Thanga Padhakkam : From stage to celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

Like all top artistes of his era, Sivaji Ganesan, inarguably the finest actor Tamil cinema has seen, came from a stage background. Bitten by the acting bug at an early age, Sivaji Ganesan joined Yadartham Ponnuswamy Pillai’s Madurai Sri Bala Gana Sabha, a well known Boys Company of the times. It marked the beginning of a long and cherished association with Tamil theatre, which he successfully managed to sustain even after he became a top star. That he continued to remain passionate about stage is illustrated by the fact that even at the height of his career, he continued to act in stage plays, with film shootings many a time scheduled to accommodate his stage commitments.

Starting off with the Streepart (Female role) at the Sri Bala Gana Sabha, Sivaji Ganesan’s repertoire expanded to a wide range of roles, all of which stood him in good stead when he made his foray into films. In his autobiography “Enathu Suyasarithai”, he poignantly recalls the struggles associated with life in a Boys Company, where they would often be confronted by poverty and other tough circumstances.

Parasakthi (1952) propelled him to stardom, after which there was no looking back for him as a film star. His passion for stage was however undiminished and he performed for troupes such as S.V.Sahasranamam’s Seva Stage. He started Sivaji Nataka Mandram in the mid-1950s to continue his passion for stage and also to provide opportunities to many actors who were trying to make it big in films and were languishing for roles. Managing the troupe was S.A.Kannan, a stage actor who was part of the Sakthi Nadaga Sabha that had just then wound up. Sivaji Nataka Manram over the course of the next couple of decades went on to produce several hits on stage which would also replicate the success on celluloid when they were remade. Famous plays included Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Vietnam Veedu, Needhiyin Nizhal, Pagal Nila, Kaalam Kanda Kavignan and Thanga Padhakkam, the subject of this piece. In his autobiography, Sivaji Ganesan says that the play, written by J.Mahendran (later of Mullum Malarum fame) was originally being staged by Senthamarai. He watched the play at the Raja Annamalai Mandram and highly impressed by it, asked Senthamarai for the rights to stage it under the Sivaji Nataka Mandram banner and also make it into a movie. Senthamarai agreed and Sivaji Nataka Mandram inaugurated the play in 1972.

The play, which revolved around an upright police officer, Superintendent of Police (S.P) Chowdhry was directed by S.A.Kannan and had Sivaji Ganesan playing the main role. Others in the cast were Sivakami (who played his wife, the role played by K.R.Vijaya in the film) and Rajapandian, who donned the role of his son Jagannathan (Srikanth playing the role in the film). The Kalki magazine review of the play makes special mention of a sequence where Sivaji Ganesan sings and dances merrily in the birthday party of his son, hailing it as a novel attempt. Reviewing Sivaji Ganesan’s performance, it says that calling his acting a majestic portrayal would be akin to saying sugar is sweet!

The play was made into a movie in 1974. P.Madhavan, who directed many hits (including some with Sivaji Ganesan) directed this movie, which was produced by Sivaji Ganesan’s daughter Shanti Narayanswamy for Sivaji Productions. The movie was a great success. The characterisation of the Superintendent of Police became a sort of a benchmark, with many a later movie referring to Chowdhry when mentioning a honest and upright officer! Below are the images of the LP from this film pulled out from our archive.

Thangapadakkam-1 WATERMARK Thangapadakkam-1A WATERMARK

Policekaran Magal: From stage to celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

On 5th April 2013 TCRC shared its first post. It was the lobby card for the film Policekaran Magal. You can revisit the post here

Today as part of our ‘From Stage to Celluloid’ series we discuss more on this landmark film.

S.V.Sahasranamam was one of Tamil cinema’s most well-known character actors. Along with the likes of S.V.Ranga Rao and S.V.Subbiah, he was part of a select group of actors who were a constant presence in films between the 1950s and 1970s in the roles of a father, grandfather or elder brother.

Born in 1913, Sahasranamam joined T.K.Shanmugam’s Balashanmukhananda Sabha at an early age, giving up schooling to become an actor. His association with the troupe was a long one, lasting for more than two decades. It was an association that got him his first film opportunity, when a play of theirs, Menaka was made as a film in 1935. It was also in this troupe that he forged a lasting friendship with the legendary N.S.Krishnan.

Sahasranamam quit the Balashanmukhananda Sabha in 1936 on account of a misunderstanding with the managers. After stints as a manager with a couple of film houses, he joined N.S.Krishnan, by then a star, as a manager in his production house Ashoka Films. Film opportunities kept coming his way and he acted in a number of films through the 1940s. His passion for stage however remained undiminished. His dream of establishing his own troupe bore fruit in 1953, when he started Seva Stage.

