As I enter Thambi Ramaiah’s five-month old office in KK Nagar, a huge portrait of Prabhu Solomon stares back at me. I also see a faint resemblance to him in the actor who is presently reclining on a chair a few metres away.
He nods, smiling.
“Yellarum solluvanga. Avaru en brother maathiri irukaaru nu. Mynaa was a turning point in my career.”
He doesn’t say more.
I take a leisurely look around his office.
Trophies. Tidily arranged in a glass cabinet.
It’s one of his average days. Thambi Ramaiah has a ‘call-sheet’ at 2 pm.
For that though, he has to start at 12 pm, I’m quickly reminded. He shuttles between shooting spots most of the time, filming for around 26 days a month. “I don’t have a make-up man, manager or costume-designer. Everything is scheduled by me. If a role is destined for me, it will arrive somehow,” he grins, holding up his phone.
Wikipedia lists around 14 movies on his page that are under production. And, his schedule reminds me of another actor’s from Malayalam cinema. Jagathi Sreekumar. At the peak of his career, he used to work four shifts a day. “Yes, I have heard this a lot,” nods Ramaiah.
Incidentally, Sreekumar didn’t have a manager either.
I’m given a list of his upcoming movies. Komban, Jayam Ravi’s Thani Oruvan, Vishnuvardhan’s Yatchan, an untitled Santhanam film, Chimbudevan’s next with Vijay (70 days for this one), Sarath Kumar’s Sandamarudham, Kaaviyathalaivan…
He’s quite excited about Kaaviyathalaivan. “Siddharth, Prithiviraj, Nasser and I. It’s a never-before-done period film based on theatre artistes,” enthuses Ramaiah, “you recall those plays? Valli Thirumanam, Harischandra Kaandam, Sathayavan Savithri…andha kalathula eduthadhu. Nadaka kalai. The dialogues were challenging. Rich, and vibrant sets. AR Rahman’s music…”
He then talks about “performance-oriented” roles in Asurakulam and Kaadu; Vajram where he shares screen-space with “Goli Soda boys” and then, SJ Surya’s Isai. “If you might have noticed,” he observes, “avar panna movie fail aagadhu. Kushi pass. Vaali pass.”
Ramaiah suddenly reminds me about the National Award he had received for Mynaa, along with Malayalam actor Salim Kumar.
But awards don’t matter, he shrugs.
“Adhu avlo mukhiyam illa. Producer ku panam kedaikkanum. I am happier if the producer gets his money back.
Awardseyum produceryum orey nerathula thookka mudiyale.”
His first punchline of the day.
And, Thambi Ramaiah had finally begun warming up to our interview.
We have 40 minutes left.
Naan innoru punch dialogue sollatuma, he asks me, rather enjoying himself.
He narrates a funny scene from a film. “And the punchline of the story? Missus ey eppadi miss aayidum, sir?”
Thambi Ramaiah, who hails from Rarapuram village in Pudukkottai, had always wanted to be a writer. Acting never figured on his list. Writing though, is in his genes. His father wrote a lot of fiction.
He earned money in school by writing love letters for friends. He would only need a brief.
The 50 paisa he received as payment per letter was enough to buy himself an ice mittai.
Ramaiah had initially wanted to become a lyricist. Music is still his first love. “I am trained in mridangam, harmonium, guitar, violin…you name it,” he grins.
The next moment, he drums some acoustics on the table, in superb rhythm and length.
Another favourite pastime was to rewrite lyrics of some famous songs. “I used to do these parodies 14 years back,” he says.
Eppadiyavadhu cinema le varanum nu nenachen.
He took up a job as the dialogue-writer for a serial on Sun TV in 1994. He also doubled up as the script-writer, lyricist and associate director. Soon, he joined the sets of a T Rajendran and P Vasu film as an AD. “I learnt screenplay from P Vasu,” he declares.
1999 was the year he made his acting debut. A brief scene in Malabar Police along with Goundamani, and a dog. He was also the AD of the film.
The next year, he directed his first film. Manu Needhi, with Murali and Napoleon. Meanwhile, Ramaiah also wrote a lot of comedy tracks for others. The translated ones were used for actor Vaibhav in Telugu.
