The villain who was a hero: Industry stalwarts remember the legendary MN Nambiar
Yesterday marked MN Nambiar's 11th death anniversary, Cinema Express catches up with some film personalities who have worked with the veteran actor who would have turned 100 this year
Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock once said, "The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture." Veteran actor MN Nambiar proved this with his acting career that lasted for almost 50 years. With the raised eyebrows, the menacing tone and of course, that machiavellian rubbing of palms, he was Tamil cinema's most famous antagonist and even today, a decade after his death, he is still synonymous with villainy, which, ironically, is poles apart from how the man actually was, according to those who knew him.
The actor's second son, Mohan Nambiar, and grandson Siddharth Sukumar Nambiar (son of MN Sukumar Nambiar) recently hosted the MN Nambiar Nootrandu Vizha that saw the likes of Ilaiyaraaja and Sivakumar in attendance. Echoing the words spoken by those who were present at that event, here is what those who worked with the man himself had to say.
K Bhagyaraj - Thooral Ninnu Pochchu
Apart from a few, not everyone who plays a hero on screen has the characteristics of a hero. But despite playing a villain, Nambiar sir had those qualifications. In today's industry, some are trying to make a quick buck by doing a few films in the lead, just so that they can enter politics. But Nambiar sir was someone who refrained from all that despite having followers who would call him Guru saami. He loved his family and the respect he gave everyone irrespective of who they were, was a wonderful trait. He helped everyone around him and was extremely honest.
In Thooral Ninnu Pochchu, he had no qualms in accepting that he couldn't do stick fight. He would say MGR would use a body double for him, and use him for closeups alone. While shooting Nadodi Mannan's final fight sequence between a regular man (played by MGR) and royal blood (MN Nambiar), both of them were given similar attires. Nambiar sir loved the dress as it accentuated his physique. MGR saw this and postponed the shoot by two days. Nambiar sir assumed that MGR felt low seeing him in such a good dress as, after all, he was the hero. But on the next shoot, Nambiar sir found out that MGR had ordered a grander dress for Nambiar sir as according to the script, he plays a prince. MGR opted for the normal-looking costume, because he was a nadodi (vagabond) in the film. Nambiar sir would say so many such stories about his days with other heroes. Despite losing his villainy and doing humour in Thooral Ninnu Pochchu, the role wasn't new to him as that's how he began his career. All of us act a little in real life as well, but he is the only one who reserved that for the camera.
RV Udayakumar - Ejamaan
Nambiar sir is the most disciplined person I've met in the industry. He was a hero in real life. He always ate food that was cooked by his wife and even when going outdoors, she would accompany him. That's something he followed till the end of his career. He attended shoots on time and made sure that those around him were happy. His humour transcended his age.
While shooting for Ejamaan, on the first morning, Rajini sought the blessings of Nambiar sir and sir said, "Aayushman bhava, nalla irrunthu thole." But I was shocked to find them fighting that noon with both of them calling each other names. Rajini would call him va da, po da, and Nambiar sir would call Rajini a 'loosu'. I was worried that this might hamper the shooting, but again, in the evening, post the shoot, Rajini would pray and fall at Nambiar sir's feet for blessings once again. Only then did I realise that this is how they pull a prank on others to have fun. Rajini had immense respect for Nambiar sir.
His friendship with MGR is well-known and they had a lot of mutual respect. MGR was keen to help out Nambiar sir's family in one way or the other but sir was very clear to never ask him for help. In MGR's friend circle, Nambiar sir must probably be the only person to not receive any monetary gains. Even when one of his son's business was not doing well and MGR wanted to help him, sir requested him not to. When the two played cards, MGR would intentionally loose so that Nambiar sir would make money. Nambiar sir also preferred spending time with his family and when MGR called to meet him, sir would refuse, stating how, as a CM, he must be busy with people around him. So MGR sir would book tickets for Nambiar sir's entire family without his knowledge. When sir went home, his wife would inform how MGR planned a trip with him and how all the luggage had already been taken to the railway station. Nambiar sir, despite being MGR's best friend, was happy to watch his success from a distance.
Mohan Raman - Oviyam
More than an actor, he was an extraordinary human being. His tremendous wit and humour are unforgettable. He was pious but at the same time, practical. I will never forget the times I spent with him. For one of the projects, we were shooting outdoors for more than a couple of weeks and that gave me the opportunity to mingle with him. He was extremely fond of playing Rummy. He would insist everyone join him; wherever he was, you could expect to see a table and packs of cards. I was new to the game, so he would play with small stakes -- as much as 1 paisa per point. Even otherwise, it would only be about 5 rupees. It was more of the pleasure of playing and bonding with fellow artists. Whenever he went for a shot, he would ask me to play on his behalf. He would give me detailed instructions on what to do.
We did a serial together named Oviyam in which he played the role of my father. It was the only serial he had ever done. He was a spiritual guru who bought attention to the Ayyappan temple which was relatively unknown back then. Nambiar sir acted in a play called Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa, and that triggered him to make his first visit to the hills. He continued to do it for years and because of him, actors such as Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth, VK Ramasamy, and Nagesh went there. He took people in large groups and the temple, you could say, became popular here because of him.
