From Nambiar to Saranya Ponvannan: The character actors of Tamil cinema

These actors may not have the fan following of heroes and heroines but they have the audience's love.
From Nambiar to Saranya Ponvannan: The character actors of Tamil cinema
From Nambiar to Saranya Ponvannan: The character actors of Tamil cinema
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Their contribution to Tamil cinema over the years has been invaluable but in an industry where the lead stars hog all the publicity, character actors still remain on the periphery.   

Labeled as ‘supporting actors’, their performances, however, have a significant impact on every film. There have also been instances where their performaances have overshadowed the lead stars'. 

In the age of black and white cinema

In the early days of black and white cinema and thereafter as well, actors like MR Radha, Ranga Rao, SV Subbiah, TS Balaiah, MN Nambiar etc proved their versatility in film after film. 

Radha, who generally played the antagonist, had a distinct acting style and his own set of mannerisms. He could also modulate his voice to suit the character. After his popularity skyrocketed, there was a time when it was said that a film without Radha was saada (ordinary).  His roles in films like Kai Kodutha Dievam, Chitthi and Raktha Kanneer were memorable. 

The tall, stylish Ranga Rao too performed character roles with elan in films like Iruvar Ullam, Pachai Vilakku and Padikaatha Medhai. But the go to man for directors seeking intense, emotional performances was SV Subbiah. 

In Balachander’s Arangetram, where the heroine becomes a sex worker to keep the wolf from the door, Subbiah was cast as the hapless father, bemoaning his fate. But Subbiah’s class act came in his own production Kaval Deivam, based on a story by Jnanpith awardee Jayakanthan where he played the role of a police inspector. One scene that still lingers in memory is his confronting a ruthless killer Chamundi (Sivaji Ganesan in a cameo) who had brutally slain his daughter’s rapist. The camera focuses on the eyes of the duo, Sivaji’s blazing like coals and Subbiah’s calm, cool and serene. 

The silence added to the poignancy of the scene and one could hear a pin drop in the theatre. Subbiah also breathed life into the role of the stormy poet of the freedom movement, Mahakavi Bharathi in Kappalottiya Thamizhan

An actor like S Balaiah too earned name and fame for his fine portrayals in several hits and two of his outstanding performances were in Thillana Mohanambal as a thavil vidwan and in Thiruvilayadal where he was cast as the egoist classical vocalist Hemanatha Bhagavathar. 

The quintessential comedian Nagesh was not just a rib tickler. In Major Chandrakanth, Balachander had given him the role of a killer who avenges the suicide of his sister (Jayalalithaa) by murdering the man who had left her in the lurch. 

The touch of pathos that he brought to his roles in Server Sundaram and Neerkumizhi, too, remain green in memory. Another stalwart Major Sundararajan, who possessed one of the finest voices in Tamil cinema was to the fore in films like Major Chandrakanth and Uyarndha Manithan among others.

Women actors

One of the earliest woman actors to create an impact in Tamil cinema was Kannamba who was to the fore in films like Kannagi and Manohara. In the latter film where she was cast as Sivaji Ganesan’s mother, she came up with a rousing performance.  In those days, the test of a hero or heroine’s mettle was the felicity with which he or she could reel off dialogues in flowery prose written by scriptwriters like Karunanidhi. Kannamba rose to the occasion splendidly. 

Vijayakumari too was cut from the same cloth and her portrayal of Kannagi in Poompuhar was the highlight of the film. Savithri could tug at heart strings in films like Pasamalar and Kai Kodutha Deivam while Manorama proved that she was no novice either. The buck toothed mother of Vijaykant in the blockbuster hit Chinna Gounder was vindication of her versatility. 

Sowcar Janaki (Kaaviya Thalaivi) and Sujatha (Aval Ordu Thodarkathai, Avargal) were also actors with the capacity to breathe life into their roles.  Fortunately for Kollywood, those who came after this generation were in no way inferior to their predecessors. 

Contemporary cinema

Tamil cinema today boasts of a number of excellent supporting actors who have been proving their versatility in the roles that they have landed.  The late Raghuvaran, one of the most popular villains in Tamil cinema had a dual personality and while he often went over the top in bad guy roles, his subdued, nuanced  performances in films like Samsaram Adhu Minsaram of that of the eldest son of a joint family loath to shoulder responsibility and Anjali where he acted as the distressed father of a special child came in for critical acclaim. 

Nassar, still going strong decades after he played the tough inspector in Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, won renown for his role of Arvind Swami’s father in Bombay, a casting masterpiece by Mani Ratnam where Kitty a Hindu played a Muslim and Nassar a Muslim, a Hindu. Charuhasan, national award winning actor and elder brother of Kamal Haasan recently paid a handsome tribute to Nassar when he rated him a few notches higher than Kamal in terms of versatility.

Nassar also won kudos for his enactment of the role of Bijjaladeva in Rajamouli’s Baahubali.

Other distinguished character actors who have made a mark are Prakash Raj, Raj Kiran and Samuthirakani. 

Prakash Raj won praise for masala films like Gilli and Singham, but his national award winning performances in films like Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar and Priyadarshan’s Kancheevaram were in a different class altogether.  The portly Raj Kiran, a producer-director, too, is rated high as a character actor and has proved himself worthy of accolades coming his way in films like Nandha, Pandavar Bhoomi and Thavamai Thavamiranthu

One of the most sought after actors in Tamil cinema today, Samuthirakani who made his mark in the Sasikumar directed Subramaniapuram, won the National Award for Best Supporting actor in the Vetrimaran directed Visaranai where he essayed the role of a honest cop in a posse of corrupt policemen. The actor was also to the fore in a negative role in Priyadarshan’s Oppam, a box office hit in Malayalam.

A host of films where he will be seen in significant roles are on the floors in various stages of production.

Most of the roles that have come Radikaa’s way have been in commercial films but her role of a mentally challenged girl in the offbeat film Meendum Oru Kadhal Kathai with actor director Prathap Pothan was indeed a class apart. She has since acted in many character roles in contemporary Tamil films.

Among the present lot of women actors, Saranya Ponvannan, Aishwarya Rajesh and Sai Dhansika deserve a mention.  Saranya, an automatic choice in mother’s roles won the National Best Actress Award for her moving performance in Thenmerku Paruvakaatru helmed by Seenu Ramaswamy.

As Veerayi, a widow who raises her son single-handedly she performed with panache, winning critical acclaim.  She came good in an earlier film Thavamai Thavamirunthu (Cheran) as well. 

Aishwarya Rajesh who has played Arjun Ramphal’s wife in Daddy, the story of dreaded don Arun Gawli, was first noticed in Kakka Muttai where she was cast as the mother of two young boys. An aspiring heroine and a relative newcomer, she thought little of deglamourising herself for the role and proved it is the character that matters as far her choice of films was concerned. 

Sai Dhansika, who played Rajini’s daughter in Kabali, is another actor who has been able to give a good account of herself in films like Aaravan and Paradesi. But unlike in the sixties and seventies, there are few takers for character roles, probably due to a fear among the younger stars that they could be typecast.

Unlike heroes and heroines who could fall out of favour with audiences after a time, character actors have a much longer shelf life as they can be cast in diverse roles and even if a film fails at the box office, they can earn recognition for their performances. And though they might not get equal billing as the heroes, audiences will continue to root for them.

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