Filmy Ripples: Moonlit Movies (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

The poets, from as early as Sangam literature times, have been obsessed with Moon. Due to the attributes such as soft glow, grace, cool & calmness that Moon affords, poets always compared a moon to a women and the gender of the Moon itself was considered Female. So the natural association of a woman & moon came to be in place in literature. As a corollary the ‘nayika’ always considered the moon as her beloved friend to whom she could confide her emotions from the deep fathom of her mind! In fact, she considered Moon as her friend & emissary.

The song writers in cinema, known as lyricists, inherited such literary legacy and endowed the Moon in many a film song, There have been so many memorable songs in films with Moon as a subject of reference, either in the lyrics or visual form. Of course, the trend prevailed till such time in cinema till a generation changed along with the changed world they lived in. Now, you hardly have any reference to a moon in film songs, as the song writers too are from a different generation and any such references would perhaps become incongruent today, as subtleties & niceties of life & their associated charm are often not taken cognizance of in the current fast world! Technology, lifestyle & mindset of people too have so much changed that such moon sequences are thing of the past, as they were relevant only to the period of largely the Baby Boomers & to an extent Generation X.

The old talkie movies from the Black & White era, often had sets depicting a glowing moon in a scene that portrayed peace, tranquility & romance. Often, there were water bodies in the scene, reflecting the studio moon, to add to the magic of the frame. Sometimes, a row-boat is added too to the water-body, trusting the physical prowess of the rowing actor. The studio hands did their best to imitate a real moon by propping up dome lights in the backdrops, as the artificial creepers slowly swayed on the sets denoting mild nightly breeze, thanks to the giant fans! And whenever the heroine was in her solitary space or with her hero, it was time for a melodious song, with the Moon invariable featuring in the frame.

The soul stirring “Chanda oh Chanda” by KishoreDa from ‘Lakhon mein ek’ in the music of R.D.Burman and  the immortal “Chaudvin ka chand ho” by Rafi in the composition of Ravi too are remembered to this date.

Such numbers demanded situations, which the present day films do not simply have or can relevantly have, as sentimentalism in romance has become a thing of the past. So to say, the moon has retired, sort of, in our films!

This writer made his own little research of some fifty popular Tamil film songs, referencing the Moon, from 1950 to 1973. Surprisingly, fifty percent of such songs were in the decade of fifties, summing up to twenty five. The sixties’ films had just seventeen songs on Moon. The early seventies had just about four only. This showed a diminishing trend of cinema, as far as moon was considered, based on the viewership expectation of the relevant times. Of course, even among later films there were romantic ‘moon’ melodies, by exception, such as in eighties, when infatuation about the ‘moon’ in cinemas had already become almost extinct. Who can forget “En iniya pon nilave” from ‘Moodupani’ (Lyrics:Gangai Amaran) & ‘Ilaiya nila pozhigirathu” (Lyrics:Vairamuthu) from “Payanangal Mudivathillai” (both Ilayaraja composed)? Then, there were “Nilave vaa” from Mouna Ragam (1986) “Vennilave Vennilave” from Minsara Kanavu (1997).

But, don’t you clearly think that Moon as the friend of heroine has slowly shied away from cinema?

The Moon appeared on earlier Movie screens in different contexts. When the single woman was in the clutches of Cupid, when she was with her new found love, when they disagreed on things, when they parted temporarily, when the parting was permanent, in times of sorrow and so on. There had to be some situation when the directors were too eager to film the Moon with a melody!

Some of the Music Directors, in the Pre- Ilaya Raja era, who had composed amazing songs on or about the Moon include, alphabetically:  A.M.Raja, A.Rama.Rao. Aswathama, C.Ramchandra, G.Ramanathan, Ghantasala, K.V.Mahadevan, MSV, MSV-TKR, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, S. Rajeswara Rao, T.G.Lingappa, T.R.Paapa, T.V.Raju & Vedha.

Here, we are going to talk about some twelve popular song sequences from Tamil movies of yester years, as representational of the various ‘Moon’ songs from 1943 to 1968, used in varied emotions & sequences. You will find, each of them was in different contextual situation, as we observed earlier!

