In a career spanning three decades, Manivannan went from being a story and dialogue writer for veteran director Bharathiraja to a successful director who thrived in experimenting with different genres, before becoming an actor who quite literally appeared in every second movie at the box office. It was only in the last three to four years that his health slowed him down. His career spanned over 400 movie credits as an actor and 50 as a director.
His 50th directorial venture ‘Nagaraja Cholan M.A., MLA,’ released last month to lukewarm response at the box office. He had finished acting in a few movies that are in various stages of post-production work. ‘Nagaraja Cholan M.A., MLA’ was in the same mould as his box office hit ‘Amaidhipadai’ (1994), starring close friend and actor Sathyaraj.
As an actor, the rustic looking Manivannan played mostly negative and comic roles. His strength was his dialogue delivery, which he admitted in various interviews was heavily influenced by veteran actor M.R.Radha. In a television interview, Manivannan said he considered himself a cultural heir of Radha, whom he also admired for his atheistic views.
An outspoken political activist, who did not think twice while taking on political and film industry bigwigs in public forums, Manivannan was a supporter of Tamil causes. He was also briefly a member of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
On Saturday, his body was kept in his residence at Nesappakam, where leading film industry personalities and politicians paid their respects.
In his condolence message, DMK chief M.Karunanidhi recalled that Manivannan had directed the 1986 film ‘Palaivana Rojakkal,’ for which he wrote the script. “A talented person has left us all too suddenly,” he noted.
Director to actor
Manivannan’s three-decade long film career could be split down the middle: the first 15 years as a technician – director, script and dialogue writer; and the next 15 mostly as a character actor.
As a director, he made movies in different genres – from romance to thriller to drama – often ensuring that no successive films of his belonged to the same genre. His most brilliant successes came from casting unlikely actors in negative roles: actor Mohan was known mostly for his romantic movies before he was cast as a psychopath killer in ‘Nooravathu Naal’; and Sathyaraj had only just gone on transitioned from negative roles to hero, when he cast him as Amavasai, a lowly political worker who uses guile to climb the rungs of power in the State in the film ‘Amaidhi Padai’ (1994), which has set the standards for political satire in Tamil cinema. The film proved a smash hit and benefited Manivannan the actor, as he had cast himself as a sidekick to the ambitious and street-smart protagonist.
As an actor, Manivannan is best remembered for his role as the tongue-in-cheek aide to the Chief Minister in Shankar’s “Mudhalvan,” the bumbling landlord in “Avvai Shanmugi” and his twin act in Sunder C’s “Ullathai Allithaa” as the millionaire Vishwanathan and the villainous Kasinathan.
Manivannan, whose assistants include Vikraman, Sundar C, R K Selvamani and Seeman, too went on to become successful filmmakers. He was known off screen as a follower of Marxist and Periyar ideology and spreading them through his firebrand speeches in political meets. He was also a supporter of Tamil Eelam.
Kolathur Mani, founder of Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam, recalled Manivannan as a nationalist and a communist who spread the views of the movement among the public. “He used his popularity in films to put forward the views of the movement to the public in political meets and not to gain any party post,” he said.
Mani also recalled a couple of instances when Manivannan volunteered himself to be part of his party’s meet and gave a speech in Coimbatore though he was not invited and had come to know about the event through wall posters. “During a conference at Tirupur, it was raining heavily but he continued to sit through even though he was not keeping well. He was a man of simplicity,” Mani said.
Prof A Marx, activist, said Manivannan was not only a well-read, lover of Tamil language and a follower of Marxist, Mao and Periyar ideologies but was also in charge in the district level in a communist movement before he made it big in films. “He was a voracious reader,” Marx said.
Manivannan started his career as an assistant with well known director Bharathi Raja and in 1982 directed his first movie 'Gopurangal Saivathillai'.
He also acted as a villain in 'Kodi Parakkuthu' directed by Bharathi Raja, which had superstar Rajnikant playing hero.
His friendship with actor Sathiyaraj translated to several memorable moments on screen. Manivannan was known to be a voracious reader of books and along with Sathyaraj epitomised on screen what is colloquially known in Tamil as ‘nakkal’ (snideness).
Equation with ‘guru’ Bharathiraja
At many public forums, Manivannan has credited director Bharathiraja for teaching him the various facets of film-making. Bharathiraja had introduced Manivannan as a story and dialogue writer in his 1980 film ‘Nizhalgal’ that sunk at the box office despite its compelling story, music and performances. The follow up to that was ‘Alaigal Oiyvathillai’ the next year, which fetched awards both to Bharathiraja and Manivannan.
However, the two have had a very public falling out in recent years over political and personal reasons, and have both used public forums to hit out at each other. But in an emotional interview to FM radio station Radio City just a few days ago, Manivannan sought Bharathiraja’s forgiveness for all misgivings and insisted that no matter what he would always remain “Bharathiraja’s assistant”.