From Book to Celluloid : Thaneer Thaneer

By Sugeeth Krishnamoorthy

The late 1800s saw a cultural renaissance in what is Tamil Nadu today. Several art forms, including traditional dances and performing arts  like Sathir, Poi Kaal Kuthirai, Thol Paavai Koothu, Bommalatam, and so on, saw a revival, that was not just culturally driven but also strongly driven by the nationalistic movement. Legends like U.V. Swaminatha Iyer discovered and published literature that sought to explain the culture, history and life of the ancient Tamils.

The origins of modern theatre began in the second half of the 19th century. Its success can largely be attributed to two doyens: Sankaradas Swamigal and Pammal Sammanda Mudaliar. These two dramatists strongly defined theatre, as it would be, in the years to come.

While most of early theatre was based on puranic themes, several of the plays Mudaliar was involved in writing had modern themes adapted or inspired from English plays or based on contemporary social commentary. Several of Mudaliar’s works like ‘Sabapathy’, ‘Manohara’, ‘NallaThangal’, ‘Yayati’ and ‘Dasi Penn’ were adapted to film formats. There were also nationalist’ plays attempted to be made into film, like Inbasagaran[1], based on Kovai Ayyamuthu’s stage play of the same name. The early actors of the Tamil talkies were also sourced from stage[2], as they had the ability to sing and thereby influence the audience through their melodious voice, although the initial acting during the first decade of Tamil cinema, was, at times, very rough and crude. The oldest surviving film today, is Pavalakkodi[3], which D.V.Balakrishnan, says was a filmed version of a stage drama.

‘Free India’ was reeling under immense poverty. This became a hot-bed for intellectuals and writers, who inspired by communist principles sought expression through literature and film. Subsequently, several films in the 60s, 70s and early 80s were made that were based on interlinking themes of unemployment, poverty and communist ideology.

Thanneer….. Thanneer is one such story. This story, penned by Komal Swaminathan,resulted from a discussion among a group of intellectuals in the late 70s, on what could possibly become a defining ‘Tamil stage drama’ in a global arena[4]. Interestingly, the writer rated this work as his best. The play, is based on the characters who live in a remote village, and their daily struggle to fetch water— a basic commodity, that eludes them.

It is their trials and tribulations that form the story. Using water as a metaphor, Swaminathan has woven a tale about the social injustices faced by marginalized sections of society. The writer challenges these inequities by asking, for instance, why villagers are allowed a ration of only 1kg of sugar, whereas urbanites are permitted 5kgs. More over, being denied the basic necessities of life existence like Water, The writer also, at various points in the story, points out how the ‘communist party’ targeted these groups, winning their allegiance through their overt challenges of authority using tools such as ‘unions’ and ‘boycotts’. The author also makes references, sarcastically at times, to the impending “River Integration” schemes’ and the presence of Seemai Karuvelam marams’ surrounding the village. For a state that has no natural river springs and that is dependent on three rivers from neighbouring states, these issues are only too relevant even today.

Another aspect that the writer brings in vote-bank politics. This divisive strategy used by politicians is as if not more relevant today as it was then. The writer speaks of the plight of these groups of people, exploited by politicians and left high and dry after they come to power.

When Vellaisamy, a nomad with a murky past, comes across this tiny village and its people reeling from  drought, he tells the villagers, “If the State and the Administration will not help you, then you must take things into your own hands.”   He leads the villagers and is yet one among them, helping them launch a campaign to regain their rightful claim to that vital fluid, water. And when all seems lost, he provides the villagers, hope and the courage, to do the unthinkable—build a canal; break the hills and divert the water towards the village[5]. When the villagers attempt to do this, the State opposes, puts an end to an undertaking that will alleviate the suffering of the villagers, instead declaring it unlawful. What follows is the climax of this play.

Although the play seems most obviously influenced communist ideals, it is easy to see past it objectively to the dominant and apolitical issue of human rights violation. It makes one wonder what crime the poor villages committed to be denied, even the most basic necessities? The author concludes, adopting a communist stance that if these things continued to happen, social revolution will be inevitable.

