LIGHTER VEIN Friday Review

Comedian by destiny

A still from Menaka

A still from Menaka  

Interestingly, N.S. Krishnan’s early appearances were all far from comedy. He played Satyavan’s father in ‘Savithri’, and Rajuguru in ‘Manohara.’ However, he carried the roles with conviction. Indeed, his performance was so impressive that his friends and admirers in Nagercoil presented him a gold medal.

A famed Tamil scholar and poet of Nagercoil, Sathavadhanam Sheikh Thambi Pavalar, presided over the award function and in his speech said, ‘the boy from our land will blossom forth as a genius. He will bring credit not only to our district but the land of Tamils.’ High praise indeed! And every word of it came true soon after.

T. K. Shanmugam realised that his young friend had enormous potential and asked Krishnan to learn several roles in their plays. It was then the practice for an artist to learn the lines and songs of more than one role in a play, so that if someone fell sick, he could be substituted without problem. Krishnan learnt all roles in their plays!

M.R. Swaminathan was then the comedian of the TKS Brothers unit. A talented actor and playwright, he was very versatile and had a special flair for comedy. However, he was somewhat fickle-minded and changed troupes often with no notice.

While in Karaikudi, the troupe was to stage ‘Manohara’, their hit play. M.R Swaminathan was to play ‘Vasanthan’, the idiot son of the vamp and king’s mistress Vasanthasena. It was a popular character in the play, which MRS played with the enormous success. Unfortunately, one day he left the troupe in Karaikudi without notice. The Brothers were in a soup, and then Shanmugam had a brainwave. Why not Krishnan for that role?

Krishnan woke up the next morning and, as the cliché goes, he found himself famous as a comedian. Thereafter, NSK would bring the house down at every show with his inventive comedy, adding his own dialogue, inventing new bits of comedy and often changing lines and jokes much to the delight of the audience. When Swaminathan returned, he was relegated to do other minor roles. Now, Krishnan came to be known as the king of comedy, but he always acknowledged Swaminathan as his guru and later when he had his own film unit to produce comedy shorts, Swaminathan became his scriptwriter.

One of the popular plays of TKS Brothers was ‘Menaka', based on the well-known novel by the famous writer Vaduvoor Duraiswami Iyengar. M. Kandaswami Mudaliar, famed playwright, stage actor, director, producer and father figure endearingly called ‘Vaathiyaar’ (teacher) in theatre circles, did the stage adaptation.

‘Menaka’ was being successfully staged in Gobichettipalayam, near Coimbatore. One night, M. Somasundaram and S.K Mohideen, two businessmen friends from Thiruppur, seated in the front row, liked the play and came up with an offer to produce it as a movie. The two friends went on to create film history as successful producers with their company 'Jupiter Pictures' and Somasundaram popularly known as ‘Jupiter Somu’ became one of the leaders of South Indian Cinema. The TKS Brothers unit was hired for the movie for a lump sum of Rs.14, 000. NSK was offered the role of a mischief-monger for Rs.600. Thus, in September 1935, it all began for NSK- his great film career.

Silent movies had just begun to be screened in the towns near Madras in tent cinemas. They mostly screened serials from the United States. NSK never missed a show and his favourite, of course, was the genius Charlie Chaplin. His purposeful comedy, the biting satire and social values made a deep impact on NSK and the seeds of his own future were firmly sown during those moments of Chaplin- watching. Another Hollywood giant who fascinated NSK was Harold Lloyd. He studied every film and took notes in a book.

‘Menaka’ was shot at Ranjit Studios, Bombay, directed by the cult figure of Indian Cinema, Raja Sandow. In one sequence NSK had to hug a girl who was said to be the director’s favourite ! Raja Sandow, who was for realism in love scenes, asked NSK not to hug her too hard. Suddenly, the villains kidnapped NSK and the girl and threw both in a gunnysack and tied them! She had to hug NSK for protection. However, NSK refused to permit the actress to hug and told the famous filmmaker, “No, sir, I am ‘pathivrathan’ (chaste husband, there is no such word in Tamil and NSK coined it!) and I will not permit any woman other than my wife Nagammal (His first wife in Nagercoil) to touch me!” His sarcastic wisecrack brought the set down, even the angry director burst into loud laughter, and he realised that here was a genius who would go a long way in the movies. (Nagammal always remained in the background.) ‘Menaka’ was released in 1936 and was a hit.

NSK was engaged to act in another film around this time. This would have far reaching consequences in his life and also in Tamil movie history. The producer was hunting for a new face to act opposite NSK. One day, the production manager and the comedian went to Tiruchi for meeting a new face. Her name? T.A. Mathuram.

Tea, coffee in a play on Vishnu

NSK acted in a mythological play ‘Bhaktha Dhruva’, in which a song he sang ran as follows (written by the playwright Chidambara Bhagavathar)."Tennis football adithuKonjam Rounders vilayaduvom !Tiffin Konjam edukkaTea coffee paarthiduvom!"Tennis…tea… coffee…tiffin, in a play about Lord Vishnu? Absurd? Ridiculous? However, audiences loved them all and asked NSK for ‘ONCE MORE!’ Surely those were the days!

Correction: N.S. Krishnan passed away in 1957 and not 1949 as published in this column last week.

(To be continued)

(A monthly column on the comedians of the Tamil screen. This is the second part of the series on N.S. Krishnan.)

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2020 12:38:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/lighter-vein-column-ns-krishnan-part-2/article6618097.ece

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