If there is a ballot on the most popular word in the Tamil film world , perhaps the winner hands down would be ‘Anne’ (Elder brother, or is the suggestion at Big Brother). ‘Anne’ has different connotations and different echos. Any selling hero becomes ‘Anne’ to one and all, and especially his male fans. (The hero would shudder to think of his female admirers addressing him so). But when the hero himself uses it to address those elder to him it is a sure sign of his humility.
The cake on its usage goes to veteran composer M. S. Viswanathan …Visu had had humble beginnings as an attender boy in Central Studios before he made it big and was fond of addressing the light boy as ‘light boy anne’ and the attender boy as ‘attender boy anne’. Once his lyricist pal Kannadasan remarked that Visu was so respectful that he would end up referring to Vijayawa-da as Vijayava-anne!
In a world used to sychophancy, there was one man who cut it out completely…the nothing if original Chandrababu. Even M.G.R., who was more than Anne to lesser mortals, who was Vaadhiyar, Thalaivar, even Purathi Nadigar (revolutionary actor), was only ‘Mr. M.G.R’ to Chandrababu. He saw nothing revolutionary in MGR’s acting, not even one revolution. One must say that this sort of spunk, along with Chandrababu’s habit of calling a spade a spade and an ass an ass, earned him a lot of enemies. The tragedy was that Chandrababu who knew a spade for a spade did not know the enemy for the enemy. It was this naivete that finally sealed his fate.
I came late to Chandrababu in many ways. Films, mostly at the neighbourhood cinema– now defunct and straddled by a huge residential complex – had become a habit with me early enough. But by then Chandrababu’s heydey at the wrong end of the fifties had fled past. Though even his great performance in Sabhash Meena, in which he outshone Sivaji Ganesan in histrionics did not please the kid in me, I could feel the electricity in the cinema hall, especially among the front rows, when Chandrababu appeared as a rickshawpuller. Here was a man who knew how to carry himself stylishly in nattily cut trousers and shirts, and smoke his triple fives in the manner of a Westerner, being more slummish than the lowliest slumdweller. They adored him.
One later heard that Chandrababu would stop his speeding fiat – along with Gemini Ganesan, he was known to be the fastest and most intrepid of drivers in the film world—and talk to them. In his case it was just his way of being friendly. There was no question of the great star and the genuflecting fan. For MGR it would have been an opportunity to show he was a demi-god. For Chandrababu it was his way of confirming his humanity and theirs.
Interestingly both MGR and Chandrababu had seen the worst privations in their early years. MGR had gotten into the boys company while Chandrababu was the standup comedian of the streets. If later Chandrababu tried to build himself a swanky mansion with the facility of driving his car straight up to his bedroom in the first floor, it was, I suspect, to browbeat the film crowd. In his lowly years he had been insulted enough by film producers and their men. He would now make them cringe. His friend of many years, film villain R.S. Manohar would plead with him not to make producers carry his tin of cigarettes. ‘You don’t know…this is the only language they understand, ’ Babu would reply (Manohar, a distant look in his eyes, shared this with me himself).
Chandrababu was of hardy fisherman stock from Tuticorin. I have heard that when the livelihood of these fishermen was threatened in the past by invading Muslim gangs, the Portuguese came to their rescue…on condition that they converted to Christianity! They did, and got some education too. Chandrababu’s father Joseph Rodrigues who was neck deep in the freedom struggle was into Tamil journalism. He had a brood of thirteen children — Chandrababu was somewhere in the middle order — but the family had to pay for Rodrigues’ temerity of cocking a snook at the British administration. He was jailed, sentenced and later had to cool his heels in Colombo .
Chandrababu’s early childhood doesn’t seemed to have suffered because of the family’s vicissitudes. He had his schooling in Colombo and picked up some Sinhala. He would sing for Sinhala films in later years. When asked whether he knew Sinhala, he would say Honthata Puluvang…(I believe, ‘ I know it well’).
