“Gold is old” – so went my caption that accompanied a snap of a few elderly members of my family, including my late grandma. No sooner had I sent this picture to my Aunt than she replied with a term of endearment to refer to them – goldies! Ever since we had that whatsapp exchange, the term stuck with me. So much so that it made me pick a half-a-dozen characters in Tamil cinema who just meet two criteria! The characters essayed by the actors must have been elderly, even if the actors themselves weren’t. And, the characters should have been, in my opinion, well fleshed out, serving as more than just a prop or cheerleader for the lead character.
Kamal Haasan in Indian
Kamal Haasan was no stranger to playing elderly characters. Kadal MeengaL was released in 1981 when he was just 27! Of course, in Nayagan (1987), he portrayed an elderly don for almost half the movie with minimal makeup, relying more on body language and voice modulations to bring an old man to life. But it was in Indian where an elderly character was elevated to an unforeseen iconic status. “Indian Thatha” actually sounds rather cheesy but I doubt that anyone that actually saw the movie would have said that. Indian was as much as a Shankar movie as it was a Kamal movie – the taut screenplay featuring a brilliant investigation, razor sharp dialogues (by the great Sujatha) and a sense of grandeur that serviced the plot rather than stand out clumsily were all Shankar in vintage form. But Kamal did full justice to Shankar’s characterization, exhibiting a sense of panache that was rarely seen in elderly characters. This scene is one of my favorites, especially the nonchalance with which he combs through his hair with his fingers in the middle of an action sequence!
Srividya in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi
One of Vasanth’s great strengths as a writer is the authenticity he brings to elderly characters. Right from Keladi Kanmani, Aasai and of course, Rhythm, he has always populated his movies with strong supporting elderly characters, individuals with traits, quirks and flaws that make them three-dimensional. Some of his finest moments as a writer came in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi where he created a quintet of memorable characters played by Jai Shankar, Sulakshana, Delhi Ganesh, Manorama and Srividya. In the movie, Jai Shankar is married to Sulakshana but has a child (Gowthami) out of wedlock with Srividya. Delhi Ganesh and Manorama play the parents of a boy (Rahman) that Gowthami is in love with. Manorama staunchly opposes the match. Watch this marvelous 7-min segment. Srividya’s performance is deeply affecting, especially the way she says, “Morandu pidikathe ra.”
Radha Bai and Judge Rajagopal in Aaha
One of the most lovable elderly couples seen on screen, Radha Bai and Judge Rajagopal were given some funny, heartwarming exchanges in Aaha. In the opening sequence, they are introduced aptly, succinctly – “Gandhi-ku Kasturba, Sethurama Iyer-ku Lakshmi AmmaL!” Though the Paati makes fun of the Thatha’s hearing (or lack thereof), the actors play it so sweetly that it never comes across as mean spirited. They are especially lovely together in the delightfully staged Gokulashtami sequence (that begins at 1:22:15):
‘Pyramid’ Natarajan in Alai Payuthey
Natarajan’s character in Alai Payuthey was one of a kind. He was neither a martinet that chastises a wastrel son nor a cloyingly affectionate father. He played an upper-middle class advocate that has abundant self-confidence, bordering on hubris. He was especially effective in this superbly nuanced sequence (that starts at 5:00) where he lets his self-admitted superiority complex get the better of him.
Chokkalinga Bagavathar in Veedu
The late Balu Mahendra created three unforgettable characters for the greatly underutilized talents of Chokkalinga Bagavathar – Veedu, Sandhya Raagam and Sathi Leelavathi. Bagavathar was in glorious comic form in Sathi Leelavathi – his explanation of the difference between a brief and a loin cloth brought the house down.** But Veedu was in a different league altogether. A tableau of simple human emotions, the movie had several poignant scenes featuring an old man, who simply wants to see his granddaughter build a home.
This simple scene – the grandpa visits their under-construction house and silently admires it - never fails to make me tear up. In fact, the actor really isn’t doing much. But owing to the understatement of emotion and Raja’s tremendous score (from his album “How to Name It”), not to mention Balu Mahendra’s famed natural lighting, this is one of those quiet scenes that speaks volumes of its creator and his collaborators.
Jayaprakash and Thulasi in Pannaiyarum Padminiyum
Modern day Thamizh cinema owes a bit of gratitude to heroes like Vijay Sethupathi and Sidharth. It is hard to find such assured leading men who concede significant screen space to senior actors. Though the former and Aishwarya Rajesh have a charming little romance track in Pannaiyarum…, it is undoubtedly Jayaprakash and Thulasi that have the meaty roles, having scene after delicious scene infused with gentle humor and crackling chemistry. They are so cute as a couple that even the leading actors’ romance fades into the background. And rightfully so. This is the seniors' movie and the actors well and truly own it.
** - In case you don’t know the joke, watch this video, starting at 5:30 -- https://youtu.be/TgmjuY2eoNI