Tamil cinema, or Kollywood as it is often called thanks to its base in a Chennai suburb called Kodambakkam which was once choc a bloc with film studios, sprawling gardens, recording theatres, colour labs and so on, has always been blessed with a fair sprinkling of comedy stars much to the envy of the other film industries in the South. These comedians were an integral part of all films and separate tracks were created for them. More often than not the onus on salvaging a film too rested on their able shoulders.
However, all that was in the halcyon days of Tamil cinema, when talent was the yardstick and those who made the cut had to prove their mettle at the first opportunity or make way for a replacement in ensuing films. Stalwarts of the distant past who shone like burnished gold included the likes of ‘Kalaivanar’ NS Krishnan and his wife TA Maduram who inevitably matched strides with him in all their films, and those who came later like Thangavelu, T S Baliah and VK Ramaswamy.
Kalaivanar’s comedy was spontaneous and crackling and he never failed to pass on a message to the viewers. Thangavelu was brilliant, his one-liners sending viewers into raptures while both Baliah and VKR could also double up as villains with consummate ease. Baliah’s performance as a thavil vidwan in the film ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ along with fellow comedians like Thangavelu, TR Ramachandran, Sarangapani and others remains green in memory several decades after the film hit the screens.
TS Baliah. Image: Youtube
Many of the comedians in those times also had prefixes to their names that stayed on with them throughout their careers. So the industry had a ‘Danaal’ Thangavelu, ‘Friend’ Ramaswamy, slender as a beanstalk as distinct from ‘Pulimootai’ Ramaswamy, who was dark complexioned and plump, ‘Usilai’ Mani, ‘Thayir vadai’ Desikan, ‘Idichapuli’ Selvaraj, ‘Kallapetti’ Singaram, ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy, ‘Bayilvaan’ Ranganathan’ ‘Thideer’ Kannaiah, ‘Ennathe’ Kannaiah, ‘Omaguchi’ Narasimhan,‘Thengai’ Srinivasan and so on. Some added their films to their names like ‘Kuladeivam’ Rajagopal, ‘Thai’ Nagesh and ‘Vennira Aadai’ Murthy.
The common thread that bound them was that all of them were delectable performers who essayed their roles with a rare aplomb and though most of the time the comedy was slapstick it was wholesome and entertaining to one and all without any barriers of age or class.
No article on comedy in Tamil cinema over the years could be complete without mentioning the contributions of actors like JP Chandrababu, Nagesh and that peerless comedienne, Manorama. Chandrababu was a real all-rounder who could not only raise laughs, but could spin and dance like a top, and also sing with grace and style. His numbers ‘Kungumapoove’ ‘Buthiyulla Manitherallam’ and ‘Naan oru Muttalungo’ turned out to be chartbusters when they were released and continue to be popular even today.
Manorama. Image: Youtube
Babu who charged the moon in those days when he was a rage however died almost penniless. ‘Thai’ Nagesh, a K Balachander-discovery, began with KB’s stage plays and hopped on to the big screen when the plays turned into films and had a memorable career as a hero and as a comedian. A self-confessed fan of Hollywood comedian Jerry Lewis, Nagesh always remained a class apart. His ‘Dharumi’ the famished poet in ‘Thiruvilayadal’ and ‘Vaithi’ in ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ both films directed by A P Nagarajan with Sivaji Ganesan in the lead set the bar high in the comedy genre and both portrayals remain unsurpassed to this day. And Nagesh was not a mere comedian. He could tug at your heartstrings and bring tears to your eyes too as in films like Jnanpith winner Jayakanthan’s ‘Yaarukkaga Azhuthaan’ and Balachander’s ‘Neerkumizhi’.
