Have you ever watched a movie and reflected on a small moment that either touched you or made you smile? Not one featuring the lead actor or even the key supporting cast. Instead, an actor in a much smaller role, one whose name you probably don’t even know. It is the mark of a skilled writer that he or she can etch a role that might not have much screen time, but its impact endures. Without further ado, here are some of my favorite fleeting moments that fit this description. The title of this write-up notwithstanding, in some cases, I do know the actor’s name, in others I don’t.
The flight passenger in Uyare… (2019)
Uyare… is a movie that already soars high thanks to its ever-fabulous lead actress, Parvathy Thiruvothu. She is incandescent in a role that goes through the horrible experience of – spoiler alert – an acid attack. Thanks to her friend (an utterly charming Tovino Thomas), she gets the job of an air hostess. In her first flight, an elderly gentleman asks her, “Excuse me, young lady. What is your name?” When she replies, he politely asks her, “Can I give you a hug?” The gentle manner in which he hugs and pats her is so endearingly avuncular. The scene ends on a lovely note when he requests her for a cup of piping hot coffee. Even the way he bobs his head at the end is delightfully sweet. If I ever were to meet this actor, I would ask, “Excuse me, gentleman. What is your name?”
The nurses in Sillu Karuppatti (2019)
To put a twist on the Forrest Gump line, Sillu Karuppatti is a box of candies where you always know that you are going to get something delicious. Every actor creates an impact, from the perky kid that accompanies Maanja to the kids that play Sunaina-Samudrakani’s children. Among these little gems are the nurses that tend to the Manikandan character as he undergoes treatment for his cancer. The teary-eyed nurse that holds the ‘hope’ sign for Manikandan is a standout – in an unfussy manner she shows the compassion that can make a nurse-patient relationship a memorable bond. So is the other nurse that lovingly says to Manikandan that she was scared that he’d fly away. When he starts laughing and grimaces (due to the stitches), she smiles and requests him to not exert himself. Again, I don’t know their names. But what’s in a name when the impact is this indelible.
The Subash character (actor Balaji) in Aruvi (2017)
Aruvi is filled with characters that have quirks and idiosyncrasies. As hard as it is to look beyond Aditi Balan’s riveting performance, there are other bright spots too. The character of Subash (played by actor Balaji) is one of them. Balaji’s comic timing is amazingly precise in the dumb charades sequence. His antics are a hoot, my favorite being his reaction to Aditi giving him a completely obscure movie title to meme.
Sister Vanessa in Anbe Sivam (2003)
In Tamil Cinema, we have all been conditioned to scenes in the Church setting accompanied by some truly amateurish acting and even more ridiculous sounding piano music. But in Anbe Sivam, we get a rather memorable character in the kind-hearted Sister Vanessa, who helps Kamal recuperate from a horrendous accident. She is wonderful in the blood donation scene where she calmly reassures a hyperactive Madhavan. I also like the little moment where she brushes Kamal’s forehead and says, “You are looking handsome.”
Meet Sister Vanessa:
Nafisa (Iravati Harshe) in Hey! Ram (2000)
If this film deserved a National Award, more than direction or writing or acting, it deserved an award for casting. (Yes, I know that there isn’t one such award; just saying!) This densely-packed – in terms of content and people – film contains a bevy of truly impressive actors in all parts, small and big. Be it Hema Malini as Kamal’s mother-in-law, the impish lady that played his Aunt, Vaali who played his Uncle, the actor who played the tailor, every actor looked their part and essayed it well. Near the top of the list is actress Iravati Harshe who played Shah Rukh’s wife, Nafisa. Similar to Kuruthi Punal and Manmadhan Ambu, the Kamal character treats his friend’s wife as his own sister. Their relationship isn’t given much screen time but in the limited time, Harshe nails the part of a woman who loses his husband to communal violence. She is especially brilliant in the scene where she speaks to Gandhi about her husband's death. Also, her reaction to hearing from Kamal that Shah Rukh might be gravely injured, tugs at one’s heart.
Shankaran (Dasarathi) in Vedham Pudhidhu (1987)
I am cheating a little here since the kid who played Charu Hasan’s son in this film had a rather big role. But he isn’t exactly a well-known actor. As an adult, he would go on to become a voice artiste. But Dasarathi turns in a marvelous performance as the kid who is mature beyond his years and has to overcome one adversity after another. Bharathiraja has been an ace at casting unknown actors and making them look completely at home on screen. Such is the case with Dasarathi, who imbues his role with an arresting sense of calm and poise, and deserves a bit more spotlight than what he has gotten till date. If you think I am exaggerating, check out this scene where he makes Sathyaraj revisit his ingrained habits.
The Reddy brothers in Nayagan (1987)
Nayagan is an obvious trendsetter in many ways, one of which is casting. Everyone in Nayagan looks his or her part and sounds authentic. For three key antagonists in his film, Mani Ratnam cast three real-life siblings – RN Sudharshan, RNK Prasad and RN Jayagopal (two of them would reappear as siblings in MMKR). Not only are they menacing but clearly look like brothers. Oh wait, they are brothers!
Judge Bharathi Kannan (TS Raghavendar) in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985)
K Balachander took great effort in ensuring that he gave actors in small parts some distinctive quirks. Sometimes the quirk factor was too in-your-face to come across as organic and authentic. But when he got it right, few could match him. Such is the case in Sindhu Bhairavi. The actor Raghavendar, who plays the role of a judge, was also a music director in real life. KB puts that to good use in this rather amusing scene where he sings the same words in different tunes to suit MGR, Sivaji, Rajni and Kamal. The actor too enjoys himself immensely.Click on Play to go to the aforementioned scene featuring Raghavendar:
The barber (Samikannu) in Udhiri PookaL (1978)
Mahendran strived hard to break the shackles of melodrama that had prevented Tamil Cinema from achieving recognition beyond the region. The best of his works are great testament to the notion that to make art genuinely universal, you make it truly rooted and authentic. To achieve this goal, he cast actors very thoughtfully. One of his favorites was actor Samikannu, who turns in a fabulous performance in a rather small role, but one with an arc. Throughout the film, he requests the Archana character to give him permission to cut her son’s hair. She keeps procrastinating but when she dies, he has to tonsure the son’s head for ritualistic reasons. The way he enacts this scene is a fine example of how Tamil Cinema is filled with jewels whose names might be unknown but whose luster is bright and permanent.