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 : Tamil Cinema’s evolution from Theatre (Part 3)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

T S. Baliah, villain, comedian & character actor of the Tamil Screen of the yesteryears too started as a stage artiste in ‘Madurai Balagana Drama Company’ run by ‘Yadaartham’ Ponnusamy Pillai. He debuted his cinema career with Ellis.R.Dungan directed ‘Sati Leelaavathy’ (1936) as a villain.

Baliah mostly appeared in films as a villain, along with Heros such as P. U. Chinnappa & M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. Whereas in Modern Theatres produced movie ‘Chithra’ (1946), directed by Raza Wahab Kashmiri, Baliah was cast as hero with Vasantha pairing with him as heroine. However, as per Randor Guy “the movie did not do well mainly because of the wrong casting of Balaiah, who was famous for his roles as villain, as the hero.”

His track record consisted of over two hundred films. Some of his noteworthy roles were in the films: ‘Vellaikkaari’, ‘Oar iravu’, ‘Rajakumari’, ‘Madurai veeran’, ‘Mohini’, ‘Pudumai pithan’, ‘Thaaykuppin thaaram’, ‘Bagdad thirudan’, ‘Kaathavarayan’, ‘Anbu’, ‘Thookkuthookki’, ‘Nalla veedu’, ‘Thenum paalum’, ‘Thangaikkaaka’, ‘Thillaanaa Mohanaambaal’, ‘Thiruvilaiyaadal’, ‘Kaathalikka neramillai’ and ‘Bama vijayam’.

His stellar roles in Thiruvilaiyadal, Kathalikka Neramillai, Bhama Vijayam, Maragatham & Thillana Mohanambal are very memorable. Particularly, he excelled in a comedy role in Kathalikka Neramillai in the amazing direction of Sridhar.

Baliah died at his 61 in 1972 owing to heart attack.

Here is a song sequence from ‘Manamgal’ (1951) featuring Lalitha & Baliah. The voices belonged to M.L.Vasanthakumari & V.N.Sundaram.

T.S.Durairaj, one of the talented comedians of Tamil Cinema, was a contemporary of N.S.Krishnan with whom he often teamed on screen, though he came to lime light as a solo comedian later. He even donned comedian roles in films like ‘Meera’ & ‘Sakunthalai’ where M.S.Subbulakshmi starred. T.S.Durairaj too began with stage acting with one of the Boys Companies of his times.

As per Randor Guy, Durairaj’s acting prowess was such that during the shooting of a sequence with Durairaj on Adyar River for ‘Sakunthalai’ by the celebrated Director Ellis Dungan, its heroine M.S.Subbulakshmi could not control her laughter at the sequence, involving retakes. Such was the impact of Durairaj’s acting.

Here is a popular song sequence featuring T.S.Durairaj & Savithri from the film ‘Paanai pidithavaL Bhagyasaali’ (1958).

If we do not cover here about T. K. S. Brothers, who were a formidable name in Tamil stage, it would not be fair. The brothers comprising Sankaran, Muthuswamy, Shanmugam, and Bhagavathi were initiated as young boys into acting. The first three brothers joined Sankaradas Swamigal’s ‘Tattuva Minalochani Vidya Balasabha’ in 1918 and & received high acclaim from the Swamigal. After their stints, later, with the troupes of Krishnaswamy Pavalar and Kandaswamy Mudaliar, In 1925, they formed their own ‘Bala Shanmugananda Sabha’ in Madurai & staged their maiden play, ‘Gumastavin peNN’, which was filmed as Clerk’s Daughter in 1941. Other popular plays from them were Avvaiyar, Rajaraja Chozhan, Manidhan, Andaman kaidhi, Uyiroviyam, Kalvanin kadhali, Ratha Pasam and Tamizh Selvam.

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A picture of the TKS brothers in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

In 1950, they renamed the company as ‘T. K. S. Nataka Sabha’. The members of their Drama Troupe included big names such as N. S. Krishnan, S. V. Sahasranamam, K. R. Ramasamy, S. V. Subbiah, T. N. Sivathanu, A. P. Nagarajan, S. S. Rajendran, M. S. Draupadi, M. N. Rajam and even Kamalahasan. Their plays, for the first time, introduced female actors on the Tamil stage & toured India and abroad, staging over seventy productions between 1925 & 1972. Many of their plays were made into cinema.

