The Passing of a Great Dramatist
He could make the saddest of us laugh. And the coldest of us cry.
If comedy and emotions had a face, it could have well been that of Senthilathipan Muthandi.
Known to the world simply as Senthi, he was a natural dramatist who could split our sides at one moment with the most ridiculous antics and turn us sober the next instant with a sorrowful look.
But within him, he hid his emotions so well that no one knew if he was in joy or pain.
It had been a long and hard life for this stage icon who began work as a child and struggled until his last days to see those around him happy.
ON STAGE BY EIGHT
Born on the 8th of January 1936 to Tamil script writer Muthandi in Malaysia, Senthii seemed to have all the qualities of a thespian himself from young.
The depth of his father’s art had passed on early to the boy and by the time Senthi was eight, he was on stage. He first appeared in a children’s play and proved even then that acting was in his blood. The Japanese Occupation of Malaya then followed, and the young Senthi was forced to stop school.
Eager to help feed a growing family of 11 sisters and brothers, he went to work for a gentleman called Nayyar. Senthi’s boss was a simple man who seemed to love the songs of the legendary Tamil film actor P. U. Chinappa more than anything else.
Realizing that the young employee, who fetched him food daily, could also sing, Nayyar coaxed Senthi into picking up Chinappa’s songs, particularly his favorite called Saarasam. Senthi needed little encouragement and was soon singing Saarasam almost as well as Chinappa himself. The delighted Nayyar gave Senthi his own gramophone and a vinyl album of Chinappa as appreciation.
FILMDOM HOPES DASHED
Nayyar’s brother Kesavan, a filmmaker in India, then met Senthi and took a great liking for the boy. Kesavan offered Senthi what would have been a lifetime opportunity — come act in Madras, the Tamil movie capital of the world.
But fate, or rather Senthi’s mother, stood in the way. Unable to bear the thought of separating from her son, she refused to let him go. And being the affectionate and obedient child, Senthi regretfully said no to Kesavan.
But turning his back on Madras did not stunt Senthi’s acting career.
Rather, he was even more resolved to make a name for himself in his own neighborhood. By the time he was in his teens, Senthi was working with some very talented playwrights, among them Kalai Kumar.
Mann Vazvhu was the first Kumar script featuring Senthi, who played the role of a woman.
SENTHI, THE STAGE STAR
But Senthi’s turning point was in Pitchaikaran, where Kumar cast him as a beggar. Limping and cowering from a brutal society that had no pity on vagrants, he played the role to perfection. When the curtains finally rolled, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. Pitchaikaran was staged to a full house at the Old Town Hall in the Malaysian capital. Senthi, the new stage star, was born.
Shedding the beggar’s costume, Senthi stepped into a life of fame and somewhat better fortune. Suddenly, he was under the spotlight and many were looking for him.
By now, he was 25 and married. While he had a budding career in showbiz, he realized he needed a stable job. The opportunity came when the Weld swimming pool in Kuala Lumpur needed an attendant. Senthi was put in charge of maintaining the pool’s water/chlorine balance and general cleanliness. It was something anyone could have done. The difference with Senthi though is that he endears himself so well at any job that his superiors and colleagues find him almost irreplaceable. It was a job that he would hold for 30 years, right through to retirement.
MOVING TO RADIO, TV
On the showbiz front, Senthi was busier than ever. Where he once missed the opportunity of making movies in “Big City, Bright Lights” Madras, Senthi now had his hands full with television offers, right at home. Sundar Rajan, head of the Tamil section for Radio Television Malaysia, recognized the talent in Senthi’s voice and put him on radio. Dueting with female singers, Senthi rendered classics from Tamil films featuring the leading comedic-pair then, Thangavelu and Muthuletchumi. He then moved to TV, acting out the same song sequences.
Later, teaming up with musical troupes Udhaya Sooriyan and Isai Malar, Senthi toured the length and breadth of Malaysia, singing on road shows. One of his favorite numbers was Neelave Neelavae Aadivaa from the 1954 film, Sorga Vaasal. Senthi, the radio singer/TV star was rapidly gaining recognition across Malaysia.
Around this time, came one of his biggest honors ever — a meeting with P. Ramlee, arguably the greatest legend in Malaysian arts. The Malay-language actor-screenwriter-producer-director-singer-composer had heard of the up and coming Tamil comedian in Malaysia and wanted to see him in person. Ramlee, whose untimely demise in 1973 at the age of 44 left a mourning nation, hosted Senthi to dinner. The young Tamil star’s happiness of being recognized by the Malay acting giant was evident from the beaming look on Senthi’s face from a picture taken at the dinner.
In the late 1970s and 80s, situational comedy was becoming popular in Malaysia, and a new funny actor had emerged on local TV: A.R. Badul. Badul’s father, Tompel, was a legendary comic from Ramlee’s days.
Appearing as the “younger Tompel”, Badul brought a fresh blast of wit to Malay sitcoms, and eventually became a mainstay on Malaysian TV along with a hilarious bunch that included the likes of Jaffar, Param, Hamid Gurkha and Yusni Jaafar. It was only natural that Senthi joined this group.
The Badul show was one of the most popular programs in the days of black-and-white TV in Malaysia, and it made Senthi famous among even non-Indians. To top it all, the Tamil arts industry in Malaysia conferred at around the same time the Nagachuvai Mannan, or King of Comedy, title upon Senthi.
HEALTH TAKES A BEATING
As he entered his 40s, the strain of performing and touring was beginning to take its toll on Senthi.
But he refused to slow down, taking on as many engagements as possible to supplement his income for his three growing children.
His health took a beating after he collapsed from an acute attack of asthma while shooting a film in 1987. As the 1990s came, fate struck again. This time, he was diagnosed with kidney failure. He took early retirement from his job at the Weld pool, one year short of the mandatory retirement age of 55.
Yet, after a short stint in hospital and learning to adjust to life on a hemodialysis machine, Senthi was back on his feet and performing again. But whatever involvement in arts that he desired had to be limited, due to his health.
RETIRED IN FORM, NOT SPIRIT
Finally, in 1995, after multiple pleas from his children, the eldest of whom was already married, Senthi finally gave up all work on stage, radio and screen.
Yet he refused to sit still. In the last three years before his passing, he continued to run to the aid of anyone who needed him.
Like all sudden happenings in his life, the events that led to his demise also came suddenly, when he collapsed one day while on hemodialysis, succumbing to heart failure from low blood pressure.
Senthilathipan Muthandi might not have been a great intellectual or statesman. But in his lifetime, he had acted out the roles of an obedient son, caring brother, sensitive husband, thoughtful father, loving uncle, generous friend and — most of all — great dramatist.
The curtains, please.
Senthilathipan Muthandi was born on Jan 8, 1936 and returned to Shivalogha on Sept 17, 1998
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