From Nambiar acting in 11 roles in one film to his love for Rummy, the actor's family and friends speak to TNM about him.

Flix Kollywood Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 11:13

The centenary celebrations for legendary actor MN Nambiar were held in Chennai on November 19, put together by his son Mohan Nambar and his grandson Siddharth Sukumar. Earlier this year, his other grandson MN Dipak Nambiar released a book on him titled Nambiarswami: The good, the bad & the holy.

The veteran actor, who passed away in 2008, kept audiences enthralled with his unparalleled style in Tamil cinema, all through the years that he worked with stars like MGR and Sivaji. Nambiar’s off screen fame, however, is entirely different from what we know of him from films.

In his 100th year, TNM remembers the iconic star.

A comedian turns villain

Nambiar, who was born in Kerala, began his acting career when he was just about 12 years old, performing in stage plays. His first big role as a theatre artist was that of Ravana, and he was all of 13 years when he played the role.

His entry into cinema was in 1935, just four years after the very first Tamil film Kalidas. The film was called Bhaktha Ramadoss and he played a comic character named Madhanna.

But it was Velaikkaari, which came out in 1949, that established Nambiar with villainous shades. He played dual roles in this film that was based on a script by CN Annadurai, who was yet to become the Chief Minister at that point. Nambiar played Moorthy, a kind man who falls in love with a domestic help's daughter, and Yogi Hariharadas, a lecherous fraudster.

The very next year, 1950, would be the most important one in his career. This was the year that he did both Manthiri Kumari and Digambara Samiyar. While in the former starring MGR he played the evil Rajaguru, it was the latter that would go on to establish the versatile actor that he was. Nambiar played 11 different characters in this film! This record remains unmatched in Tamil cinema.

Digambara Samiyar (1950)

About Digambara Samiyar, actor and writer Mohan Raman notes, “In Digambara Samiyar, he played 11 different roles with 11 different accents. He played a Malayalee, a Telugu person, a Kannada person, a brahmin, a Muslim bhai… he played all sorts of roles and it gave him a very big recognition.”

Among his other important films, Mohan adds director CV Sridhar’s Nenjam Marappathillai (1963), staring Kalyan Kumar. “He played the villain who was 100 years old. This film is among the high points in his career,” he says. For this role, Nambiar had to sit for hours in the make-up room. In Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban, he sported another distinct, menacing look with protruding teeth.

Film writer CV Aravind also recalls another interesting character that Nambiar played, this time in a Sivaji film. “In Lakshmi Kalyanam that came out in 1968, he played Suruttu Sundaram Pillai. He had excellent dialogue delivery and style,” he says. Mohan also adds, “It is a lesser known fact that Nambiar did an equal number of films, if not more, with Sivaji in comparison to MGR.”

Enga Veetu Pillai with MGR is another important film that catapulted Nambiar’s “villainous fame”. But, his grandson Dipak describes Aayirathil Oruvan as the film in which his grandfather perfected his swag. “I think it was in this film that he perfected his act. He played the snazzy pirate and established his mannerisms as they are known today,” he says.

Aayirathil Oruvan (1965)

It is said that Nambiar and MGR shared a close bond that was quite rare to see in the industry back then. The two had met first in Coimbatore Central Studios. Mohan says, “MGR had accompanied him when he went to see his bride-to-be for the very time, and also during his wedding. When his first son was born, MGR had apparently carried the child on his shoulders up Palani hills for his tonsure. This was during the time when he was a part of the Dravidian party. Such was their friendship.”

Later films and a love for Rummy

While Nambiar holds the top spot among Tamil cinema’s favourite villains, the time he made his entry was also when established actors like PS Veerappa, MR Radha, SA Ashokan, etc., were already acing the game. However, Nambiar would go on to become a force to reckon with.

“His mannerisms were a huge success among the audience. Shaking his head, rolling his eyeballs, his style of delivery was also very distinct. It was appreciated very much by the audience. Also, whenever MGR had an opportunity, he cast him as the villain,” says Aravind.