He elaborates on the significance of comedy.
Navarasangalil mukhiyamanathu nagaichuvai, kobam, sokam. Kobathaala ellam nashtam thaan. Kobathukku engeyum use illey. To do away with anger, you should use humour as a tool.
“Angerey thooki hangeril podunga! ”
He laughs heartily at his.
You know, my son is going to make his debut, Ramaiah says suddenly.
Romba azhagana pulla. Enna paathu avana judge pannathinga.
“He is 6 ft tall. When I married, I chose a tall girl for my wife. My wife is taller than me. Ellam planning.”
Peals of laughter at this. I try to keep a straight face.
His career has a ‘before’ and ‘after’ phase. Before Mynaa, he had six flops to this credit. Does failure still affect him?
“Yesuvey 33 vayasula maranamadanjirukkaru. Intha 50 vayasula enakku enna sokam, enna bayam? Naa edha pathiyum appadi feel pannatha sarithramey kedayadhu. Kalyanam pannathukke feel pannala…25 years aayirukku.”
He chuckles at this.
“Antha alavukka adivangi vanthirikken.”
I try not to act in my life,” he deadpans. “I try to be happy, spread happiness wherever I go. I don’t have any friends in the industry, yet I am the life of every set.”
I ask him a pressing question.
How does he make the transition between sets, work on so many films at a time?
“Koodu vittu koodu payardhu romba kashtamana vishayam,” he smiles ruefully. “So I take a leaf out of real life. Wife kitta oru maathiri daughter kitta vera maathiri, nanbankitta vera maathiri. That’s how I deal with my roles.”
“Variety,” he declares, “is the spice of comedy.” Ramaiah brings that to the fore by observing and interacting with people. So when he gets a break during an outdoor shoot, he pans the crowd. Does a lot of face reading. He approaches the more intriguing ones, gauges their reaction and tries to find out about their lives. He takes all the navarasas from it.
It doesn’t stop there, though. On those rare days when he is free from shooting, he hires an auto and goes to some random street. He approaches the first person he meets and starts a conversation with them. Ramaiah recounts an instance when he approached a 75-year-old woman selling flowers. I asked her, “Ethana kozhainthainga?”
“She was vague. ‘Athu vanthu…’”
“So I told her, ‘Yen ma, ivvalavu confusion.’ She then told me that they are scattered over the state, can’t remember all places.”
He takes inspiration from such scenes for comedy.
But there were also instances when their tales have moved him enough to give them a warm hug, a peck on their cheek. “Azhutha arambhichidum. Ithellam en mindeley irukku.”
Ramaiah would rather not do films that don’t have a social message. Equally distasteful are dialogues with double-meaning. “Nobody would dare give me such lines. Naan oru husband, father, and son. Eppadi antha maathiri dialogues ellam solrathu?”
Though over the years, he has learnt to be judicious in his choice of films. There were movies that showed a lot of promise in the beginning, but was later changed at the editing table. Amara Kaaviyam was one such movie. Arya wanted him to bring in more humour to the sombre tale. But eight scenes were edited out. And in Jilla, 12 scenes went under the axe. “Ippo romba careful aayiten. Naane High Court, naane Supreme Court,” he chortles.
According to Ramaiah, a reason why comedians like Vadivelu, Goundamani, Santhanam and Vivek clicked was because – apart from their talent – they mostly worked with A-list actors. “But if you take me, I have only acted with new faces. Due to date issues, I couldn’t take up Lingaa. Aana, naan appo sonna maathiri, ethukume feel pannala.”
“Now I teach others,” he smiles when I ask about the comedians he looks up to.
He rates Mynaa right at the top. Prabhu Solomon gave him the freedom to experiment. “What I used to do for others while writing comedy, he let me do the same thing for myself.”
Thambi Ramaiah wants to get back to direction. He wants to work on original scripts. “No English, Korean or Chinese films, please,” he laughs.
Right now, he confides he has 10 bound scripts ready.
And as a passing shot, he spouts the best punchline of the session:
“Naan jaichitta kaduvul karanam
Naan thothutta naan than karanam.”
The Thambi Ramaiah interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.