Bananas, petromax light, SSLC fail... If you’re remotely acquainted with Tamil cinema, these words won’t seem arbitrary, and will instead evoke images of one of the greatest comedians ever in our industry, Senthil, who’s now stepping into his 40th year in cinema.
“1979 might have been my first credited appearance, but I’ve been acting in films from an even younger age in smaller roles,” he reveals. Senthil, who began his acting stint on stage like many of his time, credits the stage experience for his career’s longevity.
“After direct interactions with the audience, and getting immediate criticism, it was easy to get their likes and dislikes. More importantly, it was theatre that taught me timing, and it is the most important thing to know when facing the camera,” says the 68-year-old actor.
You don’t say Senthil’s name, without instantly thinking of his partner in crime, Goundamani. This comic duo regaled the audience for years, and have come to be thought of as the gold standard for comedy in Tamil cinema. But Senthil has also acted in a number of films without his counterpart.
He’s not one to blow his trumpet though. “If Goundamani wasn’t acting alongside, let’s not forget that the heroes I worked with were adept at comedy — actors like Pandiarajan and Pandian. That’s also a combination,” he says.
It may be tough for us to come up with our most favourite comedy track of his, but Senthil, after being prodded enough, picks one: Rama Narayanan’s Sathan Sollai Thattathe, in which he plays a genie who helps three youngsters (Pandian, Janagaraj, and Vagai Chandrasekhar).
“That role had its origins in Pattanathil Oru Bootham, in which the iconic Javert Seetharaman played the bootham. And then, you had the versatile Asokan sir playing the Genie in Alavuddinum Arputha Vilakkum. It was an honour that Rama Narayanan sir decided to showcase me as the bootham. All my roles have always been the vision of various filmmakers,” says a modest Senthil, who also credits writers for ensuring that despite acting in hundreds of films, his comedy still remained fresh. Remember that during his peak, he had as many as 80 films getting released in a year.
“There were days when I worked simultaneously on about four-five films. We had to make sure the comedy wouldn’t get repetitive, but that’s where the writers stepped in. It is important to credit them for their relentless writing,” says Senthil. Citing the example of the comedy sequences in Arjun’s Jai Hind in which he appears only in the dreams of Goundamani, Senthil says,
“That sort of inspired writing makes our performances shine brighter. Comedy, like poetry, is at times rooted; sometimes, an exaggeration of reality; and at times, even transcends it.”
But surely, it’s not just the writing that has made his comedy tick. He agrees: “We have to improvise on the sets to ensure we stand out. There is a certain something I would bring to the table, and I guess this is why I was signed to do all those films. Like cooking, comedy too is an art. We might get all the spices, vegetables, and other raw materials, but we are the ones who cook it. (laughs)”
Senthil is candid about admitting that his comedy has often been inspired by the likes of NS Krishnan and Thangavelu. He is equally candid about younger comedians drawing inspiration from him and Goundamani. It’s all a cycle, he says. “While the style of comedy might have changed from our time to the present age, the ultimate aim of all comedians is one: Making people laugh.”
And who is the comedian that has made him laugh? “Then, now, and forever, my favourite comedian will always be Goundamani,” says Senthil, who returned to acting last year with Thaana Serndha Kootam after a six-year break on account of complications in his health. Time away from cinema has apparently allowed him to introspect on his career in Tamil cinema, and he reminisces about the times he spent with stars like Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth, Prabhu, and fellow comedians like Thyagu.
“My equation with all the actors has been the same ever since we began acting together. It all comes from how we used to shoot for films in the 80s and 90s. Our shooting spots used to be filled with conversations and laughter. Even among comedians, there was no competition then,” says the veteran comedian, who rues the fact that present-day Tamil cinema has become too focused on stars.
“Heroes have become the selling point of films. Competition has become fierce. I guess that is what cinema has come to now,” says Senthil, who adds that he too is trying to keep up with the changing times. That’s why he has now stepped into television as a special guest for a show by Colors Tamil called Comedy Nights.
Oh, and he’s also quite aware of memes. “And the Dubsmash videos of my comedies that circulate in the media,” he says, with a laugh. “My family actually records attempts by fans and plays them to me. It stands testament to the fact that comedy can’t be boxed in one period. If people enjoy it, then it becomes timeless.”