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.

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