The real tamasha began when the family finally set up in Madras (as it was then called) in crowded Triplicane. Rodrigues had suffered losses in many ways and was hard put to make ends meet with a job in a newspaper. But Chandrababu, just out of school with a disastrous record, seemed totally insensitive to the situation. He was indisciplined, disrespectful, and seemed to be a misfit in decent society. Why, he was turning into a real buffoon, mimicking everybody he set eyes on. This was the cold winter of discontent for Chandrababu, the long night through which he ultimately reached his rosy dawn, the lonely journey through which he finally vindicated himself.
He was just above 14…and he was more often than not hungry and on the pavement. Really the Chaplin scenario for the would be Chaplin. But he had only to walk south down the Marina for some minutes before he reached Santhome and the company of friends his age. One of them was Vedachalam, later known to Tamil cinema as Veda, a prolific copyist music director of Hindi tunes. Another was Ramu, later to be known as Tabela Ramu in the film music field.
The Santhome beach in the fifties had not yet been swamped by slums, and the gang had a great time dreaming cinema and music on its sands. Chandrababu would sing, dance, mimic, act….and the friends would either bring him some food or buy him a meal. In this way Chandrababu discovered his life’s calling…he was an actor…he would interpret to men and women the secrets of their hearts…he would bring them face to face with their emotions.
Chandrababu stumbled on the secret of art too…the artist should mingle with the people, observe them, partake of their joys and sorrows, and become the mirror in which they see their faces. Not for him the idol who removed himself from the masses…he knew he was special…but he knew he was special because he loved those around him and could understand them better than others.
This was one of the reasons why Chandrababu was not afraid of penury…he knew there would always be somebody to share his burden…to bear his cross at least for some moments.
Rodrigues might have thought that his vagrant son was on the wrong path. He was thoroughly wrong. Chandrababu had an unerring instinct to seek out great men and learn from them. He met dancers, sculptors, writers, directors, actors, composers…across the spectrum. He had a woman friend, some years his senior, who tutored him in English, not sparing the rod when he mispronounced a word! This lady ensured that his English was excellent. (A bit of research, as yet unverified, suggests that she taught English in a woman’s college in the city).
One of those Chandrababu met was B. S. Ramiah, a writer of the Manikkodi group who also directed films. (I had the opportunity to meet Ramiah in the mid eighties, and found him to be a genial hail-fellow-well-met type). Ramiah was impressed by Chandrababu’s approach to acting, and cast him as one of two chettiars in a comedy role in a film titled Dhana Amaravathi. How the lean and famished Chandrababu of those days could have been passed off as a chettiar is beyond our understanding only until we look up who was cast as the other chettiar – the hefty ‘Pulimoottai’ Ramasamy. The director perhaps wanted to model them on Laurel and Hardy. Chandrababu is said to have had to get written permission from his father to act in the film. The film’s failure made all the effort seem a waste.
But Chandrababu had drawn first blood and would follow the celluloid trail like a bloodhound. Chandrababu heard that Gemini Vasan had not been unhappy about his performance and wanted to expose him to his acting talent. Chandrababu had had high hopes about getting a good reception from the movie moghul but when he found the doors of the studio shut for him, his world seemed to crash. ‘Such a huge sprawling studio…and no place for a true actor like me…’ He wrote a letter to Vasan, and mixed copper sulphate in a glass of water and gulped it down.
Mayil-thutham, as it is called in Tamil, is available in shops selling Siddha drugs and is commonly used as poison. If it is absorbed into the system – which would start three hours after ingestion – the kidneys, and then the liver could be irreversibly damaged. But thankfully for Chandrababu, his act was discovered after he had taken the potion and he was admitted to hospital. He escaped death as well as imprisonment for attempted suicide.
Gemini Vasan too seems to have forgiven Chandrababu the attempt – he later gave him a small role in a film called Moondru Pillaigal (could have been a break secured by Ganesh, later Gemini Ganesh, who worked in the casting department of the studio and was Chandrababu’s friend). Chandrababu played a music director in the film.
