By Karthik Bhatt
Komal Swaminathan was one of Tamil stage’s most powerful contemporary playwrights. Born in 1935, he came to Madras in 1957 and joined the Seva Stage Kalvi Nilayam, the drama school that had been established by S.V.Sahasranamam. It was here that he learnt the various aspects of drama. He had a particular interest in writing scripts, having already written a few skits during his intermediate course at the Madura College.
Having completed the drama course Swaminathan joined Seva Stage as an apprentice to S.V.Sahasranamam, learning the production aspects of staging plays. He wrote his first play, “Puthiya Paathai” in 1960, which was staged by the Gujarati Young Men Association. Thus began a journey that saw the scaling of many heights in the course of the next three decades.
Swaminathan forayed into movies in 1963. He worked as an assistant and script writer to noted director K.S.Gopalakrishnan for the next seven years. This period saw him being associated with successful movies such as Karpagam, Pesum Deivam and Kai Kodutha Deivam. He started Stage Friends in 1971, a troupe primarily comprising of members from his mentor S.V.Sahasranamam’s Seva Stage. The troupe’s first play was Sannadhi Theru, which dealt with the stigma attached to lady artistes and the neglect drama troupes faced. The Kalki magazine review of the play termed it a first rate production, with special mention to Surya Prabha, the actress who played the lead role. The success of Sannadhi Theru was followed by several other productions such as Nawab Naarkaali (which was also later made into a movie), Yuddha Kandam and Chekku Maadugal. His best known and most celebrated play however is the subject of this piece, Thaneer Thaneer.
Thaneer Thaneer dealt with a topic that remains very contemporary, that of water scarcity. The story was set in a drought hit village which suffers as much from official apathy as it does from the failure of rains. With powerful dialogues which were well aimed barbs at the establishment, it was inevitable that it would raise eyebrows at some level. Sure enough, the hurdle came in the form of getting the clearance from the Police before staging the play.
The Madras Dramatic Performances Act, 1954 required that the Police Commissioner had to approve a script before it could be staged. This law had been brought about as a means of censorship to ensure that the popularity of the medium was not misused to propagate ideas that had the potential to create law and order problems. It was under this law that objections were being raised to Thaneer Thaneer. That the play apart from highlighting official apathy was also viewed as being sympathetic to an ideological movement, which probably raised a red flag leading to the withholding of permission. Hectic parleying ensued, with Cho Ramaswamy coming out in support of Komal Swaminathan. The permission came through about an hour before the inauguration on the 10th of October 1980 at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club auditorium.
The play was a stupendous success. The legendary director K.Balachander who watched the play was immediately taken in by the idea and wanted to make it into a movie. Komal Swaminathan agreed, with a request that the stage artistes be used in the film too. Balachander acceded to the request and artistes such as Raj Madan, Vaadhyar Raman acted in the movie too. It was produced by Kalakendra Movies. Certain changes were made to suit the commercial medium. Saritha, Rajesh and Radha Ravi played important roles in the movie, which was both a commercial success and a critically acclaimed one. K.Balachander won the award for the best screenplay and the movie won the Best Tamil Feature Film award at the National Film Awards for 1981.
More recently in 2012, the play was staged in English as Water by the Madras Players. Thaneer Thaneer was revived in 2013 through Stage Friends which made a comeback to stage thanks to the efforts of Komal Swaminathan’s daughter Ms.Lalitha Dharini.
(This author gratefully acknowledges the inputs given by Ms.Lalitha Dharini for this piece).