Tragic comedian

Print edition : February 27, 2009

Nagesh with an autographed photo of Jerry Lewis. He was greatly influenced by the American comedian.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

FROM a village, Sundaram comes to Madras, with dreams of making it big in the movies. Working as a waiter in a small restaurant, he bides his time. He gets a break in films through a friend and blossoms into a star. The film Server Sundaram (1964), directed by R. Krishnan and S. Panju, turned out to be a tribute to the persona of Nagesh, who played the lead role.

K. Balachander said that he wrote the script with Nagesh in mind. Through his portrayal of a bungling waiter, Nagesh introduced the anti-hero idea to Tamil filmgoers. The film had a distinct Chaplinesque flavour, with intermingling scenes of pathos and humour. The bond between mother and son, a persistent theme of Tamil cinema, was emphasised in this film.

Nagesh would often recall how he missed his mothers funeral in Dharapuram, and how he could reach the banks of the Amaravathi only after the pyre had been lit. The audience did not miss the autobiographical echoes in Server Sundaram.

Born in the small town of Dharapuram in Tirupur district, Nagesh (born as Gundu Rao) managed to get a job as a clerk in the Indian Railways. But he had set his eyes on movies, and moved to Chennai (then Madras) along with his friend Dharapuram Sundararaj, who was planning a career in playback singing.

Song writer Vaali joined them and they stayed together at a lodge in Mambalam. Nagesh joined the drama troupe of actor Balaji. Already established in films, Balaji kept trying to get a chance for Nagesh. Small-made, short, and with a face ravaged by small pox, Nagesh was an unlikely candidate. Some producers told him that on the face. But Balaji and Nagesh persisted.

Unsolicited, Nagesh would often perform mono-acts at wedding receptions and office functions, just to draw attention to his capability. He got his first break in the film Manamulla Marudhaaram (1958), in which Balaji played the lead role. From then on, for five decades, Nagesh was a significant presence in South Indian cinema even as his career progressed and faltered. He acted in a staggering 600 films.

Though he had his initial training in theatre, he did not carry any baggage from the stage to the screen. He intuitively understood the difference between the two mediums. That turned out to be his strong point. It was a time when the comedian Chandrababu was fading out of Tamil cinema, having lost his money and health, and Nagesh could slide into that slot comfortably.

In the 1950s, the era of black-and-white films, comedy was mostly verbal, with long funny lines. It depended more on gag writers than actors. Physical disabilities were made a butt of ridicule stammering, deafness, and obesity were all objects of humour. Nagesh changed that with his body language and facial expressions.

His variety of humour was wholesome and free from double entendres. It was also a time when the Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin duo was at the height of its glory in Hollywood. Nagesh was greatly influenced by Jerry Lewis, as can be seen from his early films.

Nageshs role as a ward boy in Nenjil Oor Alayam (1962) established his position. Sridhar, the director of that movie, was also on the rise and he signed up Nagesh in some of his most successful films such as the 1964 comedy Kathalika Neramillai.

From that period onwards Nagesh began evolving his own distinct style, displaying new versatility and virtuosity. In Balu Mahendras Magalir Mattum, three women struggle with the problem of disposing of a body. It was Nagesh who played the corpse. An unusual and unforgettable bit of black humour on the Tamil screen. The audience loved him and his name in the credits was greeted with applause in the cinema houses.

Though he played stereotypical comic roles in most of the films that he worked in, there are some performances that stand out. Nagesh has gone down in the collective memory of Tamil audiences as the actor who played the role of the penurious poet Dharumi in Thiruvilaiyadal. If there is just one role that he is remembered for, it is this.

Nagesh in Yarukkaga Azhudhan". The producer wanted Sivaji Ganesan for the film, but Jayakanthan chose Nagesh and went on to make the film himself.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Unaware that he is talking to Siva himself, Dharumi argues and pleads with the latter to help him win the poetry contest and collect the prize money. The unforgettable scene in the whole sequence was the soliloquy that Dharumi indulges in, in the temple prakaram.

However, I think the best role of his career was in Yarukkaga Azhudhan ? (1966). It was Jayakanthans second directorial venture, one of those rare occasions when the novelist himself directed the movie version of his work. Norman Mailer too did it, with the film Maidstone (1970). The producer wanted Sivaji Ganesan for the film but Jayakanthan chose Nagesh and decided to make the film himself under the banner Asiajothi Films.

The job of Joseph, a helper to a street preacher, is to carry the petromax lamp on his head and stand like a lamp post while the preacher tries to win souls. They both stay in a small hotel and there is a theft. Joseph is the suspect. When he is interrogated, the naturally taciturn Joseph refuses to talk. Eventually, when his innocence is proved, he breaks down and cries, which is the climax and the most poignant scene of the film.

There was no emotional special effect, just an understated display of self-pity. It was a riveting performance and brought out a whole new dimension of his acting ability. But the film did not get much notice and I was lucky to catch it in its first few days in Chennai.

Nagesh acted in another movie written by Jayakanthan, Sila Nerangalil Sila Manitharkal (1977). Here, he played the role of the writer on whose short story the movie was based.

Nagesh never tried his hand at direction unlike Jerry Lewis or Chandrababu, two comedians he admired. Even at the height of the stellar rivalry between M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, he could work with both.

He also steered clear of politics and the groupism of the Nadigar Sangam (Association of Actors), and showed no entrepreneurial curiosity. Nagesh had artistic ambitions but made no big deal about it or talked about it. Except for the National award for Supporting Actor in the film Nammavar in 1994, no other national award or Padma honour came his way.

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