1) Moon as compared to the facial features of Nayika: “Vadaname Chandra Bimbamo” from Sivakavi (1943)

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Song book of Sivakavi PC: From the archives of TCRC

Starting from the film ‘Sivakavi’  (pairing M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & S.Rajalakshmi) it had very beautiful song sequence where the hero compares his heroine’s face to a moon’s crescent, though the frame does not show any moon, per se. The musical score was by G.Ramanathan, the lyricist being Papanasam Sivan. By the by, the heroine of the sequence was S.Rajalakshmi, the elder sister of late Veena Maestro S. Balachandar. This song, “Vadaname Chandra Bimbamo”,  showing the romantic overture of hero & heroine, was a super hit song in the film.

There is an interesting anecdote on this duet by MKT & Jayalakshmi, set in Sindhubairavi Raga. Papanasam Sivan first wrote the opening line as “mugham athu Chandra bimbamo”. However, sequel to the recording when the Positive was projected every one was taken aback as it sounded like “Mohammed Chandra bimbamo”. Immediately Papanasam Sivan rewrote that line as “Vadaname Chandra bimbamo” still retaining the intended meaning. Those days, in the absence of tape recording, songs were first recorded on Sound Negative and later developed, to be projected. This was a tedious process to locate mistakes, if any.

 2) Moon & sky as a simile to inseparableness: ‘Neela vaanum nilavum ploey’ from “Pon Mudi” (1950)

The lovers (P.V.Narasimha Bharathi & Madhuri Devi) in Pon Mudi swear to live as inseparables in the simile of the Moon & the Blue sky, in this rather poetic song.

The story of ‘Pon Mudi’ was by Bharathidasan & was made into a movie by Movie Mogul T. R. Sundaram at Modern Theatres, Salem. For Direction, TRS engaged Ellis R. Dungan who delivered Pon Mudi full of glamour, though far ahead of its times. He gave Ponmudi excellent technical inputs, good cinematography and slick editing. As per Randor Guy, for the love scenes on the beach, Dungan brought the sand from Madras to the studio in Salem and shot the sequence, along with long shots of Madras’ Elliot’s Beach. G. Ramanathan was Ponmudi’s Music Director who himself has sung this song along with T. V. Rathnam.

3) Moon in times of loss of peace: “Amaithi illathen maname” from ‘Pathala Bhairavi’ (1951)

Filmed on N.T.Rama Rao & Malathi, the popular hit of those times, ‘Amaithi illathen maname’ rendered by P.Leela & Ghantasala was in a sequence where the love-lorn pair share their status of mental restlessness with the glossy Moon, up above the world, so high, as if an alibi to their romance.

In scenes featuring the moon in the background in this film, no hidden lights were used behind the painted moon, as a source for lighting. Instead, a drawn circle on a screen was lit to make it look like the moon. Cinematographer Marcus Bartley ensured that the actors in such scenes had their shadows away from the screen, which showed an illusion of a moon. Besides, he also used dissolve techniques.

Marcus Bartley, an Anglo Indian, served as a photographer with ‘Times of India’ in Bombay, in early years. While being there, he learnt cinematography and keenly studied the various methods and its applications & later became a ‘News Reel Camera Man’ for ‘British Movie Tone’ in India. He keenly observed the various lighting systems in photography in the films. He also experimented with these new techniques in photography.

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Marcus Bartley at a shoot. PC: unknown

Bartley debuted as the cinematographer for the Tamil movie “Tiruvalluvar” (1941) and worked for many notable films, including the Malayalam film “Chemmeen” for which he earned a Gold medal at Cannes Film Festival.

If you observe the set properties of this song sequence it would explain the attention to details that was involved by the Art Director. An entire ambience has been created by the Art Directors M.Gokhale and Kaladhar, as enhanced by the cinematography of Marcus Bartley and the lilting music of Ghantasala.

Pathala Bhairavi was the first big budget film produced by Vijaya Vauhini Studios. Major portions of the film were shot in lavish sets and many trick shots were deployed. On the centenary of Indian cinema in April 2013, CNN News 18 included Pathala Bhairavi in its list of “100 greatest Indian films of all time”.

