The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema



T.R. Sundaram

Tiruchengodu Ramalinga Sundaram was a profoundly important figure in pioneering the South Indian film industry. He was born on July 16th, 1907, in Tiruchengodu of Salem district, into a family of yarn merchants. After completing his schooling in Salem, he moved to Madras to study B.A. Once he finished his degree in Madras, his family, aspiring to modernise their business, urged him to pursue higher studies abroad. Consequently, he went to Leeds to obtain a BSc in textile technology, where he fell in love and married an English woman named Gladys. When he returned with his English wife, his family and relatives didn’t accept their relationship and refused him any role in their textile business. Sundaram was hardly shaken and chose to enter the film world. He eventually became one of the most successful personalities of the industry.

His film career started with a partnership with Salem-based Angel Films. He was actively involved in the production of movies such as DRAUPADI VASTRAPAHARANAM, which was released in the year 1934.

With the experience gained from his partnership with Angel Films, he decided to go solo and started his own venture called Modern Theatres. With 10 acres of land on the foothills of Yercaud (a hill station in Tamil Nadu), he built the studio that played significant role in the careers of many stalwarts of the industry. It was one of the biggest studios in South India built outside Chennai, in Salem. Modern Theatres was believed to have 250 employees. Some well-known names like S.V. Ranga Rao, Anjali Devi and M.R. Radha were introduced by Sundaram through Modern.

The first film that Sundaram produced at Modern Theatres was SATHI AHALYA in 1937, which he directed himself. This film was shot entirely in the Modern Theatres studio for the first time. Sri Lankan actress K. Thavamani Devi was cast in the lead role. Although she was born in Sri Lanka, she moved to Madras to pursue her career. Being trained in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, she was able to dance and sing in her own voice. Eventually, she earned the name Singalathu Kuyil. When Sundaram invited the press to announce his production launch and gave a photo carrying Thavamani Devi in a swimsuit, it raised eyebrows as it was considered too glamorous for that time. In fact, it was Devi who set the trend for glamour among heroines in Tamil films, which actresses like T.R. Rajakumari and Mathuri Devi followed.

The same year, he produced and directed one more film, PADMA JYOTHI. This second film from Modern Theatres had a very new feature in Tamil cinema, in fact, for the whole of India. It was the animation technique used in the title credits. When the heroine’s name Padma was shown, a cartoon face of a woman showing multiple expressions was used. It was incredible as animation was a completely unknown technique during that time. The film is said to have 25 songs, according to film historian Randor Guy. Though the film was only an average grosser, it is still remembered for the introduction of animation, a patriotic theme in cinema, and its music.

Padma Jothi.jpg

A still from the Movie PADMA JYOTHI produced and directed by T.R. Sundaram

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Some of the other films produced and/or directed by T.R. Sundaram during 1930-1940included:

  • 1938: MAYA MAYAVAN
  • 1940: SATHI MURALI

MANICKAVASAGAR, directed by T.R. Sundaram, was released in 1939. The film was jointly produced by two Salem-based companies, Sri krishna Films and Sundaram’s very own Modern Theatres. It was the third outing for M.M. Dhandapani Desigar as an actor and the second one with Sundaram after THAYUMANAVAR. M.S. Devasena played the female lead role again with the same combo of Sundaram and Desigar after Thayumanavar. Devasena and Desigar became life partners in real life as well later on in their lives.


A still from the Movie MANICKAVASAGAR featuring M.M.Dhandapani Desigar and others

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MANICKAVASAGAR was an eponymous biopic of the saint Manickavasagar. Desigar had his own fan following those days for his singing prowess and later became one of the legends in Carnatic music. He was one of the key personalities in the Tamil songs movement in classical music. His full-fledged concerts of the Thirukural are still applauded and celebrated greatly by music critics all over the country and the world. His music was loved by even people who didn’t have much knowledge of classical music. He earned the moniker of Isai Arasu, or The King of Music. He also received many felicitations like Isai Perarignar from the Tamil Isai Sangam and the Sangita Nataka Academy Award.


A still from the Movie MANICKAVASAGAR

PC: From the archives of TCRC

SANTHANADEVAN, produced by T.R. Sundaram and directed by S. Nottani, was a film based on Robin Hood. Nottani had been working with Modern Theatres for quite a while, including directing the first talkie in Malayalam, BALAN. The film featured a Muslim hero in Tamil cinema for the first time, G.M. Basheer. It took on the British government’s tax policies and indirectly criticised them through powerful dialogues and songs. However, to appease the British censors, the film used the character Madanan, the brother of a good and kindly king, as the person who mercilessly taxes people. The hero, Chandanadevan, sings with people to do service by looting the rich, landlords, and government servants to help the poor. The film also marked the debut of the legendary M.R. Radha as a villain. It was his second film as an actor after RAJASEKARAN.

Santhana Devan.jpg

A still from the Movie SANDHANADEVAN Featuring G.M.Basheer and P.Bhanumathi

PC: From the archives of TCRC

T.R. Sundaram was the founder of the legendary Modern Theatres, which at its peak had three film productions a year. After completing 98 films and while planning his 99th film he already had set his sight on the 100th film as a centenary celebration for his production unit. However unfortunately Sundaram fell victim to destiny and died at the age of 56 in 1963. By then Modern Theatres had produced 98 films of which 56 were directed by Sundaram himself. His son Rama Sundaram continued the legacy to fulfill his father’s dream, and Modern Theatres ended up producing 117 films before succumbing to the death of production studios in the country.

Sundaram is reverently remembered for the way he ran the studio with discipline and finesse, treating it like a factory with a rigid code of conduct. There was no bias or discrimination, and even a leading actor was made to stand for hours when he came late for work. The gates of the studio were locked on time, and no visitors were allowed. However, Sundaram paid everyone generously and promptly, which was quite rare during those times.

Sundaram achieved many milestones, such as producing Tamil cinema’s first colour film, ALIBABAVUM 40 THIRUDARGALUM, directing the first Malayalam talkie, BALAN, and producing the first-ever colour film in Malayalam, KANDAM BECHA KOTTU. He also conducted the first people’s poll in India through magazines for casting in his film MANONMANI and provided the film industry with many stalwarts, including P.U. Chinnappa, who became a superstar through Sundaram’s UTHAMA PUTHIRAN. His contributions are to be found in every history book that talks about Indian cinema.
[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema




This week we are going to talk about someone who played an immensely important and pioneering role in the nascent stages of the Tamil film industry. This is none other than Sivagangai A. Narayanan— a man of many talents and wearer of many hats: actor, director, writer, producer, studio owner, and even film exhibitor.

