Filmy Ripples : Exotic Child Stars of bygone era (Part 1)

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.

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‘Kalathur Kannamma’ was the debut for Kamal Hassan as a child actor PC: From the archives of TCRC

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.

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‘Baby’ Saroja on the cover of Cine Art Review 1937  PC: From the archives of TCRC

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‘Baby’ Saroja featured in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1937  PC: From the archives of TCRC

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.

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‘Baby’ Saroja Navratri golu dolls. PC: Sriram Venkatakrishnan

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.

‘Kumari’ Rukmini

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.

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PC: Unknown

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.

S.Varalakshmi

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

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).

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An ad for Nandakumar from Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1937 PC: From the archives of TCRC

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

“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.

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‘Baby’ Kamal featured in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

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)

 

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Celebrating Balu Mahendra

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On February 13th 2014 we lost a man who has changed the language of Indian Cinema. Born Balanathan Benjamin Mahendran, Balu Mahendra started out as a cinematographer after graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. He created a visual revolution with his unique style of cinematography. As a director, Balu Mahendra created a new wave in South Indian cinema by making films close to reality and handling them with sensitiveness that no other filmmakers could at that time. Handling the camera for every film that he directed added an element of poetry in every frame.

Here is an article by Kamal Hassan celebrating this great auteur’s life. http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/kamal-haasans-tribute-to-balu-mahendra/article5688417.ece

We, at TCRC will like to pay our tribute by highlighting the many ‘firsts’ that Balu Mahendra was associated with:

Kokila – Balu Mahendra debuts as a director. See a trailer of this path breaking film.

Mullum Malarum – Balu Mahendra handle’s the camera for yet another great film maker, Mahendran. Here is a very popular song from this film.

Pallavi Anu Pallavi – This Kannada film was Maniratnam’s debut. Balu Mahendra’s cinematography played a vital role in this film.

Sadma – Balu Mahendra’s first Hindi film which was the remake of his own super hit Tamil film Moondram Pirai. See the heart wrenching climax of this film which is still talked about even today.

Thalaimuraigal – Released on December 20 2013, this was the last film directed by the stalwart. It was, at the same time, the first  film that he completely shot in digital and also the first time he faced the camera by playing one of the lead characters. By playing the grandfather in the film it could have also probably been the first time that the world would have seen him without his trademark cap. Here is a trailer from of the film.

Happy birthday Mr.P.C.Sreeram

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The Cinema Resource Centre would like to wish one of India’s finest cinematographers, Mr. P.C.Sreeram a very Happy Birthday. Here are some of songs that he has picturised over the years.

RARE: Original LP cover of Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal” (Tamil, 1989)

In May 1989, Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” which featured the actor in the roles of a police officer, a mechanic and a dwarf clown, was released amidst much fanfare. Directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and produced by Kamal Hassan himself, the film’s cast included Gouthami, Srividya, Delhi Ganesh, Jaishankar, Nassar, Nagesh, Janakaraj and many others. The film was a blockbuster hit and is said to have completed a 200-day run at the box office, a record run in Tamil cinema then (the record was broken six years later by superstar Rajnikanth’s “Baasha”). The film’s screenplay was penned by Kamal Hassan and the dialogues were written by Crazy Mohan. “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was Crazy Mohan’s debut film as dialogue writer.

The musical score of “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was composed by Ilaiyaraaja and its songs went on to become cult classics, with tracks such as “Raaja Kaiya Vecha” receiving airplay on radio and TV channels even today. And today, we bring to you from the TCRC archives the cover of the original LP record of the film:

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

The film was dubbed into Telugu as “Vichithra Sodarulu” and into Hindi as “Appu Raja,” a year later. Both the dubbed versions enjoyed a successful run at the box office, with Kamal receiving unanimous praise for his portrayal of the dwarf clown Appu. In the movie, the episode where Appu falls in love with the daughter of the circus owner (the daughter played by Rupini and the father played by Mouli) is said to be a tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus,” which was a silent film released in 1928. In “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” Appu goes through a Chaplinesque heartbreak in romance that is very similar to what transpires in “The Circus.”

The title “Aboorva Sagodharargal” itself is a hat tip to SS Vasan’s 1949-released feature film of the same name. That “Aboorva Sagodharargal” featured actors MK Radha and Bhanumathi in titular roles and was produced in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi simultaneously. Directed by Acharya and written by Kothamangalam Subbu, the old “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was an adaptation of the novella “The Corsican Brothers” by Alexander Dumas. The idea of brothers coming together to avenge the death of their father is the common thread running between both the old and the new “Aboorva Sagodharargal.”

The ‘Epic’ Story of Indian cinema: Moving Beyond Hindi Films & Finding Aravindhan!

