who was present along with her husband, could not control her loud laughter, which kept disturbing the shot and only after many ‘takes’ they were able to okay it. Such was the impact of Durairaj’s acting!
For a time, Durairaj was also successful at horseracing and part-owned winning horses such as ‘King Master’ and ‘Win Master.’ Once, he had mentioned to this writer about how he had driven from Madras to a Maharaja’s palace in Rajasthan to buy a diamond ring for Rs 3 lakhs in the 1940s! Later, he said, “I earned Rs 27 lakhs in my career and lost 30 lakhs, this aside, I have so many other debts that I stopped counting.” Like most actors of the day, he tried his hand at film production and ended up in debt. Once this writer saw him walking on the Adyar Bridge and offered him a lift, which he refused and continued to walk in the blazing sun.
(To be continued)