The success of Velaikkari (1949), written by C.N. Annadurai, where I played two roles – a rich man’s son in love with the poor housemaid, as well as a lecherous guru – was largely instrumental in burnishing my image as a bad man with the masses. The movie, with MGR in the lead, was well received and proved to be a roaring success. Perhaps it was because of this movie, but the offers that came my way thereafter were all for negative roles.

M.N. Nambiar, the much-hated villain of Tamil cinema, was born and here to stay. It was the perfect hit to end a decade where I had started to make a real mark in Tamil cinema.

Anna, who had just formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), used Velaikkari to spread his message. The film was based on a successful play of the same name and was essentially a vehicle to expound the party’s ideology.

MGR and me

In many ways, my name will forever be associated with MGR’s. One actor is seldom spoken about without the mention of the other. Many people would ask me if we were the best of friends, and enquire about the times we spent together and all the experiences we shared. There was a certain aura of mystery about the man and, to a large extent, our careers fed off of one another’s successes. For almost fifty years, we went through life’s vagaries together; we entered the field at around the same time and our careers soared because of the box office hits that we both starred in. MGR, the Good Samaritan who cared only for goodness, and Nambiar, whose very entry invoked fear and abuse in theatres everywhere.

If I had a rupee for every time someone in the theatre abused me during my introduction scene, I could have retired as Tamil cinema’s first millionaire. The MGR-Nambiar enmity was taken so literally by fans that, for some of them, reel life had truly merged into real life. Enga Veetu Pillai (1965) was one of our biggest hits together, especially because of the scene where I whip MGR across every step of a massive staircase in a lavish bungalow. This was a remake of N.T. Rama Rao’s Ramudu Bheemudu (1964), a big hit in Andhra Pradesh. MGR played the roles of the twins with great aplomb – one was a gentle coward and the other was a maverick braveheart. After having whipped the cowardly MGR into submission (with much abuse from the audience), I get my comeuppance from the courageous MGR across the very steps where I’d previously whipped his twin, this time to thunderous whistles and claps from an ecstatic audience.

Real life merged into real life

Here’s a classic case of reel life merging into real life: on my way to a shooting spot one day, I paused at the railway gate (the spot where the Kodambakkam bridge is now) when five thugs appeared out of nowhere and asked how I could beat their elder brother up.

The men demanded I step out of the car, which is when I had a strong feeling that this was going to end up as: a) a real-life fight scene, and b) badly for me. Before any fisticuffs could happen, the leader of this crew again demanded to know how I’d had the temerity to thrash their anna. I had no idea what they were on about so, as they inched closer menacingly, I replied that I did not know who they were in the first place, let alone their anna. Puzzled, the goons had a quick meeting, then demanded to know if I had accepted money to beat up their MGR anna.

The veil of confusion slowly cleared and I quickly understood the nonsensical train of thought that had led them to this grand conclusion; that I, the evil Nambiar, had taken money from equally villainous producers and directors to beat up their elder brother. Heaving a sigh of relief at this display of buffoonish loyalty, I asked them why they did not object to MGR beating me to a pulp at the climax of every film. Indignant, they explained that the virtuous MGR had every right to beat me, but that I was not to repay the favour henceforth. Since the concept of logic or sense seemed alien to these loyalists, and with self-preservation at the top of my agenda, I reassured them that I would never again lay a finger on their anna. In a bizarre end to that encounter, I heard the men shout ‘MGR anna-vin nanban Nambiar, vazhga’ (long live MGR’s friend) as I sped away.

Excerpted with permission from Nambiarswami The Good, the Bad and the Holy, MN Dipak Nambiar, HarperCollins India.

Courtesy HarperCollins India.