A. Narayanan, born in January 1900 at Sivagangai,studied in the famed Presidency College, Chennai as an undergraduate student. After getting his degree, he worked as an insurance agent in a bank in Mumbai — then Bombay — before jumping headfirst in to the film industry. During this time, he worked for the K.D. Brothers, who were widely known and famed as Hollywood film distributors. In 1922, he joined Queens Cinema, in Calcutta, as a manager, and then moved to Chennai to manage Cinema Popular, aka the famed Star Talkies— its name once talkies took the industry by storm. After his many stints managing cinemas, he began his own venture — Exhibitor Film Services— in Chennai. Through this, he was distributing both foreign and Indian films, along with leasing cinema theatres in various towns across the state. No wonder, then, that he came to be known as the Father of South Indian Film Business

In 1927, after dabbling in film distribution, he started his own film studio, General Pictures Corporation, Madras. It is believed that in 3 years — from 1927 to 1930 — he had produced over 20 films — and directed some as well! And all his films were distributed by his own business, Exhibitors Film Services. With its many branches at various places, from Bombay and Delhi to Rangoon and Singapore, he was able to release in a wide range of regions. The Bengal region, in India, on the other hand, had the Arora Film Corporation to distribute his films. 

A few silent films that Narayanan produced during this prolific time include the following films. Unfortunately, all the films listed below are lost. 

1. DHARMAPATHINI (Director, Producer)
2. GNANASOUNDARI (Director, Producer)
3. KOVALAN (Director, Producer)
4. GARUDA GARVABANGAM (Director, Producer)
5. LANKA DHAGANAM (Producer)
8. SARANGADHARA (Producer)
11.BOJARAJAN (Producer)
13. RAJASTHAN ROJA (Producer)
14. NARANARAYANAN (Producer)
15. VISWAMITHRA (Producer)
16. PAVAZHARANI (Producer)
20. MACHAVADHARAM (Producer)

In 1928 he undertook a voyage to Hollywood, and carried with him a print of the silent film Anarkali. He returned to India having earned the distinction of being the first person to ever exhibit a fully produced Indian film in Hollywood. He visited various places of great importance while he was there, including the famed Universal Studios. While in the US, he learnt a lot of the mechanics of film making technology — to say nothing of his studio visits and meetings with various important people active in the industry at the time.  During these interactions, he was heartily encouraged to shake things up in the Tamil film business when he gets back to India by the Hollywood counterparts. This inspired him in 1934 to start South India’s first talkie studio — which he, incidentally, named after his son — Srinivasa Cinetone aka Sound City.

In 1928, he produced a film in Chennai called MINGIRELIYA THARAGAI or LAILA, which was met with resounding success when it was screened simultaneously in Chennai at Wellington Cinemas, Super Cinemas in Bombay, and Cinema de Paris in Rangoon. This film broke records in its box office collections! Its budget, too, marked a historical moment in Tamil cinema. At a time when films were made with budgets of around Rs. 5000 or Rs. 6000 at most, MINGIRELIYA THARAGAI was made on an incredibly lush budget of Rs. 75,000. As it turned out, the only producer capable of pulling this remarkable feat at the time was Narayanan.

One of the significant milestones in his career was the establishment of his talkie studio, which was also South India’s first talkie studio, Srinivasa Cinetone or Sound City. Built in Poonamallee High Road in Chetpet, Chennai. this studio helped filmmakers based in the South make their films locally — rather than having to travel to places such as Calcutta, Bombay, Poona, or even Kolhapur to record sound. At Sound City, shootings took place in sunlight; for indoor shoots a tarpaulin cover was used. The first film produced here was Narayanan’s own film, SRINIVASA KALYANAM, both produced and directed by him. The film earned two important distinctions; one: it was the first Tamil talkie to be fully made in  Chennai; two: his wife Meenakshi Narayanan became India’s first female sound recordist with this film. She also went on to handle the sound recording for four more films. The first woman in India to ever do sound recordings — and for five films, no less — is an astonishing fact that is oft forgotten and left out of history books, unfortunately.

Another interesting event during the film SRINIVASA KALYANAM involved the famous comedienne,Angamuthu,who came to shoot for her part in the film in a bullock cart. In fact, she hilariously maintained this throughout the production of the film.

In the same year, one more film was produced at Srinivasa Cinetone: DRAUPADI VASTRAPRAHRANAM. Another film bearing the same name, in fact, was also released in the same year, 1934, under the aegis of Angel Films, directed by R. Padmanabhan and the production unit had another legend of Tamil cinema, T.R. Sundaram. (We have an upcoming post dedicated to his life and work — keep an eye out for it!) Both films did extremely well, commercially!


A still from the Movie DRAUPATHI VASTRAPAHARANAM made by R. Prakash and A. Narayanan

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Other films made by A. Narayanan included:

  • 1935: RAJAMBAL
  • 1936: MEERA BAI

RAJAMBAL, released in 1935, was based on the novel written by J. R. Rangaraju, and this film marked the first time a film was made based on the book. Another film, based on the same novel, was made by R.M. Krishnasami in1951. This films is believed to be the first detective movie ever made in Tamil. The film garnered many raised eyebrows —from people in the world of law, in particular. The film, after all, was centered around a judicial officer who misuses his position and influencer for his own personal gain and selfish ends.


A still from the Movie RAJAMBAL

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Yet another interesting movie that came out of Narayanan’s desk was VIKRAMA STRI SAHASAM in 1937. The film featured two plot lines in a single film, which was a relatively new notion in film at the time. It, incidentally, also had another title as well — perhaps to mirror the dual plots —NAVEENA STRI SAHASAM. See, for instance, this advertisement published in Anandha Vikatan, Deepavali Malar, 1937.

Vikrama Sthri Sahasam.jpg

An advertisement for the Film SRI RAMANUJAR and VIKRAMA STRISAHASAM


PC: From the archives of TCRC

Narayanan is a pretty important figure in the history of Tamil cinema, and his life and work in the industry features many stellar achievements:

  • He established the first talkie studio in the South of India.
  • He was the first person to Hollywood Studios and took the time to get an education in the nuances of film making business — commercially and technologically
  • His wife was India’s first female sound recordist — and recorded sound for five films at that.
  • He took film exhibitions to unprecedented levels with the establishment of his Film Exhibitor Services.

