Slaying it in Kongu Tamil: TN's favourite YouTube 'amma', Nakkalites Dhanam on her journey

Dhanalakshmi or Dhanam amma, as she is popularly known, traces her life from a small village in Oddanchathiram to the silver screen.
Slaying it in Kongu Tamil: TN's favourite YouTube 'amma', Nakkalites Dhanam on her journey
Slaying it in Kongu Tamil: TN's favourite YouTube 'amma', Nakkalites Dhanam on her journey
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58-year-old Dhanam amma is a YouTube star. Dressed in everyday sarees, a bindhi on her forehead, she drops truth bombs about life and politics with perfect comic timing. A familiar face on the Nakkalites channel, her audience cannot get enough of her Kongu dialect and natural acting. 

Born as Dhanalakshmi, in Palakkanuthu village near Oddanchathiram, Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu, the actor grew up in a farming household, and was the first graduate in her community, and the first ever double graduate in her village.

“I owe this life of mine to my mother. If I am independent and using my talent now, it is because of my mother. There was a time when my father abandoned us for a year because he didn’t like me studying. But my mother stood her ground, without bothering about my father, and let me continue my studies,” she says. 

After her schooling in Oddanchathiram and Salem, Dhanalakshmi set out to Palani, a town near Oddanchathiram for her higher studies. It was from that point that her interest in politics increased.

“My elder brother Kannan was a follower of communism and it was he who introduced me to serious books about the ideology and the people behind the movement. Obviously I had spent my fair share of time reading magazines like Rani and Muthu, but intellectual book-reading started around that age,” she reminisces. 

It was also at that time that she started showing interest in watching street-plays.

It was during that intense phase of collegiate studies and reading that she got introduced to Chandran, whom she would go on to marry. He was close to Dhanalakshmi’s brother and she and Chandran started interacting with each other through letters. She says that the very first letter that Chandran wrote to her impressed her since it started with the greeting -- ‘Iniya thozhiyare’ (Dear female friend in Tamil). 

“It felt different since nobody had addressed me till then as ‘thozhi’. So I had made a mental note of it back then,” she adds. 

While she wrote to him about her travails as a woman in a patriarchal society, he wrote back his thoughts on the same and also about his experiences in life. They eventually got married and moved to Kolkata where Chandran was working as a manager in a bank. 

“We did a thaali maruppu thirumanam (wedding without the mangalsutra) since my husband asked me what symbol a man wears to show the society that he is married?” she says.

Dhanalakshmi’s life in Kolkata was filled with watching plays written by great dramatists like Badal Sarkar. She also got the opportunity to meet people who were knowledgeable in politics and policy, she shares. After a few years in Kolkata, the couple shifted to Bengaluru for a short period where she acted in a few street plays. The transferable nature of Chandran’s job took Dhanalakshmi along with him to Madurai.

First tryst with acting

Though Dhanalakshmi had acted in a few small roles in street plays before, it was Madurai that gave her a platform to bring out the stage actor in her.

“It was a twist of fate,” says Dhanalakshmi, about the opportunity. It had only been three months since she had delivered her son and she was carrying him around while participating in all her social activities in Madurai. A group called ‘Sudesigal’ had arranged to stage one of Badal Sarkar’s plays, and there was a character in the play named Victoria. 

“Unfortunately or fortunately, the woman who was supposed to don Victoria’s role couldn’t come that day and hence I had to step in and play Victoria,” she says.

That was just the beginning. 

Coimbatore and Konangal

After a short stint in Madurai, Dhanalakshmi and her family shifted to Chennai and then to Coimbatore where she has stayed put ever since. Though her husband and she travelled extensively for social and political causes, her roots remained in Coimbatore, contributing to her now-famous Kongu Tamil dialect.

Her days in Coimbatore saw her co-founding a film club called Konangal, which gave a platform to small-time and aspiring filmmakers to exhibit their work. 

“It was a decision taken in a matter of minutes,” she says about Konangal. The film club was involved in visiting colleges in and around Coimbatore, screening movies which were rich in socio-political content. At one point, Konangal also took these movies to villages using a projector, she adds.

Interest in social issues opened doors

Dhanalakshmi and Chandran were active in many groups fighting for human rights and hence her network of like-minded people who had a penchant for socio-political issues grew bigger.

Her interest in social issues led her to meet Prasanna Balachandran, who is the cofounder of the YouTube channel Nakkalites

“It was during the protest organised in support of Perumal Murugan for his book Madhorubagan that Prasanna told us of a role in one of their videos, Aandaparambarai. That is how I started acting in Nakkalites' videos. The rest is history,” she says.

Family support is the greatest gift

Dhanalakshmi says that she is eternally thankful to her family for all the support she has received so far. The couple has two sons – the elder son, Mugil, is a director in Kollywood and is married, while the younger son, Akhil, works in a software company. 

“All that sass that I show in the videos, I think of my younger son when I am acting like that,” she quips.

 She also has special words of praise for Avanti, her daughter-in-law, who is a cinematographer. 

“She is a huge pillar of support for me. Every new project I take up, she is the one who is the most excited about it - to an extent that she picks the saree for me to wear, tries to dress me up and all,” Dhanalakshmi gushes.

How has the journey been so far, I ask. 

“Months ago, when I had gone to Madurai for some personal work, someone called me ‘Pooja kutti’ (a character that she played in one of the videos in the channel). That is how much the people have related to the videos,” she gushes. 

Many videos later, Nakkalites started the Alapparaigal series which is a depiction of daily life situations peppered with comedy. This increased the existing fan-base that Dhanam amma had. 

“It is true that Alapparaigal has its own set of audience, but the USP of the channel and my favourite is political satire. I consider it very important because in the state our country is right now, with governments clamping down on opposing voices, YouTube is a great platform to bring out dissent to the people by giving them other perspectives. So, I consider acting in political satire videos as my duty to the people. There are many other channels to provide other varieties of content,” she explains. 

Back home after finishing up the shooting for a feature film alongside GV Prakash, Dhanam is excited to see herself on the big screen soon.

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