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M.N. Nambiar: Birth centenary of Tamil cinema’s greatest screen villain


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Thursday 7 March this year was the birth centenary of Indian film actor Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar known to the world at large as M.N. Nambiar. The great Thespian who made a name for himself by acting in negative roles was hailed by many as the greatest screen villain of Tamil cinema. 

In a stage and screen career that spanned more than seven decades Nambiar has acted in more than 600 films with different generations of actors. Most of them were in Tamil but some were in Malayalam and Telugu. He has also acted in a few Hindi and English films. 

Nambiar, who passed away at the age of 89 on 19 November 2008, was a rare individual who played villainous roles on screen while remaining a virtuous person with saintly qualities off-screen. Contrary to his villainous screen persona, Nambiar was in real life a teetotaller and vegetarian and, above all, a man who upheld ethical values without any scandal or gossip ever being attributed to him.

‘Nambiarswamy: The Good, the Bad and the Holy’

Presently Nambiar’s birth centenary is being commemorated and celebrated by family members, friends, well-wishers, fellow devotees and above all fans in different ways. Paramount among these was the launch of a book about Nambiar written by his grandson M.N. Dipak Nambiar. 

In a spinoff from the iconic Western movie classic ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’ – featuring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach – the Nambiar book is named ‘Nambiarswamy: The Good, the Bad and the Holy’. As the title indicates the emphasis is on the spiritual dimension of the actor’s life.

Nambiar was a great devotee of Sabarimalai Shree Aiyappan and undertook annual pilgrimages to the shrine for over 65 years. He was one of those instrumental in popularising the comparatively unknown deity over the years. 

He initiated mountain-trekking pilgrimages at a time when it was not ‘fashionable’ to worship Shree Aiyappan on the scale it is being done today. As a result, he was hailed not merely as a ‘Guruswamy’ but a ‘Mahaguruswamy’ by Aiyappan devotees and referred to generally as “Nambiarswamy” meaning “Godman Nambiar”.

The 192-page book in English is published by Harper Collins-India. The Tamil version is to be released in May this year. The author Dipak Nambiar is the son of Nambiar’s only daughter 

Snehalatha known as Sneha. Dipak has been working on this book for many, many years while Nambiar was alive and has recorded many conversations with his maternal grandfather whom he calls “Appa” about various aspects of his life. He has followed it up by interviewing family members and film industry colleagues of his grandfather also. 

The book therefore is of two parts. One being a narrative of his life as told to his grandson by M.N. Nambiar himself while the other is an anthology of anecdotes and reminiscences about the great man. The icing on the cake is a foreword written by actress turned politician Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

A special event was held at ITC Grand Chola Hotel in Chennai on 10 March to launch the book. A select audience comprising invitees were first treated to a film comprising scenes and stills from different films featuring Nambiar. This was followed by Nambiar’s daughter and Dipak’s mother Sneha Nambiar presenting copies of the book to some distinguished personalities. These included author Shreekumar Varma from the Travancore Royal family and great grandson of artist Raja Ravi Varma, Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali son of the Royal Arcot Nawab, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi’s daughter Selvi, Film Producer Daggubati Suresh Babu, Dr. Kamala Selvaraj (actor Gemini Ganesan’s daughter) Film Director P.Vasu, Actor-Director K. Bhagyaraj and actor S. Sathiyaraj. Thereafter speeches were made by Shreekumar Varma, P. Vasu, Sathiyaraj, Bhagyaraj, Kamala Selvaraj and actor-writer Mohan Raman who compered the event.

I communicated with MN Nambiar’s grandson Dipak who wrote the book on his grandfather. He was elated over the manner in which the book is being received. He said that he would be going to Malaysia and Singapore soon for launches of the book ‘Nambiarswamy: The Good, the Bad and the Holy’. He also said that a Tamil version of the book would be out by May this year. 

Dipak Nambiar has plans of visiting Sri Lanka after that and engage in book launch events here. Dipak who is very keen to visit Lanka with the book said to me, “Appa” (M.N. Nambiar) had high regard for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. After all Appa’s best friend MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) was born in Kandy.”

Love-hate relationship

 

To strike a personal note, this writer like many of his generation grew up on a diet of Tamil films and film songs. In our childhood we as boys mainly enjoyed the performances of actors playing the hero. They were our heroes too. The heroines were sort of “also there” who were tolerated as part of the film. But then as we grew older our attitudes towards the heroines changed. Soon they became even more important to us males than the heroes for obvious reasons. 

There were other categories of actors like the comedians, villains and those playing character roles. When we were very young the fight sequences were the scenes we looked forward to in a film. Of course we knew that ultimately the good guy or hero would bash up the bad guy or villain.

Looking back at those days an interesting fact that I remember now is how many of my friends and relatives of the same age group liked the actors playing villain roles too. It was like a peculiar form of love-hate relationship. Just as much we relished the great heroes like M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, S.S. Rajendran or Gemini Ganesh, we also appreciated the actors who played villainous roles opposite them. Without these villains, the heroes could not make their mark. How could the lead actor perform his heroic deeds and win rounds of applause if the villains did not battle it out with guns, swords and fists or abduct the beautiful heroine?

