My name is Charle, not Charlie. Even my name won’t have a ‘lie’ in it,” begins Charle with his trademark voice, and lets out that now-famous smile of innocence. His career kickstarted at the age of 19 when he became a staff artist in the Song and Drama division under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It was K Balachander—Charle calls him his ‘guru’—who introduced Charle aka Manohar in Poikkal Kudhirai (1983).
“My journey started from the street theatre movement with the progressive writers association. I’ve been acting in plays right from my college days. I used to act while I was studying. Now I’m studying when I’m acting,” laughs Charle, referring to the PhD that’s he’s working on.
In recent years, he has made the transition from a comedian to a supporting artiste. He disagrees, and says the transformation began as early as in 1989 with Nyaya Tharasu. “Director K Rajeshwar gave me the role of an irresponsible drunkard. I even had a solo song in it with dance moves,” he explains. But he surely will agree that post Neram, he has had a rewarding acting phase. He calls this “the best turning point of my career,” and goes on to say it helped his longevity. “Otherwise, you get stereotyped.” Like he was for the longest time when he kept getting the ‘innocent simpleton’ role. “I guess Vetri Kodi Kattu is the reason for it.
But my roles in Yaman and Paambhu Sattai aren’t like that.”
The conversation shifts to comedians playing villain. Charle doesn’t think playing a villain is harder than the characters he generally plays. “Ultimately, I try to play every role perfectly. In Oru Oorla Oru Rajakumari, K Bhagyaraj offered me the role of an honest rickshaw-puller. When I asked him why he chose me, he said that only I could pull it off well. Such characters are tougher to do than negative. You can play a villain effectively with small gestures, but coming across as a truthful person is harder. Director Anucharan reemphasised this with Kirumi,” he says.
Over the years, Charle has worked with many veterans like KB, Mahendran, Bharathiraja, and SP Muthuraman. But now, he’s getting terrific roles, thanks to new directors. “Films like Neram, Maanagaram, and Kirumi are giving me roles other actors don’t get. I’m happy that the newer filmmakers have faith in my ability. It’s great to be a part of this newage cinema. In remote villages where Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro aren’t famous, people still know me, thanks to these films,” he says.
He has seen comedy evolve during his career.
“We don’t have to strain these days. Casual comedy has become the norm. The screenplay and camerawork make it easier for the actors. Technical improvements too have given us a helping hand. Films used to be adapted from plays and dramas, and so they were very serious back then. Horror films were something kids couldn’t go to. Today though, even ghosts are cracking jokes,” he jokes.
On the dearth of comediennes in Tamil cinema, he says there has truly never been a scarcity.
“From KS Angamuthu and CT Rajakantham, to Manorama and Kovai Sarala, we’ve always had incredibly talented comediennes. How we’ve used their talents is the question. Somebody like Ganthimathi even played lead roles,” says Charle. “Comedians too have turned heroes. Nagesh, KA Thangavelu and Chandrababu are all examples.”
Charle, these days, spends a lot of time on the topic of his research: Humour in Tamil Cinema. The actor follows this after researching for his M Phil on the topic, ‘Contributions of Comedians in Tamil Cinema’. “The purpose was to pay homage to many names that weren’t given their due. Some artists’ contributions aren’t even known to the industry let alone to the general public. For instance, humourist A Veerapan was the man behind some Goundamani-Senthil classics.
Cho started the trend of political comedies. Venniradai Moorthy and SS Chandran were criticised for making double-meaning comedies, but no one’s been able to fill their shoes till today. Contributions of others like VK Ramasamy, Usilaimani, ‘Loose’ Mohan and many more have been vital, but they are not too well-known,” he says.
He has no regrets and says he thinks of cinema as a mother who has taught him patience and tolerance. I can’t help but prod him about the memes based on his character in Friends. He laughs. “Yes, I’ve seen them. I enjoy them too. My friends share them to me regularly.”
Charle will next be seen in Sivakarthikeyan’s Velaikkaran and an untitled Malayalam film; he promises some big collaborations soon.
K Balachander, my first director, and Lokesh Kanagaraj, my last director
Director he wants to work with:
MT Vasudevan Nair
As an actor, Nanba Nanba, and as a comedian, Poove Unakaga
A fellow comedian’s role he loved:
Nagesh in Neer Kumizhi
Favourite comedian: Nagesh