I was introduced to Nagesh the same time that I was introduced to MGR - my dad had rented a video cassette of Anbe Vaa and thus began my journey into Tamil films which were before I was born. This must have been in the late eighties, and my dad’s choice of a gateway drug proved successful.
Every weekend, we would rent an ‘old movie’ and watch it together. Among all the actors we learned about, our favorite was Nagesh - not just for his brilliant comedy and fantastic dancing, but also because we saw him in contemporary movies playing more modern roles.
The Anbe Vaa scenes featuring him and MGR were pure comedic gold - he is in charge of MGR’s house, but does not know him by sight. When MGR arrives to stay there, Nagesh charges him rent. As can be expected, the situations that arise are rife with comedic potential and Nagesh delivers brilliantly.
Another movie that stands out for me is Kadhalikka Neramillai, where he plays the role of an aspiring filmmaker. The scene where he narrates the story of a film he wants to make to his father, who he wants to finance the movie, is one of Tamil cinema’s best known scenes, and features a wide variety of Nagesh’s skills - narration, mimicry, beatboxing. And of course, his Oho Productions is second only to Mannar and Company as the best known fictitious firms in Tamil moviedom.
Nagesh’s comedic brilliance is on spectacular show in Thiruvilayadal, where he plays the role of the “penurious poet Dharumi” to borrow Theodore Baskaran’s inimitable turn of phrase. His portrayal of the poet as he seeks to claim the thousand-gold-coin prize for answering the king’s question stands fresh in memory. The dialogues he speaks are repeated by fans in varied situations - “Yenakku kekka dhaan theiryum” has been used as widely as “Varum, anaa varaadhu” is used today. His exchange with Sivaji Ganeshan in the temple is often used in school and college drama societies as a demonstration of the students’ histrionic talents.
Soon after his first villain role in Aboorva Sagotharargal, we were rolling in the aisles at his performance at what is arguably one of the top five comedy movies in Tamil - Michael Madana Kamarajan. His run-ins with all four of Kamal Haasan’s characters are hilarious, and his coaching the Kameshwaran character to instruct the strongman Bhim to give him the money in the locker is unforgettable. We had Bhim boy Bhim boy long before we had Chhotta Bhim!
This was also the time when a young Anand Babu was making his debut, and he was talked about for his dancing skills. Of course, my dad and his friends would always say that his father Nagesh was a much better dancer than him. Having watched Nagesh shake it in so many movies, we have to agree. Recently, we re-watched the overdone yet entertaining comic thriller Adhe Kangal, and there is a sequence where Nagesh demonstrates his dancing abilities that leaves you in no doubt.
While Nagesh’s comedy might not always work for modern audiences, they hark back to a time when comedy reigned supreme on its own merit, relying on solid writing, perfect timing and amazing delivery, and did not need to lean on slapstick and double entendre.