As Nambiar bids farewell …

Icon of screen villainy: M.N. Nambiar

Icon of screen villainy: M.N. Nambiar   | Photo Credit: Profile Photo: K. Pichumani


A recall of the struggles and success of a veteran actor who passed away this week.

One of the most successful stars of Tamil cinema and perhaps the only actor who remained at the top for half century and more! His name is synonymous with on-screen villainy. He acted in so many films that even he could not recall them all! The long-standing success sat lightly on him and his deep devotion to Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala kept him on even keel. A bad guy on screen, off-screen he was the opposite. That was M. N. Nambiar, the Tamil movie star and icon of screen villainy who passed away on November 19, at 89.

Perseverance pays

A staunch patriot and devoted nationalist, he began at the bottom of the ladder — a very good place to start, and climbed his way to the top by sweat and sheer perseverance. Old world values perhaps but obviously they do work! Mention must be made of his roles in ‘Dhigambara Samiyar,’ ‘Sarvadhikari,’ ‘Manthirikumari,’ ‘Enga Veettu Pillai,’ ‘Vaelaikari,’ and ‘Arasilankumari.A versatile actor he played a wide range of roles as hero, comedian and villain. He has played the villain in innumerable films of MGR for nearly three decades. A rare feature in cinema!

Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar hailed from Chirakkal, Kerala and due to straitened circumstances of the family could not afford regular schooling. Handsome and intelligent he entered Tamil theatre as a boy and joined the famous ‘Nawab’ Rajamanickam Pillai’s ‘Madurai Devibala Vinoda Sangeetha Sabha,’ a leading ‘Boys’ Company’ of the bygone decades.

Nambiar played many roles (mostly minor) in the hit play of Rajamanickam Pillai, ‘Bhaktha Ramadas.’ As there was more than one Narayanan he came to be known as Nambiar! He took his bow in cinema in a most modest way when ‘Bhaktha Ramadas’ was filmed at the famous Ranjit Studio in Bombay in 1935. Nambiar received a princely salary of Rs.75 for his role in the film, a fortune for him then. When the noted stage actor and later film star K. Sarangapani left the Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai’s troupe Nambiar began to get better roles. As a young man he joined the well known drama troupe of the day, ‘Sakthi Nataka Sabha’ of ‘Sakthi’ Krishnaswamy. Then came the break that would to be the turning point in his career and life ….

S. D. Sundaram wrote the play, ‘Kaviyin Kanavu,’ whose underlying theme was the Indian Freedom Struggle. Nambiar was cast as the dictatorial despot and the play was a roaring hit. M. Somasundaram (‘Jupiter’ Somu), the boss of Jupiter Pictures, was was impressed with the play and employed S.V.Subbaiah (who played the poet) and Nambiar on contract to work for Jupiter. Thus Nambiar came to films after nearly 12 years.

His first film for Jupiter was ‘Vidyapathi’ (1946). Nambiar played a villainous Brahmin and his wife was played by M.S.S. Bhagyam. Dame Destiny had a greater career for Nambiar in her bag!

As contract actor with Jupiter Nambiar was cast in more films during late 1940s. In 1947 he was cast as hero in ‘Kanjan’ In the hit film ‘Rajakumari’ Nambiar played the supporting role as the hero’s do-gooder pal. Though his role was small he attracted attention. Then came another hit ‘Abhimanyu,’ followed by the stunning film in 1949, a watershed in the history of Tamil cinema, ‘Vaelaikari,’ written by C. N. Annadurai and directed by A.S.A.Sami.

Nambiar played two roles in it, as the feudal ‘Shylock-like’ rich man’s son in love with the poor housemaid, and also as lecherous guru (shades of Rasputin again!). Meanwhile the Salem-based movie mogul, T.R. Sundaram, also a hawk-eyed talent scout, called Nambiar. Nambiar joined Modern Theatres on an attractive and remunerative contract, another turning point in his life and first appeared in their cult film, ‘Manthirikumari’ in which he played the king’s Brahmin preceptor, Rajaguru. Nambiar showed his talents and skills in portraying the guru with high ambitions of taking over the kingdom. He became a star with this film and afterwards there was no looking back.

The next hit

Meanwhile another film was under production at the studio, ‘Digambara Samiyar’ (1950). The role involved donning many disguises and Nambiar excelled in it. The film was a hit and Nambiar won laurels as a fine actor. Another Modern Theatres’ hit, ‘Sarvadhikari’ (1951) witnessed Nambiar firmly establishing his stardom. Even though it had stars such as Chittoor V. Nagaiah and MGR, Nambiar dominated the film true to its title! ‘Sarvadhikari’ was a hit and Nambiar’s career-graph fast-curved upwards. He was now a major star of Tamil cinema.

With his increasing fame Sundaram cast him as hero in ‘Kalyani’and B.S. Saroja was his heroine. But the film failed and Nambiar went back to his villain and character roles.

He acted in some Malayalam movies and lately in TV serials too. A staunch and deeply religious Hindu he became an ardent devotee of Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala. As the Ayyappa cult began to spread he became a guru and initiator to many and came to be hailed as ‘Guruswami.’

He persuaded many in his fraternity to become Ayyappa devotees and visit the shrine in Kerala annually following a rigid code of discipline and self-denial.

Not an easy task for many film folks! Here was a rare man, when comes such another …..!

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