In the 1970s when the Sinhalese Baila (Portuguese-influenced folk music) song Surangani became a rage across India, the man who made the catchy tune and Sinhala words “Suranganita malu genawa” popular, Anthony Pillai Emmanuel Manoharan (Ceylon Manohar) dubbed a part of the song into Malayalam. The few lines sing praises of “Sundaram Keralam,” where there is greenery everywhere, and its people are the singer’s own. The song, in its original Sinhala version and dubbed Tamil version, was sung outside many college campuses in southern India in the 1970s.
The singer, who was of Jaffna Tamil ancestry, had a special place in his heart for Kerala and even managed to learn good Malayalam. Perhaps the state’s people, landscapes, culture and art reminded him of his country.
Although he is best remembered as a singer, Manohar had his sights set on acting from a very young age. He began acting in plays when he was a student at St John’s College in Jaffna in the 1960s. Like many Sri Lankans of his era, Manohar came to India to pursue his higher studies. While he was a BA student in Trichy, he would go regularly to what was then Madras to try and get a role in a film. At that time all he could manage was a minor role in Maanavan, a 1970 film produced by M M A Chinnappa Thevar.
Disappointed with his inability to get a break in Tamil cinema, Manohar moved back to Sri Lanka, where he first worked as a teacher and then decided to become a full-time singer. Sri Lankan music was undergoing a major transformation in the early 1970s when Manohar began performing regularly at major venues in the country. He was one of the pioneers of the country’s new pop movement, where he combined Baila with elements of contemporary music. He sang with equal ease in Tamil, Sinhala and English
His rendition of Surangani was made popular across the island by Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation (formerly Radio Ceylon), which in the 1970s had a loyal fan base in India. As soon as the song became popular in India, Manohar started making regular trips to Madras, and the roles in films came in slowly. It’s a shame that music directors in India did not make better use of his singing talents. Manohar got small roles in films that starred some of the giants of Tamil cinema such as his idol Sivaji Ganesan. He would go on to act in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam films, mostly playing the role of a villain. With his long curly hair, moustache and overweight frame, he fit the role of a ‘bad guy’ well at that time.
Foray into Malayalam films
Manohar managed to come into contact with those working in the Malayalam film industry while living in Madras. He was seen in films starring legends such as Prem Nazir, but his most impactful roles came in movies that featured Jayan, a man with whom he shared a close personal friendship. Whenever he was in Madras, Jayan would spend most of his time with Manohar.
The Sri Lankan actor had a role in several films starring the Malayalam action hero, until Jayan’s untimely death. The two fought some ferociously violent battles in films such as Thadavara and Mamangam.
In Aavesham, released in 1979, the most famous scene involved the two of them getting into an intense fight in the jungle, which was obviously won by the hero. When the tribal chief asked the character played by Jayan to kill his nemesis, he threw away a captured knife and said that he had no intention of doing so. The former enemies then hugged and made up.
Just a year after Aavesham was released, a real-life tragedy struck the Malayalam film industry. While performing a helicopter stunt for the film Kolilakkam, Jayan died in an accident. He was just 41. Terribly shocked and traumatised by the death of his friend, Manohar stopped acting in Malayalam films.
Three years later, when he was living in Colombo, the Black July anti-Tamil riots hit the Sri Lankan capital and spread across the island. Manohar moved to India for a while and later shifted base to London, where he worked for the BBC’s Tamil service. It would take two and a half decades for Manohar to act in a Malayalam film again, settling for a minor role in the Mammootty film Thuruppugulan.
Over this time span, Manohar travelled to many parts of the world where there was a Sri Lankan Diaspora to sing his famous 1970s songs. When he sang Surangani, Manohar made it a point to sing the Malayalam verses.
He made Chennai his permanent home and lived there after he stopped acting. His last few years were spent in and out of hospital and he had to undergo dialysis. Manohar died in the suburbs of Chennai at the age of 74 in 2018.
One is left wondering whether he made the right decision to become an actor when so much more fame and success were there for the taking as a singer. Nevertheless, he is well remembered by fans of older Malayalam films.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)