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.

Shamshad Begum & The Original ‘Katiya Karoon’!

We at TCRC were deeply saddened to hear about the demise of Shamshad Begum, one of the earliest playback singers in the Hindi film industry. She was 94, only half a dozen years younger than Indian cinema itself (if we go by the release of “Raja Hairshchandra” as the beginning). Along the way, Shamshad Begum has given us some of the most evergreen melodies in Indian film music, including hits such as “Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar” and “Kajra Mohabbatwala” for composer OP Nayyar, and “Mera Piya  Gaye Rangoon” for music director C Ramanchandra.

Shamshad Begum. Photo Courtesy: Hindustan Times

A Padma Bhushan awardee, Shamshad (which means “graceful” in Persian) Begum recorded her first song, a Punjabi number, in the 1930s. And it is another Punjabi number that we at TCRC are bringing to you today, as a tribute to this doyenne. In the 1963-released, black-and-white Punjabi movie “Pind Di Kurhi” directed by Baldev R Jhingan, Shamshad Begum had sung a version of “Katiya Karoon,” the folk number which was recently adapted in Imitiaz Ali’s “Rockstar” starring Ranbir Kapoor. While the new “Katiya Karoon” was composed by AR Rahman, the original version delivered by Shamshad Begum was composed by Hansraj Behl and was picturized on actress Nishi. Watch and enjoy!

Kamal Hassan, The Singer: “Paneer Pushpangale” in “Aval Appadithan” (Tamil, 1978)

We at TCRC have a large number of still photographs shot during the production of various films that have been made by Tamil filmmakers across the years. We are in the process of digitizing, sorting and cataloguing them. One of the films for which most of this work has been completed is C Rudhraiya’s “Aval Appadithan” starring Kamal Hassan, Rajnikanth, Sripriya and Saritha. In fact, the header image that you see at the top of this page is a production photograph from “Aval Appadithan,” which was released in 1978.

The movie, praised by many for being far ahead of its times in terms of both treatment and technique, had numerous English dialogues and frequently employed jump cuts (two or more shots taken from only slightly different angles being placed sequentially, so as to communicate the passing of time in an abrupt manner). Shot in black and white, “Aval Appadithan” had only three songs, all of which were composed by Ilaiyaraaja.

One of the songs, titled “Paneer Pushpangale,” was written by Gangai Amaren and was sung by Kamal Hassan himself. Now, we’re used to Kamal singing his own songs. But it’s quite refreshing to hear Kamal croon a ‘Raaja Sir’ (as Ilaiyaraaja is known in the Tamil film industry) number from that era. In fact, when we heard the song for first time, we couldn’t even identify Kamal’s voice. Check it for yourself. Here is “Paneer Pushpangale” from “Aval Appadithan”:

Prem Nazir in MT Vasudevan Nair’s “Asuravithu” (Malayalam, 1968)

The Kochi edition of The Hindu recently carried an interesting piece on “Asuravithu”, a Malayalam film that was released in 1968, in their Blast From The Past column (click here to read that story). “Asuravithu” featured Prem Nazir and Sharada, and was directed by A Vincent. The film was scripted by the famous Malayalam author MT Vasudevan Nair, a Jnanapith awardee for his overall contribution to Malayalam literature. Interestingly, MT Vasudevan Nair has also won four National Awards for Best Screenplay, which continues to be the most by anyone for that category. The film “Asuravithu” is based on his novel of the same name.

“Asuravithu” is set in an Indian village in the 1960s and revolves around the life of Govindankutty, played by Prem Nazir, the youngest son of a proud Nair tharavadu (joint family). Prem Nazir is considered to be one of the all-time superstars of Malayalam cinema and the breadth of his filmography is astonishing. He is said to have played the lead protagonist in over 600 films. He has acted with over 80 heroines and acted in 107 movies with just one heroine (Sheela). He is a recipient of both Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awards.

The film also had some lovely folk melodies tuned by K Raghavan, of which our favourite is the song “Kunnathoru Kaavundu.” Do check it out!