Unfortunately, he died very young, at the age of just 39. Many talents were nurtured by him: the likes of R. Prakash, Jithen Banargee, T.R. Raghunath and many others. It is rather tragic, all things considered, that one of the pioneers of not only Tamil cinema but all of south Indian cinema, could just as easily be placed very high indeed on a list of forgotten heroes as well. 

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema




This week, we are looking at a particularly unique and rather fascinating figure in the world of Tamil cinema. Most people today, perhaps you included, would believe that someone came to Tamil Nadu from a different world, nearly 14,000 km away, and made a string of staggering and trendsetting films in 1930s to 1950s in — all without knowing the language! Allow us to introduce you to Ellis R. Dungan, an Ohio born Irish-American, who was active in the Tamil film industry in the 30s and 40s. 

While studying at South California University, Duncan became fast friends with people in his cohort who studied in the cinematography and production design department with him. One of them was Indian, M.L. Tandon, who played a vital role in Dungan’s career. Tandon, who himself went on to become a prominent filmmaker in South India during the 1930s and 40s, invited Dungan to India to work with him. His film BHAKTHA NANDANAR became the pathbreaking stepping stone for Dungan. 

He is believed to have filmed many portions on the absence of Tandon, although he wasn’t formally credited in the film for his work. Though he initially planned for his visit to India to last only six months, destiny had its say, and kept him active in the industry for over a decade — fifteen years, to be precise — and paved the way for him to establish a wide host of technical trends. He created a legacy of his own, and shaped the careers of many talented personalities of the industry.

Movies he directed in 1930-1940 included:

  • 1940: KALAMEGAM

SATHI LEELAVATHI was Dungan’s first official directorial venture. He came to the film itself in a rather peculiar sort of fashion. The film was offered to Tandon by Maruthachalam Chettiar, who was adamant that only he could be the right person to direct this film after the rousing success of BHAMA VIJAYAM. Tandon, on the other hand, was busy with a Hindi film being shot at Calcutta, and recommended his American friend to Chettiar. Chettiar, however, was rather reluctant to accept: he saw Dungan as inexperienced and young, and thought his lack of knowledge of the language would create huge roadblocks. Tandon, however, was insistent, and persuaded Chettiar that he was trained in Hollywood — and this did the trick! Hollywood, in many ways, was the magical word that proved his mettle. Chettiar was thus convinced, and the film was made.

Dungan began his remarkable journey with a bit of a bang with this debut film, which became a vital landmark in the Tamil Industry. It certainly helped that the film was also an enormous success commercially. It also, incidentally, holds the distinction of being first of its kind to be directed by a foreigner. The film, in its theme, dealt with the evils of alcoholism. 

The film didn’t just mark Dungan’s debut; it was responsible for introducing many others who went on to become stalwarts of the industry. M.G. Ramachandran, known popularly as MGR, made his film debut in this film in a minor role as a police inspector. MGR, as many of us know, went on to become one of the most celebrated heroes of the industry, not to mention a revolutionary political leader. Along with him the lead actors M.K. Radha, T.S. Baliah, N.S. Krishnan and M.R. Santhanalakshmi also made their debut. For S.S. Vasan, this was the first step on the road to stardom as a story writer for films; it is his novel — with the same name — that formed the basis for the film’s plot. Vasan would go on to carve a niche for himself as one of the most innovative filmmakers that India produced in its initial years of establishing its film industries. (Watch this space! We’ll return to his fascinating story in another iteration of our series.)


A still from the Movie SATHI LEELAVATHI featuring M.K. Radha, M.K. Mani and M.R.GNANAMBAL 

PC: From the archives of TCRC

AMBIKAPATHI was yet another feather on Dungan’s cap. The film ran for 52 weeks — a whole year! — And did extremely well at the box office. It was a stellar return to success for M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, better known as MKT, as well, after his film CHINTHAMANI. T.S. Baliah, an actor who was also part of Dungan’s debut film SATHI LEEELAVATHI, was retained in this film to play the villain. His performance was greatly praised for pulling it off with aplomb and panache. The talented Balaiah later went on to become famous as a versatile actor who was capable of performing in all kinds of roles — a man who could don many hats indeed. His unique style of dialogue delivery was particularly distinct, and greatly contributed to his success in his career in acting.


A still from the Movie AMBIKAPATHI featuring T.S. Baliah with his co-stars 

PC: From the archives of TCRC

With the huge success of CHINTHAMANI and AMBIKAPATHI — all in the same year, 1937, MKT earned the distinction of being the very first Superstar of Tamil cinema. This was nothing short of being crowned king of the industry! Besides acting, his other passion — singing — also took his career to great heights. Records containing his songs sold like hot cakes! Y.V.Rao and Dungan played a major part in the terrific start MKT got in what went on to be a truly prolific career.

The film also had people talking for other reasons: its dialogue, and some bold rather intimate scenes of the time had many heads turning. Dungan had hired a Tamil scholar, Elangovan, to script dialogue for the film, which turned out to be profoundly poetic — very new for Tamil cinema at the time! The move flung open a new trend in the world of writing for films. The line “Thookkam Un Kangalai Thazhuvattum Amaithi Un Nenjil Nilavattum”, spoken by the film’s hero, became very famous, and in fact, was used by many later. The lyricist Kannadasan, for instance, used the line in a song for his critically acclaimed film ALAYAMANI in 1961. 

Dungan conceptualised a scene where the hero winks at the heroine: which was, believe it or not, nothing short of revolutionary at the time. After this particular scene shot to popularity, MKT’s winks became a trademark mainstay of his acting style.

With SAKUNTHALAI, Dungan’s association with the famed classical vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, affectionately and popularly known simply as MS began. The film was produced under the banner Royal Talkie Distributors. MS and her husband, Sadasivam, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, were the producers.


A still from the Movie SAKUNTHALAI

PC: From the archives of TCRC

While MS played the titular role, G. N. Balasubramaniam, the famous Carnatic singer was roped in for the lead role opposite to her. Though the film was first offered to K. Subramaniyam to direct, Dungan was brought on board in his stead, as Subramaniyam was busy with prior commitments. The comedy duo of N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Maduram were included in the cast too. The film was received well and was immensely successful at the box office as well.

KALAMEGHAM was a biopic on a Tamil poet whose words were always believed to come true. Dungan reached out to a nadaswaram expert, T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, to play the titular role. This ended up being the only film that this nadaswaram legend acted in throughout his career as an esteemed musician. Though the film didn’t require him to play the nadaswaram itself, he was asked to pretend to do so in a scene where he plays the instrument and walks around on the streets. This particular scene was, in fact, filmed only to satisfy his ardent fans — and to have better prospects at the box office!