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K.Balachander, made this play into a movie with the same name -— “Thanneer…Thanneer’. Keeping the basic structure of the play intact, Balachander has made a few changes that have added value to the film. In stark contrast to other Kollywood directors of his time, K. Balachander was known to give a lot of importance and ‘central’ roles to his female leads. In this story, there is only one female character, Sevanthi. Balachander has altered her role significantly, to make her the mother of a new born, who is spending her early motherhood at the place of her birth. This enables Sevanthi[6] to be in the village ‘Athipatti’, the place where the story takes place, and thereby play a central role in the film.

At various points in the original play, one can observe a generational difference in thinking between the older men, who prefer being subservient to their boss and the younger rebellious group, lead by Goval. By introducing a female character, Sevulli, at the ‘cheri’, and creating a love interest for Goval, K.B has also tried to raise issues about caste-based geographical segregation, which was and is quite common in rural India. By making Sevulli, a victim of paralysis, Goval’s love interest ,K.B brings the issue of ‘poisoned flouride well’,  beside the cheri[7]into focus in a powerful way. Unlike in the movie, Swaminathan’s play does not dwell too much on this part of the story.

There are two other important characters in this film. Being the most educated person in the village, Vaidhyanathan, the school teacher represents the ‘experience of age’ and yet at the same time, has the power to command respect amongst the hasty youth. Originally a nomad, Vellaisamy, a run away convict, finds the village ‘Athipatti’ as his new home. He becomes one of the dynamic leaders of the village and offers solutions and plays a major role in the attempts of the villagers to bring water to them. His presence in the village grows to  a point where the villagers on coming to know of his past, offer to protect him rather than hand him to the police, inspite of a bounty on Vellaisamy’s head. Balachander has retained the essential elements of both these characters, right across the film.

Aligning with the theme of the film, K.B also introduces several dramatic elements that add more value to the story, as film is a visual medium. There are certain scenes—such as the one where the poosari tricks Sevanthi into fetching a pot of water, threatening to otherwise curse her; the man who opposes the village’s rules and enters the polling booth to drink as much water as he can; , the conversation between Sevanthi and the engineer who asks for water for his Jeep; and the one where the Nayakar in his thirst laps up the soda he brings with him in his vehicle—that are apt examples of the use of such elements to elevate the film.

Another invaluable aspect of this film is the music. Without wasting footage, several dialogues in the film, which were cut out at the editor’s table were, used in the title track, as audio fillers. There is also the clever use of silence to convey climactic emotion — such as when the rain clouds betray the expectant village-folk ( with the camera panning on Sevanthi), when the womenfolk with their mud pots block the passage of the politician, and when a battalion of police face-off against the shocked village-folk at the site where the mountain is to be broken. The film makes good use of natural sounds like baby-cries, breaking of wood and wooden pots, among others. The short folk songs, which were there in the original play itself, keep with the tone and mood of the film.

The end climax sees a couple of major changes. In the play, the teacher ‘Vaidhyanathan’ continues to take classes for the children in the evening, but in the film version, he volunteers to go to jail claiming he was responsible for hiding Vellaisamy. Another surprising element is that, in the climax, Sevanthi removes her thaali’ and throws it at her husband Alagiri, who threatens her. She tells him to put it around his neck, along with the several medals that he is going to receive after arresting Vellaisamy. This scene would have invariably added more value to the ‘characterization’ of Sevanthi. It would have added weight to K.B’s portrayal of ‘the independent woman’, but alas this scene was omitted.

The death of Vellaisamy is tragic, yet poetic. The man who started things with a ‘hiccup’ and went on to attempt to save the village, thanks to Sevvanthi’s act of kindness, did not get any water when he was chased by the police and died of thirst. Goval, who was shown to have a rebellious streak,joined similar groups. And in an unresolved pre-climax, several people leave the village while those that chose to live behind, lived in hope.

The film ends with a montage shots:government officials engaged in water conservation programmes’ and ‘River integration’ discussions;. Nayakar going to the village and pleading with his caste members (the same ones who boycotted him earlier) for votes and. Sevanthi laughing to his face; and finally a paddy field covered with flags of political parties.

