Saturday ( 19 November 2011 ) was the MahaGuruswamy‘s 3rd year of passing. Though Jay had reminded me well early about it, and I strongly felt that it shouldn’t go without a worthy mention, it still slipped away. Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar aka MN Nambiar wouldn’t mean much to the average Malayalam movie fan, save for his over-exaggerated emotive moments from a handful of movies in the technicolor 80’s, and if you still travel further back, to three B&W ones in the late 50’s.
But for Tamil cinema, the MahaGuruswamy epitomised the arch-nemesis onscreen for the over-the-top heroes, for over seven (?) decades! Something, as far as an actor’s career is concerned, flows very close to our own legendary Madhu‘s. His debut in Malayalam films, I think, was with Athmasakhi in 1952, the very film that marked the entry of Merry Land’s foray into Malayalam cinema and the debut of Sathyan ( not to forget the dead duck project Thyagaseema ).
MN Nambiar played the ‘wicked and wayward’ ( can you imagine anything else) son of the conniving stepmother, played by Pankajavalli. At the time of his debut in Malayalam films, MN Nambiar had already ensured his place in Tamil cinema with the brilliant and for the time, amazing portrayal of his 11 roles in Digambara Samiyar, in Manthrikumari, MGR‘s arch nemesis in Sarvadhikari ( I love that movie) and Marmayogi ( butting heads with MGR again), and was established as the Supreme Villian for any story :)
A clipping from Digambara Samiyar (thanks to Cram Singapore :) )
MN Nambiar’s second movie in Malayalam was Kaanchana (1952), directed by Sriramulu Naidu, where, again he was Manoharan, the devious and cunning bosom-pal to the hero Pushpanathan ( KR Ramaswamy), who slides into bankruptcy with his well-timed ill-advice. Aana Valarthiya Vanambaadi came seven years later, by which time, MN Nambiar had become the synonym of all that was chillingly cruel and diabolic in Tamil films. Playing the chief bandit of the jungle was cake-walk for MN Nambiar in Malayalam’s first successful jungle movie, again produced by Merry Land, and all he did was to direct his signature exaggerated-steely gaze and scowl to the camera every now and then, as the Bandit King.
Om Kali Maha Kali in the Bandit King’s Lair.
He returned in PA Thomas‘ Jesus (1973). I remember watching this movie, and what I recall best is the ‘wooden’ face of Murali Das as Jesus. In fact, I seriously suspect that PA Thomas’ production in 1978, Thoma Sleeha must have gleefully made use of most of the props of this one . The production values of both never fail to crack me up :)
Anyways, MN Nambiar was Judas Iscariot in the movie, as loud and sneering as the screenplay permitted with a cute bald spot ..tee hee. Thacholi Ambu came around in 1978, and he brought along another of his dear friends along for Malayalam cinema’s first cinemascopic spectacle – the legendary Sivaji Ganesan ( though this was not his first appearance in Malayalam films). MN Nambiar was “Parunthunkal Ittiri Ilaya Panicker“- sheer villainy on two legs. I think, as Ittiri, MN Nambiar also brought in an element of bemusement along with badassery on overdrive in Thacholi Ambu, for the Malayali film goer, who had till then been used to the constrained, reserved display of emotions onscreen with their indigenous actors. MN Nambiar nevr changed anything as he crossed borders and languages. He just let it rip, firing on all cylinders, what celluloid expected of MN Nambiar in a villainous role and that was just that.
A clipping from Thacholi Ambu.
His signature sneer-and-scowl, with that unique arched eyebrows ( even Sivaji Ganesan was adept at that, to me), all seemed to package the very emotions he chose to display with the most colorful attire an actor could ever give. It was like saying if anger was red, MN Nambiar‘s face and body glowed a vivid scarlet. Probably, he just didn’t want to mellow down any of the influences from his long and fruitful years in theater and the colorful palette just got carried over to celluloid.
Nothing explains better this difference in ‘emoting’ than that delightful bit in Sathyan Anthikkad‘s Yathrakkaarudey Shraddhaykku, where Jayaram gives a fabulous demo of both. Jump straight into 2:30 where he does a mean imitation of the Nadigar Thilakam, and then goes on to explain the ‘nuances.’
MSI mentions an appearance in a dubbed-from-Tamil movie Prathyaksha Daivam in 1978. Will need to get more details of that. It is interesting to note that, including Thacholi Ambu, the rest of his film appearances in the 80’s were all as the arch nemesis of Jayan, our very own machismo of Malayalam cinema. Maybe the audience was dead tired of watching Jose Prakash, who turned foe after the ‘Interval’ in a deluge of movies that hit the screens starring Jayan. MN Nambiar quivered his eyebrows and sneered in 4 movies of Jayan in the 80’s, Aavesham (1979), Shakthi (1980), Thadavara and Kolilakkam in 1981.
I think the brief for all these movies, as far as his role was concerned, along with the ‘clone-nature’ of the movies must have been pretty simple – Look menacing, act menacing. To MN Nambiar, that should have been as easy as scratching his nose. his last appearance in Malayalam films, was in 2000, a pot-boiler called Sharjah to Sharjah , and had surprisingly, its moments for him , as the Elder Capithan of the Capithan family, a sort of Corelone-by-numbers for the Malayali psyche.
Maybe he really belonged to the Tamil film sensibility ( I say this with a lot of self-doubt). Sadly, we just never got to see enough, the mellowed yet intense performances that we so expect from our ‘role-players’ onscreen, a far cry from the full-throated vocal deliveries across the border. Yet, the MahaGuruswamy ( he who had been the most ardent disciple of Lord Ayyappa and is said to have consistently undertaken the arduous pilgrimage to Sabarimala for six decades) always remain a part of my celluloid favorites. I think it has to be because of my absolute love for his Tamil films where he raised holy hell with MGR as the larger-than-life Hero.
Whatever be the reason, MN Nambiar will hold a special place, along with the legends and stalwarts of Malayalam Cinema.