An advertisement for the Film KALAMEGHAM


PC: From the archives of TCRC

Although the film itself didn’t do particularly well it is nonetheless remembered for being Rajarathanam’s sole movie appearance, and for some specific technical mastery that was inventively executed by Dungan. One scene in particular, where a village is shown being submerged by a sandstorm, was fascinatingly filmed using miniatures in a vacant beach area in Chennai — Besant Nagar. And all this personally by Dungan himself. It is said that people stood and clapped for this scene in theatres.

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema





There lurks an interesting story behind how B.N. Rao, who’s actual name is Balakrishnan Nair, of Talasserry, Kerala, got his name. Although he had been born in Kerala, his family had to shift to Bombay once his father got a job there. While enrolling in school, his neighbor put down his name as B.N. Rao — according to whom all south Indians ought to carry the surname Rao — and thus, the name stuck.

B. N. Rao’s first Tamil Film was TUKKARAM which was unique in many ways. The titular role was played by the famous carnatic Singer Musiri Subramiyam Iyer.


A still of Musiri Subramaniya Aiyer , from the film THUKKARAM

From the magazine Anandha Vikatan Deepavali Malar, 1938

PC: From the archives of TCRC

TUKKARAM was Musiri’s first and only film to date. The news of his acting in a movie raised eyebrows of many traditionalists as well as common moviegoers, especially as he had to sport a moustache for the role. This was quite a departure from the tradition of clean shaven classical singers of the time. Although he was initially offered a fake moustache to stick on, he found himself rather uncomfortable, and asked that the filmmakers wait while he grew one of his own. Of course, once the film was released, he went right back to his old ways of being clean shaven.

After the success of Tukaram, Rao’s association with the famous CENTRAL STUDIOS grew; most of his films that followed were under their banner including:

While PRAHALADHA didn’t have a particularly memorable impact on ringing the cash register, so to speak, it found other reasons to make its mark in the history of Tamil cinema. One of the reasons was the appearance of the superstar turned later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr. M.G. Ramachandran, known fondly as MGR. This was one of his very early films of his career, his 6th— to be precise. The sword fight scene between him and the lead actress M.R. Santhanalakshmi became quite a talking point. T.R. Mahalingham, who played the titular role, went on to become a famous singer in his own right.


An advertisement for the Film PRAHALADHA

From the magazine DINAMANI VARUSHA MALAR 1939

PC: From the archives of TCRC


Sundar Rao Nadkarni, born in Mangalore, started his film career as an actor in silent films and later switched over to editing and direction. His first Tamil film as a director was SAKKUBHAI, which was released in 1934.

A few other films he made included:

  • 1937: RAJA BHAKTHI 
  • 1938: BHUKAILAS 

His film BHU KAILAS or MANDOTHARI PARINAYAM, released in 1938, was produced by Sundaram Sound Studios Ltd, Chennai. It has, unfortunately, now been lost. However, it is often mistaken for the remake (made by Rao himself) in Telugu with same name, BHU KAILAS. It was produced by A.V. Meyyappa Chettiar known as AVM. The film became a huge hit and helped in reviving AVM’s business, which had previously been hit by losses incurred from 2 Tamil productions namely Alli Arjuna and Nandakumar. We will return to discuss AVM later in this series.

Bhu Kailas.jpg

An advertisement for the Film BHUKAILAS

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

SHANTHA SAKKUBAI, produced by Royal Talkie Distributors, had K.Aswathamaplaying the titular role, and K. Sarangapanithe other lead role.Incidentally, the film was also the debut — as a dialogue writer, no less — for the famous and multifaceted Kothamangalam Subbu, who went on to become very popular later in the industry. 

His association with S.S. Vasan and his famous novel,Thillana Moganambal— which was made in to a blockbuster film with same name — are still proudly, and with awe, discussed in Tamil film history. Subbualso acted in a small role, besides writing dialogues for the film. The film became a big hit, and established, once again, a Rao as one of the successful filmmakers of 1930s

Shantha Sakkubai.jpg

An advertisement for the Film SHANTHA SAKKUBAI


PC: From the archives of TCRC[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema




This week, we are going to talk about the Raos, a set of people who can truly be said to have ruled the Tamil film industry in the 1930s. These were Y. V. Rao, P. V. Rao, B. N. Rao and Sundar Rao Nadkarni – in some ways, the first royals of the Tamil industry.


Y. V. Rao alias Yaragudipati Varada Rao, born 30 May 1903, was rather prominent during his time as an extremely talented filmmaker; he does, however, seem to have been tragically largely forgotten today. A multifaceted mover in the industry, he donned many hats: as an editor, a director, an actor, a producer and even a screenwriter. His wife Kumari Rukmani, daughter Lakshmi, his granddaughter Aishwarya and even his mother-in-law, Nungambakkam Janaki, were all heavyweights in the industry as actors in their own right. His daughter, Lakshmi, and granddaughter, Aishwarya, are active in the industry to this day; Lakshmi, in fact, is well-known across languages and is National Award winning actress.

Y. V. Rao probably has the honour of bagging the most firsts in the South Indian film industries, collectively.  He made a number of multilingual films in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, and even Hindi, not to mention the plethora of silent movies in his filmography. He was the first to make motion pictures in so many languages; in fact, he holds an international record for this honour according to the film historian Randor Guy. His directorial venture SATI SULOCHANA was the first talkie ever made in the Kannada language. The battle scene in this film, shot using four cameras simultaneously, stayed with many viewers and was all the rage at the time of the film’s release. 

He was also the first filmmaker to ever make a film on the glittering world of cinema in his Telugu film VISWAMOHINI. At a time when most films were either mythological or based on social issues, VISHWAMOHINI was a pathbreaking film.  

Other notable works in the Tamil language by Y. V. Rao include: 

  • 1937: CHINTAMANI 
  • 1938: BHAKTA MEERA  
  • 1941: SAVITHIRI

His film CHINTHAMANI, in particular, broke many box office records and catapulted its hero, M. K. Thyagarja Bhagavathar, to Superstar status. He, of course, went on to create a stunning legacy of his own. Ashwatama, the Kannada actress in the eponymous role, made her Tamil debut with this film. She, too, rose to dizzying heights with her acting and singing skills. However, she tragically succumbed to early death due to tuberculosis in 1939. The film itself ran for a year in single screen theatres – the first film to pull this feat off. It was not only a raging success in South Indian films, but went on to become one of the highest grossing films in India after its release. 


