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Vol. XXXI No.7, July 16-31, 2021

When NSK was awarded the Kalaivanar title

by Karthik Bhatt


Nagercoil Sudalaimuthu Krishnan, or N.S. Krishnan as he was popularly known was Tamil cinema’s first superstar of the comedy genre. Born in 1908 in Ozhuginassery in Nagercoil, he made his debut in the movie Menaka in 1935, which was touted to be the first social in Tamil cinema. He was paid a princely sum of Rs 600 for his appearance. Over the course of the next two decades, he would go on to reign supreme as the lead comedian of several movies, almost always pairing up with his wife T.A. Madhuram. The success or failure of many a movie hinged on the couple, whose presence was specially advertised in movie posters on par with the lead actors, an indicator of their immense popularity. N.S. Krishnan’s brand of humor stood out for its ability to convey social messages in a simple manner. Social evils such as drinking, gambling, black-marketing and untouchability were regular targets of his wit.

Despite his tremendous success as an actor, N.S. Krishnan’s life was clouded by controversy arising from one of the most sensational murder cases in 20th Century Madras. In November 1944, Lakshmikanthan, the editor of Indu Nesan, a yellow journal that pried into the private lives of film and other celebrities, was stabbed fatally in General Collins Road in Vepery. Based on a statement by Lakshmikanthan’s bodyguard, the police made a series of arrests, which included N.S. Krishnan and the reigning superstar of Tamil cinema, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. The court held them guilty and sentenced them to imprisonment. However, on appeal to the Privy Council, they were acquitted in April 1947, by which time they had spent nearly two and a half years in prison. Post their release, their careers went conflicting ways. While Bhagavathar never regained the heights of his pre-incarceration popularity, N.S. Krishnan was more successful, acting for nearly a decade, with a few movies being released even after his death in 1957. That his popularity had not dimmed despite his time in prison is borne out by the fact that soon after his release, he was awarded the title of Kalaivanar, the name by which he would readily be known thereafter.

Recently, a photograph of the function in which the title was awarded was unearthed from a souvenir published on the occasion of a drama festival held to commemorate the birth centenaries of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, C. Cunniah and V.G. Surayanarayana Sastriar in 1973. It is seen that the title was awarded by an organisation in Triplicane, the Natarajar Kalvi Kazhagam at a function held on July 27, 1947. Not much is known about this institution or its founder C. Nataraja Mudaliar, a philanthropist from Kanchipuram belonging to the Sengunthar Mudaliar community. Nataraja Mudaliar is credited with being one of the founders of the Annapoorani Middle School in Saidapet and the Saidapet Co-operative Primary Land Development Bank. The Natarajar Kalvi Kazhagam runs a reading room even today in Mallan Ponnappan Street in Triplicane. Interestingly, the land on which it stands belongs to the nearby Karpaga Vinayakar Sivasubramania Swamy Temple, whose address is given as ‘Senguntha Kottam’, thereby denoting a connect.

The title was conferred by the doyen of Tamil theatre, Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar. It was in a way befitting, for N.S. Krishnan came from a theatre background like many of his contemporaries and had been associated with several Boys Companies in his formative years. His connection with Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar was an old one, for he had starred in Daasippen in 1943, a movie based on the eponymous stage play by latter. Earlier in 1941, he had also produced (under his banner Ashoka Films) and acted in the movie adaptation of Chandrahari, a spoof on the tale of Harischandra (where unlike the original the protagonist never spoke the truth!) that had been written by Mudaliar.

To the right of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar in the picture is J. Sivashanmugam Pillai, a former Mayor of Madras and then serving as the Speaker of the State Legislature. To the left of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar is T. Sundara Rao Naidu, who was then the Mayor of Madras. None of the others in the picture are identifiable.

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