Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pillars of Support – An essay on character actors in Thamizh Cinema

Nayagan, one of the indisputably great classics of Thamizh cinema, is best remembered as Kamal Hassan’s acting tour de force.  As they say, classics are not ‘made’; they happen.  It is nearly impossible to find something in the movie that does not work.  By the same token, there are numerous facets of the film that are a godsend for discerning film lovers to dwell on.  The sparkling supporting cast is certainly one.  Let us take the example of the veteran Delhi Ganesh. 

In Nayagan – the ultimate one-man show, you might think – Ganesh plays the role of a loyal aide of Kamal’s.  Starting at around the 40-minute point, he appears almost throughout the movie.  He is always on the sidelines but is an unobtrusive but definite presence.  A case in point is the funereal scene following NizhalgaL Ravi’s death.  As much as the actual breaking down of Kamal at the end of the scene brings a lump in our throat, the entire build-up to the moment is what makes it truly unforgettable.  

At the start of the sequence, Kamal’s Nayakar character sees Ganesh and other familiar members in his household.  As he starts seeing unusual visitors, he slowly but surely realizes that something unimaginably tragic has happened.  The first big shocking moment is when he sees a covered dead body from the balcony.  There is silence all around; nobody is expressing their grief lest they give it away to Nayakar.  His son is dead.  He knows it but is hoping against hope that something else has happened.  As Kamal nears the body of his son, Ganesh, in a quivering voice says, “Vendaam Naaykare…kozhandhaiku nerupu kaayam nerayya patruku…”  What Ganesh’s comment adds to the impact of this scene is hard to quantify but there is no denying the fact that it is one of the pillars that holds this monumental scene aloft.  I also found it extremely natural that he says “Kozhandhai-ku” instead of ‘Surya-ku’ (the name of the Ravi character).  Without much effort, it says a lot about the fact that the beloved son of the Don is dead.

Supporting actors have always had their place in Thamizh cinema.  Of course, the quality of the writing has been so wildly variable that on the one hand you might have stock, one-dimensional characters that are played by actors that are shoehorned into a stereotype.  The blame has to be laid at the feet of writers and directors more than the actors themselves.  While a Saranya, for instance, plays the same wisecracking yet affectionate mother in film after film, it is the same Saranya that turned in a National Award winning performance for a nuanced portrayal of a layered character in Thenmerku Paruvakaatru. 

In the commercial masala entertainers, it is rare to see well-written roles for character actors.  In the lesser movies, they are on hand to boost the hero, spout glorifying lines and exist to be either killed, to drive sympathy, or spout a supposedly inspiring line to motivate the hero.  But even here, it is heartening to see an actor like Dhanush give ample screen space to a talent like Samudrakani to shine in a massy movie like Velaiyilla Pattadhari-2.  While VIP-2 was not exactly a classic, it was fun to see Dhanush play with stereotypes.  Samudrakani, the actor and filmmaker, has a preachy side to him. (Some would argue that it is not really a “side!”)  While Dhanush (who also wrote the film) writes such lines, he adds a humorous twist to them.  In one of those patented father-son terrace conversations, Kani gives a short inspirational speech about an inventor who failed numerous times before he invented the light bulb.  All well and good except for the fact that he references Einstein!  At the end of the scene, Dhanush thanks him for the words of wisdom, while quipping that it was a certain Thomas Edison who invented the bulb, not Einstein!  The scene has some good lines, makes us think and also makes us smile.  It is not only Dhanush’s thoughtful writing but also Kani’s geniality that makes the scene work.  

It is in the realm of the smaller films that character artistes truly get to shine.  Writers, I think, feel liberated without the constraints of having to pander to a ‘mass’ hero.  Since the accent is on the storytelling rather than focusing on a star, writers frequently come up with some fine chracterizations.  The actors too rise to the occasion and make a mark in these ensemble dramas.  In the past decade, Pasanga (Jayaprakash), Kaaka Muttai (the entire cast really) and Maanagaram (Charle) spring to mind as movies that were lifted to great heights by some superb work by an ensemble cast.  

In a conversation with Crazy Mohan, when we were talking about Kadhalika Neramillai, he made an interesting observation.  He said that in addition to the hilarious script, what he saw as a stroke of genius was how director Sridhar and writer Chitralaya Gopu really placed the comedy in the hands of the supporting cast like Baliah and Nagesh, giving them tremendous screen time and scope, while giving the straighter, lighter romance scenes to the inexperienced actors like Ravichandran.  He observed that even in the scenes where Muthuraman (playing one of the leads) was in the guise of an old man that it was Baliah, with his sycophancy, who stole the show.  I suppose that in this instance the pillars stood as tall as minarets!  

To me, character actors across the range of films, be it big budget films or small personal dramas, should be given due prominence.  After all, true ‘heroes’ are the ones that touch the lives of people in a meaningful manner.  The lead character played by Arjun in an emotional drama like Rhythm left a lasting impression on me not only because of Arjun the actor – he turns in a remarkably restrained performance – but also because of seniors like Nagesh and Lakshmi playing lifelike characters.  Even in a big budget movie like Devar Magan with two powerhouses in Kamal and Sivaji, even smaller roles such as Kaaka Radhakrishnan’s and Vadivelu’s were memorable.  It was only because Vadivelu aced the hospital scene that we could get glimpses into the futility of the Kamal character’s efforts in reforming the villagers.  Size of the role and screen time rarely matter in these instances where the writing is top notch.

