The ‘constants’ of Tamil cinema

Cinema can make people immune to time. It is said that no one can escape the ravages of time, but cinema is one place where the time can be outsmarted for a short while. Of course, time has the ultimate say. By outsmarting time, one means the way in which cinema artistes are enabled to belie age to play characters that are years apart from their real self. Cinema has enabled actors to play characters who are years younger or older than their real self. When we talk about actors who have belied time to slip into characters that hugely different in age from themselves we naturally tend to think about lead actors and actresses. Kamal Haasan might be the first name that comes to our mind for films like Indian, Dasavatharam etc. Suriya too will appear high on this list for the recent performances in Vaaranam Aayiram where he displayed a variety of age groups and Adhavan where he pulled off (with the help of a lot of graphics) even the role of a 10 year old boy. Sukanya will be remembered for fast forwarding time by almost half a century in Indian. Of course, this is nothing amazing considering the amount of technology and resources

available. Bringing back youth to a man who is more than just middle aged is done on a regular basis in Indian cinema. Make up techniques, camera and lighting angles and elaborate post production corrections make all this possible and we have seen enough of it to almost take it for granted; it is an integral part of cinema. We have reached a point where generations are reversed and a nearly 70 year old man will be playing the son of his real life son on screen (Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan in Paa).

Rolling back/ahead of time with technology is no longer news. But, when Sachin Tendulkar rolled back the years at Hyderabad to relive the magic of 1998 in 2009, it was not technology, it was timeless genius in full flow and the world took notice. But this column is not about the superstars who managed to turn time around. It is about another fascinating lot of people who seem to have the skill of freezing time. For them it is as if time never moved, they always remain the same. Now, do you recall any actor/actress who has been around for more than two decades and yet has shown little or no signs of aging or changing? Might be tough to recall their names straight away, but the faces will sure be familiar. Do you recall the lady who has so often played Kamal Haasan’s grandmother over the past 20 years, from Thevar Magan to Virumaandi? She has been a grandmother or mother on screen all her career. It might be hard to believe, but she has been grandmother even to Sivaji Ganesan in his heydays. No one can recall this lady having been seen in a young role. Obviously, she couldn’t have been old enough to be a granny even in Sivaji’s times. And, if she is still able to act in movies, it does mean that she should have been quite young in those days. Yet, very curiously she has always been the ‘paati’ and nothing else and she has never changed.

There are quite a few actors in the same mould, the real ages of whom remain a wild guess for us audiences. Vennira Aadai Murthy has been the middle aged man ever since he arrived on screen, one cannot recall him doing anything else. It is as if he made his debut as a middle aged man and stayed exactly that way ever since, not changing a wee bit even today. Delhi Ganesh has always been the heroine’s father/uncle etc…. or someone in that age group. It can be safely said that he has been around for at least 25 years and this is what he has always done (sad for an actor who has amazing variety). He has not changed much in the way of looks, voice or body language-quite amazing. Same can be said about Cochin Haneefa, the man who came to fame with Mahanadi. He had begun his career much earlier in Malayalam and has always been doing the 40 something characters. The only change that he underwent is the shift from rather serious and villainous roles to the more comic ones. Otherwise, the stout build, the paunch and the curly hair have looked like they have been set in stone over decades. Comedian Charlie is perhaps the best example of constancy. He has been around for nearly three decades now and still does not look even an inch different from what he was when he made his debut, still fit to pass off as a college student, one feels. If Charlie has remained forever young in his career, then the Late Poornam Vishwanathan is at the opposite end of the spectrum. For as long as he acted, he was always the man past 60, retired and looking forward to a quiet life at home with his family. That is how he started and he never seemed to age beyond that point.

Then there are the lesser known names (but very familiar faces at the same time). Think about the Late Omakuchi Narasimhan. It always looked as if time had ceased for this diminutive man, he had been the same for all the years that he did small but memorable roles on screen. Maybe there were small changes that were noticeable over the last 3-4 years, but even they were nothing much. Another contemporary of Omakuchi Narasimhan who has ‘always been the same’ is ‘Pasi’ Narayanan. The name might not be instantly recognizable, but everyone will definitely remember the ‘Narayana’ from the memorable scene in Suriyan who tells Goundamani that the telephone has been out of order for two weeks. Another man who falls in the same category is ‘Oruviral’ Krishna Rao, who was famously termed by Vivek as the ‘Raymond’s model’ in a movie; it seemed as if he had always been a bald old man.

Really, all this talk of how actors and actresses have maintained a surprising level of constancy over a period of decades might sound insignificant. One might have to agree that it is true, but, some of the actors mentioned here have at times become the best and perhaps only choice for certain kinds of roles. How some people manage to do it? We do not know. But, this is proof of the fact that it is not only the heroes and heroines who can manipulate the years according to the demands on screen.

(By Sudhakar, with inputs from Arun.)

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