Remembering MN Nambiar, Actor Extraordinaire

MN Nambiar  | Actor Extraordinaire 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 🙂 )

Meanwhile, the Dacoit in his Den
MN Nambiar in Aana Valarthiya Vaanambaadi

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 ThomasJesus (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 🙂

MN Nambiar as Judas in Jesus (1973)
MN Nambiar as Judas in Jesus (1973)

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.

MN Nambiar in Kolilakkam
MN Nambiar in Kolilakkam

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.

MN Nambiar in Sharjah to Sharjah

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.

19 thoughts on “Remembering MN Nambiar, Actor Extraordinaire

    1. Hi Pritham,
      Thank you for writing in. Glad it helped reconnect you once again with the past 🙂 Hope to see more of you at OMC. Season’s greetings !..regards..cinematters

        1. WHOAH ! And you thought we would be satisfied with that short note ? 🙂 It would have been really, really cool to brag to your friends with ” Know what, boast as much as you want, but my Grandpa happens to be MN Nambiar.” , and then to watch them crawl away with their deflated egos :D. Jokes apart, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Thanks.cinematters

  1. M.N.nambiar’s role is AAVESHAM(1979) was exellent opposit of Jayan.Nambiar’s way of style,dialouge delivery and body mannerism cannot be immetateble.Their combiantion made the movie a boxoffice hit.
    Again they paired Shakthi(1980) where the audience found an acting war between Jayan & Nambiar.Once Director Manmohan desai in an interview said the hero can gain only if the villan is powerful.Otherwise the full movie will be a flop .

    1. Dear Regi,
      Absolutely agree to what you mentioned about “the hero can gain only if the villan is powerful”. MN Nambiar is the best example for that. I would go on tosay that MGR owes his success to MNN and it was never the other way round. Mahaguruswamy remains a legend forever. Thanks..cinematters

  2. You’re doing a great job by digging up history of Malayalam movie industry, and this preserving it for future generations!!! Great job my friend…Looking forward to more posts from you in the coming months!!!!

    1. Dear George,
      Thank you for passing through and leaving your thoughts on the blog. The pleasure is mine, and the intention is exactly what you mentioned, to be able to leave atleast a footnote for the coming generations on this wonderful bunch of creative minds who entertained us, and that industry just doesn’t mean two individuals and a planetary system around them. Hope to see more of you in these parts..regards..cinematters

  3. MN was in the movie called “Tadavara” starring Jayan ,1980. I remember his dialogues had “neetal and kurrukkal” with a heavy tamil accent. Or it dint sound like natural Malayalam. In sharjah to kappitan..he was better than before..but his expressions were the same ones from the was the language

  4. cinematters, I think MN Nambiar was also handicapped (maybe that is the wrong word) by the ‘acting’ demanded across the border. The call of the theatre was too loud and continued to be so, long after Kerala succumbed to Sathyan’s restraint. It was his necessity and later, his compulsion. Come to think of it, would MGR have become a ‘larger-than-life’ hero if he didn’t have MN Nambiar to provide both the foil and the ballast?

    So speaks one whose childhood memories are of cowering behind her father when MN Nambiar appeared on screen, as he took her to watch all the swashbuckling MGR and over-the-top Sivaji Ganesan movies. (Achan is Malayalee only by accident of birth; in all other aspects, he is a true-blue Tamilian. 🙂 )

    1. Hi Anu,
      MN Nambiar was equally famous for his theater productions and the ‘call’ never really left him.I only wished that it would have been wonderful to watch ah entirely different ‘face’ of MN Nambiar that so was in sync with the general acting sensibilities of the time, in the Malayalam productions that he appeared. But, then again, that would be like hobbling him, ain’t it ? A restrained MN Nambiar onscreen sounds like an oxymoron. Absolutely agree with what you mentioned on the ‘dependency’ of MGR on MN Nambiar. And bosom pals in real life too.Rarely does that exist in our times. Thanks..cinematters

  5. Great tribute, CM. And thanks for the Digambara Samiyar link. It’s virtually forgotten today.

    I wonder why you doubt he really belonged to the Tamil sensibility. There was never any doubt in my mind. On the contrary, his appearances in Malayalam movies always struck me as incongruous. He seemed like an outsider unsuccessfully trying to fit in his native land which he had drifted away from decades ago. He belonged to the Tamil collective consciousness. As Jayaram sums it up so eloquently, it is the “additional dose” that made MN such a successful bad guy on the other side of Walayar.

    Once you have gone across the border, it’s usually very hard to come back. It’s a matter of taste. It’s the reason why MGR was a demigod in TN, while Prem Nazir is permanently etched in the Malayali’s mind. The men we worship, the women we adore or lust after, the comedy that tickles our funny bone, the songs we cherish…there’s much more than a thin red line between the Malayali and the Tamil, who are so close to each other, yet so far.

    PS: In his early days, MN also did slapstick comedy (notably in Missiamma) before discovering his true niche.

    PS: There are a couple of pop culture references that cement his status as a movie icon.

    In Thillu Mullu, Rajini is blackmailed by a kid who knows he is a deceiver. In one shot Rajini screams in frustration: “Enakku ippadi oru MN Nambiar.”

    In Winner, where he plays Prashanth’s grandfather, Vadivelu mock sneers at him, saying: “MGR illengira thimirla aattam podara.”

    1. Dear Ramesh,
      Glad it brought back fond memories. Regarding the Tamil sensibility, that ‘Malayali right’ over MN Nambiar always rides roughshod over any clear thinking 🙂 A part of me always rues on “why he didn’t want to adapt to his homeland’s ethos as he faced the camera across the border” and then kick myself for thinking that way. That part of being so close and yet so far, THAT IS ABSOLUTELY TRUE, though I wish it weren’t. I have been amazed at the way Murali, Kalabhavan Mani and Rajan P Dev morph onto that exact ‘being that the screen demands’ when I watch them in Tamil. They ‘become’ an entirely different species there ! Missamma is news to me. Will hunt for it. Is a DVD/ VCD available ? It had its Malayalam version too Miss Mary (absolute trash). How could I ever forget Thillu Mullu ! Yes. And I also love that ” Veettukkoru Vivekanadan” session in the office 🙂 Rajnikant is a riot when it comes to comedy. Thanks so much again..regards..cinematters

  6. I never knew that MN Nambiar had acted in this many Malayalam movies. for me- he was always the super villain of Tamil movie. but not for MN Nambiar, MGR would never have become a super hero/ super star.

    1. Dear Narayanji,

      You said it right. There was no onscreen existence nor relevance for a larger-than-life hero/savior had not been for the presence of an equally ( if not more) powerful anti-thesis of all that the former stood for. That was MN Nambiar personified, and he stayed that way for seven decades..! cinematters

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