Working Still from the Film CHINTHAMANI Featuring Y.V.RAO himself with L.NARAYANA RAO

PC: From the archives of TCRC

CHINTHAMANI, in later years, acquired a kind of cult status, and continues to be considered a historical event in South Indian cinema. Later, when Rao began producing films, he named his production company Chinthamani Pictures. The profit of this film as of such a magnitude that the distributors of the film, Royal Talkies, constructed a new cinema theatre in Madurai and named it after the film: Chinthamani Talkies.

With SWARNALATHA, Y. V. Rao bagged yet another first. This was the first film to be shot in one of the most famed studios of Chennai, Newtone Studios. 


An advertisement for the Film SWARNALATHA

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Although the movie itself wasn’t a raging success, commercially speaking, it did make a significant mark in the history of Tamil cinema – largely due to Y. V. Rao’s acting skills and careful direction, not to mention the distinction of being the first film to ever be shot at one of the busiest studios in the country during the period spanning 1940-1970. The studio was also was leased to the noted filmmaker A. Bhimsingh, who shot many of his films there. Later it was sold to Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan. This film grappled with many complex social issues such as alcoholism and unemployment. 


P. V. Rao was one of the foremost filmmakers in the South Indian film industry. His name is, perhaps a little oddly, often confused with the initials V. V. or T. V. However, according to compelling evidence available in publication, his name is stylised as P. V. See: the advertisement below, published in the year 1937. He directed many films in Tamil: VALLI, VALLI THIRUMANAM, SAKUNTHALA, SRI KRISHNALEELA, BHAKTHA DRUVAN, NALLA THANGAL, LEELAVATHI SULOCHANA, BALAMANI and DEVADAS

Interestingly during the shooting of BALAMANI (1937), it is said that the TKS brothers were unhappy with P. V. Rao’s discipline when it came to filmmaking. Unfortunately, as was anticipated, the film didn’t do well at the box office and was declared a flop rather swiftly. In startling move of creative revenge, the TKS brothers made a spoof of him, a character named V.P. Var – which cleverly reversed Rao’s name – in their next film, GUMASTHAVIN PENN. This film, curiously, was also directed by yet another Rao, B.N. Rao. This character, played by K.R. Ramasamy, was hilarious, and became quite popular and well loved! 

He also made the first of many DEVADAS films made in India – the first ever to me made in South India. It was released in 1937, where he himself played the lead role, opposite G. B. Rajayee.


An advertisement for the Film DEVADAS


PC: From the archives of TCRC

[To be continued] Next week we will talk about two more Raos – who were each immensely influential in establishing the trends in Tamil cinema.

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema



This week, we bring you yet another mover and shaker from the world of Tamil Cinema: Raja Sandow, a prominent filmmaker as well as a trendsetter — in every sense of the word!


P.K. Nagalingam, better known as Raja Sandow to the world, was born in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu in 1895. There’s an interesting story behind the origin of this new name: the story goes he acquired this unique moniker due to his impressively toned physique, built through his pastime of choice, bodybuilding and wrestling. Once he was satisfied with his bodybuilding, he opened a gym for the world — and a very successful one, at that. He went on to earn many accolades through his wrestling career, and was even featured in the Bombay Chronicle.

This popularity eventually paved his way into the glittering world of show business, and he began acting in silent films in the City of Dreams, Bombay. Right from his very first film, BHAKTHA BHODANA, he performed his own stunts. This attracted the attention of many filmmakers of the time, as a result of which he went on to act in more than seventy silent films.

Once he climbed to the very top of his acting career, Raja Sandow turned his attention behind the scenes, to the art of filmmaking. A keen observer, he had been watching and learning from the films he starred in from the very first one. When opportunity knocked on his door in the form the filmmaker R. Padmanabhan, who offered him a chance to make his own film in Madras, he jumped at it. And thus was made the film ANADHAI PENN in 1929. 

The films Raja Sandow made aimed to portray deep social messages, particular the terrible ways the poor, and women, were treated in society. His films NANDANAR and RAJESWARI, released  in the 1920s, were some such films that were truly remarkable for the times in which they were made.

He was responsible for many firsts and beginnings in the Tamil film industry. In his MENAKA, for instance, the lead and actor and actress were pictured interacting very closely and even touching each other. This was revolutionary at a time when the norm was to place the hero and heroine at a two feet distance from each other at all times. He was, clearly, one of the first and foremost trendsetters of the Indian film industry as a whole.


An advertisement for the Film MENAKA


PC: From the archives of TCRC

MENAKA also marked the debut of the famous N.S. Krishnan, who went on to become one of the pioneers of comedy in Tamil films. It was also the first film appearance of the TKS Brothers, who were the foremost stars of the theatrical world at the time.

THIRUNEELAKANTAR, made in 1939, went on to become one of the biggest hits in the history of Tamil cinema. During its release period, shows were running in cinema halls even a year — 52 weeks — after the films initial release. This film, too, featured an extremely popular soundtrack by M.K. Thyagraja Bhagavathar. The songs were composed by Papanasam Sivan and became sensational runaway hits elevating the stardom of Thyagraja, known fondly as M.K.T. Songs from the movie such as Deena Karuna Karane Nataraja were all the rage. Songs from this film were catapulted to cult status, and remain both well-known and beloved by music lovers even today.


Working Still from the Film TIRUNEELAKANDER Featuring M.K.T and TIRUNELVELI PAPA

PC: From the archives of TCRC

The comedy duo N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Madhuram— who were, incidentally, husband and wife in reality too — were quite the comedic sensation; many flocked to the cinema to see their exceptional comedy.


Working Still from the Film TIRUNEELAKANDER Featuring N.K.S and T.A. Madhuram

PC: From the archives of TCRC

In 1943, Raja Sandow tragically suffered a heart attack and died in Coimbatore on the 25th of November. His last film was SIVAKAVI, which he had, in fact, quit due to creative differences with the producer, S.M. Sriramulu Naidu. Naidu went on see the film to its conclusion himself.


Working Still from the Film SIVAKAVI Featuring M.K.T

PC: From the archives of TCRC

 [To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned! 

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema



This week is dedicated to an oft-forgotten legend of Tamil Cinema: Krishnamurthy Subramaniyam, also known as K. Subramaniyum, who played a truly vital role in the establishment of Tamil film industry.