In the latter film, Nagesh played the role of a hospital patient whose favourite pastime was to rib his fellow patients by predicting that they would be soon kicking the bucket. And then he overhears a conversation between two doctors discussing his case and predicting his own doom. The camera pans the actor’s pock marked face in a close up and a myriad expressions flow in a tidal wave of emotion and pathos. Nagesh a favourite of Kamal Haasan would play the villain in Kamal’s film ‘Apoorva Sagotharargal’. The Nagesh-Manorama pair was the piece de resistance in every single film that they did together and not once did they put a foot wrong. Manorama was matchless, she ploughed a lonely furrow and was a perfect foil to all the comedians with whom she was paired and apart from her films with Nagesh, her films with Surulirajan and later Gaundamani and Senthil all clicked in a big way.
Nagesh. Image: Youtube
Other comedians who too impressed were ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy, Surulirajan, Kumari Muthu, Y G Mahendra, Charlie and Thengai Srinivasan. Suruli had a distinct style all his own and scored with his voice modulations and body language. Cho often played the hero in films directed by him based on his plays and Srinivasan too acted in the main lead in films like ‘Kaliyuga Kannan’ which had a riveting script by the poet laureate,the late Vaali.
The golden period of Tamil film comedy ended with the Gaundamani-Senthil pair bowing out. Though they have not announced their retirement and Gaundamani has since appeared as a solo hero in a couple of films that flopped miserably, there is little chance of their teaming up again. Ably assisted in the early part of their careers by ‘Comedy’ Veerappan who usually wrote the comedy track for them, the two comedians never failed to bring the roof down with their antics. They were loud but never jarring, funny but never obscene or uncouth and they complemented each other perfectly and really ran riot in films like ‘Karagattakaran’.
‘Kovai’ Sarala, often touted as successor to Manorama but hardly a patch on the ‘Aachi’ as Manorama was often called also worked with the pair and added grist to the proceedings by contributing her own bit often changing her dialect to suit the script and the storyline.
Senthil and Goundamani. Image: Youtube
A whole lot of comedians have emerged since and leading the pack have been Janagaraj, Manobala, Vivek, Vadivelu, ‘Pop’ Karunas, Santhanam, M S Bhaskar, ‘Ganja Karuppu’ ‘Parota’ Suri, Karunakaran, Satish and the latest addition ‘Mottai’ Rajendran who has metamorphosed into a comedian after essaying vicious, villainous roles in films like Bala’s ‘Naan Kadavul’.
Vadivelu, dubbed the ‘Vaigai’ Puyal had a long stint at the top and his popularity soared with every film with audiences in the B and C centres rooting for him strongly. Unfortunately, he blew it all up by campaigning for the DMK in an assembly election lambasting all and sundry including actor turned politician Vijayakanth, a major voice in the industry. Overnight he became a pariah and no producer would touch him with a barge pole for four long years. He has since made a comeback with a couple of films as hero but the lackluster response to the ventures has revealed that the audience have shifted their loyalties to the new entrants like Santhanam and Suri.
Vivek matched Vadivelu step for step and also had a good rapport with the audience but of late finds himself out in the cold with the roles drying up. Today the soft spoken Suri whose limited repertoire consists of eating parotas by the dozen or rolling his eyes holds centrestage and has become the hot favourite of the new breed of heroes like Sivakarthikeyan and Vimal. Janagaraj who worked with the likes of Rajanikant and Kamal Haasan and was cast in pivotal roles has since shifted base to the US while Santhanam has turned hero with limited success.
Vadivelu and Vivek. Image: Youtube
Tamil film comedy today is a far cry from what it was yesteryear and a juxtaposition of the films and the stars in the two eras would reveal the descent from brilliance to bathos. What passes off as comedy these days is a string of risqué jokes, uncouth gestures, scripts replete with double entendre, stale and repetitive scenes and a bunch of actors who can hardly hold a candle to their illustrious predecessors. Although actors like Vivek have their own teams to write their tracks success has been elusive and only rarely has he been able to make an impression. Santhanam has remained a poor imitation of Gaundamani but his transition as hero could mean that he would no longer be willing to play second fiddle to the heroes. To cap it all there is hardly any sign of fresh talent emerging and this might well mean that the comedy scene might not get any fillip in the near future.