There are some actors who are the quintessential “other side of the coin”. If MGR was the good side, Nambiar was his evil other. Even when heroines changed with every movie, Nambiar remained a constant in MGR’s films. Such was the impact of Nambiar, whose Hindi counterpart could perhaps be Pran, (and both of them had impeccably good lives off-screen, known for their disciplined lifestyle) but Nambiar outshone his peers with his long-standing career which gradually transcended from villainous roles to playing endearing characters. In fact, he kept acting till 2006 and stayed away from the arclights only a couple of years before his demise in his 89th year, in 2008.
Born as Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar on March 7, 1919, in Kannur, Kerala, Nambiar lost his father early on and moved to Tamil Nadu with his mother and was enrolled to act in theatre (Nawab Rajamanickam’s troupe) to fend for his family when he was 13 years old. Thus, acting became his vocation and he trained in all aspects of it, as he was part of a theatre group. Soon, he found a role to play in his first film Bhaktha Ramadas but it was not as a villain. The man who is today known for his villainy first got to play a comedian. In fact, one of his early noteworthy roles was in Missiamma where he acted as a parallel lead to Gemini Ganesan and Savitri (Missiamma was an “urban film” in that sense where both the hero and heroine were graduates and working).
This film launched Savitri’s illustrious career and it also brought to light the talented Nambiar, along with S V Ranga Rao and a much younger starlet Jamuna, and while they were able to act in both Tamil and Telugu with equal ease, Nambiar stayed loyal to Tamil with maybe one or two odd outings in Hindi. He is also known to have played multiple roles in one film, as the central character in Digambara Samiyaar. This was before he took up films which had him play roles that were beyond his real age. He played the antagonist to perfection in many a mythological or period drama which was the norm of storytelling in the 50s and early 60s.
Manthirikumari was one such period drama which proved to be a turning point for MGR who got noticed as a hero after many years of struggle. Along with him, Nambiar too got much acclaim for playing the aged villain – the Rajaguru, a wily, old man whose crafty ways was as much a new viewing experience for the audience as was the swashbuckling hero (the film was penned by M Karunanidhi).
The most important element in an MGR-Nambiar historical film would be the action sequences as both MGR and Nambiar were trained martial arts experts who could handle the sword deftly. Hence the climax of such films would almost always be a one-on-one duel between these two actors, who were great friends and fitness buddies off-screen.
Nambiar was close to one of my uncles who worked in the movie studios during the 50s and his name was taken up with much affection in my household. I grew up hearing stories of his righteousness. Nambiar was that rare actor who garnered much love from his colleagues, even though he earned the wrath of the audience, being the arch nemesis of movie-God MGR. Women were known to send him letters of hate and any public appearance meant that MGR would have to assuage his fans by vouching for Nambiar’s good nature in real life. Nambiar was known to be affable by nature and was punctual with his presence on the sets. He was a man who acted round the clock and the sheer number of movies (upwards of 1000) was only possible because he was as good at his craft as the other great actors of his era. However, the first time I noticed Nambiar was not in an MGR film.
The film where he stood out for me is now a cult classic for various other reasons and stars the stellar Sivaji Ganesan in one of his super-hit box-office blockbusters. The film is Uthama Puthiran. Scripted by K Shridhar (who heralded an era where educated, city men became filmmakers), loosely based on the English play The Man In An Iron Mask, Sivaji Ganesan hit it out of the park as both the good and evil twin with the evil brother surging ahead with his acting mannerisms and dialogue delivery. The only other actor who stood out along with a line up of stalwarts like Kannamba and Padmini was Nambiar, who played the role of the evil uncle who brings up an innocent child as his conniving, puppet-king. The famous Nambiar mannerism of rubbing his palms and grimacing while talking became a trademark style from this film, and it would later become a huge mimicry fad, which little kids ape even today in talent shows.
The Good Side
The most famous role of Nambiar as a villain would have to be the one he played in Enga Veettu Pillai where he whips the docile elder brother (MGR) only to be whipped back in return by the bolder twin (MGR again). Apart from such roles, Nambiar also played different lighter shades in later films. Key among his “bad man becomes good man” roles would be his character of a Zamindar who lusts after the beautiful dancer Padmini in Thillana Mohanambal but realises his folly and unites her with her lover, the nadaswaram vidwan played by Sivaji Ganesan. His extended character role of a man who begins as MGR’s foe but turns his friend also came in for much appreciation in the big hit Aayirathil Oruvan. Both films were hugely successful and Nambiar was a household name by the time Tamil cinema progressed from black and white to colour. Another role I remember was in a movie released before all of the above. It lives on to be another iconic go-to feature film and Nambiar took on a much older difficult role of Shakuni in the Vijaya-Vahuni classic Maya Bazaar. There has never been a more convincing Shakuni before or after Nambiar. Such was the gravitas he brought to the role of a villain that even when the era changed and the movie of the 70s dawned, Nambiar would still be the main baddie – heroes came and heroes went but it appeared that the villain stayed on forever.
From MGR to Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vijayakanth, Prabhu and Karthik, Nambiar ruled as the “Boss” who would call out to his henchman to finish off the hero. This was later referred to by Rajinikanth in the film Kabali where his famous dialogue on how he was not a henchman for a don like Nambiar, immediately brought to mind the “image” of an evil, ruthless villain who would stop at nothing. However, Nambiar’s villain was not a womaniser and if I recall right, he never played a villain who was cruel to women in a sexual manner. Rape scenes were a big addition to the movies of the late 70s and mid-80s but it was not his style of villainy.
By then Nambiar was perhaps the only actor who had survived the longest acting innings ever – acting from the 1930s till 1996 and he would go on as strong for another decade, till 2006.
He played a bad man till perhaps Thooral Ninnu Pochu (1982) where he donned the role of a village wrestler who runs a wrestling camp who helps the hero, writer-director K Baghayraj win his love. Nambiar was fit as a fiddle in the film and he would’ve been 63 years old then. He even got an Illaiyaraaja song, ‘Yerikkarai Poongaatrey’ in the film. That film was the transition point for Nambiar to take on character roles thereafter, which he did in many films as the doting father, grandfather, uncle and so on till he saw sweeter applause in Vikraman’s Poovey Unakkaga which brought his humour timing and ability to evoke a genuine emotion in his scenes with Vijay. By then Nambiar was perhaps the only actor who had survived the longest acting innings ever – acting from the 1930s till 1996 and he would go on as strong for another decade, till 2006.
Nambiar’s Tamil delivery was devoid of a Malayalam accent and his ability to render reams of dialogues was second to none. As much as MGR and Sivaji Ganesan shone in their movies with their individual acting style and appeal, Nambiar was a star-actor who stood out with his sheer menacing presence, self-styled mannerisms and villainous histrionics which he adapted quickly as the movie era moved from theatrical acting to more realistic portrayals.
Nambiar filled the void left by P S Veerappa who was the dreaded villain in the folk tale films of yore. He was also the perfect counterpart to MR Radha who played negative characters with much aplomb. A film which has MR Radha as the bad guy and Nambiar as the docile younger brother to Sivaji Ganesan is Bhagapirivinai. Despite taking on such roles it is his villain act Nambiar is remembered for till date. To be a revered actor for playing a villain for such a long career is an achievement that is rare and hard to match.