                                                                                                                                                (to be continued)

Filmy Ripples : When Film Stars are from the Fauna (Part 1)

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

Animal magnetism is so profound that Humans have always been fascinated by them. Wild animals have long inhabited the depths of the human imagination no less than they have occupied the natural habitats of our shared planet. The Fauna had not spared even the Mythology as Indian, Roman & Egyptian folklore is aplenty with animal characters.

As a reflection of the natural inquisitiveness & keenness of humans about animal world, movies too have been featuring various animals, big & small, since long.

Hollywood had given film lovers innumerable movies featuring animals, representative few of which I would like to list here: Black Stallion, Absent minded Professor, Jaws, Snakes on a Plane, Dunston checks in, Born Free, Turner & Hooch, 101 Dalmatians, Lassie, Anaconda, King Kong, The Birds, Beethoven.

Hollywood’s Silent era movie Ben-Hur–A Tale of the Christ” (1925) is said to have been the ultimate in animal cruelty in a film, as over a hundred horses apparently gave their lives to complete the climactic chariot race scene. The injured animals in the film were reportedly shown little mercy. Below is the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur (1925)

We have to discuss here in vivid as to how the filming was done with flocks of birds that “acted” in Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated film ‘The Birds’ (1963), a supernatural thriller, featuring birds as violent rebel against humanity. This writer fondly recollects watching this very Movie during his college days at the Sahni’s Theatre in T. Nagar in 1963.

21 The Birds

PC: Unknown

Inspired by Daphne de Maurier’s short story “The Birds”, first published in a 1952 issue of ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine & also a real life incident at Cornwall, England where a farmer and his wife survived an inexplicable attack by a flock of birds, Hitchcock thought of filming ‘The Birds’, intrigued by the sheer idea of birds turning murderous. The movie, financed by Universal Pictures and filmed on Bodega Bay near San Francisco, is considered amongst the most scary-movies.

When Hitchcock first discussed with his Art Director Robert Boyle, who was tasked with developing means of shooting scenes birds attacking humans, the plans were to deploy mechanical birds. But it resulted in utter failure, after spending great amounts in developing a variety of mechanized and prop birds, as the test footage showed them to be unconvincing and ridiculous. The film was therefore forced to rely on live birds, either trained to ‘act’ alongside human actors or superimposed into pre-shot footage via what are called ‘composites’, using a ‘sodium vapour’ process as an alternative to the normal blue screen method, as supervised by the award winning Animation Expert Ub Iwerks of Walt Disney Studios.

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A still from The Birds .PC: Unknown

The Unit shot special footage of seagulls at the San Francisco city garbage dump, which was used for reference material by the special effects team and as cutaways in the film itself.

The unit of ‘The Birds’ kept the live birds housed & fed in forty large pens in the Studio, for the movie’s shoot, under the watchful eyes of a member of the American Humane Association. It is reported, despite that numerous questionable practices, including tranquilizing birds to keep them within the frame and reportedly using wire to tie the beak shut of birds did happen. Animal Trainer Ray Berwick was fined by authorities to have captured more wild birds than was the limit, besides having to release the birds that exceeded the permit. Understandably, It was very tough dealing with the birds as they were non-cooperative performers. Several weeks into production, incidents of bird-inflicted injuries became commonplace that the entire production team had to be given anti tetanus shots as a precaution.

In one sequence in the film, about fifteen hundred small birds like sparrows and finches were poured down a false chimney and into the set, when the set was closed off with plastic sheeting to prevent the birds from flying up into the lighting rigs above. For those few birds that did escape, they used liberally scattered birdseed across the floor to entice & recapture them. One actor recalled when the birds would just swoop down the chimney set and realize that there was nowhere to escape they just dropped in the confined areas. That while recording the shot the cast were warned to shuffle their feet to the extent possible, to avoid stepping on and killing any of the birds.

The birds tied to their trainers with thin cords were propped towards meat placed near the camera position to induce them to fly towards it. When that did not prove frightening enough trained birds were encouraged to land on the heroine and she would then bat them away. Once it became clear the birds were not landing on her with another enthusiasm and were instead flying around the set, air jets were used to force them back in her direction. By the middle of the week stagehands were resorted to simply throwing crows and gulls at Hedren, and by the end of the week Hitchcock had live birds attached to Hedren’s costume with elastic bands.

