From Book to Celluloid: Sevāsādanam

TCRC welcomes our next contributor Mr.Sugeeth Krishnamoorthy who will be penning the series, From Book to Celluloid which will be focusing on important films that were adapted from literature.The first in this series is on the film Sevāsādan.  – Editor

The early part of the 20th Century saw several changes take place in India.During this time,  the ‘Freedom Movement’ intensified against the British with the rise of ‘nationalism’,  ‘social reforms’ were debated deeply, a ‘cultural renaissance’ took place in several forms, and post-independent India started becoming a tangible reality.

Munshi Premchand’s novel Bazaar Ka Husn ( also called Sevasadan) deals with a host of social problems of its time, with ‘prostitution’ being its focal point. Premchand’s earlier novel Godaan had similarly dealt with social issues, but those typically concerned with land ownership and agricultural labour such as the exploitation of rural peasants. Sevāsādan, however, focusses more on an urban environment. Both novels involve deep debates around the multitutde of problems faced by society at that time, and look at these problems through various lens— Nationalistic, Sociological, Philosophical’and Practical. Issues like child-marriage, the dowry system and prostitution are discussed in detail in Sevāsādan.

Suman who is well brought up by her father, ends up in an unhappy marriage due to an unfortunate turn of circumstances, after her father is sent to jail. She moves to the city with her husband and has to live in challenging financial circumstances. Due to a series of fateful events in and around her life, and after she is cast out of her home by her husband, she turns to prostitution for survival.

The story deals with the challenges that Suman faces from leaving behind her ‘life of luxury’ to coming back to a normal ‘life of respect’. How did society and her own family members react when she came back? What was it that she lost, and what did she gain?

From a social perspective, the story is not just Suman’s. It speaks of a hypocritical society at that time, which cursed women who went into prostitution, but encouraged their use not only in the entertainment of the dissolute rich but also in for sanctimonious ritualism in auspicious events.

Behind closed doors, these women were desired by rich men who earned money using unethical means and splurged it on them. This group of people opposed the Anti-Nautch movement. The society at large, preferred to ‘ostracize’ these women, and did not give them a chance at rehabilitation.

There was another prevalent view. Many ‘prostitutes’ were exponents of art and culture, typically in the performing arts. The Mujra dance form had been patronized by the Mughal rulers, just as the “Devadasis” , who were exponents of the ‘Bharatha Natyam’, were patronized by South Indian rulers and temple authorities. However, with time, when the power of the Kings and the Temple declined under the British monarchy, thousands of women from these communities had to resort to common prostitution for survival. Yet, it was these very women who were summoned to perform the classical arts at weddings and ceremonies, supposedly for the advancement of culture and tradition, but were privately used to entertain male patrons in a more overtly erotic manner.

So, those supporting the Anti-Nautch movement were faced not just with the challenge of reforming the women indulging in prostitution and giving them a better life, but also with the re-purification of the cultural and artistic mores associated with them.

The main characters of the original book are Suman —who as a prostitute is known as ‘Suman Bai’—and lawyer Padam Singh, who takes immense trouble to reform prostitutes and reintegrate them into civil society. Then there are others: Suman’s father who goes to prison for a crime committed in a fit of anger, leaving the family orphaned; a loving uncle who takes care of Suman and her sister Shanta until their marriage; Bholi, a prostitute, who introduces Suman to Dalmandi —the market place—when she has no one to turn to for help; Padam Singh’s nephew, Sadan, who is a spoilt brat, who loiters around Dalmandi; and Padam Singh’s wife Subhadra. There are also other minor characters, Hindu and Muslim administrators, who carry forth debates on social change and their implementation.

Sevasadanam was translated and published in Anantha Vikatan magazine by Ambujamma, a supposed social worker. Director K. Subrahmanyam substantially modified the script from the eponymous book to suit the film version.



The replacement of the Mujra culture for a south Indian  counterpart must have been easy for the director as there was a parallel social movement in South India against the ‘Dasi’ system.The elements that formed the crux of the original book – the extended debates around the socio-cultural problems faced by Society and measures needed to eradicate them—have mostly been excised, possibly because it would have been difficult to make them visually engaging. Instead, K Subrahmanyam focuses entirely on the human elements of the story, and cuts out the philosophical and ‘debate’ oriented elements.

Subrahmanyam has taken the liberty of adapting the screenplay to suit the sensibilities of a South Indian audience. For instance, he changes Suman’s character to Sumathi  (M.S.Subbulakshmi) gets married to a much older man, Eswara Sarma ( F.G.Natesa Iyer), a departure from the original story but an important statement on an equally important social problem of its time.  Secondly, he  introduces a new character, Gundamma, Eswara Sarma’s sister who constantly taunts Sumathi.

Vakeel Padmanabha Iyer’s character is more or less the same as the character played by Padam Singh, and his wife Subhadra (Jayalakshmi Varadachariar’s swan song)  retains the original name.[1]Subrahmanyam introduces another character, Suguna, who is the daughter of the prostitute Kamalesh Kumari—possibly an analogous character to Bholi.

