96-year-old actor N Jothi Kannan reflects on decades-long journey in theatre and film

Nonagenarian actor Jothi Kannan recalls the several roles he played on and off stage and the impact it has had on his journey
96-year-old actor N Jothi Kannan reflects on decades-long journey in theatre and film

CHENNAI: The adage ‘Age is just a number’ seems to be proved when the likes of N Jothi Kannan are striving to render a meaning and make it count in every sense of the term. Just back from a movie shoot in Salem district, the 96-year-old says his burning desire is to keep going till his feet scream for rest.

Kannan’s journey started decades ago. During the 40s, Kannan recalls, the only source of income for the ones without basic education was theatre. Among a few living legends from that era are Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai, AP Nagarajan, MS Muthukrisnan, and Tiruchi Soundararajan. “The roles I played were not the big ones but each character I donned had the requisite footage to leave my mark. One such play was Perasai Piditha Periyar where my character opposed the revolutionary ideas of a leader. The impact of the dialogues was such that the audience could not take it in their stride. Any number of foot wears and stones hurled at the stage when I was in the process of executing the dialogues, I should say it was a victory for the character — much like Bernard Shaw who had famously held the slipper thrown at him as a souvenir and appreciation for his act,” he says.

Remarkable plays

Those days, lengthy dialogues substantiated with facts, enthralled the audience. A play close to Kannan is his act in Theeyavar Theetum Gandhi Padhai where he chronically detailed the work of the Mahatma in a supporting character — right from the Ahimsa act to the principled living. He says, “An ardent fan of Gandhi, I spent a length of time trashing various books to get the facts right. It was a proud moment for me when encomiums poured from everywhere, including the prominent political leaders of that era. In my five decades of stage, I had to be the father of all moments, having done my mite to the Father of the Nation. As a 14-year-old, I was raw but was slowly drawn into a world like a magnet.”

Kannan was part of the famed Balamurugan Boys Company in Salem. He says, “AP Nagarajan saw the potential in me and had the confidence to give author-backed roles normally reserved for matured actors. Plays like Adithan Kanavu, Nalla Thangal, Nalvar, Mangalyam, and Pennarasi were huge hits and conventional themes struck a chord with the female audience. In the limited stage time, I had the onerous task of moving the script along with pivotal characters. The early lessons were good enough as a warm-up for the sterner tests ahead.”

When Balamurugan Boys Company had to shut down for compelling reasons, Kannan felt he was in a no man’s land. A desperate situation called for desperate measures when Kannan stumbled upon the chance to try his luck in the cultural programmes of temple festivals. “Villupattu had made its advent and I could find openings due to my proficient skills as a singer,” he says.

Getting into the fold of the Kallapat MS Muthukrishnan drama troupe was a game-changing moment for him. Known for his expertise in scripts, MSM devised characters in sync with my baritone voice and was able to give authenticity to the dialogues. “Possibly, I had reserved my best for the crowd favourite play Satyavan Savithri where my character of the prince had the power to attract Savitri. The king’s costumes were made up with a piece of cloth rich in colour across my shoulders,” he shares.

Turning point

As drama offers dried up, Kannan’s next course was to try his luck in movies. However, the doors opened only after his sojourn in theatre. He joined ‘Nataka Kavalar’ RS Manohar where roles of substance came his way. Asked to pick among them, Kannan says it had to be ‘Surapadman’ where, as Lord Murugan, he had a mountain to cross in subduing the wicked and deceit-filled mind of Ravana.

In this play, he recalls how he had to utter his dialogues in a slow-paced manner, so that the men behind the stage could bring in props seamlessly on the stage, like Karthikeya’s vahana, the peacock. He explains, “To divert the attention of the audience, I hit upon the idea of adding a few lines where my character questions the relevance of war.  So deeply engrossed was the audience that it made the job easier for the ones in the backstage to get their act right in quick time.”

He had donned the role of Murugan again when funds had to be generated for a school in his hometown. He adds, “With realism, I brought to light how the lord’s six heads are deemed to represent the six qualities of perfection, wisdom, dispassion, strength, valour, fame, and divine knowledge.”

Known for playing diverse roles with equal intensity, Kannan had possibly reserved his best in Meenatchi Tiruvilayadal where he played the Agastya Rishi. He says, “A sage’s power to transform his body into any form he desires and the ability to control the elements were vividly brought out.”

Kannan could not believe his luck when he was picked from a handful to don the all-important character of Chanakya. He says, “A closer analysis of Chanakya’s intelligence revealed that no individual should spell out his plans in a mind game involving two razor-sharp brains. Going full throttle, the magical moments of Chanakya’s blaze at the stage still lingers in my mind.”

For the country

Apart from being an actor, Kannan was also part of Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom struggle and was jailed for three months. He recalls, “The battering and bruising left me shattered but deep inside, there was the satisfaction of having done my mite for my motherland. I am still getting a pension and my day is made when political outfits remember me on Gandhi Jayanthi and visit my home to pay their honours.”

His life seems to be a roller-coaster ride all through, however, there is no trace of regret. Though blessed with many awards, the one that has been elusive is the Kalaimamani Award. His words, “Do I need to do anything more to lay my hands on that,” speak aloud on the longing etched in his hopeful eyes.

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express