Filmy Ripples: Dancing Queens of Tamil Screen (Part 1)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

Dance and Tamil cinema have had a long association. And when you talk of early period Tamil movies mostly the dances were in classical Bharatanatyam format, choreographed by veteran gurus such as Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and the like.

About a hundred years ago, the dance was performed only by professional dancers either belonging to Devadasi tribes or Royal Courts. Even it was considered a taboo for women from family backgrounds to learn or perform dances. As such the same was not in the domain of commoner. It was the cinema, which brought dance forms to the public at large, through the movies. Leave alone the Films, today, in stark contrast, the dance forms are hugely popular with the public with no such past inhibitions.

Our films have had very many talented, graceful & beautiful dancing stars. It was an added advantage, for the female artistes, if they could dance well. Even otherwise, the not -so-good heroines at dancing too did dance, thanks to the choreographers who taught them to make a semblance of the dance, per se!

Kamala&Vyjayanthi mala

Kamal and Vyjantimala in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1945 PC: From the archives of TCRC

In this write up we are covering some of the popular dancing stars of Tamil films in its early period.

In the bygone era of cinema, the dances were in slow pace giving more importance to mudras & abhinaya than brisk body movements, as in tune with the rest of the movie’s ingredients. You will agree, the following visuals would stand by my observations!

Hemamalini Arni

Here is a dance sequence by Hemamalini Arni, (in her thirteen, then) to the classical song ’Nadanam aadinaar” from the film “Kannika” (1947). In the music composition of Papanasam Sivan. Hemamalini Arni, who had tutelage in Bharatanatyam under Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, also had sung her own vocals in this song “Natanam Adinar”. Hemamalini Arni was gifted a Standard Car by Sreeramuly Naidu for her role in ‘Kannika’. Director M.V.Raman offered her a role in one of his films when she was seventeen, which she refused. It is said, Hindi Film’s ‘Dream Girl’ Hemamalini was named so by her mother, who was a family friend of Hemamalini Arni, in sheer inspiration of Hemamalini Arni,’s first name. Hemamalini Arni is settled in Hyderabad, running her own Dance School for Bharathanatyam.

M.S.Sarojini

In the same film “Kannika’ there was a song-dance sequence with Actor M.S.Sarojini dancing to the hit song of that time,  “Yaaro vandhu en kan pothinaar”, written & composed by Papanasam Sivan. The voices were of M.S.Sarojini & S.S.Mani (nephew of Papanasam Sivan). When the noted Guru Muthukumara Pillai was in Coimbatore in mid forties teaching dances to actors at a drama company, he trained Director Sriramulu Naidu’s actress wife M.S.Saroja for her lead role in the film ‘Kannika’ & Pillai himself too made a cameo appearance in the film. Muthukumara Pillai, who had trained legends like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kamala Laxman, belonged to the oldest generation of nattuvanars whose hereditary artistic dance practice was rediscovered in the twentieth century as the dance form Bharatanatyam.

T.R.Rajakumari

TR Rajakumari2

A photo of T R Rajakumari PC : From the archives of TCRC

The run away hit “Sivakavi” (1943), produced by Sreeramulu Naidu, featured M.K.Thygaraja Bhagavathar & the ravishing T.R.Rajakumari. the latter played the role of a Court Dancer who loved the Poet Hero. The song & dance sequence, “Kavalaiyai theerpathu” earned its place in the galaxy of immortal movie melodies of South India. T.R.Rajakumari was considered the Dream Girl of Tamil Films in the forties.

Here again, you might observe the dancing very laid back with its  slow pace, which characterized the films of early films.

Vasudhara Devi

Vasundara Devi (1917-1988), the mother of Vyjayanthimala, was a dancer in her own right as she starred & danced in notable films such as “Rishyasringar” and ‘Mangamma Sabatham”  (1943). 

Though she was a trained in Bharathanatyam dancer, the Director, Acharya of Mangamma Sabatham had used some of the hit songs Bollywood’s Carmen Miranda in the music of Rajeswara Rao in the film for this seductive song & dance sequence of Vasundhara Devi, as can be seen in this video.

Kumari Rukmini

Both the mother ‘Kumari Rukmini’ & grand mother ‘Nungambakkam Janaki’ of the talented actress Lakshmi of the 70’s cinema, were dancing stars in the early years of Tamil films.

“Kumari Rukmini” debuted as a heroine in AVM’s Sri Valli (1945). As per Randor Guy, AVM originally wanted to cast Vasundhara Devi as heroine but since she interfered with the choice of Heros, he replaced his choice with Rukmini with a fresh talent, T.R.Mahalingam, as her hero.

Here is the song & dance sequence in the song ‘Sinthai arinthu vaadi’ from Sri Valli.

                                                                                                                               ( to be continued)

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The story of Lena Chettiar, the used-car dealer who turned into a film producer!

We at TCRC are always looking out for interesting trivia about yesteryear film personalities. Also, given that our search analytics told us that people were looking into the TCRC blog for information on one of Tamil cinema’s earliest superstars, actor-singer M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, we thought of putting together a separate post about him. We started looking for information about his 1934-released debut film “Pavalakodi.” But it was one of the producers of “Pavalakodi”, one Mr. Lena Chettiar, who ended up piquing our curiosity.

“Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) was produced under the Krishna Pictures banner promoted by Lena Chettiar. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu.

Writing about the film “Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) in The Hindu’s Blast From The Past column, Randor Guy profiles Lena Chettiar (click here to read the post about “Prabhavathi”):

S. M. Letchumanan Chettiar, popularly known as Lena Chettiar, was a powerful figure in the world of Tamil Cinema. A native of Chettinad, he was a ‘drama contractor’ in his early days, staging plays in various southern parts of the state by hiring freelancing actors and selling tickets for their plays. He also dealt in used cars and was the first man in this part of the world to print and circulate handbills about used cars in Tamil. Most of the Naattukottai Chettiars were wealthy, but did not know English. They found these handbills a novelty and encouraged Lena Chettiar.”

Randor Guy also reports that it was Lena Chettiar who convinced M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to not venture into production himself and stepped in to produce it for him:

M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s (a top-ranking freelancing stage actor then) play with another stage actress S. D. Subbulakshmi, ‘Pavalakodi’, was a raving hit not only in the Tamil-speaking areas of South India but also in Ceylon. Bhagavathar was seriously planning to enter movies with Pavalakodi and Lena advised him against venturing into production on his own and convinced Bhagavathar to team up with him. With his rich pals, Lena produced Pavalakodi in 1934, which marked Bhagavathar’s film debut and proved to be a major hit.”

Lena Chettiar produced numerous films under various labels and eventually, started promoting the ‘Krishna Pictures’ banner in the early part of the 1940s under which he produced films in Tamil and Telugu for nearly 15 years. The last film that he produced, before the founding of Krishna Pictures, was “Krishnan Thoothu,” which was the Tamil debut of Telugu film star Kannamba. In his post about “Krishnan Thoothu,” Randor Guy mentions Lena again:

 He wielded enormous influence beyond the confines of the movie business in official and political circles. Soon after this film, he promoted his own unit, Krishna Pictures, in T. Nagar. His office on Thanikachalam Chetti Road (named after the noted Justice Party leader O.T. Chetti) was indeed a landmark of that area with its Krishna temple besides the building put up by Lena.”

Producers seldom get mentioned in serious writing about cinema. But in the early days of cinema in India, we at TCRC have noticed that often it was the producers who  moved mountains to fuel innovation and creativity. Lena Chettiar seems to be one such gentleman and we at TCRC are glad to bring back to public memory, stories of such film entrepreneurs.