Another singing star of the early Tamil cinema was K.R.Ramaswamy whose contribution to Tamil screen cannot be overlooked. He too started his career in theatre at a tender age of eleven when he joined Madurai Original Boys Company. While being there he met great actors such as P. U. Chinnappa, M. G. Ramachandran, Kali N. Rathinam & N.S.Krishnan. Later in 1928, he joined TKS Brothers’ ‘Sri Bala Shanmuganandha Sabha’. In the stage play “Menaka’ he was the ‘heroine’ as he donned the female role.

K.R.Ramaswamy’s debut film was ‘Gumasthavin Penn’ (1941). Subsequently, he set up his own Drama Company ‘Krishnan Nataka Sabha’ & staged, in 1946, C.N.Annadurai penned Play ‘Velaikaari, which performed at Tanjore for a full long year. When the same was made into a movie in 1949, KRR played the hero thereof.

However, KRR continued his stage career much after he became a popular screen hero too, staging the play ‘Oar Iravu’, also written by Annadurai. He was also in the film version of the same story. It would be interesting to note that Sivaji Ganesan played the female role in KRR’s play ‘Manohara’ (which was made into a film later, where Sivaji Ganesan played the lead). KRR passed in 1971, after a film career of twenty five films.

While talking of Tamil stage of fifties and before, it would be incomplete if we do not mention about T.S.Rajamanickam Pillai (TSR). Nawab T.S.Rajamanickam Pillai was a product of Kannaiah Company. He ran his own drama company called  ‘Madurai Devi Bala Vinodha Sangita Sabha’. Sakthi Nataka Sabha was an offshoot of Sakthi Nataka Sabha, in whose plays Sivaji Ganesan acted in female character and became very popular.

In 1927, TSR played the Nawab in his play on ‘Bhakta Ramdas’ due to which his own name got the affix of “Nawab’ as an unique identification. He changed the conception by the elite that Tamil theatre was not respectable. TSR trained hundreds of pupils including some who became very famous actors on stage and screen.

TSR was popular for his mythological subjects like `Dasavatharam,’ `Sampoorna Ramayanam’ & `Ayyappan,’ complete songs and dances. In fact, widespread awareness of Lord Ayyappan happened in Tamil Nadu only sequel to the Ayyappan Play of TSR. Everyone knows that noted Tamil Film villain, (Late) M.N.Nambiar was a Spiritual person, making regular annual pilgrimage to Sabarimalai as ‘Guruswamy’. In fact, Nambiar started his maiden pilgrimage to Sabarimalai in 1942 with Nawab Rajamanickam as his Guru.

Of course, TSR did enact plays of social themes too. In one of these, where a wedding was shown on stage,TSR’s own Baby Austin was brought to stage as the wedding procession car! His plays used to be played on Wall Tax Road, next to Madras Central Station.

Nawab Rajamanickam’s company was popular for its magical spectacle, as It used science in presenting stunning visuals on stage such as  birth of Lord Krishna associated with pouring rain or the snake providing the infant Krishna protection from pouring rains. Even Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar regarded the company of TSR with utmost regard. In 1934, Mahatma Gandhi blessed TSR on witnessing his Nandanar Play at Coimbatore.

But TSR was unable to keep the show going beyond the late Fifties. He passed away in 1974.

You will, however, appreciate that this Article was not about the various stage artistes past or present. On the other hand, we have tried to highlight as to how the stage has influenced the Tamil Screen in its pristine years, by discussing some of the individual senior artistes in Tamil screen. If some of the stage to screen personalities such as S.V.Sahsranamam, Sivaji Ganesan, M.G.R, S.S.Rajendran, K.A.Thangavelu, A.Karunanidhi, M.N.Rajam & few more are not covered here, it was not by oversight. Just that, we will have occasion to discuss them as appropriately in different facets of our future Articles in this series, Filmy Ripples.

