He was arguably one of the earliest comedians in Tamil cinema to strike a chord with the masses, who hung on to every word that he uttered on the screen. They laughed at his jokes till their sides ached and took his sermonizing to heart, and in the process turned him into one of the industry’s leading lights.
‘Kalaivanar’ N S Krishnan, who rose from humble beginnings as a ‘villu paatu’ artiste to become an indispensable actor, was a master in the art of repartee. In tandem with his wife TA Madhuram, he regaled audiences, often stealing the spotlight from the lead stars.
In those early days of cinema, body language was minimal and comedians had to raise laughs with their witty one liners. Krishnan usually wrote his comedy tracks himself and always ensured that he was never repetitive or jaded. Krishnan was born in Nagercoil as Nagercoil Sudalamuthu Krishnan in 1908, and came to films from theatre where he was associated with the celebrated drama company run by TKS Brothers, TK Shanmugam and TK Bhagavathi.
He later formed his own touring theatre group and traversed the length and breadth of the state with his plays which always drew packed houses, thanks to their comic content. NS Krishnan worked in as many as 150 films, the last of which ‘Raja Desingu’ was released after his death. In the initial stages, he worked with comedians like TS Durairaj, Pulimootai Ramaswamy, CS Pandian and Kali M Rathinam, and later worked in most of the film where MK Thiagaraja Bhagavathar played the hero.
He also became an integral part of the films of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, and despite the presence of these titans always essayed well-etched roles. His comedy was often the mainstay of the films. Krishnan was also a gifted singer and his numbers in ‘Sivakavi’, ‘Raja Rani’ and ‘Manamagal’ became immensely popular. A noted lyricist of the time Udumalai Narayana Kavi usually wrote the lyrics for Krishnan.
Krishnan worked with Thiasgaraja Bhagavathar in hits like ‘Ambikapathy,‘Thiruneelakantar’ and ‘Haridas’ with MGR in ‘Sathi Leelavathi’’, ‘Arasilankumari’, ‘Madurai Veeran’ and ‘Chakravarthi Thirumagal’.
Incidentally Krishnan’s last film ‘Raja Desingu’ had MGR as the hero with S S Rajendran and Bhanumathi in the supporting roles. He also struck an instant rapport with thespian Sivaji Ganesan and was a part of many of Sivaji’s early hits like ‘Rangoon Radha’, ‘Ambikapathi’ and ‘Raja Rani’.
As both MGR and Sivaji had a good sense of humour and performed well in comic roles they proved to be apt foils to Krishnan, whose wit also contributed in large measure to the popularity of these films. Krishnan also produced films like ‘Nallathambi’, directed by CN Annadurai who later became the CM of Tamil Nadu, which was a major hit.
He also worked in films where the dialogues were penned by M Karunanidhi, then a rising script writer who also went on to become CM. In fact, the dialogues for films like ‘Panam’ and ‘Manamagal’ directed by NS Krishnan were written by him. SS Vasan’s magnum opus ‘Chandralekha’ which starred MK Radha, Ranjan and TR Rajakumari in the lead roles also featured Krishnan in his trademark comic avatar. There was a time in Tamil cinema when no film was complete without the celebrated comedian.
Krishnan has often been compared to the legendary comedian, Charlie Chaplin but that is a comparison that can at best be odious. While Chaplin scored with his slapstick humour and body language, in Krishnan’s case he relied more on his oral, verbal humour, one-liners and subtle messages to the audience.
His comedy also had its share of puns and it was always wholesome humour at its best with no double entendre or misogyny involved.
The actor’s life and fortunes plummeted after he was named an accused in a murder case along with MK Thiagaraja Bhagavathar. The duo was charged with conspiracy to murder a gossip writer cum journalist Lakshmikanthan, who specialized in reporting scandals involving film personalities - two of his favourite targets incidentally were MKT and Krishnan.
Eventually they were acquitted, but the 30-month-jail term finished off MKT’s career. Though Krishnan did manage to pick up the threads of his life again and worked in a few films after his release, he was financially drained after the long trial. Krishnan passed away at the age of 49 and thousands of mourners who turned up at his funeral was ample proof that this patriot and Gandhian, who led a frugal life and brought a lot of joy and cheer through his film roles was a much-loved man and a comedian like no one else.