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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

One thought on “The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

  1. Fantastic piece.. The history piece of South Indian cinema brings out very intersting facets to the fore and is fascinating to learn about the emergence of legends who are still the doyens of Tamil cinema.

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