He stepped into the dad mode in Tamil cinema when just 29 and might have continued as grand dad till 92 if he hadn’t had to call it a day after a short illness a year ago. Playing daddy to a range of worthies including Sivaji, MGR, Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan, not to speak of heavy weight heroines (no pun intended) like K. R. Vijaya, he proved that he was cut out for the job – a Very Sure of himself Raghavan. One can see this for example, in his portrayal of Banker Masilamani in the full length comedy, Galatta Kalyanam. Glowering menacingly at his son (Sivaji), he fumes, ‘‘I don’t like your activities. If you come to me finally relating some tale of your romance, I will simply kill you.’’ Playing Vijaya’s father in ‘Enna Mudalaali Sowkiyama’, he exudes a parental affection that’s almost tangible.
He liked to expand his initials V(embakkam) S(rinivasan) variously as Very Strict Raghavan in that he expected conformity to discipline, Very Simple Raghavan in not standing by formalities, and even ‘Vengaaya Sambar’ Raghavan to indicate his love for tasty food. It is another matter that in the initial years of his film career in the fifties, (and sometimes even later), he was merely Raghavan even in film titles, without the possibility of any foothold on slippery celluloid.
What finally gave him an edge was his dignified presence as well as his strong voice and excellent Tamil diction. Curiously, he had made his acting debut in short Hindi plays staged as part of the language courses of the Hindi Prachaar Sabha. He was cued to the printed word, having worked as a sub editor for three years in the Tamil journal Malathi, under noted humourist Thumilan (Ramasamy), and as supervisor in a busy press for six years.
When he formed his own theatre group, Indian National Artistes (INA), in the mid fifties, one of his noted plays was Chathurangam, based on ‘Someone Waiting’, a gripping whodunnit of the prolific Welsh author Emlyn Williams. Mounted on a single set, the play was a theatrical feat of the time. Raghavan is reputed to have run his troupe like a headmaster, meticulously planning every move and placement of light and mike. Sometimes, the dramatic sparks that flew when recalcitrant staff in certain theatre halls failed to meet his standards, proved as interesting as the staged play itself, if not more!
His notable film breaks came from director Sridhar. Whether as a bearded patient bringing a sliver of optimism amidst the enshrouding gloom of a nursing home in Nenjil Oar Aalayam or as the businessman father of one of the protagonists in the musical comedy Kadhalikka Neramillai, Raghavan came across with ringing clarity. As the gruff if goodhearted house owner and father of the heroine in Nenjirukkum Varai, he cuts an unforgettable cameo finally eliciting, ‘Appa, Appa, Appa’ from Sivaji’s Raghuraman. It’s a rare scene which has the latter exclaiming, ‘‘Many may live life with majesty. But nobody can die with such majesty as your father’’. Uncanny how the lines fitted Raghavan’s life and passing!
Balachander, a younger contemporary of Raghavan in the latter’s plays, successfully sought to add detail, dimension and nuance to Raghavan’s father roles in his films as in Iru Kodugal (vengeful father), Nootrukku Nooru (angry old Anglo Indian parent) and Punnagai (alcoholic father who demeans his own daughter). K.S. Gopalakrishnan, another prolific director, set much store on dialogue and used Raghavan’s oral proficiency to the hilt. KSG was given to changing and honing his copious lines on the floor and needed artistes who could weather the verbal storm. Raghavan was one of those who fitted the bill with ease in enormously successful films like Panama Pasama. MGR handpicked Raghavan for supporting roles, however minor, in his films in the seventies right up to Maduraiyai Meetta Sundarapandian, released after he became Chief Minister. (He also extended patronage to Raghavan in little ways during his regime).
All this made Raghavan eminently busy in the 60s and 70s. The prominent TV and stage actor Delhi Kumar who acted with Raghavan in ‘Onne Onnu Kanne Kannu’ in 1974, recalls finding the latter catching up on sleep quietly curled up in one corner of the shooting spot. Raghavan had married Thangam just about a decade back in 1964 and his sons Sreenivasan and Krishna grew up when he was the busiest.
During these times, and later in the evening of his life, Raghavan found a chum in Nagesh, who like him had risen in the sixties, and unlike him, struck gold as a star. In the nineties and after, they were war-worn veterans looking nostalgically at their shared past. Nagesh would turn up at Raghavan’s home nearby, thirsty for the steaming coffee that Raghavan’s daughter-in-law Janaki served with relish. It might even have come to the old-timers sometimes crying over each other’s shoulder over the issues they had with an insensitive world though it did occasionally laud their eventful innings with awards and evenings.
Raghavan switched over easily to the small screen when the need arose. He figured in friend KB’s popular serials and produced a few himself. The new millennium also tended, amidst maelstromic changes, to cast occasional glances at the past. Raghavan then figured in a handful of films, providing for example the preamble that led to the iconic ‘Prayer’ song in Idhurkku thaane Aasaipattaay Balakumara as well as the ‘historic’ underpinnings of Cowboypatti in Irumbukottai Murattu Singam. The parody has Raghavan tracing Irumbukottai’s hoary roots to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood!
He mingled freely with New Age directors as with his grandson Satish Kumar, taking him to tennis classes and reciting the Vishnu Sahasranamam with him during devout evenings. When Satish studied aerospace engineering in Dubai, he sent his daughter- in-law packing to look after him, bravely ploughing a lonely furrow in his late eighties. He was a long distance runner and could take loneliness in his stride, even if Nagesh too had left by then. He was Very Smart Raghavan who knew how to look after himself all by himself.
(A version of this article appeared in Times of India, Chennai)