The writer of the play must have had tremendous foresight and politico-social insight if the dominant themes of the film continue to be relevant 35 years later. The film “Thanneer…Thanneer” does the play justice by staying true to its content and spirit while adapting it to the medium and the ethos in an evocative and sensitive manner. The movie is sure to leave you with a lump in your throat!

Watch the screening of this film at Ashvita Bistro on the 17th April at 7.30pm

Notes:

[1] Inbasagaran’ was made into a film, as well. Unfortunately, it met with a tragic fire accident just before release. The reels were lost and the film was never released. The film was produced by Mahalakshmi Studios, a film production company.

[2] Successful actors like M.K.Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.D.Subbulakshmi, N.S.Krishnan, S.V.Sahasranamam all came from the stage.

[3] Pavalakkodi (1934) and Sathi Sulochana(1934) are the oldest surviving Tamil Films. Both of them have been preserved at the N.F.A.I

[4] Komal Swaminathan’s own words : ‘Thaneer.. Thaneer’ – Vanathi Pathipagam.

[5]Such an event has happened for real in our History. The Mulla Periyar dam was built to divert water from Upper Kerala to Lower South Tamilnadu, a century ago. Less than a tenth of the water has been diverted, yet this water which reaches Tamilnadu takes care of the drinking and irrigation needs of 6 districts in Tamilnadu. The Dam was built by a British man, John Penny Cuik, who is revered in Theni District.

[6]In the original play, Sevanthi is married off to a policeman, Alagiri and leaves the village after marriage. She returns for Aadi, and plays a prominent role in the climax. She does not have any children in the play.

[7]The play tells us that the people of Athipatti did not use the water of the cheri, because the well was poisoned. Alternatively, we may speculate that they refused to do so, also because of caste- based differences. However, there is a scene in which Goval and his friend, drink water from this ‘fluoride well’ due to unbearable thirst, as no water sources existed in the vicinity.

 

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Major Chandrakanth : From Stage to Celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

Major Chandrakanth

Song book of Major Chandrakanth PC: From the archives of TCRC

‘Major’ Sundarrajan was one of Tamil cinema’s most well-known character actors.  His dialogue delivery which mixed English and Tamil phrases was sophisticated and unique and rather unsurprisingly, he was the first choice when it came to portraying characters such as a rich father. For someone with no connection to the armed forces whatsoever (he was employed with the Telephones Department), his identity as ‘Major’ Sundarrajan was came about thanks to Major Chandrakanth, the successful stage play and movie.

Tamil cinema over the years has seen many directors who can be considered trendsetters. One of the biggest names in the list is that of Dadasaheb Phalke awardee, late Kailasam Balachander. Born in Nannilam in 1930, Balachander developed a keen interest in Tamil theatre at a young age and as a boy used to write, act and direct small skits in his village. He moved to Madras around 1949-50 after graduating from the Annamalai University and a brief stint as a teacher and joined the Accountant General’s office. It was around this time that the amateur theatre movement, which would see its heydays in the 1960s and 1970s had started to take roots, with the likes of United Amateur Artistes, Triplicane Fine Arts Club, Mylapore Fine Arts and Indian National Artistes (run by VS Raghavan) regularly performing to packed audiences. Added to this were the recreation clubs of the various Government and private sector offices. The Accountant General’s office had an active recreation club and soon K Balachander started becoming part of the theatre circuit, writing and acting plays.

‘Major’ Chandrakanth was born in the Accountant General’s office. A new Accountant General from Bengal had taken charge in Madras and a function had been organised to welcome him. The mantle of writing a play to be staged on the occasion fell on K Balachander, who decided that it had to be in English to ensure that the Accountant General understood the play. The story, titled “Courage of Conviction” revolved around a blind Major. K Balachander played the role of the protagonist and received great appreciation for his authentic portrayal of a blind man’s mannerisms.

K Balachander decided to expand the play into a full length script for Ragini Recreations, the troupe that had been formed by his friend PR Govindarajan (later Kalakendra Govindarajan) in 1958. By this time he had developed close friendships with people such as S.Raman (later more famously known as ‘Nair’ Raman), Harikrishnan, ISR and Venky. They were an integral part of the plays staged by the troupe. Over the next few years, the troupe would attract the likes of Nagesh, Major Sundarrajan and Sowcar Janaki, making it one of the most formidable ones on the amateur theatre circuit.