Sumathi is continuously harassed in her house, by her husband Eswara Sarma and her sister-in-law. She is given moral support by Vakeel Padmanabha Iyer and his wife, Subadra. On suspecting her fidelity one day, Padmanabha Iyer throws Sumathi out of the house. Later, he learns about the evil ways of his sister and in disgust tears his sacred thread.2 Sumathi later becomes ‘Sumathi Bai’, resulting in the cancellation of her sister Shanta’s marriage,as in the original,.

But from here on, Subrahmanyam seems to have diverged in some aspects. The book features Suman’s husband becoming a fakir and spreading the message of cultural reform. However, in the film, Eswara Sarma is seen to have become the leader of a Nationalist movement called ‘Desa Sevika’. Sumathi, her sister Shanta, and Kamalesh Kumari come together to start ‘Sevasadan’, a home to look after destitudes and orphan girls.

In the original, Shanta gets married to Sadan and Suman is forced to leave her home, leaving her lonely and abandoned, questioning her very own existence. What happened to Suman later, forms the underlying theme of the story.

The film was the second in a trilogy of social and Nationalist films made by ace Director K. Subrahmanyam—Balayogini  (in Tamil and Telugu), Sevasadan and then Thyagabhoomi. In this film, the director introduced several iconic actors like M.S.Subbulakshmi, F.G.Natesa Iyer, S.Varalakshmi (who played Kamal Hasan’s mother in Guna) and Seethalakshmi (the widow who played Gundamma)[3].

According to Anantha Vikatan[4], the film also introduced for the first time, playback recording of songs[5].

There are several reports available on the internet that cite Sevasadanam as a ‘critical and commercial’ success. This is untrue as. K. Subrahmanyam himself admitted, in an interview, that although the film was a ‘critical success’, it was a commercial failure.[6]

Most unfortunate, however, is the fact that no copy of this film is known to exist. Reviews of the films can be found here and there, and usually no more than 2 to 3 pages. Most of the information published has been ‘rehashed’ over and over, with possibly nothing new. It is for this reason that the primary book reference becomes more important, giving immense depth to each aspect of its film version. Reading the book and then the film reviews patiently gives the viewer a better understanding of the film, which, we can only hope, resurfaces from some hidden corner of the earth, to give us a glimpse into our own past.


[1] ‘I Won’t do it Again’ – Jayalakshmi Varadachariar – Talk A Tone October 1944 – NFAI – Jayalakshmi Varadachariar explains her disillusionment with Films and says that she will never act again.

2 This scene apparently raised a storm by the ‘conservatives’ against K.Subrahmanyam, compounded by the director showing, for the first time, a real widow playing a role on screen.

3 There are some reports that say that the widow was first introduced in Balayogini.

4 Anantha Vikatan 8-5-1938

5 Prior to this, songs were recorded live. The orchestra played the music, while the actors sang the songs themselves. This was the reason that early cinema featured legendary singers like M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.D.Subbulakshmi and P.U.Chinnappa as actors.

6 “Mythology – A Missionary of Hindu Religion” – Director K. Subrahmanyam Speaks Out, TALK A TONE, Nov. 1943 – NFAI.


  1. Sevasadan Book Link :-*Version*=1&*entries*=0&deviceType=desktop&redirect=true
  2. NFAI – National Film Archive of India, Pune.
  3. Sevasadam Songs –

Filmy Ripples: Movie Studios (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

Once in my high school vacation, a guy in our friend circle motivated us for a trip to the far away AVM studio to witness a film shoot, on the pretext one of his relatives worked there. Our long bus trip to Puliyur and beyond made a bunch of us cross a lot of fields and Aubergine cultivated lands (you know, Kodambakkam Kathirikkai was very popular in those days), till we reached our dream destination. But our starry eyed expectations were soon blown off by the studio sentry who, forthwith, denied entry to our small group of school kids.

Today, the word ‘Kollywood’, coined after Bollywood, would refer the whole hub encompassing Vadapalani to Kodambakkam to Saligramam, the nerve center of Tamil film industry & TV. It is in this topography, the mighty film studios such as AVM & Vijaya Vahini once clustered & grew with vast facilities for film production. They had innumerable shooting floors, with Vijaya Vahini having as many as thirteen. Of course we had also, by exception, film studios spilled over to other areas of Madras too, such as the mighty Gemini in Mount Road, Venus in Alwarpet, Meenakshi Cinetone turned Neptune turned Satya in Adyar and Newtone, Citadel in Purasawakkam.


An Ad for Newtone Studios in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Those days, before the advent of Kodambakkam over bridge in 1965, there was a rickety railway level crossing at busy Kodambakkam, choking with heavy traffic. The gate closed with every suburban service passing. The ever hungry star gazers hanged about this level crossing to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars, lurking inside their car, waiting for the gate to open.

Besides Madras, there were also few well-known studios in other cities; Mr. T.R.Sundaram’s Modern Theatres Studio at Salem, Sreeramulu Naidu’s Pakshiraja Studios, Neptune Studios & Central Studios, all in Coimbatore.


An Ad for brought out by Modern Theatres for the film Manonmani in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Prior to production of films in Madras State, some films were produced in Calcutta & Pune. M.S. Subbulakshmi starred Savithri (1941), which had as many as eighteen songs penned by Papanasam Sivan, was produced in New Theatres Studio of Calcutta.


An Ad for the film Savitri in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1941 PC: From the archives of TCRC

As per the Film Historian Randor Guy, the Madras Electric Supply Corporation (MESC) had built a powerhouse in Kodambakkam area during the World War II times, but without many takers for the energy. The film studios were enthused to set up shops here. Kodambakkam soon saw several studios coming up such as AVM, Vijaya, Rohini, Bharani, Vikram, Paramount (later called Majestic), Golden, Vasu, and Karpagam.

Much before AVM Productions was launched, Sri Valli (1945), directed by A.V.Meyyappan himself along with A.T.Krishnaswamy, was made by AVM under the banner of Pragathi Studios. This movie catapulted A.V.Meiyappan to fame.

AVM Studios was first located at Karaikudi, before shifting to Kodambakkam. The Karaikudi studio was made of thatched roof structures and stood at Devakottai Rastha. ’Nam Iruvar’, released before Indian Independence & which became a thundering success, was made in Karaikudi based AVM studios. This super hit film extensively portrayed the hopes and aspirations of a nation on the brink of independence.  Only after this did AVM move his studio from Karaikudi to Kodambakkam.


AVM Studios, in its grand annals, have had many a landmark event associated with Tamil Film Industry.

National Pictures and AVM Productions jointly produced the debut film of Sivaji Ganesan ‘Parasakthi’, though it did not begin well for Sivaji Ganesan, who was on a princely monthly remuneration of Two Hundred Fifty Rupees for the film. In fact, at one stage, Meiyappan, dissatisfied with Ganesan’s “thin” body frame wanted him replaced. But, ironically, time wanted to prove this very Ganesan as an Institution by himself. So, AVM’s partner in the project, Perumal, insisted that Ganesan be retained. But the initial scenes involved many retakes with Ganesan. Rest was history, with the world acknowledging him as Nadigar Thilakam.


A plaque commemorating the 50th year of Parasakthi at AVM studios at the very spot Sivaji Ganesan said his first dialogue ‘Success’ . PC:

AVM’s “Vazhkai” (1949) was the first film to be shot at the new AVM Studio at Chennai. The film starred T.R. Ramachandran and Vyjayanthimala, which was the latter’s debut movie in Tamil when she was a teenager. When M. V. Raman, who wrote ‘Vazhkai’, spotted Vyjayanthimala performing a Bharata Natyam concert at Gokhale Hall in Madras, he was impressed by her talent & beauty and recommended her to the boss Meiyappan.

V. Venkatraman (SVV) was ‘found’ by A.V.Meyyappa Chettiar as a man in distress at Cubbon Park, Bangalore & gave him the break in “Nanda Kumar” as Music Director. SVV became a major name in music scene & scored soul-stirring music for over two hundred films in various languages. Even MSV & TKR worked for him at some point in time.

C.N.Annadurai is said to have written the three hundred pages of screen play for the film “Oar Iravu” in a single night camping at AVM studios, for a whopping sum (at those times) of Rupees Ten Thousand!

It was only at AVM Studios the living legend S.Janaki gave her audition in 1957 before Music Directors Sudarashanam & Govardhanam.

Vijaya Studios made “Maya Bazaar” (1957) which was critically acclaimed and considered as one of the enduring classics of Indian Cinema. It was touted as a landmark achievement in Indian film’s cinematography, art direction and visual effects with the technology available at the time.


The entrance to Vijaya Vauhini studios. PC :


Gemini Studios, owned by Movie Moghul S.S.Vasan, had a history. The Veteran Film Director K. Subrahmanyam (Father of Denseuse Padma Subramanyam) who made some iconic movies including ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1938) was having a Studio at the same premises since 1937. But owing to a major inferno the property was totally burnt down. In 1941, S.S.Vasan bought out the premises in a distress sale & built his own studio & named it Gemini Studios. It is said that Vasan, who was a fan of horse racing, named the studio after one of his favourite horses. Gemini Studios produced some of the iconic movies such as Nandanar, Mangamma Sabatham, Miss Malini, Chandralekha, Avvaiyar, Vanjikottai Valiban to name a few.


An ad for Gemini Pictures Circuit with its distinct logo  (the company that bought over the studio from Subramanyam and renamed it Gemini Studios). Published in Anada Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1939. PC: From the archives of TCRC

                                                                                                                                                             (to be continued)

Centenary Birthday of M.S.Subbulakshmi

On 16th September The Hindu Metro plus paid a tribute to M.S.Subbulakshmi , the actor to commemorate her centenary birthday. The article written by Srinivasa Ramanujam states : ‘ Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, or MS, as she is popularly known, was a musical genius. But there was another side to her; she was also an actor, having essayed fine performances in the films she was part of. Today, on her birth anniversary, we take a look at those projects… ‘

Have a look at the full article with the pictures here.

Meanwhile we have been busy at our archives and we found an advertisement of the film Savitri where MS played Naradar, A male character. The ad was found in the supplement of the Tamil Magazine Ananda Vikatan dated 12-10-41.