Many of the opportunities Chandrababu got in films of the early fifties were insignificant. But he managed to insinuate himself into the unyielding story line and create opportunities where there were none. He had a good press and was always recognised as a genius, if quite an eccentric one, and soon he was acting with the stars of the fifties, MGR and Sivaji, who were growing more and more influential by the day.
Chandrababu’s marriage in 1958 was a gala event, the talk of the town. Traffic on car -swamped Santhome high road came to a standstill – the marriage was solemnized at the Santhome church – and the reception at minister Lourdammal Simon’s residence on Greenways road was attended by anybody who was somebody in cinema and politics, including of course chief minister Kamaraj.
The bride was a beauty, just 17 (Chandrababu was 30), and half English. Chandrababu was broadminded and could take past discontinuous infidelity. But he was not prepared for present continuous incest. Despite all the girls and all the drugs and alcohol, Chandrababu was a devout Catholic, and that was not only the end of that marriage for him, it was the final blow to all matrimony.
The next blow came from MGR whom Chandrababu had described in print as a Mighty Graceless Rapscallion. The man who had been perceived by another director in the earlier decade as a ‘well endowed mythological pillar’ for being expressionless, perhaps first took the expansion to be a tribute. But there was no misunderstanding the message – quit acting was Chandrababu’s advice to MGR!
This affront notwithstanding, Chandrababu booked MGR for a film he was a direct, and tasted the fruits of treachery. It was not long before Chandrababu discovered that the film was meant to be a quicksand that sucked up all his property and remaining enthusiasm for life.
In later years, MGR appeared to be generous enough to dole some small roles to Chandrababu in his films and pay him handsomely. They were the ultimate insults MGR had the satisfaction of heaping on an already tottering Chandrababu. Kannadasan, the famous lyricist, was another unlikely foe. He had cast Chandrababu as the main protagonist in his Kavalai Illaadha Manidhan, but never forgave him for the travails that followed. Sadly, he too played his part, small though it was, in turning the actor into a sinking ship.
Apart from marvellous performances in some films (including Sabhash Meena, Sahodari), Chandrababu directed an interesting film called ‘Thattungal Thirakkapadum’ featuring his favourite actress Savitri and admirer K. R. Vijaya. His credits in the films show what a versatile man he was. Apart from donning the role of a deaf mute, he was responsible for direction, story, screenplay and dance direction (with Thangappan). He had also been involved in the production and sung a song.
It was a fairly good film, but did not do well, with Chandrababu blaming his co-producers for mindlessly butchering the climax. Only the abyss remained. Actresses trooped in and out of his bed. Alcohol flowed without restraint. Pethidine took pain to the point of paroxysm. Relatives plundered what little was left.
When I asked Manohar what indeed reduced him to paupery, ‘Pauper?’, he would ask, and go on to say, ‘Beggary… he was reduced to beggary’. Even then, there were friends who knew the real Chandrababu and commiserated with him.
On his part, Chandrababu perhaps thought that it was the last and greatest role he was playing. Really, it was the most poignant and inscrutable one of his life…life bigger than the grandest art man can conceive.
His funeral at the Quibble Island cemetery near Foreshore Estate in 1974 was another great event. The place was cordoned off by the police even as film world dignitaries and politicians trooped in to pay their last disrespects. M.R. Radha, the actor who knew how to prosper despite being at odds with society said the last word about his brother non-conformist – ‘You would not permit him to live…Allow him now to rest in peace’.
That he may. But I am sure he will not let us get away lightly. The cable and digital revolution have dug up many of his forgotten films and revived memories. The songs he rendered in his unforgettable bass voice continue to haunt millions. Only the naïve presume he is dead and gone. That is why, one would like to believe, not many go to his grave even on All Souls Day. Chandrababu is in the air, alive and kicking.
(This article first appeared in SouthSide)