The story of ‘Major’ Chandrakanth dealt with an honest and morally upright blind army officer who gives asylum to a murderer on the run from the police for having killed a person in a fit of rage. The victim had been his sister’s lover, who had cheated her on promise of marriage leading to her suicide unable to bear the shame. On the case to find the murderer is the Major’s elder son, a police officer. It then comes to light that the person who had been murdered was the Major’s younger son and that both the Major and the murderer were unaware of each other’s identity for a long time. The story ended with the officer arresting the murderer and the Major for having harboured a criminal.

The role of the Major was played by Sundarrajan, who was then performing small roles with the Triplicane Fine Arts, while that of the elder son was played by Venky. Govindarajan donned the role of the younger son. Interestingly, the character of the sister was an invisible one with only references to her being made onstage and was developed into a full length role only in the movie, while the brother’s character was played by Gokulnath. The play was a stupendous success and before long, it had been adapted into a movie. The adaptation was in Hindi, the movie Oonche Log. Produced by M/s Chitrakala Films and directed by Phani Majumdar, it won the Second Prize in the Hindi movies category at the 13th National Film Awards for the year 1965. It was Feroz Khan’s first major hit, where he held his own against veterans such as Ashok Kumar (who played the Major) and Raaj Kumar. The Tamil version of the movie was produced by AVM Productions and came out the following year. Directed by K Balachander himself, the movie was a stupendous hit.

The play led to two other christenings. Venky, who was then employed in the American Consulate was named Srikanth after the character by K Balachander. He would go on to feature in several other plays and movies by Balachander and become a popular actor in the 1960s and 1970s. A decade or so later, Balachander gave the name of the younger son’s character to a person who today is the country’s biggest superstar, Rajinikanth.

Film Screening: Films on water

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The Cinema Resource Centre in association with Goethe Institut cordially invite you film series FILMS ON WATER At Ashvita Bistro, Chennai.

FILMS ON WATER enables Chennai citizens to enjoy short documentaries and feature films on water in different venues all over the city. The film series focusses to create awareness about water and its different meanings. How do we treat our rivers and waters? How do we perceive water and how does it culturally differ? Do we take our access to water for granted? What happens to us and our lives if water disappears?

Our films will take the audience on a journey of varied experiences with water as a resource to create and destroy life, water as a danger, water as part of traditions and rituals, water as beauty of nature and much more.

ENTRY FREE

The Schedule is as below:

17th April | 7.30 pm | Ashvita Bistro, 11 Bawa Road, Sriram Colony, Alwarpet, Chennai

  • Invisible Needness | 2010 | 1 min.
  • Deepa Mehta  | 2005 | USA, IND | Drama, Romance  |  117min
    The film examines the plight of a group of widows forced into poverty at a temple in Varanasi. It focuses on a relationship between one of the widows, who wants to escape social restrictions imposed on widows, and a man who is from the highest caste and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi.

18th April | 7.30 pm | Ashvita Bistro, 11 Bawa Road, Sriram Colony, Alwarpet, Chennai

  • Das Águas que Passam | 2015 | 23 min.
  • Vandana Shiva, Seeds and Seedmultinationals | Dir: Bertram Verhaag & Gabriele Kröber | 2010 | 60 min| Documentary
    For more than twenty years, Vandana Shiva has dedicated herself to defending the rights of India’s small farmers and maintaining biodiversity. “Monsanto – quit India” is the mantra she uses to challenge the agro-chemical multinationals.

Pattinapravesam : From Stage to Celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

In this article of From Stage to Celluloid we look at the drama Patinapravesam which was later made into a film by K. Balachander.

The 1960s ushered in a new dawn on both Tamil stage and celluloid, with social themes gaining prominence. The 1970s and the 1980s were truly the heydays of this genre. MR Viswanathan, or Visu as he was popularly known was one of the most successful writer-directors of this era. His themes predominantly revolved around problems faced by the middle class families and most of them were commercial successes. Some of them are frequently re-aired on television channels to this day. His foray into cinema was through Tamil theatre and many of his creations on stage were made into films.