K. Subramaniyam

Born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, K. Subramaniyam entered the professional world as a lawyer. Eventually, he gave up the practice of law to chase his sparkling dreams of making films. One of the first and foremost filmmakers of his time, Subramaniyam made films that were simultaneously grounded in a refined aesthetic sensibility even as they foregrounded social issues. His films were often centred on the freedom movement, and showcased the most pressing social issues of his time, from untouchability and child marriage to child marriage, the dowry system, and the treatment of widows and women. 

He was also responsible for the introduction of many actors who went onto become stalwarts of the industry:S.D. Subbulakshmi, the legendary music composer Papanasam Sivan, `Baby’ Saroja, who was Subrahmanyam own niece,the Bharatanatyam trio Lalita, Padmini andRagini, B. Saroja Devi and K.J. Mahadevan. His daughter, who went on to become an extremely well-regarded dancer, Padma Subramiyum, made her film debut as a child artist in his GITA GANDHI. His wife, on the other hand,Meenakshi, held the distinction of becoming southern India’s first female music director and lyricist.

Subramaniyam had been active in the industry right from the Silent Era, when he undertook his first directorial venture, PAVALAKODI,in 1934. This was an important era in the history of the industry: the film also marked the debut of the actor M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, who went on to become one of the first superstars of the industry, gaining immense popularity through his acting as well as his immaculate singing prowess as a vocalist. 

Once the film was completed, Subramaniyam married S.D. Subbulakshmi, for whom the film was also a debut. The songs of this film were composed by the legendary Carnatic music composer and singer,Papanasam Sivan, who earned the moniker of Tamil Thyagaraja.


Working Still from the Film PAVALAKODI Featuring S.D. SUBBULAKSMI

PC: From the archives of TCRC

He went on to have a stellar career as a filmmaker, making many successful films such as NAVEENASADARAM, NAVEENASARANGADHARA, KUCHELA AND BALAYOGINI. He also founded his own production company, The Madras United Artistes Corporation, with the critically acclaimed film NAVEENA SADHARAM.

Naveena Sadharam_WM.jpg

Working Still from the Film NAVEENA SADHARAM Featuring S.D. SUBBULAKSMI

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Subramaniyam was once felicitated in his own home town and was invited to perform stage show during the Mahamaham. The Mahamaham marks an important and richly celebrated Hindu festival that is celebrated once every twelve years in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. It is said that the show mesmerised the audience. During this show, his wife, S.D. Subbulakshmi introduced a young female singer to him and to the audience of the show. Her performance was magical, utterly enthralling all who were present, including Subramaniyam himself. This young girl? M.S. Subbulakshmi. She went on to become one of the most celebrated and revered Carnatic musicians of her generation. Subramaniyam inducted her into the world of film through his SEVASADHANAM. 

SEVASADHANAM, released in 1938, undertook an ambitious project: advocating for the reformation of society. The film took on a complex topic: ancient traditional practices of marriage where in young girls were forced to marry aged men and lead miserable lives with no say or agency. The film also showcased the dowry system and the devastating social inequality faced by women at the time. 

One scene, in particular, made quite a mark. At the end of the film, an aged Brahmin man realises the fundamentally evil core of these practices, and cuts off his sacred thread, his poonal, and throws it away. This was seen as a thundering blow and staunch rejection of the regressive practice of Brahmin orthodoxy.

Seva Sadhanam_WM.jpg

Working Still from the Film SEVASADHANAM Featuring M.S. SUBBULAKSMI with other artists

PC: From the archives of TCRC

His films were often deeply critical of the patriarchal and male dominated nature and structure of society. His, BALAYOGINI, tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a young widow after her husband dies.The film highlighted one of the most pressing issues of its time: the horrifying treatment of widows in society, especially when they were married off young and the death of their aged husbands inevitably followed.The film vividly and movingly depicted the heart rending condition of a young widow in a middle class family. Broadly speaking, Subramaniyam was quite successful in creating awareness on the problem

This film marked the debut of Baby Saroja, known famously as the Shirley Temple of India. Her performance was lauded greatly by audiences and critics alike. Her popularity skyrocketed after the film, and she was called on to endorse many products being advertised. BALAYOGINI holds the honour of being the first children’s film of India. It is also seen by many historians as a trendsetter when it comes films that dealt with social issues. 

Bala Yogini_WM.jpg

An advertisement for the Film BALAYOGINI by Madras United Artists Corporation


PC: From the archives of TCRC

The film THYAGA BHOOMI is considered the crown jewel of Subramaniyam’s work as a director. Based on the novel by Kalki, also called Thyaga Bhoomi, this film was the first in India to ever be banned by the British Raj. Why? It featured scenes glorifying Mahatma Gandhi and the increasingly popular struggle for freedom in India. Despite the ban, however – in fact, even before the British had a chance to impose the ban – the film already had become one of the biggest hits of its time, and one of the greatest successes of the industry.

Baby Saroja, S.D. Subbulakshmi and Papanasam Sivan played important roles in the film. A young female singer, D.K. Pattamaal, also made her debut as a playback singer in the film. She later went on to form the holy trinity of Carnatic music along with M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasanthakumari.


An advertisement of the Film THYAGA BHOOMI from the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1939

PC: From the archives of TCRC

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned! 

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema


Cinema is easily one of the most fascinating and compelling of all human endeavours – both in the realm of storytelling and otherwise. The history of Indian cinema, in particular, can be said to have truly begun with the Silent Era – way back, late in the 19thcentury. The first Tamil Talkie, KALIDAS, changed the face of Tamil cinema and Indian film in 1931.

In this series, we bring to you the fascinating stories of the people behind and in front of the screen – people who were originally responsible for taking the Tamil film industry to dizzying heights. 

We begin with the captains of these majestic ships: directors. 

I. Directors

The Captains: Masters and Commanders With An Impact To Last The Ages – Part 1

Although we intend to discuss film directors of a different era altogether – and the profound impact their work had on the development of Tamil cinema – we cannot speak of this industry without invoking the name of Shankardas Swamigal, the Father of Tamil Theatre. He and Pammal Sambhanda Mudaliar are considered the true pioneers of Tamil theatre. He was instrumental in shaping the careers of stalwarts of the craft, such as Nawab T.S. Rajamanickam, M.R. Radha, S.V. Venkatraman, K.B. Sundarambal, S.G. Kittappa and K. Sarangapani.



