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 !

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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. 

7A still of T.P. Ralalakshmi and M.D. Parthasarthy (also the composer for the movie) with others from the Film Draupathi Vastrapaharanam. Image Credit: The Cinema Resource Centre, Chennai.
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 (1916tamilcinema.com) and an Instagram account, named “1916 about Tamil cinema” (@1916tamilcinema), where she analyzes Tamil cinema, especially through visual culture and gender representations.

3 thoughts on “T. P. Rajalakshmi: The Forgotten Queen of Tamil Cinema

  1. Thank you so much for this detailed article. Thanks and gratitude- Kamala, Daughter of ‘Cinema Queen’ T.P.Rajalakshmi and family

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