IN LIGHTER VEIN Friday Review

The rise of Chinnasami

(A monthly column on the comedians of the Tamil screen. This is the first part of the series on Kali N. Ratnam.)



Next only to the legendary N. S. Krishnan in terms of fame and popularity, Kali N. Ratnam was one of the most versatile artists of Tamil Cinema. Somewhat crude and rustic, he had none of the polish and refinement of NSK. However, with his sidekick, seductive comedian, C. T. Rajakantham with whom he shared a deep intimate relationship for many years (apart from his two wives,) Ratnam ranked almost on par with the N.S. Krishnan–T. A. Mathuram duo for a period of time. A stage star and a product of a ‘Boys’ company, he earned the prefix “Kali” as a tribute for his portrayal of the goddess Kalimatha.



One of the more colourful roles that Ratnam was assigned was that of a swamigal in the film Çhandrakantha.’ ‘Chavukkadi Chandrakantha’ was a highly controversial novel by noted writer, J. R. Rangaraju, a senior local government official.



This bestselling novel was also a popular stage play adapted by famous theatre personality, M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar. The story was about the life, lust and sordid deals of the head of a religious sect. In those days, such men possessing immense wealth, power and position were mostly horny wolves in sheep’s clothing, leading a life of lechery and unbridled lust. ‘Chandrakantha’ was an expose of one such mutt’s head who had many mistresses, each from a different community, including a European! In the film, he sings duets with his mistresses in their own languages except English.



M. Somasundaram and S. K. Mohideen, had promoted a new concern, Jupiter Pictures that would soon play a significant role in Tamil film history. “Jupiter “Somu, as Somasundaram soon came to be known, launched ‘Chandrakantha’ as the first venture. Raja Sandow, the neglected Indian movie pioneer, was assigned to make the film. Kali N. Ratnam was picked to to play the main role of the womanising swami.



The name of the swami was ‘Thirukallur Swami’ (‘Kallu’ in Tamil means cheap liquor). The wily wicked swami had a euphemism for the act of sex called ‘Yogabhyasam!’ His friends and disciples would greet him with the tell-tale sentence, ‘Swamigal, yogabhyasam aachaa?’ (Swami, have you done your yoga practice?’) He would reply, ‘Nanna aacchu!’ (Yes, very well!).



Many groups of Brahmins in places like Kanchipuram, Kumbakonam, Srirangam and others objected to the sentence, especially the usage of the word ‘Swamigal!’ Some tried to take the matter to court but with no success. The phrase ‘Swamigal’ became very popular. Even today, old-timers use it as a euphemism for lustful persons!



In some small towns, appeals were made to ban the film and many mutt-heads tried to stop the screening with little success. Kali N. Ratnam who lived his role hit the headlines with this film and so did N. S. Krishnan who essayed a comical role in the film. This film’s success added to the stature of Raja Sandow and his image as a purposeful filmmaker. It also established Somasundaram and Mohideen as producers laying a strong foundation for their bright career.





An expert at martial arts

The other major role in ‘Chandrakantha’ was that of the zamindar of Chundur. Nobody suitable could be found and the producers decided to cast the actor who performed the role on stage. His name was Pudukottai Ulaganatha Chinnasami who under the screen name, P. U. Chinnappa, rose to stardom with a great fan following.Chinnasami (that’s how he was billed in ‘Chandrakantha’), a native of the zamindari town, Pudukottai near Tiruchi, was short, stocky and uncouth for a film star but he had his plus points.

He could sing very well and was an expert at traditional martial arts such as fencing, stick-wielding, wrestling and weightlifting. For a while, he earned a living from these arts. He performed stunts himself without the need of a double and loved fights in real life too! Later, when he was a star, he fought a boxing duel with one of the menials of Newtone Studio, Madras, over a flimsy dispute and refused to stop until his opponent, a friend of his early struggling days was “kayoed” in the presence of the large crowd who watched the “match” with glee and appreciative yells and cheers! Fond of the bottle and all that, he beat up cab drivers for which he faced court prosecutions. Quite a colourful guy, he was!

(To be continued)

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