Nataraja Mudaliar began his career as a businessman trading in bicycles, and later, in the import of American cars. Greatly inspired by the first feature film to ever be released in India, Dadadsaheb Phalke’s RAJA HARISCHANDRA, which was released in 1913, he decided it was the world of filmmaking that was his true calling. 

After reaching out to a close friend, Pammal Sambhanda Mudaliar, one of the foremost pioneers of theatre in Tamil, he decided to tell the story of Draupadi and Keechaka from one of the greatest epics of India, the Mahabharata. The first feature film of his career was released in 1917, and was called KICHAKA VADHAM. It holds the honour of being the first South Indian silent film ever made and released in India. 

And thus was born the first ever production company in Southern India: The Indian Film Company. He donned many helms for the film; he was producer, cameraman, editor, as well as the director for the film. He went on to make many more films, often rooted in the rich heritage of Hindu mythology: DRAUPADI VASTRAPURANAM, LAVA KUSA, RUKMINI SATHYABAMA and MAYIL RAVANA.

However, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and so was the case with his time in cinema. After the devastating loss of his son and a catastrophic fire accident in his studio – which was already taking heavy losses – he went back to his trade of automobiles.

Despite this difficult end, he rightfully earned the moniker of being the Father of Tamil cinema, and was ultimately responsible for sowing the seeds that led to the fertile growth of the industry’s future. 


Raghupathy Surya Prakash, also known as R.S. Prakash, was one of the most prolific directors of silent films in Southern India. He also directed the first Telugu feature film, BHISHMA PRATINGNA, in 1921, which was produced by his father, Raghupathy Venkaiah Naidu, who was responsible for the construction of the first movie theatre in Chennai, Gaiety Talkies. He was also the man behind the first film studio in Chennai, Glass Studio, which was believed to run from Vepperi to Sangam Cinemas, now in Kilpauk. The film company was named as Star of the East Films, and BHISHMA PRATINGA was produced under this company. 

The formidable father-son duo went on to make many silent films for both Tamil and Telugu audiences in the 1920s and early 1930s, which was when the revolutionary shift from silent films to talkies finally took place. 

The 1930s


H. M. Reddy is India’s first multilingual film director. In his film, KALIDAS, he featured and utilised dialogue in both Telugu and Tamil. The film went on to earn the shining distinction of the first film in India to have sound in more than one language, as well as being the first Talkie in both the Tamil and Telugu film industries. Reddy, who assisted Ardeshir Irani in the production and direction of the first Indian talkie film, ALAM-ARA, was deeply inspired by his experience and decided that he must make a talkie film with sound in the South as well. Thus, KALIDAS was conceived. L.V. Prasad, the founder of the famous Prasad Studios, who also played a small role in ALAM-ARA, became an integral part of the cast of KALIDAS as a comical priest as well.


Working Still from the Film KALIDAS, Featuring T.P. RAJALAKSHMI and VENKATESAN

PC: From the archives of TCRC

H. M. Reddy went on to produce and direct many more films – BHAKTHA PRAHALDA, GRUHALAKSHMI and TENALIRAMAKRISHNA– primarily in the Telugu language.

He later directed a Tamil Movie MATHRU BHOOMI in 1939. One of the doyens of Tamil music, Papanasam Sivan, composed the music and wrote songs for the film. Kumidhini was the vocalist for many of the songs, which went on to become great hits of their time. The film’s theme was primarily dealing with the struggle for India’s freedom. However, the British Raj’s ironclad censorship would have made the release of such a film impossible. 

To sidestep this problem, he set the story at an entirely different time in history: the invasion of North West India by Alexander the Great. Despite this careful measure, the film did feature songs that were sympathetic to the freedom movement and echoed its sentiments; consequently, the film faced rumours of an impending ban.

MATHRU BHOOMI was made on a budget of two lakh Indian rupees – an enormous budget in that era – and was the most expensive movie of its time.

Mathru Bhoomi_WM.jpg

Working Still from the Film MATHRU BHOOMI

PC: From the archives of TCRC

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

T. P. Rajalakshmi: The Forgotten Queen of Tamil Cinema

« Cinema Rani »: that’s the title earned by T.P. Rajalakshmi who became a major star of the nascent Tamil cinema in the 1930s. She was part of the avant-garde that paved the way when film industry was in its infancy in South India, and she was definitely a pioneer in more than one respect, being one of the first female theatre artists in Tamil Nadu, the first actress of Tamil cinema, the first female director and producer of South Indian cinema. Yet, she is hardly known and celebrated nowadays !


A still of T.P. Rajalakshmi from the magazine Cine Art Review, 1937. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.

Born in 1911 in Saliamangalam village in the district of Tanjore, Rajalakshmi’s early life was punctuated by many traumas as she was the victim of a child marriage at the age of 7 and never went to her older “husband’s” house due to dowry issues. She also lost her father some time after. As she and her mother fell into poverty, they moved to Thiruchi, and Rajalakshmi, who was a gifted child, started to sing to earn money for her family. Then, at a time when women were not allowed to act in dramas, she got involved in theatre and very soon met Sankaradas Swamigal, known as the father of Tamil Theatre, who recommended her in the milieu. From there, the young teenager joined many drama troupes like Cunniah Company, travelled a lot, and captivated audiences with her singing and acting talent.

Her rise as a popular drama artist coincided with the first steps of Tamil Cinema as it didn’t take long for Rajalakshmi to take the plunge in the Tamil film industry. In 1929, she acted in her first silent film, “Kovalan” and above all, in 1931, she was the heroine of “Kalidas”, recognized as the first Tamil talkie even though it was, in fact, multilingual—the hero spoke Telugu, the heroine spoke Tamil and some other characters spoke Hindi. At a time when the Tamilness of movies remained a question mark as most of them where technically made in Kolkata or Mumbai, the multitalented Rajalakshmi became the main attraction for a Tamil audience—indeed, her songs and dialogues in Tamil were much awaited (the movie has more than 50 songs!). One has to imagine the craze when this first talkie starring the most popular drama artist was released at the Madras Kinema Central—her name was announced from speakers, people used to stand outside theatres to see her acting; she was the Super Star of early Tamil cinema. She pursued her film career with box office successes like “Ramayan,” “Sathyavan Savithri,” and “Valli Thirumanam.” 

2A still of T.P. Rajalakshmi from the magazine Anandha Vikatan Deepavali Malar, 1937, mentioning her as the actor from Tamil talkies. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.

