The eighth death anniversary of a man named Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar or M.N. Nambiar fell on 19 November. He was 89 years of age at the time of his death. Nambiar was a terrible villain who could terrify people by merely grimacing and scowling. M.N. Nambiar was arguably the greatest screen villain of Tamil cinema.
Nambiar was a rare individual who played villainous roles on screen while remaining a virtuous person with saintly qualities off-screen. Contrary to his villainous screen persona, Nambiar was in real life a teetotaller and vegetarian and, above all, a man who upheld ethical values without any scandal or gossip ever being attributed to him.
He was also a great devotee of Sabarimalai Shree Aiyappan and undertook annual pilgrimages to the shrine for over 65 years. He was one of those instrumental in popularising the comparatively unknown deity over the years. He initiated mountain-trekking pilgrimages at a time when it was not ‘fashionable’ to worship Shree Aiyappan on the scale it is being done today. As a result, he was hailed not merely as a ‘Guruswamy’ but a ‘Mahaguruswamy’ by Aiyappan devotees.
A ‘Villain’ of Exemplary Virtue
Ironically, Nambiar, in spite of his unblemished character, was perceived as a dastardly villain by millions of movie-goers on account of his on-screen image while others guilty of off-screen villainy were hailed as good men due to their screen performances. In this, Nambiar was like P.S. Veerappa, another actor who played the villain in Tamil cinema while being of exemplary virtue in real life.
Tamil cinema fans like this writer who grew up on a diet of Tamil movies relished the great heroes like M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan or Gemini Ganesh. Yet we also appreciated the actors who played villainous roles opposite them. Without these villains, the heroes could not make their mark. How could the lead actor perform his heroic deeds and win rounds of applause if the villains did not battle it out with guns, swords and fists or abduct the beautiful heroine?
Ramayana without Ravana or Mahabharatha without Duryodhana is unimaginable. Likewise, a Tamil movie without a villain or his violent henchmen cannot be visualised. Villains were an integral part of moviedom. Their impact was so great that the word ‘villain’ was adopted as a Tamil word ‘villan,’ with its amusing feminine equivalent ‘villi’ for ‘vamp.’ We jeered the villains and cheered the heroes.
Nambiar was the last of the great villains of Tamil cinema. The older generation of villains have faded or passed away and a new breed has taken over but then for some of us, ‘old is gold’ indeed. The villains who faded away or transformed into actors playing character roles have all gone one by one. Yesteryear “bad guys” like P.S. Veerappa, T.S. Baliah, M.R. Radha, S.A. Asokan, R.S. Manohar, O.A.K. Devar and S. Ramadas have all passed away. Nowadays the sons of late actors Asokan and O.A.K. Devar are following in the footsteps of their fathers playing negative roles.
Unlike many of the present actors, these ‘oldies’ could speak perfect, fluent Tamil with correct diction and pronunciation. Each actor villain had a distinctive trait or mannerism.
Veerappa was known for his raucous laugh; M.R. Radha for his swift change of voice from squeaky and high-pitched to guttural rasps; and R.S. Manohar would thrust his chest out and impose his personality. As for Nambiar, his speciality was the way in which he would shake his head from side to side with a scowl and/or grimace. He would arch his eyebrows, expand his nostrils, screw up his mouth in a leering smile or merely purse his lips tightly. This was enough to project a sense of evil and terror.
Sometimes the lighting was dimmed to enhance the ominous threat. Chilling, powerful music in the background added to the fear. At times he would wear false, protruding teeth. When he grinned from ear to ear with those wolfish dentures, the effect was truly menacing. Apart from his facial expressions, Nambiar could also deliver his dialogue with appropriate modulation. He would lower or raise his voice when necessary. Even his hoarse whispers were terrifying.
Nambiar was ethnically a Malayalee but like those of his era could speak other ‘Dravidian’ languages like Tamil well. Nowadays, even ‘Tamil’ actors and actresses cannot speak Tamil properly.
