Who can forget the principled, and warm-hearted, head constable Ramaiah from Mynaa (2010)?
Brought to life on-screen by actor Thambi Ramaiah, the conscientious character is etched in our hearts, as he fights to protect his department’s public image, even as he offers to shelter an accused, and his lady love, in his home.
The character fetched a National Award for Thambi Ramaiah, who made his name playing the sidekick to comedian Vadivelu.
The 63-year-old has since gone on to work with newcomers and stars alike, and has also carved out a niche for his versatility — be it playing a conniving teacher in Samuthirakani’s Saattai, the irritant father to Nazriya Nazim in Neram, or the goofy comic relief in Ajith Kumar’s Veeram.
“[Character] roles involve creative freedom, and if it is well done, they can grab the limelight. A great performance never misses its mark,” says Ramaiah, adding, “A supporting actor’s impact should be like an ant’s sting — small, sharp, yet unforgettable.”
Saranya Ponvannan specialises in playing the mother role to lead actors in Tamil films.
In a career spanning over three decades, Saranya has played the mum to, among others, Ajith, Jiiva, Madhavan, Bharath, STR, and Vijay Sethupathi’s characters in their films. But she succeeds in bringing diversity to what seem like linear characters on paper.
For instance, her role in Em Magan, of a mother who adopts desperate antics to shield her son from an abusive, disciplinarian father (played by actor Nasser), remains fresh in our memory because of the humour she infuses to her characterisation.
“The mum makes maximum noise in a household. So, it is only natural for these roles to be sensible, and to have scope in films,” says Saranya, whose performance in Seenu Ramasamy’s Thenmerku Paruvakaatru earned her the National Award for best actress.
With directors inclined to exploit her potential as an actor further, more challenging roles have been coming her way, a recent example being Nayanthara’s Kolamavu Kokila.
While the character artiste role offers a spring board for new faces, and a comeback launchpad for yesteryear stars, the challenge for these artistes is that there is very little room for error.
“There is an imperative need for the creator in every supporting actor to be able to perceive the gravity of these roles,” says Ramaiah. V Jayaprakash, a veteran character artiste, concurs.
“Stalwarts in the industry have carried the portfolio of supporting actors amazingly well. There is no room for complacency, but there is much to emulate,” he notes. He puts his ability to deliver consistently to his experience working across the Tamil, Telugu, and the Malayalam film industries.
There are those who believe that character artistes are being inched out due to the star-driven nature of modern day films.
Many actors are seldom offered the variety that few top line character artistes are able to attract for themselves. These artistes are then relegated to play the ‘friend’ character, or the uncle’s role.
“Zero writing is done for supporting actors. They are used only as fillers in the story,” laments R J Balaji, who started his film career in similar roles. In his breakout directorial, LKG, Balaji’s writing adds heft to the supporting roles played by Mayilsamy, the late J K Ritheesh, and the debuting Nanjil Sampath.
Another challenge is to avoid being typecast. Nasser has seen many a cop role come his way, since his breakout performance in Kamal Haasan’s Nayakan (1987).
But the veteran actor took them all in his stride, and substantiated the roles with stellar performances. Sathyaraj’s Walter Vetrivel, and Vikram’s Dhill stand proof. Regardless, the actor succinctly describes actors’ contribution in the larger context.
“Every character in a mainstream film has its own journey, and an ending. It is the audience who ascribe corresponding importance to them. Each one’s job is to take the story ahead,” he concludes.