Born as Nagarkoil Sudalaimuthu Krishnan, or affectionately known as N.S. Krishnan (NSK) in the Tamil film circle, he was a comedy icon in the Tamil Movie Industry (South India) from 1935 to 1955. He was privileged to be known as the ‘Charlie Chaplin of India’ as he was a contemporary of the world famous Hollywood comedian.
NSK, born in 1908 in a poverty stricken family, crafted a niche for himself, using laughter to expose the inequalities of life in India, especially in Tamil Nadu (the state for people of Tamil origin) at that time. His lack of formal education was never an excuse for he lived exemplarily, made up by his curiosity, native genius and enthusiasm. Bogged down with extreme superstition entangled within the customary ancient traditions of Tamils, interwoven with the Hindu belief and the dominance of caste-based socio-politics, NSK’s entry into the cine-world was more than a blessing in disguise as every character he undertook not only reflected his rib-tickling wittiness but also worked towards his advantage as he saw it fit to educate and sprinkle didacticism through the use of films as a media to school and revolutionized the thoughts of the masses. Many cine critics till today see NSK’s comedy scenes with TA Mathuram, his real life wife and screen partner as well, as a treasure trove to be kept dust-free so as to be seen whenever one is down with personal problems and when addressing the ever-consistent emergence of social as well as political descent in India.
Critics and cognoscenti hail NSK as a genius, a social reformer and perhaps, many still cling on to the solid motion of there will never be another quite like him. He triggered the commonsense amongst moviegoers using simple everyday situational comedy sequences to awaken the mindsets of the majority of Tamils and Indians in general, mocking at their desolate state of affairs due to setbacks derived from living in self-engulfed cocoon of caste and religious dogmatism. Political reformation, women liberation, education and the riddance of caste-based social politics were his main focus. He translated these ideas onscreen brilliantly neglecting slapstick genre, instead relied on his perfect gift of timely dialogue delivery of his intended messages; he did so very effectively indeed. This not only made him a revolutionary comedian but also a cult figure in South India. His popularity soared to the extent that producers were bargaining for a separate comedy track even in the absence of the protagonist.
One of his most famous revolutionary movie scenes was where a postman delivered a letter plus a money order to his house, supposedly from his son, who stayed and worked in the city, only to be accepted by his wife (portrayed by his real life wife) at the entrance. NSK was shown sitting inside at the background, being oblivious to the scene taking place in the foreground. The wife, being illiterate, insisted that the postman does her a favour by reading the content of the letter. This was a common practice in India, where a large segment of the agrarian society was illiterate, more so in females.
The postman, succumbing to the request, read the content of the letter. He began by deciphering the son’s eagerness in ‘the inquiry of his parents’ health’, and ‘the conveying of his regards’ to all those known in the village. The postman also conveyed the request in the letter of ‘for what purpose and to whom the cash from the money order to be given accordingly’. At one last point of the letter, the son ‘conveyed his dearest kisses’ for his mom. Being a sensitive issue, the postman, wittily said that there was one more ‘thing’ to be given from his son for the mother but ‘he would not read or give it.’ Sensing that the postman was hiding something from her, the lady created a ruckus with the postman at the entrance. Upon hearing the commotion, NSK will rush to the front and probe the cause. After clarification from the postman, who innocently pleaded that the son’s request cannot be fulfilled by him, NSK’s sarcasm was the highlight of the final scene. Mockingly, he would say that this commotion could have been avoided at all circumstances if women were literate. A simple scene of a postman delivering a message was instead turned into something didactic, exposing the plight of women deprived of education.
The above was just one of the many scenes in the movies that he had appeared. There are many more to be discussed and glorified about this wonderful personality who was not only a brilliant comedian, playwright, lyricist, director, singer but also a known philanthropist.
A brainy comedian and satirist, NSK, though his ardent following was confined to the Tamil-speaking area in South India, the intensity of its devotion appears to have matched anything in the annals of comedy, in which, his comedies carried a universal message for all to cherish. When he died in 1957, the crowd at his funeral procession is said to have been comparable to those at the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi, the father Indian independence.