Agony and ecstacy of being J. P. Chandrababu

Posted: December 27, 2009 in Uncategorized

 Chandrababu strikes a comic pose 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)

  1. Joseph Dias says:

    In my above comment “JP” may pl. be read as “JCB”. Regret the inadvertent error

  2. Joseph Dias says:

    Hope u didn’t have an axe to grind in highlighting the negative aspects of JP’s relations with MGR, despite JP’s abrasive ways. Sivaji is known to be diabolic – the severing of ties with BR Pantulu, Bhim Singh, TMS … are sad pointers. JP was doomed, as he was not blest that his vicissitudes be cushioned by his better-half. One need not be aghast that at 30 he was immature to have chosen a wrong partner. The lure of the lady is devastating, it blinds the man. Nature has endowed woman with undulating charms for the delight of the man, but in adversity, they could turn into weapons of mass destruction, leaving the man decimated, by the wayside, like in JP’s case. His brash ways, the offshoot of his rags-to-riches affliction, may have repelled well meaning friends, depriving him of timely, sincere advice. Reduced to solitude, his inability to grapple with the overwhelming thrust of fame and fortune, has nipped the talented JP from blossoming into fruition. The relentless Casanova that he was, the unmistakable hall mark of some in the film industry, anywhere, has left him in tatters, eroded and corroded. Under the circumstances, how would MGR and Sivaji be culpable?

  3. dinesh says:

    A very good article with interesting information. Is there any book on chandrababu available. Pls advise.

  4. javk says:

    i hav always been thinking wat happnd 2 him, genius he is, but now i found the culprit. thx for this article

  5. DHANRAJ says:

    Chandrababu may be multifaceted, but he was a undisciplined character, did not respect any of his co-stars, producers. He tortured producers like anything. He was a womanizer. MGR did not act in his film, because chandrababu was having an affair with his co-producer’s wife. that co-producer came and cried to MGR. MGR called chandrababu and requested him to leave the affair. But he did not heed MGR advice and insulted him. Talent cannot be a yardstick for such acts. He deserved to die like a beggar.

  6. kirubakaran says:

    dear vamanan sir ,
    y dont u publish the same in tamil…….?

  7. Sir,
    My question dated November 11th 2013 was not understood properly. There was no intention
    of blaming Gemini or MGR in that question. I only wanted to know why he did not render any song in some of those films? That point is not addressed in your answer sir! I am not blaming or criticizing your good self for that. Since you have researched so much I thought you may know
    the reason and hence that question. Sorry if I am bothering you too much on this-Vijayakumar

  8. why is it that in some films JPC was not asked to sing any song?(egAdiperukku)2.In some films
    others have lent their voice to him (egParakkum pavai,Annai) Any idea Vamanan sir?-S.A.Vijayakumar

    • Mahendra says:

      Yes. He was a great actor. No one is having a second thought about it. But why bring Gemini or MGR or Sivaji into this, as if they were the reasons for his death or suicide, whatever. As told above, his behavior with his co-actors and producers was the main reason for his failure in cine world. His life style of heavy drinking, drugs and womanising were the reasons for his poverty and death.

  9. I feel one need not look into the personal aspects of great performers JPC’s personal life and research over that. It does not serve any useful constructive purpose. We could limit ourselves with admiration/criticism for his performance on the silver screen and his unique style of rendering songs.-S.A.Vijayakumar

  10. jknaren says:

    To all who have given comments on J.P.Chandra Babu about his talents. one cannot really doubt the talent of Mr Chandra Babu. But everyone should know that the talent when one person possess helps him to elevate to a higher status does not mean u keep insulting a leading artist. If chandra babu wanted to say a spade a spade there is no problem but he unnecessarly kept on fingering the leading artists in the industry for which MGR and SHIVAJI had to face his provoking attitude. He once demanded wages one ruppee more than what Shivaji had accepted as salary, when producers went to book him for the movie sabash meena. He had an egoistic attitude since he knew how to speek English and cause he had studied. He basically felt MGR and Shivaji inferior as they were uneducated. Even today there are many artist acting better than Rajini. This does not mean one can hurt others. If people feel MGR let down Chandrababu by not co-operating for his movie then equally Shivaji once when Chandrababu approached him at his house to request him to get him some chance for acting just said “What problem do you have, if u feel you are hungry u can visit my home anytime and have food because i have many eating at my home including my driver, gardner and servant”. Chandrababu just could not say a word but just turned around and went away. This info came very recently in Dinamalar Daily.

    • vamanan81 says:

      Yes, Chandrababu was educated in the sense that he had learnt to speak English. But his education was hands on, direct, not formal. In fact, Jayakanthan, who had some experience of Chandrababu suggests that the latter could not read Tamil! The fact is that both MGR and Sivaji, perhaps for their own reasons and with their own responses gave a helping hand to the sinking Chandrababu.

  11. Mohan says:

    This is a wonderful article. The tinsel world is cruel: The greatest and the richest are with you when you are famous. When you are old, and live in poverty, not a soul will come to even say “hello” to you.

    Chandrababu was a born actor. The current generation does not remember him but that’s OK. . Just a question: did he die because he drank too much or did he kill himself? Just curious.

