Popular screenplay writer Chitralaya Gopu, who turned 90 recently, talks about his funny bone
A casual mention of a mutual friend’s name makes Chitralaya Gopu sit up, as he rummages through memory, which is impressively intact for someone in his 90s. “Can you believe it? I am talking about something that happened in the late 1940s,” he says with childlike enthusiasm, when we catch up at his Thiruvanmiyur residence.
Dressed in a crisp grey kurta and veshti, Gopu reads out the highlights of his career that he has meticulously noted on a sheet of paper soon after the interview was set up.
A cricket fan, Gopu draws an analogy between the game and his three-decade career. Gopu’s “first innings” began when he quit a well-paying export company job to join legendary filmmaker and high-school friend C.V. Sridhar as a dialogue assistant in Kalyana Parisu (1959).
Long before the iconic combination began to rule the celluloid world, Gopu and Sridhar did plays together in school, where the former invariably played a comedian. Gopu was a confident comedic writer, but the one-liners he used were borrowed from his mother, who he thinks was the wittiest person he has ever met. He remembers the gag his mother pulled off when nagaswaram exponent T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai came to Chingleput in the 1940s for a performance. When she was asked if she had “heard” the performance, using the Tamil word kettiya, she responded instead to the meaning of the same word “to ask” and said, “I did, but he refused to give me the nagaswaram.” Even now the memory leaves Gopu in splits, and he recalls writing a similar gag in Shanti Nilayam (1969).
The origin story
Gopu’s brand of humour, drawn from absurd situations (think of Utharavindri Ulle Vaa), coupled with Sridhar’s penchant for drama, soon found many takers and they became a formidable pair in Tamil cinema, delivering blockbuster urban comedies. “I focussed only on humour, while Sridhar was a very good writer of drama and sentimental subjects. It is not that we used to divide portions, but we would discuss and write. We had no ego issues because we were friends,” says Gopu.
Kanchana and Muthuraman in Kadalikka Neramillai.
One such film that was born out of a casual discussion at the beach was Kadhalikka Neramillai (1964), often regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever. “I suggested he make it into a romantic comedy about a person faking his identity for love. I also suggested that he makes the humour situational… what if Muthuraman’s father himself makes an appearance and there is a twist. Sridhar appreciated my suggestions.” It was also the first film in which Gopu’s name appeared alongside Sridhar in the credits for story, screenplay and dialogues.
Apparently, it was Sridhar and Gopu who identified Nagesh’s talent much before K. Balachander, something even Gopu concurs. He remembers getting a phone call from Nagesh after the release of Kadhalikka Neramillai complimenting him for the lines he wrote.
An illustrious run
Gopu’s second innings started when he branched out of Chitralaya to work independently in movies such as Moondru Deivangal, Sumathi En Sundari, Galatta Kalyanam and Kasethan Kadavulada . Among these, he admits that he was disappointed when Moondru Deivangal, directed by Dada Mirasi, didn’t work at the box office.
“It was a sensible, sentimental film and was inspired from a Marathi film. In those days, Marathi and Bengali movies were making great stories. It didn’t work because it wasn’t of Sivaji’s standard,” he says, although people do reach out to him appreciating the film now. Another film which Gopu had great expectations from but didn’t do well was Shanti Nilayam.
He may no longer be active, but his films still make for a good watch. Which explains why Kasethan Kadavulada is now being remade by R. Kannan. Mention this to him, and he says, “ I know nothing much about it, but AVM Saravanan had said that he won’t remake it because nobody can replace Thengai Srinivasan.”
His routine today includes watching news on TV, reading books, and catching up on cricket. He admits he is not emotionally attached to films; prefers not to revisit some of his works. “I don’t share this with my family but every time I watch my film on TV, I get emotional and walk away. Because almost 80% of my friends have passed away and now I’m 90,” he says.
Recently, on his birthday, he was moved watching a video carrying messages from friends and well-wishers, who spoke about his contribution to Tamil comedy. “When I saw Ramkumar Ganesan point to the portrait of Sivaji he was standing next to, I felt as if he was telling me that the late actor was watching me from above. I choked with emotion,” says Gopu.
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