Chithra Lakshmanan - Vaazhkai, Puthiya Theerppu and Jallikattu
Nambiar worked in three of my production ventures -- Vaazhkai with Sivaji, Puthiya Theerppu with Vijayakanth and Jallikattu with Sivaji and Sathyaraj. Despite having years of experience, he would call producers 'mothalali'. Vaai neraya koopuduvaaru, even though I am younger than him by age and experience. The respect he gave those around him was impeccable.
We had to shoot a long schedule in Bangalore for Jallikattu, and unlike some, he would not make a fuss on which restaurant he wanted food from. His wife would accompany him everywhere with her own utensils and would cook for others too. He was cautious about what he ate. Unlike actors who double their salary after one film's success, even after so many hits and experience, he only asked for Rs 30,000 for Vaazhkai.
Three years later, when I approached him for Jallikattu, he asked the same amount. He would calmly say, "Namba sambalam maarava poguthu Chitra, adhey dhaan." He maintained a lovely relationship with everyone that made them all feel comfortable around him. He is one artiste who never took issues to producers.
Vikraman - Poove Unakkaga
He reached the pinnacle of fame even before I was born. And yet, he had immense respect for me as a director. When I approached him for Poove Unakkaga, he said he wanted a wig for the character but I asked him to stick to his natural look and he accepted it. That's when I realised the amount of respect senior artists such as him and Nagesh sir had for technicians.
I was very enthusiastic when directing him and went to the extent of telling him how to act. Even then, he just called me and calmly said, "Naa Nagesh mathiri ille. Avan ethuva irunthalum pramadhama panniduvan. Na aah, ooh, hey nu solli villain aagave irundhu pazhagiten." He had no qualms in accepting that he is new to such genres and said he will do what he can.
He was a teetotaller and would not even eat non-vegetarian. Once, I joked about what was so special about his wife's food that he would not touch the production house's meals. The very next day, he got extra food for me and challenged me to eat it completely. I accepted it and ate the food, which was mainly boiled vegetables with no salt or spice. I couldn't finish it but he reminded me of the challenge. He said he avoided whatever was unnecessary to the body.
In Poove Unakkaga's climax which was shot in Vijaya Sesh Mahal, where today's Forum Vijaya Mall is, the shoot for the Anantham Anantham song delayed the schedule and we only wrapped up around 2 am. He said that he was doing day and night shoot after years because he loved the character he played. After watching the film, he congratulated me for giving him a nice character and these are moments which I will never forget.
P Vasu - Sethupathi IPS
Nambiar saami is someone I knew since childhood because my uncle Ramu, who later became my father-in-law, was his make-up man. Many of us from our family, including me as a child, have accompanied him to Sabarimala. Like how my father was MGR's make-up man for 40 years, my uncle was with Nambiar saami for decades. Even before getting into the film industry, I knew him very well. He was one of the lucky few who could put his arms around the shoulders of MGR and Sivaji and both of them respected him a lot.
During my assistant direction days, he noticed my work. He would keep a tab on what I was up to, and from Panneer Pushpangal, he would congratulate me for the good work. "Naa paathu valarntha paiyan, nalla varaan nu nenaikurappo perumaiya irruku," he would say.
When we worked on Sethupathi IPS, the way he treated me was completely different from how he had seen me as a child. The seriousness with which he approached his character--right from the hairstyle--surprised me. He suddenly started addressing me, "Vaanga, ponga". Like a new actor, he would wear the costume and ask if he looked the part. The scene involving his character and a servant (played by Goundamani) is a famous one. When the servant intentionally gets himself fired and comes back after figuring out he has no choice, Nambiar sir reacted by shifting himself to a side and standing stylishly on one leg. That was not scripted but he did it to make it more humorous. During that film's shoot, he was in his early 70s; even then he would only read the lines once and nail it in one shot.
Chiranjeevi and Vijayashanthi narrowly escaped a flight crash and I wanted to incorporate that as the climax in the film. Back then, before the CG era, we had to resort to miniatures. When that didn't work out, Thotta Tharani and I worked on three sets -- of the cockpit, passenger area and the plane exterior. Nambiar saami who didn't know about the sets believed it to be an actual flight, and when he saw the actual shoot, he hugged me saying how proud he was of me -- so much that he revealed how we pulled off that scene at the audio launch, which was something we wanted to keep a secret (laughs). He said that he had never seen anything like that in 40 years of acting and those words still ring in my ears now.
I wanted him to play the role of the saamiyar in Chandramukhi but he was already in his mid-80s and couldn't come to Hyderabad. Even then, he was ready to do it if we shot it in Chennai. After watching the film he said he wished he had been a part of it. A week before his death, I wanted to meet him and seek his blessings for my son Shakthi. By the time I went to his place, he was already ready to get to bed as he sleeps by 9 pm and gets up by 4 am. Even then, when he knew it was me, he told us to come in and blessed my son. He then joked that he let me in because he thought I was going to ask him for another film. He smilingly said that he was looking at my hand thinking I would carry a cheque and was disappointed that I came empty-handed.
When I shared this incident with dance master Sundaram on the day Nambiar saami died, he had a story to tell as well. Apparently, two days earlier, when Sundaram met him right after Nambiar saami had had a shave, he told master that he should look glamourous because so many women come to see him. Avara mathiri humour panna aaley ille. He could even make Goundamani laugh. If I can openly call someone as a clean person, it would be Nambiar saami.
He played a major role in Sabarimala becoming a popular temple today. I only wish there were a statue of him by the Pamba river on whose banks the Sabarimala temple is located.