About 20 km from Coorg is the Cherupazhassi village whose chieftain was part of the Pazhassi Raja family. A descendant of this family was destined to become famous in the film industry — he was Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar. M.N. Nambiar was born on March 7, 1919, to Kelu Nambiar and Lakshmi. His father passed away when he was a small boy and the family wealth was all gone. Nambiar went to Ooty to live with his brother. He studied up to the third form at the Ooty Municipal High School. In 1934, when “Nawab” Rajamanickam was performing in Ooty, Nambiar watched the plays. He admired the discipline of the boys in the troupe — getting up early, performing Suryanamaskar and pooja. When an opportunity came his way, he joined the troupe. The drama company travelled to Salem and Mysore. Nambiar who started helping out in the kitchen finally landed the role of a lady judge in a play “Nachchu Poigai”, written by Kovai Ayyamuthu. Unfortunately, when he was all set to go on stage, the British Government banned the play.
In 1935, their play “Ramadasu” was to be filmed in Maharashtra, and Nambiar accompanied the troupe. He played the role of a comic along with T. K. Sampangi. The pair was called Akkanna-Madanna. He was paid Rs. 40 for this. He spent half the amount on buying a harmonium, which is still in his house. Within a year, the chief comedian of the troupe K. Sarangapani left, and Nambiar took his place — he became a huge hit with the audience.
Nambiar used to keep the artistes in stitches with his comic remarks as they sat down to play cards during breaks from shooting. If he saw fans approaching him, his serene face would undergo a sudden transformation — bearing an imperious look, his trademark scowl, arched eyebrows and all After they left, when asked why he did this, he would say with a smile, “Avanga indha Nambiar-a thaan parka varanga (they come to see only the villain Nambiar).”
In 1937, he shot for Inbasagaran which never saw the light of day as the film reels got destroyed in a fire. Nambiar then joined the Sakthi Nadaga Sabha. In 1944, he essayed the role of Rajaguru in the play “Kaviyin Kanavu”, written by S. D. Sundaram to such perfection that his reputation as villain came to be well established. Nambiar soon signed up with Jupiter Films as a studio artiste and played a comedian in the film Vidyapathi (1946). He married Rukmani the same year.
This was followed by ASA Sami's Rajakumari (1947), which featured his friend M. G. Ramachandran as hero. Nambiar then played the lead role (along with S. V. Subbiah) in Kanjan (1947). Then followed Abhimanyu, Mohini and Velaikkari . The 1950 Modern Theatre Production's Dhigambara Samiyar was a high-point in his career — here he played a role that involved donning 12 disguises and Nambiar pulled it off with panache. This was written by Vaduvur Doraiswamy Iyengar and directed by T. R. Sundaram.
MGR who was elder to him by four years considered Nambiar his senior in the profession. Their friendship which dates back to the early Jupiter Films days was well known. In fact, director Pa. Neelakantan once asked Nambiar why he never stood up when MGR entered the set (which everybody did). Nambiar's answer was: “He is my friend. Why should I stand up when a friend walks in?” MGR was the best man ( mappillai thozhan ) at Nambiar's wedding and even carried his first-born Sukumaran on his shoulders up the Palani Hills for the boy's Annaprashanam in 1948.
Nambiar steadily rose and became the industry's “bad” man — his performance in Enga Veettu Pillai, Aayiraththil Oruvan, Raman Ethanai Ramanadi, Padagotti, Then Nilavu,Rahasiya Police 115 , and Annayin Aanai is unforgettable. During this time, he also essayed character roles in films such as Pasamalar . Despite stiff competition from the likes of P. S. Veerappa, S. A. Ashokan, R. S. Manohar and a host of others, Nambiar managed to retain his place in the industry.
His portrayal of an old man in Sridhar's Nenjam Marappadhillai was classic. While shooting the scene where he chases the lead pair in a horse-drawn carriage, one of its wheels suddenly came off; the driver panicked but Nambiar asked him to drive on and as the carriage overturned, jumped out, took aim and shot. This was not a planned stunt but an accident that Nambiar, the consummate artiste that he was, used to the film's advantage. With years of physical training in the drama troupe (he practised yoga and played badminton in a court built in his house), regular classes in sword fighting and martial arts, Nambiar was able to handle the rigours of getting bashed up by the hero.
A family-loving man, Nambiar ensured that he spent six weeks with his family in Ooty every summer. He would refuse any assignment that would require him to stay away from his family during this time. In exceptional cases, he would ask the producer to shoot his scenes in Ooty. A teetotaller, he led a disciplined life. In fact, he would chastise us if he saw us slouching in a chair and ask us to sit straight. I had the privilege of acting with him in what was probably his only television serial — “Oviyam”, where he played my father, a Zamindar.
Bhagyaraj in his film Thooral Ninnu Pochchu (1982) paid his respects to a practice Nambiar always followed. In the title shot, an old man will mix the rice and take the first handful to feed his wife. Nambiar always gave the first morsel of food to his wife and in her absence in Sabarimala to his sons. All through his professional life, he only ate the food prepared by his wife, who accompanied him everywhere. He stuck to this practice till his last film Sudesi in 2006 with Vijayakanth.
Nambiar first went to Sabarimala with his guru Nawab Rajamanickam in 1942 and thereafter made more than 55 visits to the temple. As “Guruswamy”, he used to lead a 200-strong group, which included many popular film stars and industrialists, to Sabarimala. After a career spanning 71 years in films, probably a record, Nambiar passed away on November 19, 2008. But who can forget the man who personified everything good in real life and evil on reel?