By P V Gopalakrishnan
Child Artistes are not new to us as cine goers. Many mainstream Tamil film actors, such as Kamal Haasan, Meena, Sridevi, Shalini, Kushboo, Simbu, Hansika, and more debuted as child artistes. Besides, there are even more who were celebrities as children, but eventually moved away into oblivion. In our current context here, we will be looking at some of the ‘exotic’ child artistes who may not be even well known today but who, nevertheless, ruled the roost in the early ‘period’ films during the good old Black & White Talkie era.
Baby Saroja – An Icon of 1937
Tamil Cinema’s first ever child star was “Baby Saroja”, who debuted as a six year old in “Bala Yogini” (1937), directed by K.Subramanyam who also was her uncle. Baby Saroja was the daughter of K.Viswanathan (then owner of Chithra Talkies) who was the sibling of Director K.Subramanyam. Baby Saroja became an instant craze amongst the moviegoers, as it was the first time they were seeing a child actor in films. She was then compared to the Hollywood’s child star, Shirley Temple. In ‘Balayogini’, Baby Saroja rendered a lullaby “Kanne Pappa”. This little super star also did a Bharatha Natyam number to a Tamil version of ‘Krishna Née Begane Baro,’ written by Papanasam Sivan. Such classical dance was a first on the screen in those times, which she learnt from Gowri Ammal, the last Devadasi of the Kapaleeswara temple, Mylapore.
As she took the movie audiences by storm, Baby Saroja was a household name, not only in Madras but also even amongst the Tamil speaking community of far off Singapore, Malaya & Ceylon. Many named their female newborns as ’Saroja’, after this kid wonder of talkies. Japan-printed colour picture cards of Baby Saroja were distributed among her fans. Commercial establishments used her picture & name on their products such as Soaps, Matchboxes etc (of course with no endorsement fee given to the child). There were even ‘Navarathri Kolu’ dolls named after Baby Saroja, some of which, I understand, can still be found with the antique dealers of Chettinad. Baby Saroja became so synonymous with Tamil folklore of those times, that Lakshmi Viswanathan (a cousin of ‘Baby Saroja’) wrote in her Article “Shirley Temple of India” in The Hindu dated 10th July 2013, that Tamil soldiers who were joining the army during World War II, apparently sang a song, “Baby Saroja, Naan warukku poren Née kavalai padade” (meaning: Baby Saroja I am going to War but you do not worry), taking leave of Baby Saroja.
Baby Saroja further acted in two more movies, “ Thyaga Bhoomi” & “Kamadhenu” which were very popular. In the film ‘Kamadhenu’ (1941), Saroja’s Mother & Father too acted in lead roles. After that Baby Saroja hung her boots & did not act in more movies, but not without leaving an indelible mark on Tamil Screen of yester years. Indian cinema has seen many child stars. But none attracted the sobriquet: Shirley Temple of India, “Baby Saroja’, now in her eighties, lives in Chennai as Saroja Ramamrutham.
Rukmini, daughter of Dancer ‘Nungambakkam’ Janaki (who did roles in films such as Seetha Vanavasam, & Lavangi) and mother of Actress Lakshmi, debuted as a child star at her very young age in the film “Harischandra” (1935), as young Lohidasan. This, in fact, was an accidental debut, in the sense, Nungambakkam Janaki, who also had a role in Harischandra, was staying in a hotel room at Calcutta adjacent to where T.P.Rajalakshmi, the film’s heroine, was put up for the shoot. As the producers of the film were still on the look out for a child actor to feature as Lohidasan, T. P. Rajalakshmi suggested baby Rukmini for the role, which was accepted by Rukmini’s mother. And, thus, “Baby’ Rukmini entered films in a male role as a child actor!
Following that, Rukmini acted as a child star in in Hindi Film ‘Jalaja’ too alongside the veteran, T.P.Rajalakshmi. Later both Nungambakkam Janaki as well as her daughter Rukmini together featured in the movie ‘Baghya Leela”.
Director K.Subramanyam cast her in Balayogini (1937) where she got noticed better.
It was in AVM film, “Sri Valli” (1945), she became a heroine & the credit titles named her as “Kumari” Rukmini”. In this film, both T.R.Mahalingam & Rukmini sang in own voices. However, after the release of the film on feedback from various sources, AVM decided to remove the sound track of Rukmini from the songs she had rendered & had playback singer P.A.Periya Nayaki sing for her.
Rukmini got married at her seventeen to Director Y.V.Rao, while the shoot of ‘Lavangi’ was in progress. through which they had a daughter, who became Actress Lakshmi. Later, the couple separated.
Later, between 1961 & 1975 Rukmini appeared in various Tamil such as Kappal ottiya Tamizhan, Idayathil Nee, Karnan, Vennira Aadai, Kandu konden Kandu konden movies in small roles.