The great epics ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharatha’ without ‘Ravana’ or ‘Duryodhana’ is unimaginable. Likewise, a Tamil movie without a villain or his henchmen cannot be visualised. Villains were an integral part of moviedom. Their impact was so great that the word ‘villain’ was adopted as a Tamil word ‘villan,’ with its amusing feminine equivalent ‘villi’ for ‘vamp.’ We jeered the villains and cheered the heroes.

Greatest screen villain of Tamil cinema

The older generation of villains faded away and a new breed has taken over but then for some of us, ‘old is gold’ indeed. The villains who faded away or transformed into actors playing character roles have all gone one by one. P.S. Veerappa, T.S. Baliah, S.A. Natarajan, T.K. Balachandran, M.R. Radha, S.A. Asokan, R.S. Manohar, O.A.K. Devar, K. Kannan and S. Ramadas have all passed away. Nambiar who passed away in 2008 was in a sense the last of the great villains of Tamil cinema. To many including myself he was the greatest screen villain of Tamil cinema.

Each actor who played the villain on the Tamil silver screen had a distinctive trait or mannerism. Veerappa was known for his raucous laugh and powerful dialogue; M.R. Radha for his swift change of voice from squeaky and high-pitched to guttural rasps; R.S. Manohar would thrust his chest out and impose his personality. O.A.K. Devar had a booming voice that would effectively reverberate. S.A. Asokan had peculiar mannerisms to suit the different roles he played and would change his tone and diction adroitly to suit them.

As for Nambiar, his speciality was the way in which he would shake his head from side to side with a scowl and/or grimace. He would arch his eyebrows, expand his nostrils, screw up his mouth in a leering smile or merely purse his lips tightly. He also rubbed his hands in anticipation or glee and utter a few words in a sinister way. This was enough to project a sense of evil and terror. 

Sometimes the lighting was dimmed to enhance the ominous threat. Chilling, powerful music in the background added to the fear. At times he would wear false, protruding teeth. When he grinned from ear to ear with those wolfish dentures, the effect was truly menacing. Another gesture was to shout out the name of his henchmen in a terrifying manner. Incidentally, reigning Tamil superstar Rajinikanth referred to this famous hallmark of Nambiar in his film ‘Kabaali’ and drew rounds of applause. 

Apart from his facial expressions, Nambiar could also deliver his dialogue with appropriate modulation. He would lower or raise his voice when necessary. Even his hoarse whispers were terrifying. Unlike many of the present actors, these ‘oldies’ from a bygone era though not ethnically Tamil could speak perfect, fluent Tamil with correct diction and pronunciation. Nambiar was a Malayalee but like those of his period could speak other ‘Dravidian’ languages like Tamil well. A far cry from the present where even Tamil actors and actresses are unable to pronounce Tamil correctly.

Nostalgic memories

Recollecting Nambiar’s facial expressions revive nostalgic memories in this writer. Imitating actors is a phase many of us have passed through in childhood. Sivaji’s dialogue, MGR’s action, Veerappa’s laughter and Chandrababu’s slapstick are but some of these.

One of my favourite acts during childhood was to imitate Nambiar’s threatening facial expressions. Apart from entertaining family members, neighbours and friends, I also could not resist many attempts before the mirror in those days. This article is therefore my way of commemorating the birth centenary of an actor of whom I was an ardent fan and respected as a person for his exemplary character and virtues.

Ironically, Nambiar, in spite of his unblemished character, was perceived as a dastardly villain by millions of movie-goers on account of his on-screen image while others guilty of off-screen villainy were hailed as good men due to their screen performances. In this, Nambiar was like P.S. Veerappa, another actor who played the villain in Tamil cinema while being of exemplary virtue in real life.

Nambiar could also play the ‘cool’ villain without engaging in melodramatic histrionics. He could also act the womanising playboy who seduces suavely and then ditches the unfortunate damsel. Like most actors of the older generation he mastered swordplay, wrestling, stick-play, horse-riding, etc. This enabled him to play a realistic, swashbuckling villain on the screen. Although Nambiar established himself as an actor by excelling in “villain” roles, he has played other roles like comedian, hero and character artiste on screen. Interestingly, the ‘macho’ Nambiar has also acted as a woman and girl on the stage during his formative years.

Early days

Nambiar, who was born on 7 March 1919, hailed from the Chirakkal division in Kannur District in present day Kerala state. His parents were Kelu and Lakshmi Nambiar. The name Nambiar is a caste identity. The Nambiars are a caste group concentrated mainly in Northern Kerala. 

It is believed that Nambiars are a mixture of the Namboodri (Brahmin) and Nair castes. The Manjeris are a Nambiar clan with claims of a martial lineage. Several members of the Nambiar clan have made a name for themselves as industrialists, diplomats, soldiers, poets, singers and actors.