Actor Rod Taylor claimed that the seagulls were even fed a concoction of wheat & whiskey, to get them to do so much as the Director expected.

In fact, the young debutant heroine Tippi Hedren had been reassured on multiple occasions that a particular sequence would only feature mechanical props in lieu of live birds. But that turned out to be a lie. She once recalled in an interview as to how ravens, seagulls and pigeons were hurled at her, one by one, by Bird Trainers.

The scene in which the heroine watches the birds attacking the villagers was filmed on the sets from a phone booth, When the heroine opens the door of the phone booth, the seagulls that were trained by Bird Trainer fly into the booth.

The film’s final shot was a complex affair, combining both live and puppet birds requiring 32 separate film exposures to create, and was widely cited by Hitchcock as the single-most difficult shot of his career.

Bollywood does not lag behind either, when it comes to casting animals in films, though not in the scale & efforts of ‘The Birds’. Some of the lovely animals have stolen our hearts in Hindi films, like the Bull Mastiff Dog named Pluto in the recent “Dil Dadkane do”.  And there have been Doves, Swans, Ducks, Deer, Peacocks, Elephants, Horses, Snakes and whatnot which have routinely featured in many a movie in the past. Who can forget that popular song, ‘Kabutar Ja Ja’ filmed on that courier pigeon & its employer heroine! Even stars as big as Rajesh Khanna had to share their screen presence with performing animals as you may see in this video sequence from the film “Joroo ka ghulam’ (1972).

In old Tamil films of mythological or historical subjects, the sets routinely featured, even in romantic settings, deer, pigeons & peacock giving constant company to the heroine & her sidekicks. Kodambakkam had its own animal suppliers whether the scene involved a snake let out by the villain or a monkey to assist the hero with odd jobs. Those days, prior to the advent of strict regulations on animal usage, there used to be hearsays that the snake suppliers to films even stitched up the reptile’s mouth! In some of the early films even stock shots of animals were used. This meant that instead of actually filming an animal especially for a scene in the given film, they used to buy out shots, which are called library shots or stock shots.

The above scene, involving a Peacock as a romantic emissary was from Sri Valli (1945).

In the Tamil film “Ambikapathi” (1937) directed by the legendary American Film Director, Ellis R. Dungan, he created a scene where Chola King Karikalan makes a triumphant return into his capital after a successful campaign, in which a meandering line of caprisoned elephants was shown by him in a lengthy shot as the elephants pass through the frame in a slow paced procession, which was majestic.

The film ‘Sakunthalai’ (1940) begins with a scene where the hero (GNB) & his entourage are on a hunting spree. In this scene they are shown pursuing a Tiger, which was a stock shot.

Whereas, a lion cub featured in the same film ‘Sakunthalai’, directed by Director Ellis. R. Dungan, who adopted it after the shooting was over. According to Film Historian Muthaiah, Dungan used to keep his pet overnight in a cage in his room, but, during the day, tie it to a tree in the hotel where he stayed. But when the cub grew fast, it snapped his strap and ran after the hotel guests when the police had to intervene & asked Dungan to find a new home for the lion cub.

                                                                                                                                                            (To be continued)

Filmy Ripples: Ghost voices of bygone era (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

The voices of M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & Dhandapani Desikar need special mention here. The former was a Super Star of his time, with innumerable renderings to his credit, since his debut in ‘Pavalakodi’ in 1934. Half of his fourteen films were run away hits. His 1944 movie ‘Haridas’ ran for three years at Broadway Theatre, Madras. His well known songs include  “Amba Manam Kanindhu”, “Soppana Vazhvil Makizhndu”, “Sathva Guna Bodhan”, “Krishna Mukunda Murari”, “Radhe Unaku Kobam Aagadadi”,  “Vasantha Ruthu” and more. Convicted in Lakshmikanthan murder case, he later died after his release when he was just forty nine.

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A photo of a young M K Thyagaraja Bagavathar in the 1937 edition of Cine Art Review Magazine. PC: From the archives of TCRC

Here is the visual of the ever green song ‘Vasantha Ruthu’by MKT in the film Sivakavi (1942).

