The Ratnam brand of comedy

Actor Kali N. Ratnam   | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Madurai Original Boys’ Company’ owned by Satchithanandam Pillai and Jagannatha Iyer was one of the most famous drama companies of yesteryears. Kali N. Ratnam worked there for 27 years, not only as an actor but also as a stage-manager. Drama actors, who worked under him include K.P. Kesavan, who is now forgotten, P.U. Chinnappa (then known as Chinnasami), M.G. Chakrapani, M.G. Ramachandran and others.

In a play about Kannagi, Ratnam played the role of Kali and built a reputation. The story goes like this: Ratnam, the son of a farmer from Kumbakonam learnt to play the role from a stage star known as Parameswaran Iyer who specialised in playing Kali. When Iyer saw Ratnam portraying his favourite role on stage, he was awestruck and gave him the title ‘Kali.’ That is how Ratnam came to be known as Kali N. Ratnam until the end of his life.

He made his debut in the movies in 1936 with the famous film ‘Pathi Bhakthi,’ produced by the Madurai Original Boys Company. In this film, he played a detective and was cast in a comic role. In fact, it was a double role. His partner in the comedy role was another well known artist of the day, P.R.Mangalam. Both made the moviegoers laugh.

Along with this film, there was a comedy short titled ‘Mannarsami,’ in which Ratnam and Mangalam were in top form.

However, the film which brought him fame was of course ‘Chandrakantha’ (1936), in which he played a sinful mutt-head called Thirukallur Swami. This film was a hit. Some of his other films include ‘Raja Mohan’ (1937), ‘Punjab Kesari’ (1938) and ‘Meenakshi Kalyanam.’

When the stage troupe he was working for was camping at Coimbatore, the actors and actresses went around looking for a house to stay. In one house, there was a young girl, the daughter of the owner, who had ambitions of acting on stage. S.R. Janaki, the leader of the troupe and a well-known actress, was quite impressed by the sprightly girl and recruited her for the troupe. The young girl’s name was C.T. Rajakantham! She played a minor role in the play in which Ratnam was the top comedian. That was how the two met and fell for each other and a new comedy pair: Kali. N. Ratnam- C.T.Rajakantham, was born. They clicked at once and acted together in a number of movies like ‘Utthama Puthiran,' 'Sathi Murali,’ ‘Sabapathi’ (one of their big hits), 'Manonmani,' 'Burma Rani' (Kali N. Ratnam played an Air Force pilot in this), ‘Sri Murugan,’ ‘Mana Samrakshanam,’ and ‘Valmiki.’ Sadly misunderstandings arose between the two and they parted. But soon, they came together for ‘Bhojan.’

Ratnam was an expert in traditional martial arts and also played traditional musical instruments such as the udukku, thappattai, thavil, mridangam and nagaswaram. He was very good at ‘Poikaal Kudhirai.’ His comedy too always had a touch of the Tamil rural culture. This was what distinguished him from the N.S. Krishnan brand of comedy which was sophisticated.

In the popular hit of Modern Theatres, ‘Aayiram Thalai Vaangiya Apoorva Chintamani’ (1949), he sang the famous M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s song ‘Manmadhan Leelaiye vendrar undo….' from Haridas (1944) using only one sound ‘mummmmoo mommmmoo….’ as if he was a dumb man! It was perfect. Even today it stuns the viewer. ‘Ponmudi’(1950) was the last movie in which Ratnam and Rajakantham acted together. Ratnam made arrangements for a film with a Poikaal Kudhirai scene. Sadly, in August 1950, he passed away. Rajakantham continued to act in movies playing elderly roles and was equally popular in her films.

Even though Kali N.Ratnam and C.T. Rajakantham have gone away, their films and comedies are still remembered and watched by Tamil movie buffs and lovers of comedy.

Eerie meetings

Some years ago, there was a meeting of the Association of Supernatural Elements. Men and women who believed in ghosts met once in a month to exchange views, bring video clips and share their experiences with ghosts. I wrote a series of ghost stories in magazines such as Ananda Vikatan and was asked to speak about my writings. During the crowded meeting, I spoke about C.T. Rajakantham who told me that Kali N.Ratnam came in her dreams often and they both had long conversations! She told me that it was not fiction, but an experience she had often.

(The next comedian to be featured in this series will be K. Sarangapani.)

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 5:52:59 AM |

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