However, T.P. Rajalakshmi’s thirst for art and cinema didn’t stop with the acting/singing parts. She was also a writer, producer, director and an editor. Indeed, after almost ten years of her career, she created her own production company, Sri Rajam Talkies, in order to make films by herself. That’s how she became the first woman director in South India in 1936 with her film “Miss Kamala” —an adaptation of her own novel, “Kamalavalli.” She was omnipresent in the making of this movie—acting, singing, directing, editing, producing, and even expecting a baby as she was pregnant with her daughter (her daughter was born in November and named Kamala after her mother’s film). She was a one-woman band, in other words. With this film, she became the first female director in South India, and the second one in India after Fatma Begum. 

3An advertisement of the film Miss Kamala from the magazine Anandha Vikatan Deepavali Malar, 1936, mentioning TPR’s production venture Sri Rajam Talkies. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.
4A still of T.P. Ralalakshmi from the film Miss Kamala. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.

Even though Rajalakshmi didn’t stop acting for other directors, after the success of “Miss Kamala,” she directed two other movies, the even more successful “Madurai Veeran” in 1939 and then, the major failure “Indiya Thai/Tamil Thai” in 1940. For her daughter Kamala, this movie was the swan song of her mother’s career as acting offers slowly dropped from there. Yet, Rajalakshmi didn’t mind too much for this commercial flop as she achieved what she wanted—to make a patriotic movie glorifying the Freedom movement and criticizing British rule.

5A still of V.A. Chellappa and T.P. Rajalakshmi from the magazine Anandha Vikatan Deepavali Malar, 1938, announcing these 2 stars in the film Madurai Veeran. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.
6An advertisement of the film Madurai Veeran from the magazine Anandha Vikatan Deepavali Malar, 1938. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.

Indeed, not only was she a multi talented artist, but a political activist and a freedom fighter in British India. She was imprisoned by British authorities for acting in dramas and writing songs that criticized their presence; one of them was named “Parandhu Pongada Vellai Kokkugala” (Fly away white storks), a straight anticolonial punch, in sum. Her works were also often censored. For example, as “India Thai” sounded too patriotic, the movie had to be renamed “Tamil Thai.” Patriot, politically rebellious, Rajalakshmi was also a fierce feminist who fought against child marriage, sati and in favour of widow remarriage. But she didn’t stop there and turned her words into action as, for instance, she adopted girl children to save them from female infanticide. In all logic, she was associated with the Indian National Congress and with great names of the Tamil political scene. Thus, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy used to address Rajalakshmi as “sister” and appreciated her artistic talents and her political thoughts. 

Although she quit the film industry in the 1940s, her name remained synonymous with the illustrious early Tamil cinema and she was very respected by successors like Sivaji Ganesan and M.G. Ramachandran. Thus, when she was given the “Kalaimamani Award” in 1961, MGR sent his own car to pick her up at her house, after he was informed that she was not doing well. However, the last part of her life was marked by financial difficulties. Even though her career made her very wealthy and the owner of many properties, she eventually had to sell her properties and live in a house on rent. Like many great female stars of Tamil film industry after her, Rajalakshmi’s last years were far from the lights and glory of stardom, and sadly, she died in 1964, in the greatest indifference. 

8A still of T.P. Rajalakshmi with master Sethuraman from the film Nanda Kumar from magazine Cine Art Review, 1937. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.

The kaleidoscopic great lady of Tamil cinema—that’s how T.P. Rajalakshmi could be remembered. The more I learn about her, the more I am stunned by her enthusiastic desire for cinema, by her feminist and political thoughts and by her courage. How did she find the energy and the determination to achieve so much in the most patriarchal and conservative Tamil society of the early 20th century? The answer is maybe in her lost movie, “Miss Kamala,” which is somehow a reflection of the emancipated life Rajalakshmi dreamt for womankind where a young woman who is victim of cruel guardians and finally escapes from them returns with her lover even though she is married. 

An avant-garde. A feminist visionary. A legend who set the example throughout her life. It’s time to remember this forgotten queen of Tamil cinema and to give her the crowning that fits her grandeur.

About The Author:

Shakila Zamboulingame is a history/geography professor from the Tamil diaspora, born in Pondicherry but living in France since childhood. After a Masters on french history and research on war photojournalism, she is now beginning a new PhD project about Tamil Cinema. Since 2016, she is also running a blog ( and an Instagram account, named “1916 about Tamil cinema” (@1916tamilcinema), where she analyzes Tamil cinema, especially through visual culture and gender representations.

Song Book: Amuthavalli (1959)

1Songbook cover of Amuthavalli (1959) directed by A.K. Sekar. The lead actors M.N. Rajam, T.R. Mahalingam and Tambaram Lalitha are seen in the image. The music was by the duo Viswanathan-Ramamurthy and lyrics by Udumalai Narayana Kavi, Thanjai N. Ramaiah Dass, Kannadasan, Pattukkottai Kalyanasundaram and Muthu Koothan.

There were 12 songs in this movie:

  1. Taththuva Kalaiyudan
  2. Anbum Amaidhiyum
  3. Kannirandum Ondrai Onru
  4. Pitham Theliya Marundhondru
  5. Jilu Jilukkum Pachai Malai
  6. Kollimalai Vaazhum
  7. Kaalam Ennum Oru Aazhak Kadalinil (duet)
  8. Kangal Rendum Vandu
  9. Singara Vadivaana Thithikkum
  10. Kaalam Ennum Oru Aazhak Kadalinil (Female solo)
  11. Aadai Katti Vantha Nilavo
  12. Paasaththaal Enai Yeendra

Amuthavalli (1959) starred M.N. Rajam in the lead role. Although she started acting at the age of 9 as a child artist in Nallathambi (1949), she seldom played the lead role. Methavigal (1955) was her first film playing a female lead. She was then in a few films as the heroine (before Amuthavalli, opposite Prem Nazir), like Thai Piranthal Vazhi Pirakkum (1958), Periya koil (1958) and Kalyanikku Kalyanam (1959). She played a vamp in most of the films and received appreciation before shifting to motherly and elderly roles from the 1970s.

She married the singer A.L. Raghavan, a popular Tamil playback singer, on 2 May 1960. Both of them had started their careers on stage, at the ages of 7 and 8 respectively.

A.L. Raghavan started his acting career in 1947 with Jupiter Pictures’ Krishna Vijayam, which released only in the year 1950 as Lord Krishna. He also played Lord Panduranga in Royal Talkies’ Sudarshan (1951).