Friday Review

Made a ‘Major’ impact

Major Sundarrajan with a hippo in ‘Deiva Cheyal’; in ‘Gnana Oli’ and wife Shyamala. Photo: K. V. Srinivasan   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

When director Sridhar offered Sundarrajan, an employee of Madras Telephones, a role in the film ‘Vennira Adai’, he refused. Sundarrajan didn’t want to play a father’s role; he wanted be the hero. Family friend and director K.C. Krishnamurthy persuaded him to take the part, pointing out that heroes had a short shelf life, but ‘fathers’ would always be in demand.



Sundarrajanbecame popularly known as ‘Major’ after he played a visually challenged Major in K. Balachander’s ‘Major Chandrakanth.’ The actor’s 80th birth anniversary was last month (July).



Are you sorry he didn’t become a hero, I ask Shyamala, Major’s wife. “I was glad, because I was young then, and didn’t want my husband romancing other women,” she says.



Major had to stick on a moustache for ‘Vennira Adai,’ and in one scene, it wobbled when he spoke. It was only after the film was released that someone pointed this out to Sridhar. “I was on tenterhooks when I watched the film, but luckily no one else noticed it!” says Shyamala. K.C. Krishnamurthy told Major that a false moustache would sometimes quiver, without a real moustache to anchor it!



A series of ‘father’ roles followed, all of them requiring a moustache, and so Major began to sport one.



Long before Major became famous in films, he had taken to the stage. He acted in the dramatised versions of Devan’s popular stories, staged by Ennessen Theatres. In Devan’s ‘Miss Janaki,’ Major’s maternal uncle, Veeraraghavan, played the heterodox Brahmin, Haran, who dismisses tradition in one word, “Suddha Bosh!” Major enacted the character of the orthodox Gowrishankar Iyer. In real life, Major was the maverick Brahmin and Veeraraghavan the orthodox one, and the family was in stitches when they saw Major profess orthodoxy on stage!



Major played important roles in K. Balachander’s plays such as ‘Naanal,’ ‘Edirneechal,’ ‘Neerkumizhi’ and ‘Major Chandrakanth’ and reprised the roles in films too.



When S.V. Ranga Rao saw the play, ‘Server Sundaram,’ he said, “If Sundarrajan continues to do ‘father’ roles, he will give me a run for my money.” Krishnan Panju said: “If this play is ever made into a film, then Sundarrajan must play the father’s role.”



In Ennessen Theatres’ ‘Gnana Oli,’ Major did the role Sivaji played on screen. Even after the film was released, the play was staged 200 times. A benefit show of ‘Gnana Oli’ was staged to raise funds for the Poondi Matha Church. The play was such a hit with the parishioners that they objected to the priest ‘dying’ in the play!



“In 1969, the golden jubilee celebrations of the play ‘Theerppu’ took place in Murali Hotel on Pycrofts Road, and all sabha secretaries and K. Balachander too garlanded my husband,” recalls Shyamala.



‘Theerppu’ was a debate on atheism. MGR presided over the 50th show and said that no one should think that he was caught in an awkward situation, because he had been asked to talk about a play that debated atheism. “I am, was and always will be a believer. These words come from the bottom of my heart,” MGR said. “Enakku Majorin nadippin meedhu kadhal (I am in love with Major’s acting).” All leading newspapers and magazines carried MGR’s speech.



Was Major a theist? “In the early days, he was an atheist, but later became a believer,” says Shyamala. ‘Comedy’ Rajagopalan, who played a comedian in Major’s plays, talks of Major’s faith in Rama. “Once in Sri Lanka, we had to travel through the forest. It was war time. The car carrying Shyamala and a few actors from our troupe was late, and everyone was worried. Major was the only one who remained calm throughout, and he kept saying, ‘Lord Rama will take care of them’.”



Major could speak Hindi and this helped when he acted in Thevar’s ‘Deiva Cheyal,’ for the animals in the film had been trained to respond to commands in Hindi. The animal trainer told Major that the lion would stay calm if he kept scratching its mane, when he sat astride it (yes, Major did!).



Everyday Major would take a ball of jaggery for the elephant, and Shyamala would tease him, “While other actors woo lovely women, you, poor thing, have to chat up animals!”



In the early films, Major was invariably cast as the zamindar or a rich, assertive man, and so when he had to play a poor Brahmin clerk in the film, ‘Aalayam,’ Shyamala warned him that it wouldn’t click. But when the film was released, Shyamala, who was in Periakulam then, was so impressed, that she wrote him a six page letter, saying she took back her words. In the 1970s film, ‘Bhadrakali’, as the helpless, poor father of Gayatri, Major’s acting tugged at viewers’heartstrings.



Major was a gourmet, and a good cook. He and Veeraraghavan would cook for the troupe, during train journeys. They would take a mortar and grinding pestle with them, to make vadai batter! They would weigh down the frying pan with a stone, to keep it from tipping over, and fry vadais! Shyamala and the wives of other actors would be assigned the task of peeling more than 20 kilograms of shallots for the sambar.



Recently, Doordarshan telecast an old interview of Major’s, where he says, ‘I’ve lived a full life and am ready to go.’



“We wept when the interview was telecast,” says Major’s brother Sampath. “But when we see his films telecast in various television channels, we get the feeling he is with us.”

A fan’s input

Devadirajan, a fan of Major Sundarrajan, assumed the name of ‘Major’ Dasan, and was like the actor’s shadow. He has compiled statistics about Major, which he generously shared with me:

Major acted in 900 films, including an Odisha and a Sinhalese film. Major’s debut film ‘Vyjayanthimala’ was canned. ‘Pattinathar’ was the first of his films to be released.

When the play ‘Kal Thoon’ was staged during the World Tamil Conference in Madurai, Chief Minister MGR sat on the floor with the rest of the audience to watch it. K.Balachander once saw Major enact a freedom fighter languishing in prison, and was so impressed, that he cast him in his play, ‘Kadaisi Theerppu.’ This was the first play penned by KB. Major and Srikanth used to share a room in their salad days, and KB was a frequent visitor. ‘Vinoda Oppandam’, Ragini Creations’ first full length play was written by KB during one of these visits.

When Sowcar Janaki was offered a role in KB’s play ‘Mezhuguvarthi,’ she said she was unfamiliar with the stage, so Major was deputed to coach her. She later gave him Rs. 1000 for being such a motivating force. Sivaji, V.K. Ramasami and Major were deeply involved with the Nadigar Sangam, and when the Sankardas Swamigal auditorium was inaugurated by Chief Minister MGR, Sivaji became its president and Major, its secretary.


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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 9:33:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/the-major-effect/article7586580.ece

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