When actor Poo Ramu passed away at a government hospital in Chennai on June 27, the children in his neighborhood, in suburban Urapakkam, were mourning the fact that their favorite 'chocolate uncle' would never come back. And that is one among the many ways the man would probably be missed in Tamil society. Ramu was perhaps as versatile in real life as he was on screen. But he was someone who could never act in his real life, says Hemavathy, an activist with CPI(M) in Chennai.
In 2020, Hemavathy along with Ramu volunteered with the Covid Help Centre set up by the CPI(M) to create awareness about the pandemic. "Every day, we would go to various parts of the city, to tell people about Covid, how to fight it, and distribute medicines. He was already a celebrity but comrade Ramu wouldn't mind hitching a ride on my bike for this work. He was grounded despite the fame, and never knew how to act in real life."
Those who knew Ramu wouldn't agree more. Director Sasi, whose phenomenal film 'Poo' (2008) earned Ramu the moniker Poo Ramu, says the actor 'moved with the flow of life.' "He never aspired to act more or earn more. He had no spite for anyone in life, but was righteously angry about many things in the society."
Poo, to Ramu, happened by chance. The film, a rarity in Tamil cinema, explores the intricacies of the love of a woman (Maari) – both innocent and relentlessly dogmatic at the same time – ably performed by Parvathy. Pitted against Maari is Penakaarar (Ramu), cart driver and father of Thangarasu (Srikanth), who wants his engineering graduate son to marry his boss's daughter just so he could finally get some respect. Penakaarar is a nickname he willingly earns and considers a mark of respect, flaunting his literacy and using his pen even when he doesn't need to.
"The entire story was based on this conflict between an innocent woman and a poor, hardworking but very straightforward father who yearns for respect. To me, the Penakaarar was almost as important as Maari, but till a day before I went for shooting, I couldn't find anyone. I was looking for a well-built person to play the role of Penakaarar, someone who would carry loads and had finally settled for a stunt master," says the filmmaker.
A day before the shooting commenced, Ramu had accompanied a folk singer who had come to record a song. "I thought he was perfect for the role and asked him to deliver some dialogues. He was at ease doing it. He didn't tell me of his theatre experience, instead, he had doubts. He kept telling me I should have a rethink about the decision to cast him." Poo turned out to be a critically acclaimed movie and Sasi says he had planned a movie in the genre of humor, with Ramu in mind. "His smile is very unique and refreshing, it emanates from his soul. He reminded me of veteran actor S V Ranga Rao when he smiled and I wanted to do light humor with him. Unfortunately, it didn't happen."
But Penakaarar was the beginning of many father roles that Ramu would continue to play in Tamil cinema. With each role, he showed different shades.
In Seenu Ramasamy's Neerparavai (2012), Ramu played Lourdsamy, a fisherman father to Arulappasamy (Vishnu), an alcoholic who reforms and turns to seas only to be killed. From standing in the midst of the seas looking for his son, to single-handedly carrying his corpse on his shoulder home, Ramu pulled off one of the finest performances in Tamil cinema.
In Kanne Kalaimane (2019) again directed by Seenu Ramasamy, Ramu plays the understanding father of Kamalakannan (Udayanidhi Stalin), who makes his son and daughter-in-law stay away from him to avoid conflicts in the family.
Pariyerum Perumal (2018) marked a departure in this trend, a film in which Ramu played the college principal, who prominently features a photograph of Ambedkar on his table. Recounting the caste oppression he faced and how education helped him surmount the challenges, the principal encourages Pariyan (Kathir) to fight back.
"His characters were close to his heart, they sort of reflected his political beliefs," says Karuppu Anbarasan, deputy secretary of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, with which Ramu was associated. "He was part of many protests, Ramu strongly believed art and literature are for people — that they should be in the language of people. He never gave up on this belief even when he became a sought-after actor."
Poo might be the first film in which he landed a major role, but technically, it was not Ramu's first film. His debut was in an elaborate song sequence in Anbe Sivam (2003) – Naatukoru Sethi Solla – a working-class song in street theatre format. "We brought in some theatre persons to work on the song and Ramu was a natural choice," says Pralayan, a theatre activist also associated with Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, who had worked in the film. Ramu also did a blink-and-miss kind of role in Cheran's Thavamaai Thavamirundhu (2005), before Poo.
"Ramu was part of our Chennai Kalai Kuzhu from 1990 to 2005 and was a very dependable actor. His first performance with us was in the Tamil version of Moteram Ka Satyagrah written by Munshi Premchand and directed by Habib Tanvir."
Pralayan recalls Ramu doing various jobs – as an auto driver and an employee at a camera shop – when working in the theatre, but distinctly remembers his commitment to the art form. "He is one of our frontline actors, someone we could trust with any kind of role. It was evident he derived aesthetic satisfaction, and ideological happiness when he was in theatre. He was very intense about it."
Seenu Ramasamy, who has collaborated with Ramu in three films, considers the artiste a fine actor across Indian cinema. "I had Rajkiran in mind for the role of Lourdsamy in Neerparavai, given his physique. But we couldn't afford him, and that is when actor Rohini told me about Ramu. Since then, I have worked with him on three films –Kanne Kalaimane and the yet-to-be-released Idam, Porul, Eval. In the last film, he plays the role of a Communist leader."
Ramu, Seenu Ramasamy says, was a fine artist who could eloquently emote the finer, subtler, and nuanced feelings. "If you want something to be communicated without uttering a word, he is an actor who could effortlessly do it. The way he emotes silence on screen is as good as his dialogues. I loved him more because he was one of those extraordinary actors who could bring to life a character I had written, in the same way, I had wanted it to. His understanding of film language was deep. To me, he will remain a flower that wouldn't fade, certainly not from the landscape of Tamil cinema."