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“Marikkar” Ramdas: The Brahmin who transformed into a Muslim

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“Marikkar” Ramdas has passed away!


Sadness spread among numerous fans of Sri Lankan origin scattered widely in different parts of the globe as news of the demise of the popular artiste reached them. 

S. Ramdas, known as “Marikkar” Ramdas was a radio, stage and screen actor cum writer who was a household name in Tamil speaking homes of the island during the last quarter of the 20th century. He had been inactive as an artiste for more than a decade now but was not forgotten by the public which he entertained once. One could recognise genuine grief and a heartfelt sense of loss as people came to know that the man known to them as “Marikkar” Ramdas had passed away.

Sathyavaageeswara Iyer Ramdas was a Hindu Brahmin. Yet he was widely known as “Marikkar” Ramdas. This was because his most famous and popular role as an actor was that of a Muslim named Marikkar. Ramdas portrayed the Muslim character excellently speaking perfectly the dialect of Colombo Muslims. 1

Ramdas first acted as Marikkar in a radio drama serial which was later made into a successful movie. He also performed as Marikkar in many skits and concerts. Due to the performance-related transformation of the Hindu Brahmin into a Muslim, Ramdas became known as “Marikkar” Ramdas. The description “Marikkar” Ramdas was in a sense an award bestowed upon the artiste by an appreciative public.

He loved acting and took to the stage in school concerts at a very young age and then went on to act in radio plays as well. He also began writing scripts. Later on Ramdas acted in Tamil films and TV dramas. He wrote the screenplay and dialogues for some films and TV dramas too. Though comedy was his forte, Ramdas was also a very good character actor.

I became slightly acquainted with Ramdas when I was working as a Journalist on the Tamil newspaper “Virakesari”. Those were the days when a few Tamil films were being produced in Sri Lanka by Sri Lankans. As a reporter of a Tamil newspaper I was excited about it and used to interact with artistes and filmmakers involved in such ventures. 

Ramdas, who worked for many years at Colonial Motors in Union Place, used to live in Polhengoda then. He rode a scooter and has given me a few rides those days. We have enjoyed each other’s company at gatherings hosted by members of the Sri Lankan film fraternity.


Early life

Ramdas was born on 5 May 1947 in Sivagangai, which is in the Tamil Nadu state of India. His parents Sathyavaageeswara Iyer and Nagalaxmi moved to Colombo from India before Ramdas was one year old. Ramdas was the eldest son in a family of five childen. The other four were all girls. The family lived in Wellawatte, Pamankade and Thimbirigasaya. 

Ramdas was an old boy of Isipathana College in Havelock Town. The college was founded in 1952 and known initially as Greenlands College. Ramdas belonged to the first batch of Kindergarten students enrolled at Greenlands College. 

The Principal then was B. A. Kuruppu, who encouraged student activities such as music, singing and drama. Ramdas began acting in classroom plays and school concerts. It was through school dramas that he first acted on stage. Ramdas completed his GCE (OL) at Isipathana but did not proceed further to do his “A” levels.

Nagalaxmi Sathyavaageeswara was a vocalist in Carnatic music. So too were two of her daughters. They used to do programs at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) known then as ‘Radio Ceylon’. Ramdas used to escort his mother and sisters to Radio Ceylon and back regularly. It was then that he met Saravanamuttu, known as “Vaanoli Maamaa” (Radio Uncle), who was in charge of the weekly children’s program in Tamil, ‘Siruvar Malar’. Young Ramdas plucked up courage to ask Saravanamuttu for a chance to participate in the program. Vaanoli Maamaa auditioned Ramdas and selected him as an actor.

Ramdas began acting in several dramas for children on radio. As he grew older Ramdas caught the ear of the famous broadcaster, actor and playwright and actor Shanmuganathan known as “Saanaa”. It was Shanmuganathan who gave Ramdas his first break as a professional actor in radio. Ramdas recalls with pride that his first payment as an actor was the Rs. 45 paid by SLBC for Shanmuganathan’s radio play. 

Saana also produced a humorous program called ‘Mathaappoo’ over radio. Ramdas became a regular in that program and began gaining popularity. It must be remembered that TV had not been introduced in Sri Lanka at that time and radio was the cherished medium then.



Entry into Tamil stage

The popular radio actor now made his entry into the Tamil stage in a big way. Ramdas began acting in a number of dramas that were staged in different parts of the country. Some of these plays were ‘Kaadhal Jaakiradhai,’ ‘Vaadagai Veedu,’ ‘Broker Kanthiah,’ ‘Kalaattaa Kadhal,’ ‘Nadigargal’ and ‘Thideer Vedi’. 

Ramdas also acted in ‘Sumathi,’ which won the first prize at the Tamil drama festival conducted by the ‘Thinakaran’ newspaper published by Lake House. Ramdas won the Best Comedian Award. While acting on stage, Ramdas never forsook his first love radio. He continued to act over radio too.

Production of original Tamil films began in Sri Lanka from 1962 onwards. It proceeded in fits and starts till the ’70s of the last century. The setting up of a Film Corporation and the restrictions placed on the import and screening of Indian Hindi and Tamil language films provided a boost to the nascent Sri Lankan Tamil film industry. With more Tamil films being made in Sri Lanka, actors such as Ramdas began getting opportunities to act on screen.

‘Kuthu Vilakku’ was a film produced by the well-known architect V. S. Thurairajah. Ramdas made his film debut in that film. Thereafter he got chances in more films. 

V. P. Ganesan, the father of Cabinet Minister Mano Ganesan, was a well-known trade unionist. He produced and acted as the hero in three Tamil films. They were ‘Puthiya Kaatru,’ ‘Naan Ungal Thozhan’ and ‘Naadu Patra Vaazhga’. Ganesan was a close friend of Ramdas and gave him comic roles in all three films. 

