(A monthly column on the comedians of the Tamil screen. This is the first part of the series on N.S. Krishnan.)
He did not make them merely laugh but made them think too. This was the outstanding feature of N.S. Krishnan’s comedy. The uncrowned king of comedy in Tamil cinema, passed away in 1949 but his brand of comedy is still as fresh as a morning red dewy rose.
Years ago, there was a festival at the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce that was attended by an American film historian. He was introduced to this writer at the American Consulate. He knew nothing about Indian Cinema and was trying to learn something. When a movie of N.S. Krishnan began and his face was flashed on the screen, howls of laughter rose in the full house. The American visitor exclaimed, ‘Hey, Randor, this man is a cult figure! I can see that!’
Then, the writer explained to the visitor about NSK and his films, and during his stay in Madras, the American saw every NSK film he could , and said that he could see the impact of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle and Ben Turpin.
It’s no wonder that Krishnan has been hailed as the Charlie Chaplin of India.
From a stage star, he went on to become the unchallenged king of comedy of Tamil Cinema and a successful filmmaker. That was not all. He became a political figure too.
Sadly, however, he died in straitened circumstances before he turned 50.
Nagercoil Sudalaimuthu Pillai Krishnan was born on November 29, 1908, in Ozhuginasheri, a suburb of Nagercoil. The area, then part of the Travancore State and now in Tamil Nadu, was a bilingual area where folks spoke Tamil and Malayalam. Naturally, NSK was proficient in both the languages.
His father was too poor to send his son to school and Krishnan began to earn a living at an early age. He learned to read and write himself and got work as a packer in a grocery store.
Even as a child. NSK was fascinated by the stage. During that day, there was a small drama hall in Nagercoil where Tamil plays were staged by visiting troupes. However, he was too poor to afford such a luxury. So, he used an ingenious plan… he sold bottled soda water inside the hall during the intermission. Pushing his cart , he gained free access and made some money in the bargain. Once inside, his mind was more on what was happening on the stage than selling soda bottles!
He saw. He observed and absorbed whatever that went on the stage. Tamil theatre those days was virtually all song and very little talk. Even the villain sang holding the heroine captive with the intention of raping her, boasting his manly qualities. And instead of trying to escape from his clutches, the heroine too sang replying to him until the song was over!
The saintly scholar and playwright Sankaradas Swamigal ushered in a new era in Tamil drama by organising only boys to play all roles even for female roles. Known as ‘Boys’ Drama Company, this movement was a huge success.
One of the Boys’ Drama companies founded by him had four brothers. Sankaran, Muthuswami, Shanmugam and Bhagavathi. Under the name in TKS Brothers, they would create history in theatre.
On March 31, 1925, they decided to stage a historic play based on the epic ‘Silappadikaaram’ as a maiden venture. Rehearsals began in right earnest and a hunt for new faces began. One day, an uncle brought in a new boy and young T.K. Shanmugam began teaching his songs to the boys. He stepped out for a glass of water and when he returned he was taken aback to find one of the boys, long hair rolled into a top knot, teaching the songs to others!
Amazed, Shanmugam asked the newcomer how he was able to teach the songs. He replied, ‘Sir, I have seen your play so many times. I know all the songs!' Soon he became a favourite of Shanmugam, which lasted a lifetime.
The newcomer was, of course, N.S. Krishnan
One eventful day he was seated in the car on his way to the General Hospital Madras for being admitted (sadly he never came out alive). His wife T.A. Mathuram, another legend went in to the house to check whether the house was securely locked. Now a poor man greeted him at the car window and said that he had no money for the marriage of his daughter, which was scheduled within a week. Krishnan told him that he had no money to give and unhesitatingly he took out his silver flask from a bag and gave it to him and asked him to sell it and perform the marriage. Minutes later Mathuram came back to the car and found the flask missing! When she asked him about it, he said had no idea that there was a flask inside the car! Of course, the wife knew that he had obviously given it away to someone during those few minutes of her absence. That was his generosity, which remains unparalleled to this day in the movie world except perhaps M.G. Ramachandran.
(To be continued)