Her further recalls another film as an example to explain the spot Nambiar held as a villain. “The 1975 film Pallandu Vaazhga had prominent villain actors like PS Veerappa, RS Manohar...almost all popular villains were cast in this film. Yet, Nambiar made his role stand out.” Also starring MGR, Pallaandu Vazhgha was the remake of the 1957 Hindi classic Do Aankhen Barah Haath and based on an open prison experiment.

As long as MGR and Sivaji played the hero, Nambiar was a favourite choice to play the villain. However, in his later years, he began taking up character roles that once again proved his acting talents. Bhagyaraj’s Thooral Ninnu Pochchu (1982) and Shankar’s Gentleman (1993) are among his best.

Thooral Ninnu Pochchu (1982)

Mohan, who first met him on the sets of Sethupathi IPS (1994), recalls his love for Rummy. “Anytime he was free on the sets, a table would be set and a pack of cards would be opened. He was a Rummy addict but he played for very low stakes. It was purely for the fun of it. During Sethupathi IPS, it was a huge cast and you could see actors like Vijayakant, Goundamani, Senthil, Srividya, Sarala (Kovai) playing cards,” he chuckles.

Dipak also adds that Nambiar loved playing tennis. “He’d often play with me. Once, I remember when we were playing, someone had come to meet him regarding a script and he sent word for them to wait for a little while so he could finish the game with me. Years later, when I met director Bhagyaraj, he told me that it was he who had come to narrate the Thooral script, and had to wait until we finished the game,” he shares with a laugh.

The villain actor with a heart of gold

While Nambiar is well known as the man with menacing looks, and as someone who can pull off the evil “muhahha” laughter with elan, his off screen life was entirely different from what we saw on screen.

An ardent Ayyappa devotee, Nambiar is best known for his pilgrimage to Sabarimala. He was also known as the man who took several stars including Rajnikanth and Ilaiyaraaja, among others, to Sabarimala, popularising the annual pilgrimage. Mohan says that Nambiar was introduced to Lord Ayyappa during one of his plays when he was around 15-years of age. 

“He was cast in the troupe of Nawab Rajamanikkam Pillai’s Swami Ayyappa play - that was when he took it up seriously. That was also the first time he went on a pilgrimage with Rajamanikkam Pillai,” says Mohan.

As much as he was pious, Nambiar was also a very enjoyable person to be with. “He was a very humorous person and was pleasant to interact with. He would be absolutely charming, and you would think that he’d be the last person to play a villain,” says Mohan.  Dipak adds, “In real life, he was always joking around. He always saw the humorous aspects in life. His name may be synonymous with villainy but comedy was an essential part of his persona.”

If this was Nambiar in real life, how was he able to pull off the palms-rubbing evil Nambiar we know so well? What inspired his style? “He started in a drama troupe. If some seated 30 rows away from you had to notice you, your performance will have to be pretty bombastic,” Dipak points out. Mohan too shares a similar observation. “He came from being a comedian and comedians tend to have exaggerated mannerisms. I think he brought that aspect to his villainy.”

And being Nambiar, he had to keep up appearances. “Once, we were at this outdoor shoot in Erode and were playing cards. All of a sudden, his face changed and his entire demeanour became different. Surprised, I asked him if something was wrong. He said, 'There are people looking for me. I have to look like the villain that they know so well.' That was how he was. He did not want to disappoint his fans,” says Mohan.

And the legendary actor, who had great love for his wife and his family, thought less of self promotion. “He did his part and that’s that. Films like Kamal’s Dasavatharam (2008) and Sivaji’s Navarathri (1964) are better known today as the ones with the most number of roles played by a single actor. Appa’s (referring to grandfather) Digambara Samiyar is lesser known but came way before the two. This is not a knock against those two legends. But I think he did not think much of self-promotion nor did he like people lobbying for him. He didn’t need any Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri, or state awards. But even today, if you were to ask anyone across most of the southern states, they’ll immediately recall him as the Ayyappa Swami.  I think that’s the biggest response. That he is beloved even today,” Dipak concludes.