Filmy Ripples – Rise & fall of vamps (Part 1)

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

The early Tamil cinema was either associated with period of pre-independence or the post republic decades that succeeded. Then, the life in India, was relatively simple, with down to earth values and without much complications. There was less room for negative vibrations, cynicism or self doubt. This was replicated on the silver screen in its social subject movies. As such, the social movies were largely family subjects with love & romance, with only a loner villain who was usually a male character constantly raising his eye brows & gritting his teeth, in scheming an evil plan against the hero & his clan or against the society at large.

But, the negative characters are part of human evolution and are handed down from times of Epic, such as Ravana in Ramayanam or Duryodhan/ Sakuni in Mahabharatham. So the ‘villains’ became integral part of story lines in films too. In carrying the legacy of negative characters, there was a battery of this genre in Tamil screen, to name a few like M.N.Nambiar, P.S.Veerappa, R.S.Manohar, M.R.Radha, S.Ramdas, O.A.K. Thevar, T.S.Baliah, T.K.Ramachandran, Kallapart Natarajan, playing dastardly villains with raucous laughs, each with their own individual hall mark. Of course, some of them became character or comedy actors later as they had the dexterity to emote in such roles too. Such instances repeated later too with villains like Nasser & Satyaraj even transcribing into hero roles. There was also the reverse, as a hero like Jayashankar later came to shine in villain roles. Occasionally a well-accepted frontline hero such as Sivaji Ganesan or Kamal Hassan too appeared in negative roles. What about Nagesh in a negative role in Thillana Mohanambal where he excelled with a tinge of comedy?

Sigappu Rojakkal

A working still from the Film Sigappu rojakkal in which Kamal Hassan Played a negative role. PC: From the Archives of TCRC

Kanavane Kankanda Deivam

A working still from the Film KANAVANE KANKANDA DEIVAM of M.N. Nambiyar.
PC: From the Archives of TCRC

Soon, the female equivalent of a villain, colloquially called ‘villi’, also started appearing in films. This could be construed as an organic transition in the anthology of Tamil Screen as it evolved & got rediscovered with times. If there could be a negative character why would it be restricted to one gender alone? The logic worked!

To slightly digress, talking of evolution of cinemas, internationally, it was in early thirties that larger than life legendary characters like Superman & Batman were conceptualized more as an ‘escape into fantasy’ when the world was reeling under the world war.

Likewise, it was time for Tamil Screen too to have ‘villi’s in their shopping list! After all, even in Epics we have had villi like ‘Manthara’ aka ‘Kooni’! And the Tamil Screen has had villi like Sundari Bai, M.S.S Pakkiyam, C.K.Saraswathi, and M.N.Rajam. Their equivalents in Hindi were Nadira, Lalitha Pawar, Shashikala Leela Mishra & the like.

CK Saraswathi

The picture above is of C.K.Saraswathi as she appeared in ‘Thillana Mohanambal’, in the ever-watchful ‘madam’ character of ‘Vadivambal’ with whom T.S.Baliah, in his Percussionist role, used to display amorous overtures in the film.

Soon, the ‘terminology’ (if I may call it so), “Item Number’ came to be coined by Bollywood, in reference to songs made up of lyrics, so sleazy. Whereas they were traditionally synonymous with what was known as ‘club dances’ in Tamil screen in the past. M.S.S.Pakkiyam, who had done several villi roles, besides others, had done an ‘item number’ as early as 1947 in the film ‘Rajakumari’, as seen in the video below.

 

 

 

 

A sequence featuring Kumari Kamala as an ‘item number’ girl was in the popular song “Oh Rasikkum seemane vaa” from the film ‘Parasakthi’ (1952).

 

 

M.N.Rajam was always ‘the other girl’ in movies with a tinge of villainy. But here she features as a vamp in “Ratha Kanneer” (1954) in the popular song and dance sequence “aalai aalai parkkiraar”.

 

 

 

The following video shows Rajamani in a vamp role in the film ‘Paasa valai’ (1956), music by MSV-TKR.

 

(to be continued)

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Sabapathy: From stage to celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

The next in our series from ‘stage to celluloid’ we discuss one of Tamil cinema’s earliest full length comedies, Sabapathy.

The film, which was released in 1941 was produced by A.V.Meiyappa Chettiar and directed by A.T.Krishnaswamy. The plot was based on Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar’s play by the same name.

In his autobiography Naadaga Medai Ninaivugal, Sambandha Mudaliar says that Sabapathy was the first farce that he wrote. The story, which revolved around a young, rich (and not so intelligent) zamindar and his foolish servant (both named Sabapathy) was first written in 1906. Sambandha Mudaliar writes that the inspiration for the servant was derived from observing the man Fridays of a few friends. In particular, he credits Narasimhan, the personal assistant of his close friend V.V.Srinivasa Iyengar, the noted lawyer for having served as the base to building the character! He also acknowledges the influence of Handy Andy, the famous book written by Samuel Lover where the character could do nothing right.

The story was written in eight parts, each of which was capable of being staged as a separate stage play. Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar himself played the role of the zamindar, while many of his troupe members donned the role of the servant. So popular was the play that it continued to be staged even after the movie had released and had become a huge success. Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar writes of an interesting incident in 1944, where he, aged 71 years at that time had to appear in the role of zamindar for a scene during a staging to raise funds for the Thondaimandala Thuluva Vellalar School on Mint Street.

The movie had T.R.Ramachandran and Kali N.Ratnam (both of them from stage backgrounds) playing the roles of the zamindar and the servant respectively. Having zeroed in on the choice of T.R.Ramachandran to play the role of zamindar, A.V.Meiyappa Chettiar brought him to Sambandha Mudaliar for his approval, which was given after a brief test of his capability to do justice to the role. Kali N.Ratnam was a well-known actor and vaadhyar who served with the Madurai Original Boys Company, earning the prefix of Kali thanks to his portrayal of the Goddess in a play about Kannagi. Amongst those who trained under him were P.U.Chinnappa and M.G.Ramachandran. The female lead was played by R.Padma (a Lux soap model!) while C.T.Rajakantham was paired opposite Kali N.Ratnam. The Kali N.Ratnam-Rajakantham partnership was a successful one and featured in several movies. C.T.Rajakantham was alive until the 1990s and even acted in the popular Marmadesam (Vidaadha Karuppu) serial.

The movie is a delight to watch even a good seven decades after its release thanks to the simple comedy and great characterisation of the actors.

Randor Guy’s article on the movie can be accessed here

Here is a popular 9 minute segment from the film.