Visu’s first play in the official stage circuit was “Deviyar Iruvar”, written for Vani Kala Mandir in 1972. It was directed by AR Srinivasan (ARS) and had actress Sachu playing a key role. Visu was also associated as an actor with YG Parthasarathy’s UAA. Much later, he started his own troupe, Viswasanthi.

Kathadi Ramamurthy, who began his career on stage at the beginning of the social era remains one of Tamil stage’s most recognisable faces. Making his debut as one of the founding members of the legendary Viveka Fine Arts, he launched his own troupe, Stage Creations in 1965 with Shivaji Chaturvedi, TD Sundararajan and Bobby Raghunathan. Visu wrote four plays for Stage Creations and remarkably, all of them were remade as movies. This piece is about the most popular amongst them.

Visu’s first play for Stage Creations was Dowry Kalyana Vaibhogame (Dowry Kalyanam on celluloid), which as the name suggests dwelt upon the social evil of dowry. “The play was first written for V Gopalakrishnan, who did not take it up for some reason. Visu then narrated the script to me. I agreed to stage it, provided he directed the same”, says Kathadi Ramamurthy. It marked Visu’s debut as a director.

Dowry Kalyana Vaibhogame was followed by Pattinapravesam.  The play revolved around a family comprising five siblings (four brothers and a sister) and their aged mother who migrate to Madras from their village in search of a better living and their travails in the city. With their fortunes wildly fluctuating and problems hounding them, they finally decide to return to the village. It is interesting to note that the plot of the play bore a resemblance to Conquerors of the Golden City, an Italian movie.

The play was a remarkable success. “I remember K Balachander watched the play three or four times, each time bringing along a celluloid star. The biggest compliment I cherish was that he said that it was remarkable that the same level of performance was sustained every time he saw the play, which would have been possible only it was a movie”, says Kathadi Ramamurthy. The movie was directedby K.Balachander , produced by R Venkataraman for Premalaya Films and was released in 1976. Notable actors who played roles in the movie were Sarath Babu, Jai Ganesh and Sivachandran. “Three of us from the play took up roles in the movie”, continues Kathadi Ramamurthy.

Today the movie is best remembered for being the celluloid debut of one amongst the three, Delhi Ganesh, who reprised the role of the eldest brother from the play and the melodious “Vaa nilaa nilaa alla un vaalibam nilaa” set to tune by MS Viswanathan. The popular magazine Ananda Vikatan gave a rating of 52/100 for the movie, a more than average score given its reputation for being tough reviewers and a score of 60/100 to Delhi Ganesh (the highest amongst all actors).

After a hiatus of more than three decades, Visu made a comeback to Tamil stage with Konjam Yosinga Boss in 2014.

Below is the cover image of the song book of the film Pattinapravesam from our archives.

Pattina Pravesam

End of an era: K.Balachander (1930-2014)

Indian Cinema lost one of its greatest contributors on December 23rd 2014, K.Balanchander or KB sir as he is fondly known to many. The recipient of the Dada Saheb Phalke award, his career spanned for over 45 years. Besides directing over 100 films, he has also donned the role as writer, producer and even an actor. Each of his films were ahead of its times with radical offbeat themes and with strong women characters. The same was true with the many serials that he had directed and produced for the small screen. He is known for launching and mentoring several top actors and technicians in Indian Cinema including Kamal Hassan, Rajnikanth and Sri Devi.

Here is what the national newspaper The Hindu  has to say about this great man.

http://http://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/he-took-tamil-cinema-beyond-herocentric-creations/article6719996.ece?homepage=true&theme=true

As our small tribute to KB sir we would like to share a lobby card from our collection. It is from the film Manadhil Uridhi Vendum (1987). The film revolves around the strong willed female protagonist Nandhini (played by Suhasini) who over comes many hurdles  and finally dedicates her life to her profession as a nurse.

The lobby card in itself is unique with the working still from the shoot as its image. We get to see the crew and the man himself directing the female lead Suhasini in this picture.

manadhi-urudhi-vendumTCRC