Nambiar could also play the ‘cool’ villain without engaging in melodramatic histrionics. He could also act the womanising playboy who seduces suavely and then ditches the unfortunate damsel. Like most actors of the older generation he mastered swordplay, wrestling, stick-play, horse-riding, etc. This enabled him to play a realistic, swashbuckling villain on the screen.
Galaxy of Stellar Roles
It is as villain that Nambiar established himself as an actor. But the great thespian has played other roles like comedian, hero and character artiste on screen. Interestingly, the ‘macho’ Nambiar has also acted as a woman and girl on the stage during his formative years.
In a stage and screen career that spanned more than seven decades, Nambiar has acted in more than 500 films with different generations of actors. Most of them were in Tamil but some were in Malayalam and Telugu. He has also acted in a Hindi and English film.
It is difficult indeed to single out specific roles from a galaxy of stellar roles played out over several decades. Nevertheless, I shall mention some outstanding ones lingering in memory. In ‘Ambikapathy,’ the classical villain was the poet Ottakoothan known for his rivalry with poets Kamban and Pugalenthi. Kamban was played by the veteran M.K. Radha while Nambiar played Ottakoothan. Nambiar also played the crafty maternal uncle villain in ‘Uthama Puthiran.’ Sivaji played a dual role in this movie based on ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ by Alexander Dumas.
Another movie where Nambiar made a terrific impression despite a small role was in A.P. Nagarajan’s ‘Thillana Mohanambal,’ where he played the Maharaja of Madanpoor who was eying the danseuse played by the gorgeous Padmini. Nambiar also played villain in a historical movie made by Nagarajan starring Sivaji Ganesan. This was ‘Raja Raja Cholan,’ where Sivaji essayed the titular role while Nambiar played Baladevar, a cunning counsellor. The clash between both was like an intricate game of chess and the verbal duelling was captivating. It was truly a clash of titans.
Nambiar also played the ambitious Dewan in ‘Sivantha Mann,’ made by maestro Sridhar. Sivaji was the hero. Nambiar also played villain remarkably in two other Sridhar movies. One was in ‘Then Nilavu,’ starring Gemini Ganesh and Vyjayanthimala. Nambiar acted as a sophisticated cheat and impersonator.The other was ‘Nenjam Marappathillai,’ starring Kalyanakumar and Devika.In this film on the rebirth theme, Nambiar played a villain crazed with the revenge motive who tries to disrupt a union between two souls in two incarnations.
Nambiar has played villain to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in a number of films. Some of the notable ones are ‘Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban,’ where he plays a karate expert assassin; another one was ‘Vettaikaran,’ where Nambiar played double as bandit and estate manager. Nambiar played the bandit chief Kaangeyan to MGR’s Kathiravan in ‘Puthiya Bhoomi.’ The names were not-so-subtle references to the Congress called ‘Kaangiras’ in Tamil and the DMK with its symbol of Sun also called Kathiravan in Tamil.
MN Nambiar with MGR-‘Aayirathil Oruvan’
Nambiar was one villain actor who could interact on equal terms with M.G. Ramachandran whom he always addressed as Ramachandra. Among other noteworthy MGR movies where Nambiar made a strong impact were ‘Nadodi Mannan’, ‘Enga Veetu Pillai,’ ‘Naan Aanaiyittaal,’ ‘Theiva Thaai, ‘Thirudathe,’ ‘Raman Thediya Seethai,’ ‘Pallandu Vaalha,’ ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’ and ‘Arasa Kattalai.’
The Early Days
Nambiar, who was born on 7 March 1919, hailed from Chirakkal in Kannur District in present day Kerala state. The name Nambiar is a caste identity. The Nambiars are a sub-caste of the pre-dominant Nair caste in Kerala. It is believed that Nambiars are a mixture of the Namboodri (Brahmin) and Nair castes. They are concentrated mainly in North Malabar in the Kannur region. The Manjeris are a Nambiar clan with claims of a martial lineage.
