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The Supremo of Swag -JPC

His swag was unique, and fans were utterly smitten. This guy could be slummier than the lowest slum…

His swag was unique, and fans were utterly smitten. This guy could be slummier than the lowest slum dweller. Yet, he knew how to present himself with panache, dressing in well-tailored clothes and smoking 555s (an elite brand of cigarettes those days) in the style of a Westerner. He lived the life of a prince in his heydays, but in the end, he was broke and died a pauper.

In 1958, he married Sheila, an Anglo-Indian and the granddaughter of Coimbatore-based filmmaker Swamikannu Vincent. Their wedding was attended by many well-known people in the film industry and politics, such as chief minister Kamaraj. The first few days of their marriage had been smooth sailing.

His first heartbreak

Little did he know that his wife was cheating on him. One day, Sheila came clean about her secret love affair. He was devastated and bewildered by this news but took it squarely on the chin. He begged her to stay with him.

Several days later, she made a suicide attempt that he prevented. It was then that the couple decided to formally separate. In a few days, Sheila left for London, and he gave her all the support she needed despite her having jilted him.

A few days later, she wed a doctor in London with his blessings in a letter. The husband sacrifices his dignity and love for his ex-wife’s happiness. This is the stuff movies are made of.

His birth

He was born to JP Rodrigues & Roslyn, a couple from Tuticorin, in 1927. Christened Joseph Panimayadasan Rodriguez, he changed his name.

This was the name by which he became famous.

This is the story of Chandrababu, Babu, to his close friends.

Chandrababu was born to a wealthy and prominent Christian Paravar family. His father was a freedom fighter and the publisher of a newspaper called Sudhandhira Veeran. The British government seized the paper and the family’s other assets in 1929 when he was arrested for participating in the satyagraha movement and deported to Sri Lanka. His father took a job at a Tamil newspaper in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the whole family moved there. Rodrigues later returned to Chennai in 1943 and worked as a journalist for the Tamil newspaper, Dinamani. The family made Triplicane their home.

Before his family relocated to Chennai, Chandrababu attended schools at St. Joseph’s College, Grandpass, Colombo, and Aquinas College. While in Colombo, Chandrababu got Westernized as Colombo was steeped in Western culture in those days. It is said that this was where Chandrababu got his panache and Western ways.

His first low point in life

Chandrababu gave off an impression of being utterly heartless by not attempting to earn and support his family. He also was perceived as an individual with a lack of self-control and decency because of his ways. This made him stand out as an oddity in a group of upstanding citizens. This was the low point in Chandrababu’s life. He often slept hungry, but figured out a way to get a hearty meal before long. He would stroll along the Marina and into Santhome, where he knew he could hang out with people his age. One was Vedachalam, or Veda, as he is more commonly known in Tamil cinema.

Veda was a prolific music director who frequently got his ‘inspiration’ from Hindi and English music, inspiration being a decent replacement for the verb copy.

Vedha’s list of songs is quite impressive. Click on this link to learn more.

Tabla Ramu, or Ramu, was another of his friends in the film-music industry. They used to hang out with Veda and had a good time listening to movies and music and daydreaming. They would feed Chandrababu, take care of him, and just have him sing and dance with gay abandon. This was in the 1950s before the slums had taken over Santhome beach.

Despite his family’s disapproval, Chandrababu strongly desired to pursue a career in acting. Only his friend Ganapathy inspired him to develop his acting abilities. Chandrababu was so good at it that he was asked to sing and dance at social gatherings, even as a kid.

Chandrababu met actors Sriram and B. R. Panthulu in his early years and later T. R. Mahalingam through them. His first role was in the supporting cast of the 1947 film Dhana Amaravathi, but he had trouble finding work after that.

Wikimedia Commons

The suicide attempt

In 1952, out of desperation, he ate copper sulfate crystals in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. His suicide note read that he had been depressed over being unable to meet S. S. Vasan. He also wanted his body to be turned over to B. S. Ramaiah, the director of his solo film. This attempt was in the cafeteria of Gemini Studios. Luckily for him and the industry, he was rushed to the hospital in time and recovered. One of those who rushed him to the hospital was Pudukottai Ganesan, the casting assistant at Gemini Studios. Pudukkotai Ganesan became the famous actor Gemini Ganesan in later years.

Suicide is illegal, so the police had to detain him. When the judge heard the reason for his attempted suicide, the judge asked him to demonstrate his acting skills during the trial. The judge was so impressed by Chandrababu’s performance of a Shakespearean monologue he decided to spare him jail time. After hearing about this incident, director Vasan cast Chandrababu in a small role in his 1952 film Moondru Pillaigal. The actor so impressed the director that he predicted that Chandrababu would become a famous actor. In the same year, Chandrababu acted in Chinna Durai and Mohana Sundaram.