Other Tamil films in which Ramdas acted were ‘Koamaligal,’ ‘Aemaaligal,’ ‘Maamiyaar Veedu’ and ‘Sharmilaavin Idhaya Ragam’. He also acted in the Sinhala film ‘Nomiyena Minisun’ directed by Gamini Fonseka.

The film ‘Maamiyaar Veedu’ (Mother-in-Law’s House) was an Indo-Lanka joint production. Indian actors like the veteran S.V. Subbiah and actresses Jeya and Meera and several Sri Lankan actors starred in the film. Most of the shooting was done in Sri Lanka. 

Ramdas too acted as a comic villain in the film. It was an ambiguous role in which the character to shift back and forth from villainy to comedy rapidly. Moreover, the script required much sparring with the great thespian Subbiah in scenes. S.V. Subbiah, a great character actor, was impressed by Ramdas and compared him to “Nadigaverl” M.R. Radha, who excelled in such types of roles in Tamil cinema.


‘Koamaaligal’ and “Marikkar”2

However his magnum opus in movies was ‘Koamaaligal,’ in which he acted as “Marikkar”. The roots of the film was radio. The well-known artiste “Sillaiyoor” Selvarajan was then in charge of producing a radio program sponsored by People’s Bank. Selvarajan saw a 30-minute comedy staged by Ramdas in 1974 at D.S. Senanayake College in Colombo. He requested Ramdas to develop the play into a lengthy drama for broadcasting as a serial over radio. Ramdas happily agreed.

Ramdas then wrote a lengthy radio play titled ‘Koamaaligalin Kummaalam’ (Hilarious Antics of Clowns/Jokers). The play was broadcast every Sunday at 4 p.m. over radio continuously for 90 weeks. Ramdas wrote the script and acted in the principal part. It was immensely popular. I too remember listening to it regularly in those days.

Subsequently the play was produced as a film by businessman M. Mohammed under the banner of Amarjothy Movies. Ramdas was entrusted the duties of writing the screenplay and dialogues for the film in addition to acting as Marikkar. He also served as Assistant Director for the film.

‘Koamaaligal’ was a comedy with the message of national unity. It is about families belonging to different ethnicities and religions living in separate parts of a huge mansion. Ramdas once told me that the inspiration for Koamaaligal came from the Indian Tamil film ‘Bharatha Vilaas’ directed by A. C. Trilokchander. In that film starring Sivaji Ganesan and K.R. Vijaya, families from different Indian ethnic groups are living in a common house named Bharatha Vilaas. The film emphasised national unity under the aegis of Bharat or India.

Ramdas however did not push the national theme bluntly in his film. He presented it as a comedy full of laughs in which the problems among different people living under one roof were highlighted humorously. The overall message however was that despite differences people of one country had to learn to coexist peacefully. Ethnic amity and unity in diversity were the underlying themes though superficially it was a boisterously comic film. I am subject to correction but as far as I am aware no Sinhala film has been made on similar lines so far.


Most remarkable feature

The most remarkable feature of the film were the four major protagonists who belonged to the four major ethnicities of Sri Lanka. They were Upali – Sinhala, Appukkutti – Sri Lankan Tamil, Marikkar – Muslim and Iyer – Indian Tamil. The parts of Marikkar, Iyer, Upali and Appukkutti were played by S. Ramdas, B. H. Abdul Hameed, S. Selvasekaran and T. Rajagopal respectively. A pleasant irony was that of Ramdas, a Brahmin, acting as Marikkar the Muslim; and a Muslim, Abdul Hameed, acting as Iyer the Brahmin.

Koamaaligal released on 22 October 1976 was well-received and a commercial success. It ran for 76 days at a stretch in Sellamahaal theatre and 55 days at the Plaza theatre in Colombo. (Both theatres are no more.) The film also ran successfully in different areas of the country such as Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Kandy, Badulla and Bandarawela. It ran for 51 days when screened at the Ranee cinema in Jaffna.

Encouraged and emboldened by the success of Koamaaligal, Ramdas ventured out to make a sequel. It was titled ‘Aemaaligal,’ meaning suckers or the deceived ones. The word ‘Aemaaligal’ rhymed with “Koamaaligal” when pronounced in Tamil. The businessman A. M. Mowjood stepped in and produced the film under the Bakeer Films banner. 

Ramdas wrote the screenplay, dialogues and also re-enacted his Marikkar role. In addition he functioned as Assistant Director and Executive Producer. Apart from “Marikkar” Ramdas, “Upali” Selvasekaran and “Appullutti” Rajagopal also acted in the film. Only the radio announcer B. H. Abdul Hameed who acted earlier as Iyer was missing. Aemaaligal turned out to be a reasonable commercial success but was not quite up to Koamaaligal.

Ramdas however was now firmly established as “Marikkar” Ramdas. His body language as well as pronunciation was that of a Muslim hailing from Colombo. Moreover, the song ‘Ennadi Sithi Bee’ written and sung by Ramdas was a terrific hit. It was modelled on the popular ‘Ennadi Raakkammaa’ sung by T. M. Soundararajan in the silver jubilee film ‘Pattikkaada Pattanamaa’. Ramdas had written and sung the words in parody form in the dialect of Colombo Muslims (different regions have different dialects).

This then is the story of S. Ramdas the Brahmin who excelled as an actor portraying a Muslim and was rewarded for his efforts by acquiring the name “Marikkar” Ramdas. The artiste passed away at the age of 69 at Besant Nagar in Chennai where his daughter Priya resides. “Marikkar” Ramdas will always be remembered by his numerous fans in Sri Lanka and all over the world.

(D. B. S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com.)


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