M.N. Nambiar studied up to grade 5 at the village school in Chirakkal. When Nambiar was 10 years of age, his elder sister got married and moved to Ooty in present day Tamil Nadu where her husband ran a tea kiosk. Narayanan too relocated to Ooty with his sister. He enrolled at the Ooty Municipal High School and helped out as a waiter at his brother-in-law’s tea stall in the evenings and on weekends. Three years passed and the 13-year-old Narayanan Nambiar was studying in Grade 8 when his life changed entirely.

The drama troupe Madurai Devibala Vinodha Sangeetha Sabha run by the famous “Nawab” Rajamanickam Pillai came to Ooty and staged a series of dramas. This was one of the famous ‘Boys Company’ drama troupes, so called because all actors were mainly young boys who played both male and female roles. 

Young Narayanan was assigned the task of selling tea to the audiences viewing dramas. The young boy was captivated by the sight of boys of his age acting on stage donning different costumes. When the drama troupe shifted from Ooty to Salem, the stage struck Narayanan too went along with Rajamanickampillai’s ‘Boys Company’.

Though Narayanan Nambiar’s mother tongue was Malayalam he had opted to join a Tamil drama troupe at the age of 13. Nambiar learnt to speak perfect Tamil and eventually played many roles on stage, including that of women. His monthly salary then was just Rs. 3, of which he sent Rs. 2 regularly to his mother. Board and lodging was the responsibility of the troupe.

Initially he was just a helper working in the kitchen. His good looks and quick mastery of chaste Tamil enabled him act on stage too. He started out with minor roles and by the time he was 15 Nambiar got to act in major roles. One such role was that of a judge in the drama ‘Nachuppoigai’ (Poisonous Spring) written by Kovai Aiyamuthu. Unfortunately the drama was banned by the British colonial rulers as promoting sedition.

First screen break

After three years of stage acting, Nambiar got his first screen break. A film company called Parameswar Sound Pictures produced in 1935 a film titled ‘Bhaktha Ramadas’ at the Ranjit Studio in Mumbai (then Bombay). All the actors were males and several from ‘Boys Company’ were recruited. 

Nambiar, then 16, played a comic role in the film. He along with actor T.K. Sambangi played a comedian duo inspired by the Laurel and Hardy duo of English films. Nambiar and Sambangi acted as the Akkannaa-Maadhannaa pair. He was paid Rs. 40 for his first screen role. The Film Director was Murugadas Swamigal. Out of this sum, Nambiar spent Rs. 20 and bought a harmonium which was retained at home until his death.

In 1937 Nambiar got another chance to act in cinema when the drama ‘Inbasagaran’ written by Kovai Aiyaadurai was made into a film. It was a hefty role and Nambiar was paid a Rs. 75 advance. The film however did not see the light of day. The nearly completed film reels were all burnt in an accidental fire at the studio. Thereafter, Nambiar did not get any more screen roles for many years. 

With World War II breaking out in 1939, the British Government commenced a recruitment drive to expand its armed forces. At one point of time, Nambiar along with some friends decided to enlist in the army. He applied to join and was selected after a physical examination. Shortly before Nambiar was to go to the military office and sign the necessary papers, the recruit to be was told that he may have to eat non-vegetarian food at times when posted to the frontlines. Nambiar being a strict vegetarian found this unacceptable. So he did not join the army as intended and instead resumed acting on the stage. 

 

The older generation of villains faded away and a new breed has taken over but then for some of us, ‘old is gold’ indeed. The villains who faded away or transformed into actors playing character roles have all gone one by one. P.S. Veerappa, T.S. Baliah, S.A. Natarajan, T.K. Balachandran, M.R. Radha, S.A. Asokan, R.S. Manohar, O.A.K. Devar, K. Kannan and S. Ramadas have all passed away. Nambiar who passed away in 2008 was in a sense the last of the great villains of Tamil cinema. To many including myself he was the greatest screen villain of Tamil cinema



An unexpected boost

Meanwhile, his stage career received an unexpected boost when lead actor K. Sarangapani quit Rajamanickam Pillai’s troupe. Now Nambiar began to get better and prominent parts to play. His drama career began taking off. Soon Nambiar passed teenage and sought a place elsewhere in more ‘mature’ troupes. He joined the ‘Shakthi Nataka Sabha’ of ‘Shakthi’ Krishnaswamy. One of the roles played by Nambiar was that of the cruel monarch in ‘Kaviyin Kanavu’ (A Poet’s Vision), a play about the poet Kalidas. S.V. Subbiah played the poet. The play, written by S.D. Sundaram, was a runaway hit. Nambiar’s name gathered fame in drama circles.

It was then that Nambiar and Subbiah caught the eye of Producer M. Somasundaram of Jupiter Films. Jupiter Films was a partnership venture of Somasundaram and M. Mohideen. ‘Jupiter Somu,’ as he was known, placed both Nambiar and Subbiah on a contract for the production company. This was in 1946. 

The Jupiter films contract was the decisive turning point for Nambiar. It was his contract with Jupiter films followed by another with legendary film maker T. R. Sundaram of Modern Theatres that launched Nambiar’s entry into films in a big way. The story of M. N. Nambiar’s successful career as a film actor will be related in a forthcoming article.

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


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