'Server Sundaram': Revisiting Nagesh's evergreen Tamil comedy

Server Sundaram is saddled with a severe complex: he thinks he is not good-looking enough.
Still from Nagesh's Server Sundaram Tamil film
Still from Nagesh's Server Sundaram Tamil film
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Re-watching Server Sundaram (1964) was such fun. Years ago, when I watched this film for the first time, I was awestruck by Nagesh’s histrionics and KR Vijaya’s sheer beauty. Now, I am better placed to appreciate the lines of K Balachander and the dead-pan acting of Muthuraman. 

Deftly directed by the famous duo of Krishnan-Panju, the movie tells the tale of Sundaram (Nagesh), whose rags-to-riches story is tainted by the unrequited love of Radha (Vijaya). 

The film opens with Sundaram busily serving people at the fictional restaurant called Greenlands Hotel in Madras (now Chennai). His quips and slapstick comedy even as he caters to the customers keep the sequence alive, a trait that carries well into the movie.   

Server Sundaram finds actor Nagesh in fine form and firms up a long collaboration with K Balachander, who cast the comedian in his directorial debut, Neerkumizhi (1965). Some of KB’s dialogues -- he also penned the movie’s story -- are brilliant, but are bogged down by the pressures of the period. 

The movie was adapted from K Balachander’s 1963 play with Nagesh, SN Lakshmi and Major Sundararajan reprising their roles. The movie won Best Tamil Film at the 12th National Awards.

When the film begins, Sundaram is in abject poverty and lives with his mother in a tiny house. It is understood that Sundaram’s family was once well-to-do but now has fallen upon bad days. 

Sundaram meets the alluring Radha and is drawn to her. He mistakes her ‘anbu (fondness)’ for ‘kadhal (love)’ and strives to become more successful to win her hand. Radha is the daughter of the owner of the hotel where Sundaram works. With the help of his best friend Raghavan, Sundaram becomes a famous actor but has to face the disappointment of being spurned by Radha.

The server is saddled with a severe complex: he thinks he is not good-looking enough. Some of these scenes are cringe-inducing as Nagesh resorts to some heavy-handed hamming. 

Sundaram seems to hide his sadness under a cheery demeanour and tells the truth only to his friend Raghavan, who is rich and successful. Sundaram’s innocence and chattiness are naturally captured by Nagesh, while Muthuraman seems content to play the second lead of Raghavan as the refined one. Sundaram’s outlook is Chaplinesque and is inclined to make others laugh even when his soul is heavy.  

KR Vijaya is resplendent, but her expressions are overcooked in the emotional scenes. Even her awkward dancing is a bit of a letdown, but the actress braves through the role with great confidence.  

During a scene set in the hotel, Sundaram reads from  ‘Androcles and the Lion’ -- a scene which can only be dreamed up by KB.

A scene in which Sundaram makes kesari (a sweet dish) for Raghavan and Radha is loaded with metaphor. Radha warns him that her half-portion, which she shares with Sundaram, cannot possibly be tasty. Krishnan-Panju have directed this scene with their usual flair.

Some of the aspects of the film can be jarring. During the opening titles, the male and female actors are listed separately -- a practice that has now been completely abandoned. In another crucial scene, Raghavan refers to Radha as a ‘porul (thing)’, something that might ruffle a few feathers now. 

The film drastically changes tack when Sundaram becomes a successful actor. During many of these sequences, the movie takes you behind-the-scenes starting with Sundaram’s auditioning for a role. We get to see the song-making process, the back projection, a rain sequence and many such even as Sundaram climbs the ladder of fame. Server Sundaram was the first to unflinchingly show how movies are made.

The interval is announced by a parrot which hogs the limelight along with Vijaya in the song, “Thathai Nenjam”. Post-interval Muthuram gets his own duet with the superb “Poga Poga Theriyum”, composed by Vishwanathan-Ramamurthy. The lyrics are by Kannadhasan and Vaali. But the movie’s most famous song is the scintillating, “Avalukku Enna”, in which Nagesh shows off his dancing skills. 

Watch 'Avalukku Enna' here:

Another strong thread in the movie is the relationship between Sundaram and his mother, played by SN Lakshmi. The scenes between Lakshmi and Nagesh vary from the sentimental to outright comedy. As Sundaram becomes more and more famous, his mother is afraid she may lose him and the bond she shares with him. 

Towards the end, the movie meanders with a long and now painful song sequence in which Lord Narayana -- in a play -- preaches family planning to a starving couple with many children. The couple is played by Nagesh and Manorama.  

There is also an interview of Sundaram by All India Radio thrown in for good measure during which Sundaram announces that he is to marry soon. The climax involves a mishmash of a reel scene which nicely dovetails with reality. 

The movie has aged gracefully. The comedy scenes may not prompt a chuckle, but never fail to bring a smile to your face. Nagesh displays excellent chemistry with Vijaya especially in the early portion of the movie. Muthuraman’s acting is a revelation: He is the only one to survive modern acting standards intact.   

In the end, Sundaram loses both the important women in his life but takes it in stride. There is also an underlying message that success comes at a heavy cost. The movie also showcases the love between mother and son even as he strives to express his love to a girl. The movie is also a meditation on what is real and what is fake. We will do good to distinguish between the two.

Watch Server Sundaram here: 

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