Written by 10:49 AM Film

The talent that was underrated – Thangavelu

K. A. Thangavelu was an actor who excelled in almost every role he played. While his comedy relied …

Madras wasn’t a hotbed of job opportunities in the late sixties and probably most of the seventies. While I was lucky to find a job in the erstwhile Indian Airlines, many of my college mates were still searching for a job.

I did run into many of my mates, and the conversation would go like this.

” Dey, machhan, how are you? It’s been a while since I saw you last. Where are you working now?”

Reply: ” I am fine, enjoying life!”

That should have given me a clue that the poor lad is unemployed. But the idiot in me keeps plowing on.

Me: ” That’s great, but where do you work?”

Reply: “I work as a manager in a company.”

Me: “That’s great. Which company?”

Most times, the reply would be Mannar and company! Which meant he didn’t have a job! We would burst out laughing.

In those good days, we didn’t have to worry about being politically correct. You just expressed yourself, and that’s it.

The lads of today, who I am sure would be scratching their heads about what all this is about, here’s the explanation.

Mannar & Co.

Mannar & Co. is a fictitious firm that the character played by the prolific Thangavelu would answer if he were asked about employment in the film Kalyana Parisu (Tamizh). So, to most of us, who lived during that memory time frame, Mannar & Co. was an honorable way of saying the person is unemployed. It also had shades of deceit, but let’s leave that aside now.

Mannar & Co

So, back to Thangavelu, the actor who should have had much more recognition and fame than he got.

K. A. Thangavelu was an actor who excelled in almost every role he played. While his comedy relied on timing and facial expressions, it did not have the physicality of a Chandrababu or Nagesh. His humor was subtle but expressive enough for anyone to understand. In other words, you didn’t need to include a caption card with the word ‘JOKE’ emblazoned in it with poster colors.

Early days

The man suffered a lot as a child and even in early adulthood. His father was an alcoholic, and his refuge, his mother, died when Thangavelu was about six. His father left Thangavelu in the care of a relative and sailed off to Singapore in search of better days.

The young Thangavelu was a servant. He had to do all the menial jobs, like washing the cattle, cleaning the house, washing vessels, and the like. The only thing that kept him sane was his love for music and dance, which he would break into whenever he felt like it.

This singing and dancing would turn on the wrath of his foster parents, but Thangavelu soldiered on. He eventually joined the Rajambal Company troupe and was taught acting and mentored initially by Yedhartham Ponnuswamy Pillai and later by M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar.

For nine years, he worked in theatre. When Kandaswamy Mudaliar moved over to the cinema, Thangavelu followed him. His first break was a small role in the film Sathi Leelavathi, the 1936 version, which was the remake of the play Pathi Bhakti. Elis R. Dungan directed the film.

Sathi Leelavathi launched the career of M.G.R., T.S.Baliah, and N.S. Krishnan, all of them became very successful actors. However, this didn’t prove a lucky break for Thangavelu, so he quit movies and had to beg at a nearby temple to feed himself. M M Marappa, an actor, spotted him at the temple and brought him back to the theatre. He became a little stable this time, and coincidentally, his errant father returned from Singapore and lived with him.

N.S. Krishnan – the superstar who saved him

N. S. Krishnan, the superstar actor-director, spotted Thangavelu in theater and gave him another lease of life in cinema. He cast him in a comical role in the film Singari. His comedic timing impressed N.S.K. so much that N.S.K reportedly gave Thangavelu an advance of Rs. 5,000. Thangavelu’s relative thought he had stolen the money from N.S.K and promptly headed out to N.S.K’s house to apologize for his ward’s stealing. It was then the relative came to know the actual worth of Thangavelu.

Thangavelu was ever thankful to N.S.K for resurrecting his career and bringing him back to films, dancing, and acting, something he loved doing. Thangavelu wore a locket that had N.S.K’s picture in it as a tribute to the man who picked him from the dumps and gave him stature.

No role fazed Thangavelu. At one time, he was pitted against P. Bhanumathi, the reigning superstar, in the movie Rambayin Kadalan. He could hold his own and not let Bhanumathi overshadow him despite her more considerable stature (and I don’t mean being obese) and star billing.

Circling back to my opening paragraph about the film Kalyana Parisu, Thangavelu married the lady that played his wife in the movie, M. Saroja, who was his second wife and several years his junior in age. They lived a happy life.

His autumn years

During his autumn years, he got a few acting jobs, which he could have had more if he had reduced his fee. He refused to do this, and so too his adamancy to act in only Tamizh films. He won the Tamil Nadu government’s Kalaimamani in 1968 and Kalaivanar award in 1989.

He shed his mortal coil in his house in Chennai in September 1994. His wife Saroja lived on until April 2012.

%d bloggers like this: