From Book to Celluloid : Valli Thirumanam

By Sugeeth Krishnamoorthy

Introduction: Of thousands of mythological stories passed on to us today by our ancestors, possibly no other story could have a more direct and closer bearing to us now than the story of Lord Muruga—who is the Native God of the ancient Tamil people. Valli Thirumanam tells the story of how Valli, a tribal girl, came to be Lord Murugan’s second wife. This story has been passed on orally through storytelling and staged plays, long before the print medium arrived. Even today, Valli Thirumanam continues to be one of the most popular plays in rural India, although, like most contemporary stages of its nature, they unfortunately smack of vulgarity,  rendering the ‘Bhakthi’ rather ineffective. Though, only a century ago, rural stage drama was an effective means for disseminating ‘Bhakthi’ propaganda and reaching out to the masses. it has sadly declined now.

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Valli Thirumanam by Shankardas Swamigal PC: unknown

Given its huge reach and its evolution over time, the story of Valli Thirumanam has undergone some minor changes here and there, the central theme—the challenges faced by Lord Muruga during his courtship of Valli—have been universally retained.

The play was also published in the literary form as well, and article reviews one such adaptation by Pammal Sammandha Mudaliar, for reference[1]. This play was published under the title ‘Valli Manam’ in the late 1930s. The second edition of this book was published in the year 1940. [2]

Story Synopsis : Nambirajan the tribal chief, fails to send Valli, his beautiful duaghter,  tend to the millet crops. The customary practice of the tribe is to send girls of marriageable age to look after and keep vigil on the crop, a portion of whose harvest is to be offered to Lord Subramanyam. The failure of tribal chief to carry out this duty is believed (by the Priest) to anger the Lord, which causes all crop to fail subsequently. Nambirajan, realising his folly, orders Valli, to leave for the forest immediately, taking her friend along. Valli requests Nambirajan to send the youngest of her elder brothers, ‘Kutti Anna’,along as well and the chief agrees. Kutti Anna, as we infer from the play, is possibly not of sound mind, and the playwright has modified this character’s dialogues[3] to infuse humour in the play.

During her sojourn, Lord Murugan appears in Valli’s dream and becomes the object of her affections. Firm in her love for him, she refuses to entertain other suitors. Lord Naradar who has come to earth, chances to hear a sweet voice and is surprised to discover that it belongs to a lovely girl albeit from the tribal community.[4] On enquiring he comes to know that Valli was born of noble birth to a deer that abandoned her in a tangle of creepers[5] immediately after birth. Nambirajan, who already had seven sons found her amidst the bushes and adoped her. In the past, Lord Murugan had helped Naradar, and so, as a token of gratitude, Naradar decides to offer Valli as a bride to the Lord as Guru Dakshina. When he reveals his plans to Valli, he is shocked at her downright refusal and at her claims of having fallen in love with a man who appeared in her dreams. Naradar vows to get Valli married to Murugan. Knowing that Murugan, already married to Deivanai (also proposed by him) would be alarmed at this second proposal, Narada goes armed with the plea that he has already taken a vow or sabatham and that it must be seen through. He prevails upon  Murugan to help him complete his sabatham, even if that means taking Valli against her own will.

To do so, Murugan then takes the avatar of a tribal hunter, who tries to woo Valli in the forest. When she doesn’t relent, he becomes a magic tree, and still later a lecherous old man whose every advance and proposal of marriage is rebuffed. Valli remains set in her adorations. praying to her Lord during every tribulation to protect her.

In the face of this failure, Lord Murugan seeks the blessing of his brother Vinayagar, hoping that this may help him achieve success. Assuming the guise of the ‘old man’ again, he invokes his brother who appears in the form of a wild rampaging elephant in the forests where Valli tends to her crop. Chased by the elephant, she calls out in fear to the Old Man. He promises to help on the condition that she marries him, to which she agrees, in desperation. Happy at having succeeded in his mission, he calls off the elephant (his brother), which vanishes.

When he seeks the reward of marriage, Valli, who has come out of her fear-crazed state,  refuses again. Defeated yet again, but not willing to give up yet, he goes against the rules of the game and recalls his brother in the form of the elephant, asking him to trouble her.

Vexed and helpless, Valli calls out to Lord Murugan for protection. Murugan, who can no longer ignore the earnest pleas of the unswervingly loyal Valli, makes the elephant, the ‘old man’ and the tree disappear and appears in their place, promising to take her away and marry her.

When Valli is chased by the Wild Elephant, she agrees to marry, and Murugan sends back the Elephant. She later refuses to marry him. This cannot happen, since Valli has given her word and promises could not be broken in Hindu mythology. So, here lies the catch.

When chased by the Wild Elephant, Valli says this out of fear – ‘Okay, I will marry’ ( She does not specify who to the ‘Old Man’, she only said that ‘she will marry’, and in her heart, she promises to marry only Lord Murugan). The happy old man sends back the elephant.

Later, when the Old man seeks her hand in marriage, she now says, I said ‘Okay, I will marry’ but did not say ‘Okay, I will marry you’.

So, technically, Valli has not broken her promise to the old man. It was the old man, who was fooled

When Valli seeks forgiveness for insulting the ‘hunter’ and the ‘old man’, he forgives her and sends her home. But he is not yet done with his trickery.

Taking another disguise, he goes to her father, the Tribal Chief, and warns of the schemes of a thief to kidnap his daughter. The Chief dispatches his sons to keep vigil. However, Murugan manages to steal into the house unnoticed (by the sleeping brothers) and takes off with Valli to Kazhagu Malai, setting the king and the brothers on a chase. Eventually, Murugan reveals himself to the family.

The family seeks his forgiveness, but Murugan refuses. He says that he is now the ‘son-in-law’ of the family and cannot forgive them, but will still be magnanimous enough of give them his blessings. Valli and Murugan are then married and live happily ever after.

Analysis : The story gives us elements of understanding of our own history. At some point in time, may be thousands of years ago, our ancestors were migrants. They were tribals and the concrete jungles in which we live today, were once agricultural lands and forests. In the play, we understand large forest lands are slowly being transformed into agricultural lands where ‘Thinai’ (millets) are grown. We surmise that lands were part of the forests as characters in the play mention the sight of wild animals like tigers, bears and wild elephants.[6]

The drama also reinforces the long accepted practice of polygamy. The happenings in this drama beg the questions: How could Lord Murugan, who was already married, accept another woman in his life? Why should Valli waive her rights to conjugal exclusivity, and share them with Deivanai? In the play, there is little attention given to Deivanai, and her reaction to this arrangement is only to be assumed as being favourable (as suggested by the fact that they all live together).[7] Naradar is not free of blame either, letting his ego overcome the fact that Lord Murugan was already married to a bride brought by him

The other aspect that is very clearly visible throughout the drama is the ‘male dominated society’ of its time. Murugan, Naradar, Vinayagar[8] are al male chauvinists at some level, and the women are accepting and submissive.

For instance, Valli seeks forgiveness to Lord Murugan, for shouting at his various avatars (the hunter, the tree and the old man), and Murugan graciously agrees to forgive her. But common sense says that it was in fact Murugan’s fault in the mater, and Valli was entirely innocent as she had no idea that it was her Lord Murugan taunting her. Logically, shouldn’t Murugan have sought Valli’s forgiveness?

This leads to the other interesting question. Why then, did Lord Murugan have to take various avatars to conquer Valli, and more importantly, taunt and frustrate her at various points? When he knew that Valli desired him, all that he needed to do was to go to her in his original form. Obviously, if that was so simple, there would be no story to begin with, so the author offers an explanation, which appears logical on the face of it:

Valli desires to marry Lord Murugan and tells Lord Naradar that she would marry only the man of her dreams. Now Murugan has to fulfill this wish of Valli. But Naradar, on being insulted by Valli’s outright rejection of his proposed (but undisclosed) suitor, vows to avenge his defeat. Without knowing who was actually inside Valli’s heart, he swore that Valli would end up marrying Lord Murugan and no one else. So, he goes to Lord Murugan and tells him that there is someone else in Valli’s heart, but he should conquer and marry her, come what may.[9] So, Lord Murugan, in order to appease both his devotees, has to play a balancing act wherein he has to take on various guises to taunt Valli (to humour Narada), but finally appears as himself (the only guise Valli recognises) to ask for Valli’s hand in marriage. He thereby fulfills the wishes of both Valli and Naradar making it a win-win situation for them.

Scientific Approach Analysis : “Valli Thirumanam’ can also be explained through a more scientific approach. By the standards of her time, Valli was definitely a ‘hot headed’ and  independent woman, who insisted on choosing her own life partner. It was natural therefore that the ablest of the opposite sex would fight it out and the winner would be the one chosen to produce through marriage the finest (healthiest) offspring. So, there is the need for an alpha-male in this context. Here, Lord Murugan plays that role.

The alpha-male ( Lord Murugan) must seduce and subdue ‘unyielding, stubborn, and egoistical’ female ( Valli) and win her over, all the while demonstrating his superior prowess through song, lyricality, poetics and histrionics, and heroism to convey his (physiological and reproductive) superiority as a suitor

Film Versions : Valli Thirumanam has been adapted many times to the film format. The iconic R.Natraja Mudaliar made the play a silent film in the early 1920s. It was made into a ‘Talkie’ in the year 1933. It was made as a film in the 60s, as well, but for this analysis, we chose the film ‘Sri Valli’ made by A.V. Meiyappan in the year 1945. Although the film bears a slightly different name, the core elements of the film are the same.

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Valli Thirumanam (1933) an ad from The Indian Express archives

T.R. Mahalingam plays the lead role of Lord Muruga, while the role of Valli is played by Kumari Rukmini[10]. The film’s script retains basic elements of the legendary script.

In the film, the hunting party of the tribal chief finds an abandoned baby girl. The chief picks up the girl and adopts her. The girl grows up into a charming maiden, who is subsequently sent to the Thinaipunam[11] —to tend to the chief’s crop —along with her friend and her youngest, elder brother ‘Kutti Anna’ ( also called ‘Killi’ in the film version.) This role was essayed by the legendary comedy actor T.R. Ramachandran, whose clever emoting and body language, suited the role ( of a man of stunted emotional and intellectual development) to a T.

The aspects of Lord Naradar meeting Valli, the subsequent challenges, Lord Murugan’s avatars as the hunter, the  magic tree and the lecherous old man have more or less been retained in the corresponding scenes of the film version. The film provides additional weightage to the scene where Valliis been chased by the wild elephant—a classic AVM company marketing strategy. There are minor changes to the script. For example, in the scenes where the Chief sees Valli with another man, feels ashamed and puts her in prison; where Lord Murugan rescues her, slays his pursuers (using his divine powers), and then revives them upon Valli’s earnest appeals; and where the chief then humbly requests Lord Murugan to accept his daughter in marriage, which Lord Murugan does.

The movie ends with the marriage of Murugan to Valli  and a still frame of Murugan with Valli and Deivanai, on either side.

Additional Commercial Elements in Film :

  1. Songs and Aesthetics: A film made on this scale should naturally have additional filler elements, unlike a stage play. The songs rendered by the lead pairs were great hits. In fact, the ‘Meiyyadha maan’ song is very popular even today. [12] The ‘Mayile Thoothu Sellaiyo’ song is also quite pleasant to hear. The scenes with the Thinaipunam set in a large tract of forest land is convincing and aesthetically pleasing as the studio sets have been designed to simulate large swathes of open land, with accents such as birds, like the peacock, which elevates it even further. Fortunately for us, a good print of this film has survived, the viewing of which will surely help us appreciate the film better.
  2. Comedy Track: In the original play, ‘Kutti Annan’ has no romantic interest, but in the film version, there is an attempt to create a love interest for him, in the form of Valli’s friend who is part of her entourage. Also part of this story line are the almost invariable comedy couple fixtures of T.R. Mathuram and N.S. Krishnan. Subamma (T.R.Mathuram) plays the role of a sanskaari woman who lives in wait for her athai paiyan[13], despite knowing that he is in love with Valli. Later, he realises his folly and with the help of Lord Muruga, he marries Subamma.
  3. Bharathanatyam: The late ‘30s saw a political and cultural movement strongly in favour of reviving Bharatanatyam[14]. Baby Kamala[15] had come to become the symbol of this revival in film. So, Bharatanatyam was used in many films, mainly as an additional commercial element, even if it had no logical bearing to the original script of the film. In this film, Kamala plays the role of the younger Valli, who performs Bharatanatyam to a song in the film,[16] although how a girl born and bred in a tribal community with no exposure to the art could do so, obviously defies logic.

Valli’s characterisation in the film: Consistent with that in the play, Valli’s portrayal is that of an  egoistic, dominant and an arrogant female in the film. In fact, she even calls the Vedan (Hunter) ‘da’ in retaliation when he called her ‘di’. Valli’s nature is accentuated by using Subamma’s polar opposite character as a foil. Subamma is very submissive, and the suggestive lyrics that she sings out also tells us about her, when she calls out to her Machaan (N.S.Krishnan) and tells him “I will even behave like a prostitute ( if need be) and enhance your pleasure”[17]. So possibly, the question being posed in the perspective of a male (chauvinist) of the time could have been, “if Subamma could be like this, why should Valli be like that?”, thereby adding more weight to Valli’s character in the film.

The film presents a great opportunity for us to understand various facets of life, not only of our own past, but of early Tamil cinema, of society and its thinchief. Since, the copyright of the film has possibly expired, the film can be seen on public access websites like YouTube. [18]

REFERENCES:

[1] Another version of ‘Valli Thirumanam’ available on the Internet has been penned by the legendary playwright— Sankaradas Swamigal. This version, along with the original song couplets which were played on stage, can be downloaded from the Tamil Heritage Foundation website: http://www.tamilheritage.org/old/text/ebook/ebook.html

[2] The book is available for free download on the ‘Internet Archive’, as the copyright of the book has likelu expired.

[3] While all the characters speak in Literature based Tamil, Kutti Anna speaks in Local Madras Bashai. “Annathai’ instead of ‘Anna’ for example. The character has now been replaced on stage by a dedicated buffoon.

[4] Elements of Racism – Naradar cannot believe that a girl from the Tribal community look so divine and have such a sweet voice.

[5] Valli Kodi (creeper)

– Hence, she was named Valli.

[6] Valli was once chased by a wild elephant, and ever since was in fear of wild elephants. Lord Murugan uses the knowledge of her fear to his advantage while seeking her marriage.

[7] Through an equivalent form of ‘divorce’ or otherwise.

[8] Who agrees to come in the form of a wild elephant and frighten Valli.

[9] Again, another example of male chauvinism— Naradar felt that upholding his vow of marrying Valli to Murugan, to preserve his ego, was more important than Valli’s desire to marry someone of her own choice.

[10] Actress Lakshmi’s mother.

[11] Forest Lands, where Thinai ( Millet) was grown.

[12] This song has even been satirised in local TV Programs that offer stand-up comedy.

[13] First Maternal cousin— It is customary for maternal cousins to marry amongst themselves in Tamilnadu.

[14] The political movement was launched against Devadasi women, who had allegedly added erotic elements to a traditionally pure dance form and polluted it. The advocates of the Anti-Nautch movement wanted to bring the Devadasi girls to mainstream society and purify and restore the dance as a symbol of culture and Bhakti. This has been described in the ‘Sevasadanam’ article.

[15] Baby Kamala was a child prodigy and her Bharatanatyam skills were used extensively.

[16] The older Valli ( Kumari Rukmini) also performs Bharathanatyam in this film.

[17] The phrase Daasiyai Pol Nadandhu Inbam Kooduven in the song ‘Amman Maganai Nee Aati Vekira’ is a typical male chauvinistic song.

[18]Film Viewing Link—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oCVp7BDvkM

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).

TR Mahalingam

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.

Baby Kamala

‘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)

 

Naam Iruvar : From Stage to Celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

The next in the series of from Stage to Celluloid we visit AVM’s baby Naam Iruvar.

The AVM productions banner occupies a pride of place in Indian cinema. With movies not only in Tamil but also in other languages such as Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and even Sinhalese, its seven decade journey has been a remarkable one, launching the career of many a star.

Born in Karaikudi in 1907, AV Meiyappa Chettiar as a teenager joined his father’s general stores business, AV and Sons. In 1928, they acquired the distribution rights of gramophone records of SG Kittappa and KB Sundarambal for the southern districts and thus began AV Meiyappa Chettiar’s tryst with the world of cinema. In 1932, he along with his friends started Saraswathi Stores in Madras, dealing in gramophone records. His foray into film making in 1934 had a disastrous start with a hat-trick of losses over the first few years (Alli Arjuna, Aryamala and Nandakumar). These movies were produced under various partnerships with his associates.

In 1946, AV Meiyappa Chettiar decided to strike it out on his own. Thus was born AVM Productions. This post is about its first production, Naam Iruvar.

Meiyappa Chettiar had great regard for theatre. In his autobiography Enathu Vaazhkai Anubavangal (My Experiences in Life), he writes about its importance and how a good stage circuit was essential for new actors and technicians to develop in cinema. Many of his early movies were based on stage plays.

Pa.Neelakandan, born in 1916 began his career as a journalist, working for a couple of Tamil magazines. His first play, Mullil Roja was staged by TKS Brothers in 1942 and won him instant fame. He then wrote a play called Thyaga Ullam, which was awaiting a troupe for its staging. It was around this time that NS Krishnan had been sent to jail in the sensational Lakshmikantan murder case. The responsibility of running his troupe, NSK Nataka Sabha fell on his close friend and associate SV Sahasranamam. The troupe was undergoing troubled times, with a split causing actors such as KR Ramaswamy and Sivaji Ganesan to move out. Sahasranamam was looking for a suitable script to stage when he heard of the success of Mullil Roja. He wrote to TK Shanmugam and requested to be introduced to Pa.Neelakandan.

Neelakandan met Sahasranamam the following week and narrated the script of Thyaga Ullam, which was based on the relationship between two brothers. Sahasranamam liked the script and it was decided that the troupe stage the play. He however suggested to Neelakandan that a character portraying the sister of the two brothers be included, which was agreed to. The play was renamed Naam Iruvar. In his autobiography Thirumbiparkiren, Sahasranamam says that the songs for the play were written by KP Kamakshi Sundaram, who would later go on to become a well-known lyricist. The song ‘Parakkum Bharatha Manikkodiye’ particularly was a hit with the masses. A few songs of Subramania Bharathi which were also used added immense value to the play. Sahasranamam also says that the concept of playback singing in a stage play was introduced in this production. The play, whose inauguration was presided over by noted journalist and author, Va.Ra was a tremendous success, with over 100 shows being staged.

AV Meiyappa Chettiar, who had watched the play nearly 10 times at the eponymous Walltax theatre decided to make it into a movie. He bought the rights from Pa.Neelakandan for a sum of Rs 3000 and also hired him as an assistant director for the movie. A few actors from the play were booked for the movie. Sahasranamam was offered the role of the hero, which he initially accepted. He later backed out owing to logistics issues of balancing the running of NSK Nataka Sabha and the shooting of the movie, which was being held in Karaikudi, where AVM Studios was then functioning. However, it would prove to be a big break for another actor who would go on to become of Tamil cinema’s most popular comedian and character actors, VK Ramaswamy. Notable names in the film included TR Mahalingam (who replaced SV Sahasranamam,), BR Panthulu, who would later go on to direct and produce several colossal movies, K Sarangapani and TR Ramachandran. The role of the sister to the two brothers was played by ‘Baby’ Kamala, a child prodigy who would later make waves in the world of dance as Kumari Kamala.

The most interesting side story in the making of this movie is the nationalisation of Subramania Bharathi’s songs. Meiyappa Chettiar decided to buy the full rights to use a few songs in the movie. The rights lay with the famous jewellers M/s Surajmals, who had bought them to reproduce in the form of gramophone records but had not used them. They demanded a sum of Rs 10000, which was paid by Meiyappa Chettiar in full.  After Independence, the Premier of Madras, OP Ramaswamy Reddiar offered to buy out the rights from Meiyappa Chettiar in order to nationalise the works. A magnanimous Meiyappa Chettiar, the ardent patriot at heart he was, gifted the same to the government.

Below is a popular patriotic song from the film by Subramnia Bharathi