M.M.Dandapani Desikar was a great musicologist & composer. Songs such as ‘Jagat Janani’, ‘Inba kanavonru kanden, ”Thamarai pootha’ composed by him are hugely popular. His singing prowess was evident in ‘Nandanar’ (1942) produced by Gemini was a musical treatise, as he sang the compositions of Gopalakrishna Bharathi & Papanasam Sivan. Desikar also served as the HOD of Music Department of Annamalai University.

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A photo of Dandapani Desikar from 1942 Kalki Deepavali Malar. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The below video features Sivan’s Composition Pirava Varam (from the film Nandanar) set in the unusual Lathangi raga, which is now a concert regular. The singer was MM.Dandapani Desikar

There was another singing star in the forties by name V.V.Sadagopan. He was a man of many parts, by being a university rank-holder, ICS aspirant, film actor, music teacher, performer and composer.  He was a disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar & Professor of Music in Delhi University till 1975. However, he went missing since he got off a train at Gudur in 1980, on his way from Delhi to Chennai. Since that none has information about him.

“Premaiyil yaavum matandhene” was a haunting romantic duet, based on Raga Desh, composed by Music Director S.V.Venkatraman, in the voice mellifluous voices of M.S.Subbulakshmi & G.N.Balasubramaniam. The movie was Sakunthalai (1941) , directed by Ellis Dungan.

D.K. Pattammal was inducted into playback singing in Tamil screen by the lawyer-turned-filmmaker cum director, K. Subramaniam, for ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1939), at the instance of Papanasam Sivan. She only accepted songs of devotional or patriotic flavour and declined offers to sing romantic songs. She sang in many super hit films of the yesteryears. But there was a song ‘Sri Saraswathi’ which she recorded for Gemini’s ‘Miss Malini’ (1947), which was not featured in the film, though she was paid a handsome remuneration for the same.

M.L.Vasanthakumari was in the top amongst playback artistes of those times. In ‘Krishna Bhakti’ she even appeared on screen, rendering ‘Enta Veduko’ in a concert scene. N.S. Krishnan produced ‘Manamagal’ gave her the all-time hits ‘Ellam Inba Mayam’ and ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye’, which are being sung even by the kids in Super Singer reality show. There were many other memorable numbers of MLV such as ‘Konjum Purave’.

J.P.Chandrababu was a versatile actor-singer of his own unique style.  He had an unique voice. In AVM’s ‘PeNN’ (1954) he even sang ‘Kalyanam..haha..kalyanam’ for S.Balachander, the actor-director-veena maestro. There are many memorable songs of Chandrababu to name a few: ‘Pambara kannale’, ‘Naan oru muttalunga’, ‘sollurathe sollipurren’, ‘Jolly life’, ‘Budhiyulla manithar ellam’. In fact his entry into the filmdom was very dramatic. While fishing for a film role, his life took through struggles leading to utter frustration that he attempted suicide in the premises of Gemini Studio in 1952, having failed to meet S.S.Vasan. Later, when Vasan came to know of this episode he gave him  a small role in the film Moonru Pillaigal. Chandrababu rose to become a sought after artiste that in the film, ‘Sabhash Meena’ he commanded a remuneration that brushed past that of his co star Sivaji Ganesan. But in his later days he was broke and died penniless! This writer has seen him walking the Dr.Rangachari Road in his lesser fortunate days.

There were many other formidable ghost voices of those times which deserve detailing here. But for want of space in this write up we are constrained in not dealing with them. This does not in any way undermine their mighty contribution to Indian Tamil film music.

The magic of pre sixties’ Tamil film music, till recently, were available only on those old vinyl records. Now that the technology has brought them to us through other music formats, there no stopping to patronise these classic gems.

 

 

 

Ellis Dungan’s documentary on village life in Southern India | The 1940s

Ellis Dungan was an American film maker who made numerous Tamil films between the years 1936-1950. His debut film Sathi Leelavathi also happened to be Tamil cinema superstar MGR’s (M G Ramachandran) debut film.

This documentary made by Ellis Dungan is a rare find from the West Virginia State Archives. It showcases a typical South Indian village in the 1940’s through the eyes of this American film maker. A song and dance sequence has also been incorporated in this documentary.

TCRC is proud to house memorabilia pertaining to some of Dungan’s films.