The generous comic genius

December 05, 2008 12:00 am | Updated October 10, 2016 05:26 am IST


N.S. Krishnan, ‘the Charlie Chaplin of India,’ used laughter to expose the inequalities in life. Big-hearted, he also donated, along with his wife, to deserving causes. A tribute in his centenary year.

Critics and cognoscenti hailed him as ‘the Charlie Chaplin of India.’ This comedian was a genius and perhaps, there will never be another quite like him. He was N.S. Krishnan.

He used laughter to make the audience think about the inequalities in life, superstitious beliefs and so on. He translated these ideas onscreen in a brilliant and effective manner. This not only made him successful but also a cult figure.

Curious by nature

Nagercoil Sudalaimuthu Krishnan (NSK) was born on December 1,1908, into poverty. His lack of formal education was made up by his curiosity, native genius and enthusiasm. Thanks to the talent-spotting eyes of TKS Brothers, NSK gained entry into Tamil Theatre as a comedian. Soon he was a big draw with his inventive and innovative comic bits.

He faced a movie camera for the first time in ‘Sathi Leelavathi’ under Ellis R. Dungan’s direction in 1934. However, problems delayed its release till 1936. Meanwhile, another movie, ‘Menaka’ (1935), established him as a new talent on the horizon.

This comedian was also a filmmaker, screenwriter and social reformer. He and his star wife, T. A. Mathuram, virtually dominated the Tamil film world for over two decades with their own brand of screen comedy. From the mid-1930s to his untimely demise in 1957, NSK was in almost every other Tamil film. He was so popular that his films drew audiences even in non-Tamil areas where they were screened without subtitles or dubbing.

NSK had a unique method of working. After being signed on for a film, he would wait till it was completed. Then, along with a team of writers and artists, he would work on his comedy track. Next, he would shoot it himself, edit the footage and hand over the reels to the producer or director with detailed instructions about how and where to link his comic sequences to the main movie. He charged a lump sum, which also included the salaries of his team members.

NSK usually had a duet in the films. He often sang and composed the music for it using popular folk songs, stage melodies or even brazenly copying them from Hindi movies. He would also record them.

During the making of ‘Vasanthasena’ (1936), he met and fell in love with Mathuram. Their marriage was performed by the icon of early Indian Cinema, Raja Sandow.

NSK established his own production unit based in Coimbatore and produced comedy shorts which were sold to producers and screened along with the main film. Many of these short films proved to be more popular than the main one.

NSK was also known for his generosity and gave away his earnings to deserving causes and the poor.

Then came the sensational Lakshmikantham Murder Case. NSK, whose involvement was never proved, was imprisoned for 30 months. He was released early in 1947. Soon, he turned producer and director. ‘Nallathambi,’ adapted from the 1936 Frank Capra classic ‘Mr.Deeds Goes To Town’ by C. N. Annadurai, is one such example. It became a cult film and is often telecast on television. His ‘Manamagal (with Padmini in the lead),’ about a woman who chooses not to be a wife but remain a bride, was a major success and had social messages.

End of an era

As times changed, NSK also faced health problems and a financial crisis. Although he continued to act, it was not the same. He died in 1957, when he was barely 50.

Mathuram was reduced to a mere shadow after his death. In a chat with this writer she said, “ ...we destroyed ourselves by husband and I did not realise that one should always think of oneself before thinking of others... generosity should have limits but we did not bother in those days when we were at the top ... eventually we were the sufferers...” She lived for nearly a decade after NSK’s death, in poverty and with failing health, helped by a few friends. Heartbroken, she died in 1968.

One is, perhaps, not likely to see again another husband-wife team with this kind of popularity and success, genius and generosity. With their deaths, an era in Indian cinema had ended.

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