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Comedy in Tamil Movies - Part I

Disclaimer: I'll begin with a cliche: comedy is subjective. What's funny to me may sound like death knell to somebody. Having said that, there are some comedy sketches that most of us laugh for and there are some sketches that we laugh at. Though I am fairly acquainted with Tamil cinemas and have a broad range of humour (sohpisticated to slapstick) some readers may find this post either unbalanced or unfair and question my sanity - that's inevitable.

The roots of the currently seen strong masala flavour in Tamil cinemas can be traced back to the fifties where the director and writer (in most cases it's the same person) tried to present a balance of songs, sentiments, comedy, tragedy, fights and drama in one single package. While there are movies that compromised on any one of the aspects, comedy tracks have been treated as an indispensable part of the Tamil cinema since it's inception. It was one of the reasons people came to the theatres - to laugh out loud at people making stupid things, passing silly remarks, falling off a ladder, etc. The nature and quality of the comedy has evolved since then, but there are patches too where we find the movies comedically creatively bankrupt.

For almost all masala movies, there are two classes of writers: the ones who write the screenplay and the ones who fill in the screenplay with comedy sketches. The so-called situational comedies mostly revolved around a few beaten paths. To point out a few: a) double-action: two heroes, most probably twin brothers separated at birth meet in their mid-twenties and cause confusion b) a woman disguises herself as a man in a shirt and a pant c) when the hero and heroine fall in love, parallelly the comedien friend of our hero and the comedienne friend of our heroine also fall in love. In spite of the predictability of most of these sketches, some of them are really good and enjoyable even today. In this part, I'll express my thoughts on the comedians who ruled the yesteryears.

N.S.Krishnan is still remembered and I can hear cinema people blurt his name every now and then. He appeared almost always with his wife T.A.Madhuram and they're one of the earliest pairs who enjoyed an on-screen chemistry even before M.G.R-Saroja Devi or Sivaji-Savithri. As with comedies of that era, it was never crude or degenerating and he tried to educate the masses through his sketches. Whether it was husband-wife relationship or money-management, N.S.K had something to say or sing. 'Vignanathai valarkka porendi' from 'Nalla Thambi' decries with superstition and the importance of embracing science. My favourite song is 'Kanne unnal' from 'Ambikapathi', where he vents out his feelings for T.A.Madhuram in similies.

T.R.Ramachandran has to be included for nostalgic reasons. There are funny movies featuring him, like 'Adutha Veettu Penn' and 'Sabapathy'. It's quite difficult to laugh at his comedy today, but considering the naivette and innocence of people at that time, it's amusing. In a scene from 'Sabapathy', he gives his servant two 1/4 annas and asks him to get two eatables, for which the servant asks "which quarter anna for which eatable?" Now, it's not funny and I might even say it could be painful if somebody asked that in a so-called funny movie today. But my grandfather laughs for this scene. He laughs repeatedly and even narrates this joke to us as if today's comedians have to learn from these gems. I just nod my head without uttering a word.

Baliah and Thangavelu are real gems. They both had a sense of timing and distinct dialogue delivery. In 'Kalyana Parisu', the sketch where jobless Thagavelu deceives his wife as writer Vairavan is unadulterated fun for all ages. He has been the saving grace of a lot of movies in his career when everybody else spoke flat lines. Baliah is unique too. His facial contortions alone makes me smile and his voice modulations add to the humour. 'Thillana Moganambal' is a classic Baliah movie where he can make the audience laugh whether the screenplay is with the main storyline or if it's a separate track. Both these actors also double up as genuine character artistes (though the best character artiste to grace Tamil movies is S.V.Ranga Rao - a topic for another post) and add strength to the story.

Nagesh is a jambavan and has inspired many who'd later become comedians. I've read that stars like M.G.R and Sivaji had to wait or reschedule their films because of Nagesh's call-sheets. He has a certain charm and can speak funny lines.. but I honestly think that he's overrated. And there are scores of scenes where he plainly went over the board leaving the audience frowning. But that shouldn't shadow some of his best works, which till date remain in the classic comedy scenes: 'Thiruvilayadal', 'Server Sundaram', 'Bama Vijayam'... to name a few. He clicked very well with Cho (and you thought Manorama!). Though Cho didn't have a prolific film career as he soon moved to stage and journalism, I think we are yet to see someone with such a sharp tongue. Chandrababu stole many hearts in his short-lived career. My father, an ardent fan of Chandrababu used to say that Nagesh copied his dance style. When every character spoke in a flat accent, he sparkled the screen with his unique tone set in Madras baashai.