Starting with Kangal, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Vision, Seva Stage made a name for itself with its social themes and brilliant execution of the technical aspects. It was also to Sahasranamam’s credit that he managed to get noted writers such as T.Janakiraman, Ku.Alagiriswami and B.S.Ramiah to script successful and critically acclaimed plays such as Naalu Veli Nilam, President Panchatcharam, Vadivelu Vaathyaar and Policekaran Magal, which were later made into movies.

B.S.Ramiah, born in 1905 was an acclaimed journalist and writer best known in the literary circles for his association with Manikkodi, the magazine started by “Stalin” Srinivasan in 1933. He had made a name for himself as a short story writer. Sahasranamam approached Ramiah with a request to write a play for Seva Stage, thus marking the beginning of an association that would go on to produce great hits on stage.

Policekaran Magal was Ramiah’s fifth script for Seva Stage, after President Panchatcharam, Malliam Mangalam, Therotti Magan and the critically acclaimed Paanchali Sabatham . Revolving around a policeman and his family (most prominently the daughter), the play was a great success. Like other Seva Stage plays, this too did not lack in star value, with noted actors Muthuraman and V.Gopalakrishnan and actress S.N.Lakshmi playing important roles in the play. Muthuraman went on to play a role in the movie too, which was directed by C.V.Sridhar and came out in 1962. Vijayakumari played the role of the daughter in the movie, which was played on stage by Shanthini, a Seva Stage regular. J.P.Chandrababu and Manorama played the role of flower vendors, a crucial part of the plot. Sahasranamam reprised his stage role of the policeman on screen and even today, this movie is often spoken about as one of those movies which is impossible to remake thanks to the powerful portrayal by Sahasranamam.

The movie is also remembered today for its immortal melodies, most particularly Pon enben siru poo enben and Nilavukku en mel ennadi kovam.

Here are pictures of the film’s LP from our collection. The LP also carried the songs of another popular film of the time’ Sumai Thangi’.

policekaranmagal_sumaithangi Policekaranmagal_sumaithangi_back

 

 

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

 

Happy Birthday Superstar

 

On this special day we would like to release a special image from our collection, a lobby card from the iconic film Baasha (1995) (Tamil)

Baasha-4
Suresh Krishna’s Baasha is an action thriller starring Rajnikanth, Nagma, and Raghuvaran. A loose adaptation of Amitabh Bahchan’s Hum, Baasha is the story of a man who becomes a mafia don and later tries to escape that life by adopting the identity of an autorickshaw driver. Needless to say, his past catches up with him. The film enjoyed a positive box office response and is considered one of Rajnikanth’s most commercially successful films. This movie won him multiple acting awards. 20 years on, Baasha’s autodriver character has been elevated to patron saint status by auto drivers in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamilnadu.

 

RARE: Original LP cover of Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal” (Tamil, 1989)

In May 1989, Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” which featured the actor in the roles of a police officer, a mechanic and a dwarf clown, was released amidst much fanfare. Directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and produced by Kamal Hassan himself, the film’s cast included Gouthami, Srividya, Delhi Ganesh, Jaishankar, Nassar, Nagesh, Janakaraj and many others. The film was a blockbuster hit and is said to have completed a 200-day run at the box office, a record run in Tamil cinema then (the record was broken six years later by superstar Rajnikanth’s “Baasha”). The film’s screenplay was penned by Kamal Hassan and the dialogues were written by Crazy Mohan. “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was Crazy Mohan’s debut film as dialogue writer.

The musical score of “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was composed by Ilaiyaraaja and its songs went on to become cult classics, with tracks such as “Raaja Kaiya Vecha” receiving airplay on radio and TV channels even today. And today, we bring to you from the TCRC archives the cover of the original LP record of the film:

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

The film was dubbed into Telugu as “Vichithra Sodarulu” and into Hindi as “Appu Raja,” a year later. Both the dubbed versions enjoyed a successful run at the box office, with Kamal receiving unanimous praise for his portrayal of the dwarf clown Appu. In the movie, the episode where Appu falls in love with the daughter of the circus owner (the daughter played by Rupini and the father played by Mouli) is said to be a tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus,” which was a silent film released in 1928. In “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” Appu goes through a Chaplinesque heartbreak in romance that is very similar to what transpires in “The Circus.”

The title “Aboorva Sagodharargal” itself is a hat tip to SS Vasan’s 1949-released feature film of the same name. That “Aboorva Sagodharargal” featured actors MK Radha and Bhanumathi in titular roles and was produced in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi simultaneously. Directed by Acharya and written by Kothamangalam Subbu, the old “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was an adaptation of the novella “The Corsican Brothers” by Alexander Dumas. The idea of brothers coming together to avenge the death of their father is the common thread running between both the old and the new “Aboorva Sagodharargal.”