Young Narayanan Nambiar’s mother tongue was Malayalam but he opted to join a Tamil drama troupe at the age of 13. He joined the Madurai Devibala Vinodha Sangeetha Sabha run by the famous “Nawab” Rajamanickam Pillai. This was one of the famous ‘Boys Company’ drama troupes, so called because all actors were mainly young boys who played both male and female roles. Young Narayanan Nambiar learnt to speak perfect Tamil and played many roles, including that of women. His monthly salary then was just Rs. 3, of which he sent Rs. 2 regularly to his mother. Board and lodging was the responsibility of the troupe.
After three years of stage acting, Nambiar got his first screen break. A film company called Parameswar Sound Pictures produced in 1935 a film titled ‘Bhaktha Ramadas’ at the Ranjit Studio in Mumbai (then Bombay). All the actors were males and several from ‘Boys Company’ were recruited. Nambiar, then 16, played two or three roles in the film. He was paid Rs. 75. The director was Murugadas Swamigal.
Thereafter, Nambiar did not get any more screen roles for many years.
Meanwhile, his stage career received an unexpected boost when lead actor K. Sarangapani quit Rajamanickam Pillai’s troupe. Now Nambiar began to get better and prominent parts to play. His drama career began taking off. Soon Nambiar passed teenage and sought a place elsewhere in more ‘mature’ troupes. He joined the ‘Shakthi Nataka Sabha’ of “Shakthi” Krishnaswamy.
It was then that Nambiar caught the eye of Producer Somasundaram of Jupiter Films. “Jupiter Somu,” as he was known, placed him on a contract for his production company. This was in 1946.Nambiar’s first movie was ‘Vidyapathy.’ This was based on a detective novel written by Vaduvoor Duraiswamy Iyengar and directed by A.T. Krishnaswamy, who also wrote the screenplay. Nambiar played an evil Brahmin role. His wife was played by M.S.S. Bhagyam. Subsequently Nambiar and Bhagyam were paired in other light, comedy roles. But the duo was not a hit pair like N.S. Krishnan-T.K. Mathuram, Kali. N. Ratnam-C.T. Rajakantham or Thangavelu-M. Saroja.
In 1947, Nambiar got his big break as hero in the film ‘Kanjan’ (Miser). It failed miserably. He was relegated again to secondary roles. Nambiar played ‘friend’ to M.G. Ramachandran in ‘Rajakumari’ (Princess). He also played the scheming uncle Shakuni in ‘Abimanyu. Then 1949 saw the film ‘Velaikkari’ being made. The story and dialogue was by DMK founder and ex-Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai. A.S.A. Samy directed it. Nambiar played a dual role acting as the landlord’s son and a crafty priest. His Harihara das Swamy role attracted widespread attention. Nambiar’s stock rose and the turning point came when the legendary T.R. Sundaram of Modern Theatres sought him out. He was placed on a contract as was the custom then.
In 1950, Nambiar acted as the conspiring Rajaguru in ‘Manthiri Kumari,’ for which the dialogues were written by M. Karunanidhi, the present DMK Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The movie was a roaring success. Nambiar had arrived. This was followed by ‘Thigambara Samiyar,’ another screen version of a Duraiswamy Iyengar detective novel. M.N. Nambiar played the title role and adopted 11 different disguises for the film. It was a novelty then and Nambiar’s acting skills were recognised widely. In 1951, Nambiar played the villainous title role in ‘Sarvathigari’ (Dictator).It was a re-make of an English movie, ‘Gallant Blades.’ Nambiar’s skill as swordsman was praised.
