Santhanam’s upcoming work, Server Sundaram, may well make or break the actor, whose enormous talent had remained under-utilised and unsung for a long time - a time when he played and replayed the hero’s sidekick, his dialogues, deliveries and mannerisms boringly similar in film after film. Till, he felt that enough was enough, and gathered his wits and courage to step out of the shadows of the lead man and into the shoes of the hero himself in Inimey Ippadithan - which aptly translated as Hereafter This Way Alone. But here again, Santhanam - despite his pleasing good looks and impressive screen presence, seemed to dither. As the well-known standup comedian and commentator, Bosskey, once told this writer that unless Santhanam lets go his comic stance and gets into a serious mode, he will not shine.
So, a lot of expectation rides on Server Sundaram -- a title and a movie that remind us of one of Tamil cinema’s greatest comedians, Nagesh. The film, also called Server Sundaram, opened in 1964 to critical and commercial acclaim, and, believe it or not, proved to be the breakthrough point for not just Nagesh, but also director K Balachander, who went on to become a legend with a socially punchy cinema -- which did not shy away from stripping the society of its hypocrisy and falsities. It was Balachander’s theatrical play, Server Sundaram -- with Nagesh essaying the title role -- which was later adapted to the screen.
Nagesh was here in the movie as well -- a poor young man in search of a role in cinema. After initial rebuffs that force him to wait at the tables of a restaurant (there was one amazing scene here of him balancing several ‘dumara-tumblers’ -- vessels in which coffee is served), Nagesh’s Sundaram eventually attains stardom. But it comes with a tragic price. One day, while in the midst of a shoot, his old mother, whom he dotes on, falls ill and dies for want of medical attention. Sundaram gets the news too late, and that turns out to be a defining moment - when he decides to quit cinema and return to his days as a server.
Server Sundaram was remade in Hindi with Mehmood, and was called Main Sundar Hoon (1971). But Mehmood could never match up to Nagesh’s brilliance.
Santhanam’s Server Sundaram while being all about food, is not a retake on the original. The film, being directed by Anand Balki, has Santhanam portraying a catering student - who finds that he cannot get a suitable job after a degree in engineering.
Santhanam said that he was trained by a chef, Paul, who taught him the basics of cooking. At the end of the training, the actor had learnt to make a Tamil dish that dates back 600 years - and emerges from a time when Tamils believed that “unave marundhu” / food is medicine. This is also what the ancient medical science of Ayurveda tells us -- that one’s health is determined by what one puts into one’s mouth. Even today, in a traditional Tamil home, pepper rasam is often the first line of medication for a common cold.
Server Sundaram will while talking to us about the importance of food and our grandmother’s recipes, will include a lot of fun. Otherwise, it may seem like a cookery class, Santhanam avers.
The movie will score on novelty. One has not seen many films on food - barring exceptions like Prakash Raj’s Un Samayal Arayil and the Om Puri starrer, The Hundred-Foot Journey.
The other highlight of Balki’s Server Sundaram will be Bijesh, Nagesh’s grandson - who will play a crucial role - which will include reprising the famous ‘dumara-tumbler’ sequence. Incidentally, Bijesh is a carbon copy of his grandfather.
Nagesh, in spite of all his popularity, seemed a lonely man in his last days. This writer remembers seeing him at a club in Chennai one evening - when he sat alone with even the waiters not quite paying attention to his food orders. And this was the actor whose part as a waiter earned him immense fame, drawing him out of the wilderness and propelling him towards starry heights.
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