The Madras Film Industry in the 1960s: On the sets of “Thillaanaa Mohanambal” in a French documentary!

Today, we bring to you a clip from “L’inde Fantôme” (Phantom India), a documentary film made by Academy Award-winning French filmmaker Louis Malle. This is an excerpt from “Choses Vues A Madras,” which was the second episode of the documentary. Focusing on the Madras film industry in the late 1960s, the excerpt features footage shot on the sets of the 1968-released, classic Tamil film “Thillaanaa Mohanambal,” starring Sivaji Ganesan, Padmini, Balaiah, Manorama and others. Directed by AP Nagarajan and written by Kothamangalam Subbu, the film and its songs continue to be remembered even today.

What we found most interesting was the commentary in French (you can turn on the English subtitles by clicking on the “Captions” button in the bottom bar on the YouTube video). The commentator, at one point, refers to Sivaji Ganesan as the “Indian Belmondo.” “Belmondo” here is a reference to Jean Paul Belmondo, the French actor who was a prominent face in the New Wave films that were made in France in the 1960s. He continues to be remembered for his portrayal of the character Michel Poiccard in Jean Luc Godard’s extremely influential film “Breathless” (“À bout de souffle” in French). “Breathless” was a path-breaking film that inspired many filmmakers through its brilliant use of the jump cut. So, while the comparison to Belmondo is flattering, it’s important to remember that Sivaji Ganesan had made his mark with “Parasakthi” in 1952, a good eight years before Belmondo broke out with “Breathless” (1960).

Jean Paul Belmondo in "Breathless" | Sivaji Ganesan in "Thillaanaa Mohanambal"

Jean Paul Belmondo in “Breathless”   |    Sivaji Ganesan in “Thillaanaa Mohanambal”

Do watch the clip and let us know about your thoughts on Louis Malle’s commentary and his take on Indian films. You can leave a comment or write to us at tcrc.india[at]gmail[dot]com.

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.

RARE: Raj Kapoor’s “Mera Naam Joker” sweetbox made for Russia!

In 1970, the world witnessed the release of Raj Kapoor’s maganum opus “Mera Naam Joker,” a 255-minute spectacle about a clown who makes the everyone laugh, but cries within. This Chaplinesque saga was made over a period of six years and had Raj Kapoor investing large amounts of his personal fortune in order to complete the movie. However, it was a disaster at the box-office, causing great monetary loss to Raj Kapoor. In the years that followed, however, the film garnered critical acclaim and is considered to be a milestone in Hindi cinema, today.

It was distributed under the RK Films banner and the star cast included Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Simi Garewal, Dharmendra, Padmini, Rajendra Kumar, and Dara Singh. The music was scored by the duo Shankar Jaikishan. The film also marked the debut of Rishi Kapoor and was shot on location in India and Russia.

The Russian Embassy in India, in its post on Bollywood in Russia, states (click here to read the entire post):

In Mera Naam Joker (My Name is Joker, 1970) Raj Kapoor presented the prowess of Russian circus and ballet. The protagonist, Raju, falls in love with the visiting trapeze artist Marina, played by Kseniya Ryabinkina. Raju and Marina get close despite the language barrier. The brief affair ends with heartbreak as Marina returns home with her troupe. Ryabinkina’s role was reprised in Chintuji (2009) a movie based on the life of Raj Kapoor’s son and actor Rishi Kapoor. Marina returns to India after 40 years and visits the site where their circus had performed. She meets Raju’s son, a part which Rishi Kapoor had debuted with.

Today, we at TCRC bring to you a sweetbox made by JB Mangharam & Co in Gwalior for the Russian release of “Mera Naam Joker.” Notice the markings in Hindi, English and Russia. Called the “Joker Assortment,” the box is a favourite of ours at the archive here!

Sweets box made for Russia | "Mera Naam Joker" | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | “Mera Naam Joker” | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | "Mera Naam Joker" | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | “Mera Naam Joker” | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | "Mera Naam Joker" | Hindi | 1970

Sweets box made for Russia | “Mera Naam Joker” | Hindi | 1970

“Elphinstone Elphinstone Everywhere”: The story of Elphinstone Theatre in Madras, the first with a balcony!