Meanwhile, Nambiar was also cast as comedian in some movies. Notable among them was ‘Marmayogi,’ but he did not click in comic roles. In 1952, an English movie, ‘The Jungle,’ directed by William Burke, was shot in India. It was a USA-India co-production starring Rod Cameron and Marie Windsor. Nambiar also acted in it, playing the villager Mahaji. T.R. Sundaram of Modern Theatres also tried out Nambiar as hero in the film ‘Kalyani’ in 1952 with B.S. Saroja as heroine. It was a disaster. Some years later Sundaram used him as hero in another movie, ‘Kavitha.’ That too flopped.
But Nambiar began zooming to success as a villain on screen. He acted in a vast number of roles with different actors playing the hero. He also acted as second hero and also in ‘grey’ roles where the characters were not clearly black or white. In some of these roles, Nambiar played the brother to the hero who teams up with the villain and then repents; in others he played the lover or husband to the hero’s sister and is antagonistic to him.
There were some films where Nambiar was depicted as a bad guy for most of the time, only to be revealed near the finale that he was in reality the good guy. But it was as the archetypal villain that Nambiar excelled. He played them all with consummate ease. He did not identify with any particular actor, director or producer and avoided being categorised as belonging to a certain camp. Sivaji, MGR, Gemini, SSR, Anandan, Jaishankar, Ravichandran, A.V.M. Rajan, Muthuraman, Kalyanakumar, Muthuraman, Sivakumar, Bhagyaraj, Kamalhasan, Prabhu, Rajnikanth, Vijaykanth, Arjun, Prashanth, Vikram and Manoj – he acted with them all.
Nambiar had a filmy renaissance in 1982 when Bhagyaraj cast him in a refreshingly different role in ‘Thooral Nindru Pochu.’ The wrestling match between Nambiar and Bhagyaraj coupled with the drunken song ‘En Soha Kathaiyai Kelu Thaaikulame’ were the highlights of this film. Thereafter, Nambiar played a number of character and comic roles. His last film role was with Vijaykanth in ‘Sudeshi,’ released in 2006.He also acted in a number of TV serials. Moreover he appeared frequently on TV with his reminiscences of Tamil film. He was perhaps one of the oldest and most articulate actors of Tamil cinema of his time.
Nambiar did not forget his first love: the stage. He formed the drama troupe Nambiar Nataka Mandram and staged plays. Two such ones were a revival of ‘Kaviyin Kanavu’drama and a comedy, ‘Kalyana Supermarket.’ He was a deeply religious man and led an austere, pious life, despite being in the tinsel world of Kodambakkam. He was admired and respected for this.
He was ailing for some time and was hospitalised. Nambiar passed away peacefully on November 19 at the age of 89. I wrote about him then and received an appreciative response from his son. I would like to conclude with an excerpt from an e-mail sent to me by M.N. Nambiar’s son Sukumaran Nambiar after his father died in 2008. I continue to retain the mail as a treasure. Sukumaran too passed away at the age of 64 in 2012. In this excerpt Sukumaran relates the final moments of M.N. Nambiar. Here is the excerpt:
“My father had not been well about a year-and-a-half before due to a urinary infection which he neglected and as a result the toxin backtracked into his blood stream. It took him two months of hospital treatment to get back to normalcy. Age surely had caught up with him but he was a healthy 89. He was not eating much and that had made him weak. On that fateful day he was reclining in his bed with my mother seated near his feet and had some tea.
“Two days before that I had gone to the Mookambika temple in Karnataka and before leaving told him that when we were kids he used to force us to eat well and now he was not doing so. He looked at me, smiled and said, ‘enakku ippo kitta thatai 90 vayasu ayirichu, adhu podum!’ (I am now almost 90 years of age. That is enough!). The next day he told my mother that all her life she had taken excellent care of him and now he would not be of any trouble to her! As I said earlier, he had his tea, kept looking at her and then just closed his eyes without any signs of pain, etc. It was a very auspicious time at Sabari Malai!!”
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article written for the “Spotlight” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of November 28, 2015. It can be accessed here: http://www.ft.lk/d-b-s-jeyaraj