Rukmini passed away in 2007.
Do you remember the song “singara kanne un thaen oorum” from the Block Buster Veera Pandiya Katta Bomman? Yes, the sweet voice belonged to S.Varalakshmi, the singing star. She too started her career as child artist in Balayogini (1937), when she was nine years old. She also acted in Seva Sadanam (1938) along with M.S.Subbulakshmi, followed by a role in Parasuraman (1940) opposite T.R.Mahalingam. But her major role was in Modern Theatre’s box office hit ‘Aayiram Thalai Vaangi Apoorva Chinthamani’ (1947).
In all, Ms. Varalakshmi acted in nearly four hundred films and worked with all the leading stars of Tamil and Telugu cinema, including M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. She also won critical acclaim as a talented singer, having started singing at her seven and has sung for over a hundred songs in various films.
She married film producer A.L.Srinivasan, the brother of Kannadasan. S.Varalakshmi breathed her last in 2009 at her 84.
T.R.Mahalingam (TRM) started very young as a child in Theatre with his acting & singing, his self-professed role model being S.G.Kittappa. TRM was a Star in Special Dramas of those days & had been playing the role of a young Lord Krishna. When AVM planned the movie “Nandakumar’ they cast the fourteen year old T.R.Mahalingam for the very same role of a young Krishna. Thus Mahalingam debuted into Movies with AVM’s production ‘Nandakumar’ (1937).
Moving on, he acted in several films, which, however, did not do well. It was only with AVM’s ‘Sri Valli’ (1945) he got into fame, again. It was in this film that he sang his all-time famous high-pitched number ‘Kaayaadha Kaanagathe Nindrulaavum’ with an amazing artistry that is envied to this day. The film, which celebrated Golden Jubilee in many theatres, made T.R.M, a super star.
He successively acted in two more Mega Hit movies of AVM, released immediately after Indian Independence, namely, ‘Naam Iruvar’ (1947) & ‘Vedhala Ulagam’ (1948). In the former TRM captivated cine goers by his immaculate rendering of the patriotic songs of Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathi. In fact, on a visit to the cinema hall in Madurai where Naam Iruvar was running, his dancing fans physically carried him. In “Vedhala Ulagam’ too there were Bharathi songs in the stellar voice of T.R.M. Mega hit film ‘Gnana Soundari’ (1948) produced by Citadel Films followed next. Closely following the success of Gnana Soundari, Citadel produced ‘Idhaya Geetham‘ (1950) with TRM & T.R.Rajakumari, but the film did not do well. (To digress a bit, Citadel Studios was then located in Kilpauk, in the same place the RBI quarters stand today, on Poonamalli High Road, close to Ega Theatre.)
Then TRM produced & acted a string of movies himself such as Mohanasundaram, Chinnadurai, Machcha Rekhai, Theruppaadakan and Villaiyaattu Bommai. While acting in ‘Mohanasundaram’ with S.Varalakshmi as his heroine he had a crush on her, but it did not materialize further. This totally crippled T.R.M financially & he was totally abandoned by those around him. But Kannadasan cast him in his own movie “Malaiyitta Mangai’ which gave TRM a respite in life. But this too was short lived. Soon TRM found himself out of place as the era of singer-actors became extinct. The new era cinema started looking different with new breed of actors & singers. TRM refused to accept this change but was still adamant about the tradition of actors singing their songs. He sporadically got roles in films like Thiruvilayaadal (1965), Agathiyar (1971), Thiruneelakhandar (1972) and Rajaraja Chozhan (1973) .His song ‘Isaithamizh Nee Seida’ in ‘Thiruvilaiyadal is a well remembered one.
Thus he went into oblivion & returned to his native, returning to Stage Plays. TRM passed away in 1978 at his 58. But even to date his enchanted voice is remembered fondly by many.
“Kumari” Kamala, born in 1934 in a family of artists, debuted in the film ‘Valibar Sangam’ (1938) and later in ‘Ramanama Mahimai ‘(1939) as Baby Kamala, while she was only four years old. She also appeared as a child artist in Hindi films like ‘Kismet’ and ‘Ram Rajya’ in 1943. Those days this young danseuse was very popular in the movies.
Kamala is a noted Bharatnatyam dancer, though she later learnt Kathak & Hindustani music. She had acted in more than a hundred films in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Kannada. Kumari. She appeared in Jagathalaprathapan (1944) performing the ‘Pambu’ Dance. In her next film, ‘Sri Valli’ (1945), she played a double role. Her film ‘Nam Iruvar’, based on Bharatnatyam theme, made a great impact on audience. In 1953, Kamala performed during her coronation festivities of Queen Elizabeth II.
She was briefly married to cartoonist R. K. Laxman. In 1980, Kamala moved to New York permanently where she started a dance school, “Shri Bharatha Kamalalaya” in Long Island.
(To be continued)