Some mythological characters had been traditionally despised as arch-villains for centuries. Ravana, Surapadma, Indrajith, Sishupala and Narakasura had struck terror in the minds of Indian children from the days of their childhood story hearing sessions. And thence firmly planted in their minds thereafter. To choose them as protagonists in plays and tell the masses their loser’s side of the story takes great courage. And RS Manohar had just that. No wonder for Manohar knew the psyche of a villain. He had been one of the primary baddies of Tamil cinema for almost three decades.
The annual day dramatics of Pachaiyappa’s College had Pammal’s Manohara and the hero, either because of stage fright or some compelling reason, did not turn up. One of the other students supposed to do a minor role in the play offered to don the mantle of the hero and claimed he knew the extensive dialogues of Manohara as well. The audience applauded not even knowing about the actor adjustment. The only change was everyone started calling Lakshmi Narasimhan, the boy who had stepped in, as Manohara thereafter.
The success on the college stage encouraged Lakshmi Narasimhan to seek cinema chances. Chosen for a hero role when Rajambal, a well-known crime novel was being filmed, the director liked his able physique, face cut and even curly hair but had reservations on his orthodox name and when given a choice ‘Manohar’ was chosen instead.
However, Manohar’s hero chances dwindled as he was active during the initial run of other megastars like Shivaji and MGR. Without hesitation, Manohar switched over to villain roles and soon had a long list of films where he exhibited his histrionics in arch villainy which had audiences shivering. One of the toughest producers to work within the studio culture of the 1950s, (because he was a disciplinarian to the core) TR Sundaram of Modern Theatres was so impressed with Manohar that he used him as the standard villain in 18 of his films. So grateful was Manohar that he would later be one of the pallbearers at Sundaram’s funeral.
But Manohar knew if he had to leave a mark in history the amply flowing villain roles were just not enough. There was a tendency in Tamil cinema where most actors just could not let go of the theatre which had spawned them. Shivaji, MGR and many others still acted in plays though busy with their film careers. Manohar formed his own troupe ‘The National Theatre’ but the blueprint he had for it was totally different.
With the cinema establishing its roots firmly, very few plays could compete with the budget and special effects seen on the silver screen. One who took it as a challenge and had special effects on the stage as well was Manohar. Immediately he reminded old-timers of veteran Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai who on stage and in plain sight of hundreds would have an evil stepmother cut off the heroine’s hands and towards the end have them grow again under the loving glance of Mother Mary.
Also, Manohar was known to catch the attention of the audience with unusual storylines and catchy titles. Mythological plays were on the wane due to the rise of the Dravidian movement and atheistic theories. Manohar decided they would be his forte and to catch the attention of people, he chose narratives in which villains of mythology were the protagonists. To support the screenplay, he had great props and special effects. A paper mache elephant (with two actors inside) used to amble on to the screen when least expected or a Pushpak Viman (considered these days as India’s earth-shattering contribution to aeronautics) would fly across the stage.
However, these involved huge investment in period costumes, sets, props and mechanical contrivances. Manohar had 17 technicians and had to hire three trucks or an entire carriage in a goods train to transport the sets.
For a couple of decades, he was the only dramatist challenging cinema by having special effects on stage. Surviving even after the onslaught of the television, some of his plays were made into movies and TV serials as well. His success had other reasons too. Like his boss Sundaram, he stressed on punctuality. Dramas would start and end at a precise time. And nobody was allowed to wear their regular footwear on stage, considering it as holy. Thirty days of rehearsals were mandatory for actors and the special effect team had separate rehearsals.
Bombay theatre personality and adman Bharat Dabholkar (who created the Amul series of catchy advertisements) had by chance seen Manohar’s drama on Ravana. He was stunned and collaborating with him wrote a play in English, Last Tango in Heaven, which portrayed the mayhem caused in heaven with the unexpected advent of a political neta.
Manohar acted in 300 films but is still remembered for the 31 plays in which he acted, which were staged over 7,950 performances. But his biggest achievement was that thousands changed their opinions on many mythological villains and perceived their point of view as well.
—The author is a historian