The ‘100 years of Indian cinema’ celebrations that are happening across the country is something that we at TCRC wholly welcome, notwithstanding the fact that a vast majority of them seem to interpret it as ‘100 years of Hindi cinema.’ Thankfully, there are voices out there calling for balance and recognition of the other film industries in the country as well. And among such calls, we found Salil Tripathi’s piece for Mint most refreshing.

He starts off by speaking about the influence of our epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, on our cinema:

Indian cinema has always been utterly reliant on the power of a narrative, and which narrative has greater richness than the Mahabharata? After all for Ved Vyas it is said, “Vyasochishtam jagat sarvam,” or whatever you find said in the universe, Vyas has said it before. It is that easy familiarity with the story—or what the critic Ashish Rajadhyaksha called the power of the epic, in his biography of Ritwik Ghatak—that makes Indian cinema so accessible to so many, in a country divided by everything—language, class, caste and faith—but united by the fascination for a good story.”

And then, he makes the argument that we’ve been parroting all along:

 I love Hindi films too, but you don’t honour a national phenomenon by glorifying only one-fifth of it.”

Salil’s roundup of noteworthy cinema from the South of the Vindhyas was particularly interesting:

Moving south, there is so much to admire in Kannada cinema: two of U.R. Ananthamurthy works stand out. Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashraddha (1977) is about the outcasting of a pregnant widow. In Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s Samskara (1970), Girish Karnad’s Praneshacharya is a flawed progressive Brahmin who tries to do right, but succumbs to passion and is consumed by guilt. Karnad’s own Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978) was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.

Further south, in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam (1981), the rat trap becomes the metaphor of the patriarchy of a closed society. His earlier film, Swayamvaram (1970), told the story of a young couple marrying against their parents’ wishes, moving to another town to start their life, and the inevitability of tragedy befalling them, and the determination of the young woman to cast her own lonely furrow. Another great film was G. Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), which showed the transformation of a village’s life, and its people’s relationships, with the arrival of electricity. And the sheer melody of K. Vishwanath’s Telugu classic Shankarabharanam (1979).”

It’s not everyday that one finds a mention of G Aravindhan in a feature-style story about Indian cinema. Hailing from Kottayam in Kerala, Aravindhan was a cartoonist who later became a filmmaker. His debut film “Uttarayanam” was released in 1974 and won the National Award for the Best Feature Film on the 25th Anniversary of India’s Independence. Said to be be one of his finest films, “Uttarayanam” was set against the Independence movement and spoke of the opportunism and hypocrisy that existed during the time. The film is considered to have a played a key role in shaping the parallel cinema movement in Kerala.

Given below is Shaji Karun’s documentary on Aravindhan. Shaji is a National Award-winning filmmaker who used to be Aravindhan’s cinematographer. Shaji’s debut film “Piravi” (1988) won the Caméra d’Or – Mention d’honneur at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and his 1994 film “Swaham” was the last competitive entry from India to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival.

 

25 Greatest Acting Performances in Indian Cinema: The Forbes List!

The Forbes India magazine recently put out a list of the 25 greatest acting performances in Indian cinema, 8 of which are performances in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil films.  Now, here at TCRC, we are always a little wary of lists such as these, fully aware that it’s incredibly hard to pick just 8 or 10 performances from over thousands of films made in the southern part of the country across the span of almost a century. But since this list is a part of their ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ set of features, we felt compelled to share this. Given below is an excerpt from the piece (click here to check out the entire list):

JV Somayajulu 
in Sankarabharanam (The Ornament of Shankara), 1980 
JV Somayajulu, an IAS officer in his 50s, plays a Carnatic musician, misunderstood for supporting the daughter of a prostitute, ignored by a society where classical music is in decline, and is being overtaken by pop music. It was a surprise hit. It opened to empty seats, gathered speed and, today, enjoys a cult status. Somayajulu played his part with such dignity and intensity that you can’t listen to any of its hugely popular songs without imagining him performing them as his sadhana.

JV Somayajulu in "Sankarabharanam" (Telugu, 1980). Photo Courtesy: Forbes India.

JV Somayajulu in “Sankarabharanam” (Telugu, 1980). Photo Courtesy: Forbes India.

“Sankarabharanam” turned out to be a cult film as far as Telugu cinema was concerned, after getting off to a slow start in the box office. Directed by K Vishwanath, the film is remembered for its music, scored by KV Mahadevan. The film was shot by cinematographer-turned-director Balu Mahendra, who later made “Moondram Pirai” with Kamal Hassan and Sridevi (“Sadma” in Hindi). The director of “Sankarabharanam,” K Vishwanath, went on to narrate yet another story revolving around an art form (classical dance) in “Saagara Sangamam” (“Salangai Oli” in Tamil). The film featured Kamal Hassan and Jayaprada in career-defining roles and like “Sankarabharanam,” it is said to be a musical success, with tunes composed by Ilaiyaraaja.