Friday Review

Man with saucer eyes

T.R. Ramachandran on the sets of a Tamil film. Photo: The Hindu Archives   | Photo Credit: T_D_PARTHASARATHY

(A monthly column on the comedians of the Tamil screen. In this series, the spotlight is on T.R. Ramachandran.)

T.R. Ramachandran was one of the most successful comedians of Tamil cinema. He did not merely raise a laugh, but was also a fine character actor. He had even played the hero in many films, paired with leading stars such as Vyjayanthimala, Savithri and V. N. Janaki.

However, T.R. Ramachandran’s reputation was mainly that of a comedian, who cut a comical figure with his large bulging eyes. During the early 1920s, there was a popular singing comedian in Hollywood called Eddie Cantor, who bore a striking resemblance to Ramachandran. Many critics labelled Ramachandran, ‘the Eddie Cantor’ of Indian cinema.

Ramachandran’s successful films included ‘Sabapathy, ‘Vaazhkai’, and ‘Saadhu Mirandaal,’ a tale of murder in which he played the hero.

Thirukampuliyur Rangarao Ramachandran came from a Madhwa Brahmin family in Tiruchi district. As a child, he had no interest in studies and played truant from school. He spent more than one year in each class and finally dropped out of school after the fifth standard (as it was then called).

Ramachandran was good at singing, but also avoided his music teacher. At last his exasperated father, a struggling contractor, asked his son what he wished to do in life and the boy expressed his desire to go on stage. The poor parent was shocked by his son’s choice of profession but left with no option, he took him to Tiruchi and had him admitted in a ‘Boys Company’, Madurai Bala Mohana Ranjitha Sabha. At first, the 14-year-old was given only female ‘walk-on’ roles.

After six months of free service, he was paid a grand sum of one rupee as monthly salary! Slowly the roles got better, as he got some humorous parts, and so did his salary. But as the quantum increased, actual payments dwindled. Once, when the troupe was camping at the gold-mining town, Kolar, the owner vanished in the night leaving the boys in the lurch. Some of the seniors in the group, such as M. R. Radha and S.V. Venkataraman, (then an actor, who later became a noted film music composer) also departed looking for greener pastures. Left penniless and in a strange town, Ramachandran and a few of the boys had to sing and dance in the streets to get food. Such was his plight that on most days, he had nothing to eat.

Then one day, a man bought the company and set himself up in the drama business. But the costumes and set props had been carried away by the angry creditors, and the new boss had no funds to restock the necessary items. So Ramachandran and the hungry boys played all the roles in their torn clothes and the audience had an interesting time trying to identify the characters (and their gender) from their dialogue! Both Rama and Sita, Murugan and Valli wore shirts and dhotis and had similar hair-dos. To make it easier for the audience they would say, “I am Rama….or I am Seetha” before delivering their dialogue.

S.V. Venkataraman, who had earlier left the troupe, managed to start a drama group of his own and he invited his erstwhile colleagues, such as T.S. Balaiah, M.R. Radha, T.V. Sethuraman and T.R. Ramachandran to join him.

For a while, everything went fine till disaster struck again. The group was in Kolar at that time, when ego clashes caused a split among the members that left them staring at starvation. Finally, everyone pooled in whatever little money they had, which amounted to one rupee. With the money, Venkataraman went to Bangalore to look for ways to fill their empty stomachs.

The future music director, after wandering around the city, was resting in the tree-filled Cubbon Park, when a car pulled up and out came film producer AV. Meiyappan! He was there for the film, ‘Nandakumar.’ In a matter of days, T.R. Ramachandran joined the film production company as a comedian. Now, he was able to eat three times a day! So unfolded the true saga of the man with big saucer eyes.

(To be continued...)

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 6:40:32 AM |

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