Yodlee Yodlee

Chandrababu was inspired to yodel by western musicians like Gene Autry and Hank Williams, whose music he adored. Supposedly, he was the only South Indian singer-actor who could yodel. The song Poda Raja Podi Nadaydaa was the first time yodeling had been heard in a South Indian film. This song was in the movie Chinna Durai, which T. R. Mahalingam produced and directed.

Chandrababu’s yodeling skills!

Chandrababu received Rs 200 for his work in the movie Mohana Sundaram. He soon became the top comic by playing comedy routines in films with leading actors; Pudhaiyal with Sivaji Ganesan, Nadodi Mannan with MGR, and Mamanmagal with Gemini Ganesan. Who would have expected that he would earn over Rs.100,000 (roughly $10,000) per year at the height of his career? He made history as the highest-paid South Indian comedian, almost on par with the top-billed actors of the time, MGR and Shivaji Ganesan.

Connecting with his fanbase

It was said that Chandrababu would drive to the slums in his Fiat car to chat with the dwellers. It was simply his way of being cordial and being in touch with reality. Chandrababu also did this to show that he, like them, is human. He was known for his speeding. Incidentally, he was one of the film industry’s two fastest and most daring drivers. The other was Gemini Ganesan.

Chandrababu acted in seventy-six movies and showed great versatility, with many actors comparing his singing, dancing, and acting style to that of Danny Kaye and Bob Hope. His ascent in the film industry was achieved with his sheer versatility.

Chandrababu tried constructing a luxurious mansion where he could drive his car up to his bedroom on the first floor, possibly to browbeat the film industry. He had been insulted enough in his lowly years. He would also insist that the producers carry his cigarette tin. R.S. Manohar, a longtime friend and film villain would beg him not to force producers to do this.

Nothing was off-limits

Chandrababu was a straight shooter. He did not conform to the fake humility of the Tamil film industry, where there were no equals. Either you were an ‘anne’ (big brother) or a ‘tambi’ (younger brother). You don’t need a MENSA score of 140 to understand that this was a polished way of showing class distinction. But for Chandrababu, there was no kowtowing this philosophy. If you were an idiot, he called you that to your face.

After the Indo-Pakistani war ended in 1965, a similar but even more shocking incident occurred in New Delhi. Many actors and actresses from South Indian films made the trip to New Delhi to perform for the servicemen and women who had served their country. Top actor Sivaji Ganesan shared the stage with Gemini Ganesh, Savithri, Jayalalitha, Padmini, Devika, P. Suseela, Kannadasan, Al. Srinivasan, M. S. Viswanathan, P.B. Sreenivos, and dozens more. As a result of an invitation from Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the Madras team was able to spend the evening at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. 

The President requested a musical performance from MSV. Chandrababu sang, “Pirakkum podhum azhuginraai…” MSV accompanied him on the harmonium. The song and the comedian’s performance brought the President to tears, and he showered praise on the singer and the lyricist, Kannadasan. Chandrababu suddenly jumped up from the floor and onto the President’s lap, pinching his cheeks and exclaiming, “Kanna, nee periya rasiganda!” in Tamil (meaning: you are a great fan, my dear). The philosopher seemed unperturbed by the situation, laughing the whole time. So that was Chandrababu for you.

One of the greatest ‘heroes’ of that time, M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR as known, commanded such an extreme following and fawning in the industry; he was simply Mr. MGR to him. In private, the rumor was that for Chandrababu, the initials MGR stood for ‘Mighty Graceless Rapscallion.’ Regardless, Chandrababu still cast MGR in a film he directed. He arranged with a financier to direct his first film Maadi Veettu Ezhai with M. G. Ramachandran as the hero. As a result of Ramachandran’s lack of cooperation, he was ultimately unsuccessful in this endeavor. The film project was also dropped. Scriptwriter Aroordhas chronicled the reasons for Ramachandran’s non-cooperation in his 2002 memoirs. It is because Chandrababu became abusive towards Ramachandran’s elder sibling M. G. Chakrapani.

There was also the renowned lyricist Kannadasan who got on to his wrong side. Even though he wrote Kavalai Illaadha Manindhan with Chandrababu as the protagonist, he never overcame the difficulties of that decision.

The downward spiral of doom

By now, Chandrababu was caught on a downward spiral with alcohol and prescription medication. Despite his destructive lifestyle, MGR offered him a helping hand by offering him a role in his production, Adimai Penn, released in 1969.

Chandrababu’s role as a rickshaw puller in Sabhash Meena was not recognized, although he outshone Sivaji Ganesan, the then top-notch talent in histrionics then, simply because he had made enemies in high places. This naivete led to his ultimate downfall. It was too late for Chandrababu to change his fortunes in the 1950s.

Chandrababu’s final shot was to act and direct a film, Thattungal Thirakkappadum, in 1966. The film was highly acclaimed for its cinematography but was not a box-office success.

Chandrababu spent his last days penniless. During his final years, he stayed in the house of his good friend M. S. Viswanathan until his death on 8 March 1974. Sivaji Ganesan arranged all his last rites and was buried in Quibble Island, Chennai.


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