Readers Write In #18: The Classic Actor in Tamil Cinema

Posted on June 10, 2017


If one were to rethink T S Elliot’s illuminating article with cinema as the pivot and ask “Who is the classic actor” within the realms of Tamil cinema, a couple of names would immediately spring to mind. Following old industry practices, the names in the order of their appearances are Sivaji, Nagesh & Kamalji. The slightest mention of the names immediately brings to mind the vivid characters they have played. Before we immerse ourselves onto the screen persona of these performers and clutter our logical mind with dramatic images, I would like to lay down the bounds within which we want to find our classic actor. The finite contours are an imprecise way to assess the infinite qualities of art. Also, the performance arcs of these actors are so wide that each one could be termed as a classic within distinct silhouettes. Nevertheless, the endeavor shall begin and remain sacrosanct until another parallel has been found to identify our ‘classic actor’. It is important to clarify, though, that all these actors are great performers and have significantly enriched the acting school of thought.

As we embark to understand the meaning of ‘classic’ from an acting standpoint, the word that closely relates is ‘Diversity’. Diversity (by its nomenclature) has to be diverse and has to represent an embodiment of several facets.  The facet that I would like to focus on is roles. Diversity of roles that an actor gets to perform defines his/her canvass. There could be three primary roles that we could think of –

  1. a) Leading role also known as the hero in a formulaic sense or protagonist in the literary sense
  2. b) Antagonist role – the role that purportedly obstructs the protagonist
  3. c) Character role – the supporting roles that aid the protagonist or the antagonist in achieving their objective

The type of roles serve as useful indicators to lay the bedrock of the ‘necessary’ attributes of the classical actor hypothesis. While the necessary part can be broadly applied to all actors, there needs to be a search for sufficient attributes that fulfill the Tamil classical actor arena. The two distinct ‘sufficient’ attributes are comedy and dance. Comedy and dance has been an integral part of Tamil cinema and it would be a grave injustice to identify a classic actor who does not possess these traits.

The focus on the next part of this article would be to subjectively pass certain performances of the actors through the established necessary-sufficient prism.


Sivaji made his entry with a bang delivering his dialogue as if Parasakthi, the goddess came to life. The leading role brought to light an actor who could not only shift the tone of his delivery but also his Tamil diction to various roles – the rich elegant businessman in Motor Sundaram Pillai to the rowdy in Bale Pandiya to Shivaperuman in Thiruvilayaadal. There has never been an actor before or after (till now) who has been able to speak Tamil with such nano-nuancing clarity at giga-breaking speed. Sivaji’s leading roles have always produced strong performances throughout his career, though some (as witnessed in Gauravam, Thirisoolam to mention a few) bordered on the lines of theatrical acting reaching unwarranted decibel limits. He excelled in roles that had a tight family story that represents sacrifice and sympathy.

The antagonist roles (Bale Pandiya, Navarathiri) did what was needed but could not outweigh his excellence in solid sacrificing family roles. His collaboration with Bhimsingh on the ‘Pa’ series stands as a good example of melodramatic cinema delivering balanced performances. Much of the character roles came during his later years with the then popular heroes (Devar Magan, Padayappa) where typically a significant portion of the first half of the movie was devoted to Sivaji. These roles had a leadership aspect that could be compared to the upright roles he essayed as the leading protagonist.

Though Galatta kalyanam was a comedy feature, the humour section was taken care more by Nagesh, Cho & Thangavelu. His best comedy performance came much earlier in Bale Pandiya where Pandian’s interactions with M R Radha (one, his caretaker and another his would be father-in-law) produced one of the most delightful sequences in Tamil cinema. Dancing might be a loaded word to use for Sivaji and style walk might be a better term to describe his movements during song sequences. Sivaji would be poignantly remembered for two types of roles – affectionately family & authoritative upright.


A child prodigy. It seems acting was his destiny though his early aspirations to become a technician manifests clearly in some of his movies on screen. It would be just to refer K. Balachander at the start while talking about Kamal who was instrumental in making him deliver the most romantic performances till the end of 1980s (Ninaithaale Inikkum, Manmadha leelai, Punnagai Mannan). His leading role in masala(I mean, in a nice way) movies such as Sagalakala Vallavan, Thoogathe thambi Thoongathe, Kalyana Raman, Kakki Sattai catapulted him to stardom. It had to be Kamal’s charisma that did the trick in these movies since we are not able to find anything significantly different in terms of acting prowess. His leading roles became more varied after the ‘Nayakan’ era – Aboorva Sagodharargal, Mahanadhi, Kuruthipunal & Hey Ram.

Sigappu Rojakkal was a leading antagonistic role effortlessly played by Kamal that glued us into his mesmerizing smile only to be frightened by his menacing looks towards the climax. A much smaller negative role played later in Dasavatharam as Fletcher had a lot of style but no substance.

One of Kamal’s unique contribution to Tamil cinema has been one in which he has played the comedy role as the leading protagonist. His performances in Michael Madhana Kama Rajan, Sathi Leelavathi, Avvai Shanmughi, PKS, Panchathanthiram (and the list goes on…) are antidotes to dull and sorrowful minds. He had a wide variety of skills in his dance armory – Salangai Oli & Viswaroopam (Unnai Kaanaadha) for the purists and Kadhala Kadhala for the proletariat.

Rather than referring Kamal as a diverse actor, it is best fit to revere him as a complete film maker (choreographer, singer, make-up artist, lyricist, script writer, and director).


Starting in the cinema industry with small roles, he rose to great heights in Server Sundaram (the movie had a similar theme of an anonymous guy’s journey from hotel light to lime light). The hallmark of a great actor in a leading role is the ability to translate into that character completely such that the audience forget the actor and remember the character for ages. This is what Nagesh accomplished in Ethir Neechal & Neerkumizhi. It would be difficult to not imagine Madhu when you see someone living with their belongings under the staircase of a foot over bridge.

I find it extremely difficult to demarcate Nagesh performances as distinctly supporting or comedy or antagonistic roles. He danced with grace, danced with joy & danced with sorrow. Look at the way he slides, glides & jumps in Neerkumizhi – Kanni Nathiyoram and then later gently hip hops towards the end of the movie in a solid philosophical song (Aadi adangum). If you gently shed a tear for this, he broke you down with an amazing stretch in Nammavar (A performance that deserves a separate writing piece) when he finds about his daughter’s death – It starts with a sublime explanation of keeping a pillow under her head. He follows up with a brilliant rendering of this dialogue “Inime ethukku doctor..Ohh….enakka” and then dances at her funeral and collapses. A Nagesh stretch where a series of emotions (Helplessness, love & sorrow) were portrayed that you did not know where one ended and the other began.

It is important to mention his negative shaded roles (Thillaana Moganaambaal, Aboorva Sagodharargal) since there was something new and fresh in it. I believe this is where Nagesh was different – he took the acting template for leading role/comedy/antagonist roles infused with his acting skill that the resultant performance on screen cannot be defined as nothing else but art – the art of Nagesh.

If Sivaji and Kamal’s acting canvass are considered as breath taking tall towers with illuminating lights, Nagesh’s oeuvre is that of a hand sculpted ancient statue with subtle curves. Kamal is carrying on the mantle that Sivaji held for decades. The space that Nagesh occupied is still void.  It is with a pleading wish to the nature to fill this space that we conclude the classic actor in Tamil cinema is Nagesh – the stylish dancer, the villainous comedian, the comic villain, the character protagonist or to briefly put it, the “classican”.

This post is written by Jose Ranjit.