The women's comedy roster isn't impressive. Manorama has been filling in the female shoes, but quite unsuccesfully. If the screenplay isn't funny she couldn't help the situation. Though she has donned hundreds of roles that belong to the comedy category, in the absence of Nagesh or Cho she just happens to be a solid character artiste. (She has been funny in Singaravelan, Nadigan, etc - which will be discussed in Part II). Sachu is another name that comes to my mind... again it's just another name and she hasn't impressed either me or the previous generation through her comic skills. On rare occasions I've felt that Sowkar Janaki and Lakshmi were better comediennes that Manorama, but they were too busy in playing serious roles.

Most of the heroes of the 60's and 70's didn't possess much sense of humour. To create a full-length comedy in that era, you either needed a funny screenplay or a comedian as a hero. Two movies come to my mind: 'Kadhalikka Neramillai' - One of the best movies in Tamil. Directed by veteran Sridhar, this is a comic masterpiece. If the infinitely boring Ravichandran (who made is debut) can make us laugh, it goes on to show how talented the director is. The story narration scene between Nagesh and Baliah ranks top among my favourite spots. 'Bama Vijayam' - The only Balachandar movie that I like. Such an wonderful interplay of family themes and funny dialogues you would almost not notice 150 minutes fly away. It is no coincidence that both movies feature Nagesh and Baliah - the best in the business.

The striking aspect of the humour by these artistes is that they never insulted any community, rarely played on the sensibilities of a custom/tradition and were usually clean that you could take your 10 year old daughter to the movie. This aspect changed drastically with the arrival of Goundar Mani whose arrogance and blasphemy took everyone by storm. In the next part of this essay, I'll express my opinions about the comediens who shone after 1970 - which includes the inimitable Goundar Mani, the parasitic Senthil, frequently funny Vivek, bankable Vadivelu and heroes with a good sense of humour like lollu Sathyaraj, logical Bhagyaraj and the master of them all - Kamal Haasan.

Links: A prelude to comedy in Tamil movies.
Update: Second part of this series.

6 Responses to “Comedy in Tamil Movies - Part I”

  1. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Good write-up Prasad. I think you must include Thengai Sreenivaasan and Suruli Raajan. How about Vennira Aadai Moorthy, my favorite :-)

    Cheers
    Varaha  

  2. # Anonymous randramble

    Good to know your point of view. Awaiting your thoughts on Kamal...  

  3. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    Varaha,
    I had Surali Raajan and V.A.Moorthy for honorable mentions, which would form the concluding part of this series. Thengai Sreenivaasan is a genuine miss. I'll try to squeeze a paragraph about him in the next(?) part.

    Randramble,
    Thanks. Kamal is a comedy genius, but not many understand that. His skill and contribution alone demands a separate post.  

  4. # Blogger sathish

    I feel sad because none of the persons think of the writers who create the path for several comedy actors. my grandfather Mr.A.Veerappan is well known man in cine-field over than 5 decades as comedy writer. he expired on 30th aug,2005.most of his writings went to suruli raajan,nagesh,koundamani&senthil. he created koundamani-senthil combination.he has sold many of his stories to leading directors of the past. not fond of money, he lived a great life and i'm proud to see his comedies. i love my thatha......  

  5. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    Sathish,
    It's really a sorry state of affairs for comedy writers. Even cineastes who're quite informed don't get to know much about them. Good to know about your grandfather.

    Prasad.  

  6. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Good article. Tamil cinema can boast of having had some of the greatest comedians in the country. When you compare the comedy of Tamil films to the corresponding period in Hindi, there is a drastic difference - no Mehmood or Johnny Walker can match the brilliance of Thangavelu, Nagesh & co.

    You have also not mentioned Sivaji Ganesan who I claim was a truly brilliant comedian. His performance in "Sabash meena" is excellent.  

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