The Indian Express carried a PTI (Press Trust of India) story yesterday about tent cinemas returning to Delhi as a part of the ongoing “100 years of cinema” celebrations. We found a couple of paragraphs at the end of the story rather interesting (click here to read the entire piece):

In India, among the pioneers of tent cinema, the most important name is that of J F Madan, a Parsi businessman who started ‘Elphinstone Bioscope Company’ in early 20th century in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and would do tent shows in the Maidan there. He later started the cinema halls by the name of ‘Elphinstone Picture Palaces’.

His ‘Elphinstone’ was also one of the few Indian companies, among other European production houses, which filmed the historic 1911 Delhi Durbar attended by King George V and Queen Mary.

His legend has survived today in the form of various ‘Elphinstone’ theatres spread across India.”

Now, we were aware that a New Elphinstone Theatre was operational up till sometime in the 1970s, off Mount Road. So, we did some searching and it turns out that there was indeed an Elphinstone in Madras as well. Manish Raj, writing for the Times of India, mentions the cinema hall in his piece of theatres in Madras of the yore (click here to read his entire story):

New Elphinstone Theatre in 1916 was inaugurated by the governor general of Madras and it was one of the first theatres in India to raise funds for the World War I through its shows. It housed the most unusual indoor sport — a boxing ring where amateurs sparred. When the film bubble burst, it later became Elphinstone Soda fountain, which sold beverages.

Given that there was a New Elphinstone, we realised that an Old Elphinstone had to be a part of this history. Historian S Muthiah, in his lovely piece titled “Cinema at Round Tana”, fills the gaps:

A New Elphinstone meant there had to be an old Elphinstone – and there was one, rooted in almost the beginnings of cinema-screening in Madras. The Elphinstone was located across Round Tana from the New Elphinstone on the site of Misquith Building, just west of the old Hindu building at the junction of Ellis Road and Wallajah Road. (Wallace) Misquith & Co., established in 1842 built itself a magnificent brick-exposed Indo-Saracenic building to house on the ground floor its showroom for musical instruments and, on the first floor, music salons which could be rented by the hour for anyone wanting to play any instrument.In time, Misquith’s’ became Musee Musicals and moved further down Mount Road, but in its heyday it housed the Lyric, a hall of entertainment that a man named Cohen established on the first floor when he took over Misquith’s in 1907.

In 1913, the Lyric began screening films, calling itself the Empire Cinema, but a fire in March 1914 closed it down. Later that year, J F Madan of Calcutta, owner of India’s biggest cinema chain at the time, took over the Empire and renamed it with that of his flagship, the Elphinstone. In 1915, Madan bought the Misquith Building and made the Elphinstone a permanent cinema theatre, the biggest and the first with a balcony in Madras.

Given that Dadasaheb Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra,” the first feature length Indian film was released at around the same time that Empire Cinema was started (1913), we at TCRC were thrilled to find the various strands of our cinematic history crisscrossing. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a single image or photographs of the Elphinstone Theatre and this only served to remind us of the importance of archiving  images of our cinemas’ golden past. Interested in helping this sort of archival effort? Volunteer at TCRC!

The story of Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director

While pulling out playback singer Shamshad Begum’s version of Katiya Karoon, we at TCRC realised that she was one of the earliest female playback singers in the Hindi film industry. This set us off on a search for India’s first woman film director and led us to this interesting piece on Fatma Begum, written by Rohit Vats for IBN Live as a part of their “100 years of Indian cinema” series. Here’s an excerpt from that piece (click here to read the entire story):

Born in an Urdu speaking family, Fatma Begum was related to Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III. She was the mother of Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi, who were popular actors of the silent era. She started working in films in 1922 after getting trained in plays. Fatma worked with filmmakers like Ardeshir Irani and Nanubhai Desai before founding her own production company Fatma Films which was later rechristened as Victoria-Fatma Films. ‘Bulbul-E-Paristan’ that released in 1926, became the first Indian film to be directed by a female director. However, acting remained on her wish list and she continued to act till late 1930s.”

Ardeshir Irani, who Fatma worked with as an actor, incidentally is the father of Indian talkie films, having made both “Alam Ara” (in Hindi) and “Kalidas” (in Tamil, with songs in Telugu).

We also tried to find an image of Fatma Begum on the web. While we did come across few images, we couldn’t confirm the veracity of any of them. The Whistling Woods (a film school in Mumbai) blog, for instance,  features this picture:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Cineplot Enyclopedia, on the other hand, features this image:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Clearly different people, don’t you think? It is interesting (and worrisome) to note that the internet doesn’t  have a single undisputed image of the first woman director in one of the world’s largest film industries. On days like these, we at TCRC find renewed vigour in our attempt to archive cinema-related artifacts. Have you found other such examples with respect to information about the early days of cinema? Do share them with us by writing to tcrc.india[at]gmail[dot]com.