His name was a byword for villains of all stripes in Tamil cinema, with even superstar Rajinikant imitating him in a scene in the recent box office hit Kabali.
Manjeri Narayanan Nambiar slipped so effectively into the skin of the characters he played that fans of the heroes he opposed on screen continued to nurture their hatred for him long after they walked out the theatres.
However, Nambiar, whose birth centenary begins in March this year, in real life was far removed from the evil he portrayed.
“He was a vegetarian and teetotaller and we never cooked non-vegetarian food n our house. We have a separate kitchen just for making even omelettes. We could buy non-vegetarian food from outside, but were supposed to have it on a separate table,” said Mohan Nambiar, younger son of the late actor.
Born in Kannur in Kerala on March 7, 1919, Nambiar moved to Tamil Nadu after his father’s death, and lived with his elder sister in Ooty. Keen on acting, he joined Nawab Rajamanickam’s theatre troupe and subsequently entered the world of films.
First as comedian
The ubiquitous villain of Tamil cinema began his career as a comedian in Bhaktha Ramadoss made in Hindi and Tamil in 1935.
“He also acted as a hero in a few films before donning villainous roles. He would say that he would have continued as a hero if the film Kavitha had been successful. He was a man of great humour and played a memorable role in the film Missiamma,” recalled B.R. Ravishankar, son late director B.R. Panthulu.
Nambiar was a fitness fanatic and would begin his day with a walk from the Gandhi Statue on the Marina at 4.30 a.m. He also regularly undertook the pilgrimage to Sabarimala, then sans the motorable roads and access of today.
“He had a gym at home and a ball badminton court. Actor Gemini Ganesan and Sivaji Ganesan’s brother Shanmugam used to play with my father. He would return home immediately after the day’s shooting was over. Despite his busy schedule he would keep the month of May for the family and we would stay at Ooty,” recalled Mr. Mohan.
Though he dominated the film world for over five decades, Nambiar did not encourage his sons Sukumaran and Mohan to enter the tinsel world. “He was versatile and directors deliberately kept lengthy fight scenes of MGR and Nambiar as they were devoured by fans,” said Venkatesh Chakravarthy, dean, Ramanaidu Film School, Hyderabad.
Interestingly, while on screen Nambiar plotted all manner of villainy against MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, he maintained a very close relationship with actors off screen. “MGR was the groomsman for my father’s wedding. He and V.N. Janaki would regularly visit our house in Coimbatore. He liked the food cooked by our mother Rukmani. MGR was very strict and my brother would call him pollatha mama (evil uncle),” recalled Mr. Mohan.
“He used to visit theatres for late night shows with Sivaji Ganesan, but stopped the habit as he could not stay awake after 11 p.m,” he added. Even though he worked with many actors, Nambiar was a great fan of the other villain-comedian M.R. Radha.
Nambiar’s last film was Sudesi made in 2005 with actor-politician Vijaykant.