The pioneering actors introduced to Tamil talkies in its first decade of the 1930s had an incalculable responsibility. They had to chart the paths for others to follow.
Nagercoil Sudalaimuthu Krishnan took on that ground-breaking role for comedy. As a hangover from silent movies, slapstick comedy was the principal focus in early talkies. People tripping, stumbling or animals charging them brought the laughter relief.
But with the movie having dialogues, humour had to be meaningful. It also had to be clean for family audiences. NSK is hugely responsible for making it thus, almost forcing those who followed in his way to stick to the rules he set. NSK’s humour was rib-tickling and yet thought-provoking comedy. In fact, he used his comedy track to spread his beliefs in rationalism and social reformation.
NSK was born in the Tamil speaking district of the princely state of Travancore and in a very financially underprivileged background. He reportedly even pulled carts for family sustenance. As a youngster, he loved watching plays but could not afford the tickets and was so struck by the idea of selling soda water in the intermissions. Thus, he got to see all the plays for free.
Naturally, he joined a drama troupe and his phenomenal memory as well as intellectual smartness for improvisation on stage, made him an instant crowd puller.
His first feature film was Sati Leelavathi, directed by Ellis R Dungan which opened the gates for many actors to become household names. MGR, Baliah and reportedly Thangavelu (though uncredited) entered Tamil cinema through this movie. But not all clicked immediately. It would take a decade for MGR to act in 10 films and graduate to a hero status (and another decade to become a superstar). The person who found great accomplishment immediately was NSK. He acted in 70 movies by the next seven years, which means he was appearing almost in every alternate Tamil movie filmed and was given the title Kalaivanar (Lover of arts).
Krishnan was introduced when religion-themed movies ruled the roost. He unflinchingly talked about rationalism, removal of superstitions and denial of caste barriers — all laced with humour. His daring anti-casteist dialogues in a movie impressed Anna who was surprised that Krishnan was speaking in favour of social transformation and that too without party indoctrination. Anna felt NSK had to meet Periyar his leader. Periyar, who was on record saying ‘cinema was violence perpetuated on human thinking’ was impressed with NSK.
Right from then on, the Dravidian movement looked at him hopefully as a publicist but he would keep away from actual politics. Some would even reason this describing him as a Gandhian in the heart but publicly a Dravidian sympathizer. True to that, he even built a memorial for Gandhi in his hometown.
The husband-wife duo of Krishnan and Mathuram were the first to introduce the separate comedy track, often waiting for the main film to be shot to write his role. He also produced comedy shorts which were shown with the main film.
Krishnan’s songs and mannerisms were a much welcome relief in heavy devotional themed movies. His entry scene was always eagerly awaited. Krishnan would never walk into the camera frame, always hiding in a big basket or container obviously after some misdemeanour. A still room shot and the lid of the container would shake and the audience would instantly start giggling.
Though his very presence evoked humour, he never let go of his social messages. Nandhanar, a story where a Dalit denied entry into a temple but with great devotion attaining it, was a very popular theme in early Tamil cinema. NSK would make a parody on it called Kindanar.
With films and money flowing in, Krishnan was also a man with a big heart and an easy giving hand. A whimsical man with a big heart, he once organised a function to honour his chauffeur. Krishnan even printed an invitation and called dignitaries like Anna and Jeeva to honour his driver with a shawl. This inspired the chief guest Anna to organise a function for his own tailor.
It was then that fate changed. A blackmailer Lakshmikanthan was writing articles on the supposed “misdeeds” of the rich and famous. Lakshmikanthan was stabbed (a second time) in a Vepery road. The next day the city was agog with rumours of who could have killed him and who stood to gain most. NSK’s name along with superstar Thyagaraja Bagavathar’s was mentioned in many gossip circles.
NSK’s Coimbatore residence was searched by the police and he was arrested becoming the “accused no 4” in a sensational Lakshmikanthan murder case. The jury voted 6-3 that Krishnan was guilty and judge Mockett sentenced him to transportation for life.
Krishnan worked as a bookbinder in Madras prison. After appeals and disappointments and finally the privy court in England which ordered a retrial, Krishnan was released after 27 months. In the privy council celebrity lawyer DN Pritt (Lee Kuan Yew — the father of Singapore would once be his junior counsel).
NSK picked up the trail in his talkie career and the audience treated him just as same (unlike Bagavathar who was utterly rejected) Krishnan did comedy roles in more than 50 movies after his release dying at the age of 49.
The government unveiled the NS Krishnan statue on GN Chetty road in 1969. The Tamil Nadu Assembly has been often held in the hall named after him — Kalaivanar Arangam.
— The writer is a historian and an author