Nasser, Saranya, MS Bhaskar, Jayaprakash, AadukaLam Naren, Sampath Raj, Kishore, Anupama Kumar, Vinodhini, Ramesh Thilak – (to name a few) they are all actors capable of transforming good writing into riveting scenes.  It behooves writers and filmmakers to invest time in shaping their characters thoughtfully.  That would be the best tribute to the character actors of earlier eras like Nagesh, SV Ranga Rao, VK Ramaswamy, Major Sundarrajan, Srividya and even our beloved Raghuvaran who are no longer with us but whose powerful roles, irrespective of their length, helped them achieve immortality. 


Anu Warrier said...

Supporting actors play a huge part in the total effectiveness of a scene. Cinema, good cinema, that is, is always a collaborative effort. I remember Vidya Balan saying, in an interview once, that acting with a good co-actor is 'reacting', not 'acting'.

It's a great actor who can get his co-stars to 'react' as well. Dialogues come alive only when actors feed off each other.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ha ! You really come up with great angles (or lenses ?) with which to look at Tamil cinema dont you ?

Enjoyed reading this and ofcourse there was the Rhythm reference :)

You pretty much hit upon all there is to the importance of the supporting cast.
In cricketing parlance you pulled out all the strokes in the coaching manual.

Super !

This is where probably Nayakan falls short of Godfather since Kamal didnt have strong enough supporting characters written around him and has to pretty much carry the film on his shoulders

Great comment Anu ! especially the part about getting costars to react well

Anonymous said...

Lovely read. You are so right in saying that Supporting actors help elevate the movie to new levels. A good movie maker takes into consideration which cast would do the right justice for his script- which means he pays attention to all the supporting actors and not just the main actors. My favorite Supporting actor is Vivek.

Anu Warrier said...

@Ravishankar, theatre background here. :) The stage is a hard task mistress.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Anu - thank you also for the suggested title change. I changed "supporting" to "character."

Ravishanker - While I agree with you that the supporting cast in The Godfather I and II were top notch, I also liked Janakaraj, Ganesh, Karthika and Shadows Ravi in Nayagan. They brought the local flavor to the adaptation.

Anonymous - v good point there on casting. Thanks!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Vow Anu ! Stage experience and all (admiration)

Ram : "Shadows" Ravi HA ! Agree with your point.

Ram Murali said...

Anu - yes as Ravishanker said, it is great that you have theater experience. Could you share any memories and experiences? (It could also make for a great post on c.o.chai)

Ravishanker - just curious - what did you think of Godfather-III? I think that the blah supporting cast was a reason why the movie didn't work for me. After seeing James Caan, De Niro and Duvall in 1 and 2, to see Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia...argghhh!

Anu Warrier said...

Nothing to write about. :) Was always part of the Dramatics/Elocution/Debate/Writing teams in school and college, and then part of an amateur English theatre group when I left. Had some excellent coaches, learnt a lot about the stage and acting/reacting and the stage doesn't allow you the luxury of making a mistake.

Had film dreams, had film offers, but since my mother would have skinned me alive, I never took the opportunity. :) Instead, I modelled (without telling her), continued with the theatre group, we put up everything from Shakespeare and Moliere to modern one-act plays, and I loved every minute of it.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Anu : These are absolutely awesome revelations ! (very inadequate word)

From Modelling to Moliere ! Vow !

Maybe there's a book in there somewhere

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram alias Mr.Clairvoyant :)

I HAPPENNED to watch The Godfather Part III (About one and a half hours only) YESTERDAY night !

Agree with your observation on the supporting cast being inadequate.
Actually I'm an Andy Garcia fan so we must differ there. The guy is almost as multi-faceted as Anu. And very very articulate.

The supporting cast aside it was really the script which failed.

It didnt have the tightness, clarity or momentum of the earlier movies.

Great ettempt though.

Sofia Coppola doesnt embarras herself but doesnt distinguish in the part either.

Winona Ryder was the original choice who dropped out due to terminal exhaustion. (Whew)

Rahini David said...

Wow Anu.

With your passion for movies, you would have really gone places had you taken the offers.


I was thinking of Poornam Viswanathan in Aasai and V. K. Ramasamy in Arangetra Velai as I was reading through the article.

I don't know the names of the current generation supporting artists. But have enjoyed the work of quite a lot of them.

Ram Murali said...

Anu- thank you for sharing your experiences from your theater days. I share Ravishanker's and Rahini's admiration for what you have done. I think it's wonderful! You should revive it in Boston!

Ravishanker - I do think Winona Ryder would have been a better choice. She had a certain vulnerability. There is this movie "SimONE" where she has a cameo. Just one scene as a superstar at the top of her game and one scene when she is desperate for a comeback. She aced that part. Garcia -- my Aunt is a huge, H U G E fan. I can somehow never get to like him as an actor!!

Ram Murali said...

Rahini - sorry I missed responding to your comment before I hit submit!
I liked VKR a lot. I liked him better than I did Poornam who could ham a bit.
I also liked VKR a HELL of a LOT in AaN Paavam. To me, his scenes with Kollangudi Karupayi are comic gold of the highest order!!

Anu Warrier said...

Thanks, all. It was all a long time ago; seems like another life. In any case, the early 90s were an awful time for heroines so I don't think I lost much. Niggling regrets, of course, for the road not taken.

I think if I dig around, I might still have some magazine covers of mine around; my late MIL had kept them all of them safely for me. She was a lot more supportive of my modelling than mom (who disapproved completely).

Ram Murali said...

Anu - as much as I am enjoying these comments, what I think will be WONDERFUL would be a post, replete with pictures, on "conversations over chai." In addition to the 3 Rs here (Rahini, Ravishanker and me!), your loyal blog followers will also really enjoy getting to know about that facet of yours!
Time to dig up those old magazines!

ravishanker sunderam said...

I second Ram's plea :)