A life well lived
With Mahanati/Nadigayar Thilagam receiving rave reviews, we take a look at film personalities whose momentous lives deserve to be seen on the big screen
Typically, our biopics have been about politicians like Periyar, Bharathi, and Kamaraj. In recent times though, we have shifted away from solemn stories of freedom fighters to the more fanciful lives of celebrities. Nadigaiyar Thilagam, the biopic on actor Savitri, has been a huge success, and now, films on Sanjay Dutt and NTR are in the offing too. Here’s taking a look at our own celebrities whose lives are deserving of a film adaptation:
Despite being known more for being a lawyer, political satirist and a journalist, Cho Ramaswamy’s contribution to Tamil cinema cannot be underrated. He’s acted in close to 200 films, and has also directed five films. The man, who started his journey in the role of a bike mechanic in the play, Petralthan Pillaiya, reprised it in the film adaptation, thanks to Sivaji Ganesan’s persuasion. He’s famous for collaborating with other legendary comedians in the industry such as VK Ramaswamy, Nagesh, and Manorama. Widely considered to be an unbiased political analyst in the later stages, Cho also served as a MP. If his life cannot make for an educative biopic....
Born as Komalavalli, Jayalalithaa acted in drama and commercials to make ends meet. After reaching Chennai, she excelled in learning many dance forms. It was in May 1960, at her arangetram when she was all of twelve years old, that Sivaji Ganesan, who presided over the function, stated his wish that she become a popular star. Boy, did his wish come true, as she went on to star in close to 150 films spanning the South languages and Hindi. Her political success is all too well-known, and while Iruvar did touch upon her origins, a separate film could do a lot of justice to her life, including her tragic end.
Widely known as the first female superstar of the South Indian film industry, Bhanumathi Ramakrishna’s first film, Vara Vikrayam, had her play a 13-year-old girl who’s forced to marry an old man and commits suicide. Her inspiration to join the field of cinema came from her own home in the form of her father Bommaraju Venkata Subbaiah who was a well-known stage performer. Famous for being paid more than the male contemporaries of her time, Bhanumathi was also a producer, director, writer, singer, and music director. Surely, a great story’s in there somewhere?
Before becoming a drama artiste, Nagercoil Sudalaimuthu Krishnan started his career as a Villu Paatu artist and went on to become a leading comedian known for his comedy dialogues with messages — something Goundamani and Vivekh would later be inspired from. Though Sathi Leelavathi was his first film to be shot, it was his 1935 film, Menaka, that was the first to hit the screens. Along with his star wife, T A Mathuram, this comedian, called the Charlie Chaplin of India, ruled the roost for more than two decades. He went on to be imprisoned for 30 months about the Lakshmikantham Murder Case, but his market value was not dented. Known for his generosity when it came to helping the needy, there wasn’t much help for him when he fell sick and died in 1957 — he was barely even 50.
Manorama’s name got into the Guinness Book of Records when her filmography list crossed 1,000. She went on to star in 1,500 films and 5,000 stage performances, a staggering number you can scarcely wrap your head around. Despite starting as a heroine in the 1958 Tamil film, Maalayitta Mangai, it was the comedy genre where she found her ground, and later, of course, as a character artiste. She also holds the honour of working with five different chief ministers in the film industry. Manorama can also be cited as someone who has worked across five different generations — right from the likes of Chandrababu and Thangavelu to Vivekh and Vadivelu. Her biopic would be a perfect way to track the evolution of Tamil cinema itself.
One of the most prolific comedians of Indian cinema, Nagesh too started his career with plays and his debut role was praised by none other than MGR who presided over the function. After debuting with Manamulla Marudhaaram in 1958, there was no looking back for this legendary actor who became famous for his impeccable comedy timing and body language. Even at the peak of a rift between MGR and Sivaji, Nagesh was among the few actors to act in both their projects. In a career that spanned about 50 years, the actor has acted in 1,000 films and tried his hand in different roles such as lead roles and antagonists. Thanks to his style being heavily inspired by Hollywood actor Jerry Lewis, he was also known as the Jerry Lewis of India. It’s the sort of life that would make for a warm, fuzzy biopic.
The story of this veteran comedian, known for his Madras baashai and Chaplinesque style, ends on a tragic note. Born in an affluent family whose assets were seized by the British government, Chandrababu had his fair share of struggles before becoming a comedian who commanded a salary on par with Sivaji and MGR. With 76 names to his credit, the actor was known for his versatility which also included talents in singing and dancing. Known for his extravagant lifestyle, after a failed marriage and difference of opinion with MGR who was the lead in his directorial venture Maadi Veettu Ezhai, he spent his last days penniless thanks to some financial ruin. A sad tale, yes, but definitely not lacking in action.
A seven-year-old Ganesasn played the role of a British soldier in a drama on Veerapandya Kattabomman. His love for the performing arts began then and consumed him so much that he ran away from home to join the Madurai Shri Bala Gana Sabha, claiming to be an orphan. After performing in countless plays, he portrayed the role of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the stage play Shivaji Kanda Hindu Rajyam. Incidentally, Annadurai wrote that play and the role went to Sivaji after MGR backed out at the last minute. Periyar who watched the show was so impressed that he renamed the young actor as Sivaji Ganesan.
Nadigar Thilagam did close to 300 films and won countless awards. He was the first Indian actor to be made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres as well as the first Tamil film actor to win a Best Actor award at an international film festival (Cairo in 1960). The actor was described by the Los Angeles Times as “The Marlon Brando of South India”. It would be good to make a biopic if only to show that Marlon Brando is perhaps the Sivaji Ganesan of Hollywood.
With more than 5,000 stage shows to his credit, Madras Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan Naidu, known to all as MR Radha, started early at the ripe age of 10. Known for playing both villain roles and comedic roles, the veteran’s iconic role in the 1954 Ratha Kanneer is considered a cult classic even today. Known for his satirical take on social issues as well as his participation in the ‘Self-Respect Movement’, his life also comprises the MGR shooting incident in 1967. After his release from prison, he still retained popularity, when he returned to stage shows.
No list of villains in Tamil cinema can be complete without MN Nambiar’s name in it. With more than 1,000 films to his credit, Nambiar’s interest in acting germinated when he was all of 13 and he joined Nawab Rajamanikkam’s troupe. Debuting in 1935’s Bhaktha Ramadoss, Nambiar has acted in several Indian languages apart from the Hollywood film Jungle in 1952. The veteran has also starred as a lead in a couple of films as well as character roles in many films including Pasamalar. Despite facing stiff competition from PS Veerappa, Ashokan and RS Manohar, Nambiar dominated the industry as the leading villain for decades. Off-screen, he was known to be every bit the person he wasn’t on screen. A villain in films, and a hero off it? That’s the sort of dichotomy that could feed a film.