No Tamil film is complete without a comedian. Well, this was possibly true till a decade back. Today, the comedian’s role seems to have become obsolete as filmmakers are doing away with a ‘comedy track’ and throwing in a friend of the protagonist in a key role with some comic relief.
If you look at the history of Tamil cinema, comedians have been some of the best and top stars on the silver screen: N.S. Krishnan, T.R. Ramachandran, A. Karunanidhi, T.S. Balaiah, Chandrababu and Nagesh. Then there was 'Cho' Ramaswamy and 'Thengai' Srinivasan before Surulirajan, Senthil and Goundamani moved in.
N. S. Krishnan or NSK / Kalaivanar was seen in over 150 films in his career with all the top stars in the 1940s and 50s. Unfortunately, he died young at the age of 48. While others like T. S. Balaiah came after him, it was Chandrababu and Nagesh who again shot into the limelight with their brand of comedy.
When you think of Tamil actor Nagesh, one of the first films that come to mind is Server Sundaram (1964). He went on to become a much sought-after comedian in the 1960s and with more than 1000 films to his credit, even today he is considered to be among the best actors and comedians of his time. While Nagesh seemed to have fashioned himself after Hollywood’s Jerry Lewis, Chandrababu was more locally connected with his ‘Madras bashai’ and slapstick style.
In the 1980s and early 90s, it was the evergreen Senthil-Goundamani slapstick comedy that the audience yearned for. The Laurel and Hardy of Kollywood, the duo is remembered till date for their hilarious ‘vazhapazham joke’. Slowly, Vadivelu and Vivekh took their place as filmmakers wanted new talent. But Vadivelu aspired to play lead roles and Vivekh went down in the popularity meter. It was Santhanam who stepped into their shoes but he too has since turned hero.
It’s not just male comedians who have made their mark in Kollywood. Artistes like T.A. Madhuram, T.P. Muthulakshmi, M. Saroja, C.T. Rajakantham, Sachu, Sowcar Janaki, ‘Aachi’ Manorama and Kovai Sarala have proved their mettle in this male-dominated domain over the last century. Since many of these actors were paired with male comedians, more credit – unfortunately - was passed on to their male counterparts for their success.
As actor comedians in the last decade aspired to play the lead, the role of the ‘comedian’ fell vacant. But the changing nature of films and the audience also proved to filmmakers that there was no requirement for a comedian in a film. The mainstream commercial flick gave way to a host of new genres like dark comedy, thriller, horror, historical fantasy, drama thriller and more.
With these new genres, there was no place for a separate comedy track and instead, it was the hero/ heroine’s friend who, most often, added light comic relief to the film.
While actors like Bala Saravanan, Arjun, Aarti, Vidyullekha and numerous others are seen lightening up the film, the role of the comedian, as seen in yesteryears, seems to have become obsolete in Tamil cinema. The lead actors themselves, for instance, regale the audience. Case in point: OKOK, Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, Remo and Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom.
Horror films don’t require comedians and their success has shown this. Just look at Kanchana, Maya, Pizza, and Aranmanai 2. When it comes to action flicks, like Vishwaroopam, Thoongavanam, Thuppaki or Yennai Arindhaal, it’s all about the hero.
Today, most movie scripts don’t depend on comedians or require their contribution. Roles are no longer written with comedians in mind and this means that those who add comic relief to a film now are simply slotted in the actor space.
Thus, when it comes to winning awards, they now need to compete with other actors in the movie for Best Supporting Actor. While this may be the downside to this new trend in Tamil cinema, there is an upside as well. Those with a comic streak can prove their versatility and not get pigeon-holed into these blink-and-miss roles.
In the current scenario, the friend with a funny bone has become stereotyped and the role doesn’t leave much room for many to showcase their talent. And there are no longer full-fledged comedy roles being written - except for the hero/heroine. Perhaps it’s time that those aspiring to be funny on screen take this as a challenge and create a new niche for themselves.