    Chandrababu, my favorite comedian, RIP,

  12. DMP says:

    Your atricle is really so in detail than the Wiki content. Its amazing how much effort is there behind this article. Really appreciate your effort and wish you write more articles in future. 2013 First coment… 🙂

  13. sekarbabu says:

    Dear Vamanan sir, i love chandrababu. aftr reading ur article iam very happy. lam speechless. thanku thanku so much

  14. nonhindu says:

    Thank you for this touching and unaltered true story about the great comedian Chandrababu, he was ahead of the game of the time, he was a genius and creative actor very few can match his talents in the whole of India.

  15. Naveenah says:

    Chandrababu a great genius,who paved a new way to tamil cinema as a comedian. There is a saying like two faces in a coin same thing happens in a person. He had good qualities and bad also.
    But he should applauded for his multitalents! He had qualities beyond a comedian! So i wish his would rest in peace.

    • Maura says:

      Ya, i agree with you! A genius who made millons to laugh who rarely laughed in his own life! As u say his soul should rest in peace!

  16. vinusuthan says:

    he was a genius in all way in his professional, another bitter example of talented person would fail soon and also god would not allow extra ordinary persons live for a long time.

    • vamanan81 says:

      Didn’t go into Babu’s marital breakdown. Only thing I can say for the present is don’t romanticise it. Am going deeper into it. But need some help too. (How grateful I am to a great academic of Singapore who divined that I too need to breathe and helped me without my saying a word!) I am not an NRI wagging off my tongue at every bit of gossip.

  17. Chris Lawrence says:

    Vamanan Sir,

    Have you written anything on Thangavelu? I recall a scene (in Gulebagavali I think) where Thangavelu was holding court with his tounge.. that was till Chandrababu started dancing … and Thangavelu could truly be said to be tounge – tied ..

  18. Chris Lawrence says:

    Dear Vamanan

    I do not recall Chandrababu in any of MGR films after the Maadi Veetu Maapillai fiasco except perhaps Pakkum Paavai, a TR Ramanna film, where PBS sings for Chandrababu. My point is – does MGR deserve this credit?

    The last few Chandrababu films were Balaji’s fims with Sivaji – Raja, Neethi, En Annan. So perhaps Balji (and maybe Sivaji) tried to help him

    I would also like to know why you write that Chandrababu was a Savithri admirer. If he was, he goes up in my admiration manyfold, as Savithri is peerless to this day.

    Warm regards

  19. dhika says:

    i want to know y he commot it a part of conspiracy a n does anybody no..who is his wife?

    • vamanan81 says:

      Hallo…He didn’t commit suicide. His lifestyle of heavy drinking and drugs took him to the grave fast. No particular conspiracy involved…other than that of a harsh world being too much for a sensitive artiste. His wife’s name was Sheila.

  20. R Sridhar says:

    What an excellent article…… Chandrababu might be a person true to his heart…. It was very sad that he was cheated in a treachery by M.G.R (as per blog author)…this exposes the black side of MGR too…. This is yet another story of a talented Tamilian who fell by treachery……what ever it may be…god only may know the true facts….
    Thanks for the great article Vamana Sir…..

    • vamanan81 says:

      So you are a Tiruchi man living in Sikkim now…Wish you a great time…Wrote a two-part article in Sruti (music journal) on MKT, a famous native of your town…Nice to hear from you…Vamanan

  21. joseph says:


  22. vicky says:

    If at all some folks can visit his cemetery when time permits would be wonderful!!! : – Quibble Island cemetery near Foreshore Estate

  23. ram says:

    chandrababu best actor nothing doubt in this but the otherside drunkard,womaniser he lead a major role in depart of gemini and savithiri. on behalf of best friendship mgr wants to do a film for babu but babu interupt with producer wife so mgr denied to do the film.this is the real fact but babu blame mgr ruined his life

    • Chris Lawrence says:

      Babu was the producer of Maadi Veetu Maapillai, the unreleased MGR starrer. Your comment does not make any sense…

      Remember MGR did this to Asokan too!

      In the Gemini / Savitri split, was there a need for any villain? Wasn’t Gemini both the hero and the villain? Again you make no sense ..

  24. Vish says:

    ‘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.’

    Dear Mr.Vamanan,

    I have a personal interest in Chandrababu’s life. Can you please add more details as to what you have written about his marriage? Are you suggesting that his wife was incestous and that he couldn’t stand it? What are your sources?

    Thank You.

    • vamanan81 says:

      People whom I talked to…some of them, who were close to Babu, like V. Gopi…are dead.

      • vicky says:

        Chandra Babu was a genius, He was way ahead of his time!!!! Alcohol & Women was one of the reason but not entirely for his downfall. When u come from a difficult childhood things can go wrong until there is somebody to guide you properly when you are successful – The same thing happens every day in Hollywood!!! Even with big Sports Stars – in Football, American soccer , Rugby & others…
        As M.R. Radha (another genius) said “‘You would not permit him to live…Allow him now to rest in peace’” – Please do not ill speak about him if you do not know things….
        Chandra Babu Rocks!!!

  25. v ravichandran says:

    JP Chandrababu was a versatile artiste. Everything came naturally (emotion,comedy,pathos etc.,) to him and that was displayed on the screen. singing, dancing a special treat.
    He is still alive in all our hearts. I am always inspired by his lines “Thannai arinthal unmayil inbam-=-Thannalum marandal perum perinbum