Tamil cinema’s best-loved comedian, and one of its greatest actors is no more. Nagesh passed away today (Jan 31st 2009). We will never see the likes of a Nagesh again: acrobatic and versatile, he could have you in splits and then in tears. He had a genius for the tragic-comic. You could even go so far as to call him India’s most accomplished comic; a national
treasure. Anyone who needs any persuading need only look at that classic, beloved scene in Kathalika Nerumillai, when he pitches a script to his stingy father, Baliah. Not just Indians unfamiliar with Tamil, but even foreigners are charmed by Nagesh’s perfect comic timing here.
His most memorable performances as hero are from Ethir Neechal and Server Sundaram (where he plays a waiter whose dreams of becoming a star come true). As comedian supporting the hero, there are too many to list, but what comes to mind straightaway are those vintage MGR and Sivaji movies, Anbe Va and Thiruvilayadal (his soliloquy as a poet here is known by heart by many Tamil movie aficionados).
In the 80s, when his career had sagged, K. Balachander had him appear as himself in Thillu Mullu and his one-liner dialogue here become famous: “Adhuthan Nagesh”, and Kamal Hassan in a brilliant casting coup had him play a villain in Apoorva Sahodaragal. As villain he gave a galvanizing performance that clearly told the cinema world Nagesh was back. Kamal began to regularly cast him. Nagesh was hilarious in Michael Madana Kamaraj. Perhaps Nagesh’s most subtle and powerful performance is again Kamal’s doing: as the principal in Nammavar who loses his daughter. That scene where he is inconsolable and begins talking incoherently, is one of the most remarkable performances in Tamil cinema.
Is it any wonder that once Balachander, seeing Rajini (early in his career) struggle with a scene, quipped to the Superstar: “If it was Nagesh by now he would have given me five expressions.” He was a natural. Born for cinema, born to entertain. Born to a Kannadiga Brahmin family, he left home to try his fortunes in Madras. There he struggled doing odd jobs (wikipedia tells us he shared a “one room bed sit at West Mambalam with lyricist Vaali and actor Srikanth”) not unlike his characters in Server Sundaram and Edhir Neechal).
One day he saw a play and felt strongly that he could do better. He pleaded to be in the next play, and MGR who was the chief guest for the event singled out Nagesh’s performance. He stayed with theatre for a long time until his first little break in cinema. Once he started, there was no stopping him from rising to dizzy heights and completing more than a thousand films. People loved him for the grace and agility with which he danced – his steps were something that even the hero could not manage to pull off. His early role model was Jerry Lewis, but he soon outgrew that slapstick phase and found his own style: that poignant mix of the tragic and the comic. And just look at how distinguished his career as been – from acting along with MGR and Sivaji to Kamal and Rajini. Dasavatharam was like his swan song and, once again, it was his old buddy Kamal, who gave this gift to him.
Well, he was a gift to all of us. We are grateful to you, Nagesh, for entertaining us, for moving us, for making us laugh till we cried.