For generations of filmgoers, the mere appearance of Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar (March 7, 1919-November 19, 2008) onscreen instilled mortal fear in the hearts of the audience. His ominous voice, villainous smirk, and the characteristic rubbing of palms together as he planned the hero’s downfall made him one of Kollywood’s most reputed baddies for many decades.
Every time MN Nambiar would grace the screen, the audience would turn hysterical, cursing his character and even yelling out warnings to his onscreen adversary — the hero. Nambiar once said that if he had a rupee for every time that he was booed by the audience, he would be a millionaire many times over.
So impressive was the impact of Nambiar’s onscreen persona that it got him into trouble a few times. Once, while waiting in his car with the windows lowered at the Kodambakkam level crossing, Nambiar was accosted by a group of MGR fanboys, who came very close to manhandling the baddie for the manner in which he ‘hurt’ MGR.
In the blockbuster film Enga Veettu Pillai (1965), Nambiar had a dramatic scene that featured him whipping MGR as the latter rolled down the stairs. The shooting of the scene did not go down too well with MGR’s fan following. A quick-thinking Nambiar quickly clarified to the fans that he himself would get whipped by MGR on the same stairs towards the end of the film, which pacified the lot. However, diehard fans of MGR would distance themselves from Nambiar at shooting spots even though they did not mind crowding around B-list actors.
But Nambiar had a real-life personality that was the polar opposite of the onscreen persona. He was a teetotaler who insisted on his wife Rugmini accompanying him to outdoor shoots, accompanied by pots, pans, and stoves, so she could make him some home-cooked meals.
Born in Kannur, in the North Malabar region of Kerala, Narayanan was conditioned in a milieu where he saw his father fight a losing battle with the bottle and his furious outbursts marred the youngster’s childhood. Narayanan soon grew indifferent. He even confessed later that he had to splash water on his face to pretend he was weeping at his father’s funeral, although he felt no real sorrow at the departure.
However, the family’s penury following the death of the breadwinner took its toll on Narayanan. At the age of eight, he moved to Ooty to live with his sister and brother-in-law, a veteran of the First World War. The turning point in Narayanan’s life came on a cold misty morning in the hills. He observed a group of people braving the weather and performing yoga asanas under the sky. Impressed by the Surya Namaskar, Narayanan made inquiries and was told they were members of a drama troupe helmed by Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai.
Narayanan, who was 13 at that point in time, walked up to Pillai and requested to join the troupe. Pillai was known at that time for his mythological plays that employed trick choreography. Around the time that Narayanan joined the group, Mahatma Gandhi was said to have occupied a strategic vantage point on the stage to get a better view of Pillai’s play Nandanar.
Narayanan essayed many roles in Pillai’s plays — from villain to comedian and hero. Since there was yet another performer named Narayanan in the troupe, our multi-hyphenate got stuck with the name Nambiar — which was also a reference to his caste. For many years, members of the Nambiar community bore the brunt of jokes, thanks to Narayanan.
But soon, the world of Tamil theatre would brace for a different kind of pressure. While silent cinema could not hold a candle to the artistry of stageplays, the advent of the talkies in 1931 heralded a paradigm shift. Many theatre artistes began wondering if cinema was a bane or boon. On one hand, moving pictures offered better pay scales and a wider reach in terms of audiences. But it also sounded a death knell for a traditional art form that was being edged out of the cultural consciousness, a space it had held on to for millennia.
Spotting Nambiar in a play called Bhakta Ramadas in Salem, a member of the audience appeared backstage and offered him a chance to play the same part in a film in 1935. Aware of the fact that he had to adapt or perish, Nambiar, then 16, took a leap of faith. He was paid a sum of Rs 75 for his debut film. He would recall the three-month-long shoot in Bombay as an enriching experience. Nambiar later sent Rs 20 to his mother, which was a source of much celebration in his village.
Soon, Nambiar developed a reputation as a dependable actor and major banners like Jupiter and progressive theatre companies enlisted his services. He would go on to act in over 1,000 films including a Hollywood feature called Jungle (1952). Nambiar even took on 11 roles in a film called Digambara Samiyar (1950), which is a record of sorts in Tamil.
Nambiar’s spiritual awakening would take place courtesy of his mentor, Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai. The latter was a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, the deity of Sabarimala. In many ways, Pillai’s mythological play titled Ayyappan was instrumental in making Tamilians aware of the legend of this deity. When cardboard cutouts of tigers emerged during the staging of the play, audiences ran helter skelter. On his very first visit to Sabarimala in 1942, Nambiar had accompanied Pillai, and found himself enveloped in devotion, almost compelling him to stay back.
Nambiar’s devotion towards Ayyappa also earned him the sobriquet Guruswamy or Swami, for short. His pilgrimages continued until 2003, and during the course of several such trips, he was accompanied by shishyas in four or five buses. Superstar Rajinikanth, Sivaji Ganesan and Amitabh Bachchan were among his spiritual compatriots. Nambiar had even built the first three guest houses for pilgrims in Sabarimala.
The actor is known to have maintained a cordial friendship with some of the biggest stars in Tamil cinema. Although his name is associated more with MGR, with whom he shared a synergetic working relationship, he has done a greater number of films with Sivaji Ganesan. The two superstars of yesteryear Kollywood regarded Nambiar’s friendship as something exclusive to each actor.
But then, the 70’s was a period when Nambiar’s popularity began to wane. Once MGR made a complete transition to politics, Nambiar was bereft of his plum villainous roles. To top it off, onscreen baddies were turning suave and younger and Nambiar gradually found himself being sidelined.
It was at such a tumultuous juncture that Bhagyaraj, who was at the peak of his cinematic run approached Nambiar for a comical part. Nambiar refused the offer saying the audience would never accept him as anything other than a baddie. Bhagyaraj persisted and Nambiar took on the role of Gusthi Master in Thooral Ninnu Pochchu (1982). The film offered Nambiar’s weathered career a fresh coat of paint.
It’s worth remembering that MN Nambiar had met MGR when both of them were struggling actors, seeking a foothold in Tamil films. As MGR ascended in both his cinematic and political stints, he had assumed the stature of a demigod. Many of his friends from the early days would address him as Thalaiva, Annan or Chinnavar. However, Nambiar was the only who called MGR — who was known for his huge ego — as Ramachandra, even when the latter became Chief Minister. Nambiar is remembered fondly today, not just for being a wholesome entertainer, but for his unwavering principles in life as well.
— Reference: Nambiarswami: The Good, the Bad and the Holy; by MN Dipak Nambiar