Acting is an art that keeps transforming in the eyes of the connoisseur with time. What is great acting today might seem out of place a few decades from now. So while judging actors, it would be fair in my opinion to take into account the era they acted in. So when I talk about Sivaji Ganesan, an actor who makes me make time to watch him whenever I think of him, I will take into account the era he serviced in. It would be fair to say that the particular era in Tamil films I’m talking about emphasized on actors to hyperdramatize their characters on screen. I shall use this word for Nadigar Thilagam because while he was made to overact terribly in a lot of films from the late 70s onward, his early films, the first 150 odd at least, are predominantly hyperdramatized portrayals co-existing with some incredibly underplayed roles. So if you are wondering what my point is, it’s that it is possible to appreciate what depth and range the actor has been able to convey within the confines of what his era appreciated. What an era appreciated may not last. Taste keeps changing. But the depth and range of the artiste will stay. It does with Nadigar Thilagam (NT) in my opinion.
A couple of examples of his range and depth here. And I mean range not over decades or years or between films or even in the same film. I’m talking of range in a single sequence.
Exhibit 1: Paartha Nyaabagam Illayo, Pudhiya Paravai.
The song starts with NT lighting a cigar and puffing into space. He is an audience awaiting a performance and he is relaxing (absolutely no emotion). His tuxedo, cigar and the high end club he is in, tells us that he is rather affluent. Dancers begin their dance. He awaits. Just his screen presence there conveys that he is waiting. The performer enters (Sowcar) and begins singing. NT just tilts his head up (to have a look at the performer. The tilt suggests that he wants to see who it is). Is she singing to him, kindling an old story? We might never know, and considering his affluence and her “vampish” demeanor, it’s possible. Or she could just be singing to the audience and the guy could just be taking it straight from her to him. So as she sings, he begins to settle into the ambiance, smokes and is soaking the atmosphere in and gauging her. At around 1:10, he isn’t looking at her, but from him looking at the table and puffing smoke into the air, it is evident he is chewing her lines and ruminating on them, a light titillation on his face being evident. As she proceeds into her song, at Neela Nadhi karai Oram and Naan Paadi Vandhen Oru Raagam, he is impressed. He is sucked into her performance now. His eyes don’t waver or blink. His hands take the cigar to his mouth and the wine to his lips. But no, even his eyebrows are on her. She has him in her zone with her performance now. At around 2 minutes as she finishes her stanza, he smiles. A kid-like smile, biting his finger. This is a kid that has seen a toy it is smitten by and wants it. What a terrific transition from wanting to see to wanting. With just the eyes and body language. Restrained all the while. At 2:16, she moves to her right. On cue, NT ever so lightly tilts to his left. His eyes follow her! How did he bring it on screen with such a perfect stitch! Terrific direction and editing by Dada Mirasi by N.M. Shankar respectively? Maybe. Or just a moment made possible by NT? Take you guess. But to be able to see where the shot is cut for another actor and to take over from where the other person left off at ‘take’ with this amount of precision is excellence. At 3:00, as she sings Un manadhai Kel adhu sollum, he is rubbing his fingers on his lips, his eyes not moving from her. He is infatuated. His carnal cravings have apparently been kindled. He tastes his cigar and licks his finger awaiting the next shot from her. He raises a toast from him to her. Finally, he smokes the cigar and it’s clear that he wants her.
No emotion to waiting for something catching the eye to being impressed by it to be drawn by it to being smitten and infatuated by it to utterly being obsessed by it and wanting it. He has all of 30 seconds’ screen time in this 4 minute song (interspersed over the song). He has about 7 shots on him. He is sitting. He has only his hands and face to emote and act. He has no dialogues to tell us his changing emotions. He is constrained literally and restrained artistically. Yet he traverses the above mentioned emotions in one go and translates it to us. In Sir Viv’s parlance, he’s asking us to go fetch it.
Exhibit 2: The treachery of Ettappan. Veerapandiya Kattabomman.
Kattabomman is meditating with his eyes closed.
A Karunanidhi: *rants desperately* on to “Ettappan uLavu koorinAn.”
Kattabomman glances sideways with only a lift of the right eyebrow to convey he’s been brought back to the material world. Shot zooms in. He was praying to the Lord when this unexpected news reached him. He is coming out of his worship with a “Muruga” and goes on contemplatively philosophizing about the yins and the yangs of life. Obviously the meditative calm is wearing off due to Ettappan’s treachery. He contemplates till he speaks about Ettappan after which an understated but disappointed “pch” escapes him at Ettappan’s betrayal. The man is naturally gutted. But he prepares himself for what is to happen and braving the betrayal, he screams instructions to A. Karunanidhi and inspires everyone around. The camera zooms out as though afraid of his wrath (such is the screen presence). The screams of “VetrivEl VeeravEl” even rouses me in my chair as he inspires his Maravar koottam (He himself was a Naicker but Kallar, Maravar and Agamudaiyaar of the Mukkulam, precisely coming in Thevar Magan as NT, Periya Thevar, talks a couple of hundred years on about what happened a century and a half later from Kattabomman’s time as this “KaattumiraaNdi paya koottam took the vElkambs and aruvaas and went VetrivEl VeeravEl as Subas Chandra Bose called”. Essentially the same actor. But what a transition from Kattabomma Naickudu (yes he was of Telugu descent and may have only spoken a Tamil smattered with Telugu but Sivaji’s hyperdramatization of a brave heart was just spot on) to Periya Thevar!) What is more is, he is able to convey a meditative calm which transforms itself to a calm disappointment which leads to disappointed anger which morphs itself to the necessary righteous rage. All genuine. All inside 1 minute. No wonder he blew the jury of the Afro-Asian festival in Cairo away in 1959.
PS: A tribute:
From 1:27 to 1:31 (momentarily saw some Rajnikanth rage there; I mean Rajni is obviously gotten inspired) and from 2:08 to 2:12. That is real arrogance and rage translating for you through a mere film still through the actor’s eyes. He is what I call a பிறவி கலைஞன்.