You would have observed that the initial subjects for Tamil cinema were mostly from Mythology, Epics & History, though there were social plays. And slowly subjects associated with Indian Freedom struggle were also brought in as film subjects. Later big production houses such as AVM & Gemini were in the celluloid business more & more experimental subjects were brought under the fold of Tamil Cinema. By mid forties, Social issues of the society too were gaining momentum to be depicted through films with stories & screenplays by tall personalities of the order of C.N.Annadurai & M.Karunanidhi.

Filmy Ripples : Tamil Cinema’s evolution from Theatre (Part 2)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, a qualified lawyer, founded Suguna Vilas Sabha, which is located even today next to the erstwhile Plaza Theatre near Cosmopolitan Club on Mount Road, Chennai. He wrote a hundred plays & staged them there. The title of Kamal Hassan’s film, “Pammal K. Sambandam” was his expression of tribute to this ‘Father of Tamil theatre’.

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Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar PC: unknown

Sati Sulochana, Vedala Ulagam, Ratnavali, Manohara and Sabapathi, are some of the hundred and odd plays he wrote. The above mentioned plays were also made into successful films.  Old Madras luminaries such as S. Satyamurthy, R. K. Shanmukam Chettiar, V. V. Srinivasa Ayyangar, C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, V. G. Gopalaratnam and M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar (the father of the famed actor M. K. Radha) have acted in his plays. The British Govt., honored Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar with coveted Rao Bahadur Title, later the Government of India honored him with a Padma Shri Title in 1963.

Kandaswamy Mudaliar was a well known Tamil dramatist and stage actor. When Pammal Sambandham Mudaliar founded the famous ‘Suguna Vilas Sabha’. He became a member of it and took active part in the running of the Sabha. Besides writing plays, he supported his guru Sambandha Mudaliar in the theatre activities of the Sabha.

S.G.Kittappa, trained in music and acting by Sankaradas Swamigal, was a Tamil classical singer and stage actor who was active in the pre-cinema days.

K.B. Sundarambal as a small girl was discovered while singing and begging for alms on trains by F. G. Natesa Iyer, a Railway official, who was also a stage actor, talent – scout and play producer. He introduced her to Tamil theatre. Soon her stage plays such as “Valli Thirumanam”, “Pavalakodi”, “Harishchandra” became great hits during those days

While on a tour of Ceylon she met singer-stage actor S.G. Kittappa to whom she got married and started acting in stage musical plays as pair. KBS and SGK acted in dramas like Thookku Thookki, Nandanaar, Dasavatharam & Aandaal staged by the Kannaiya Nadaga Company. Their fans showered silver coins on stage when they acted. The couple became cult figures. They also took active part in the Indian Freedom Movement. But Kittappa eventually died very young in 1933 at the age of 27 due to which, at this juncture, his young widow K.B.Sundarambal went into isolation.

When the owners of a Sindhi business house, Chellarams, wanted to produce ‘Baktha Nandanar’ they approached KBS who initially resisted the offer. Subsequently, she debuted in that very film in 1935, in the role of Nandanar, for which she was paid a whopping lakh of Rupees. the renowned Carnatic Vidwan Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer (father of late Maharajapuram Santhanam) too acted in the very film ‘Baktha Nandanar’ (not to confuse with the subsequently made ‘Nandanar’ featuring M.M.Dandapani Desikar). Having debuted in this film, KBS acted & sang in many movies, notable of which were Gemini’s ‘Avvaiyar’, A.P.Nagarajan directed “Thiruvilaiyadal”, Poompukar, Kandan Karunai & Karaikal Ammaiyar.

PU. Chinnappa, was a popular singer movie actor in Tamil screen from 1930s. At a tender age of 8, Chinnappa joined in Meenalokshani Vidvabala Sabha, run by one Palaniyapillai, under the tutelage of Sankaradas Swamigal. At that time T.K.S brothers were acting in this popular drama company at that time. From there P.U.Chinnappa joined Madurai Original Boys Company for a salary of Rs.15 with a 3 year contract. Chinnappa was very prolific in singing too. When Chinnappa acted as hero, M.G.Ramachandran, P.G.Venkatesan, Ponnusamy and Alagesan were acting as a female lead with him. Kali N Rathinam and M. G. Chakrapaniwere acting in supporting roles.

Chinnappa debuted in the movie Chandrakanta (1936) & continued his career in films like Punjab Kesari, Raja Mohan, Anadhai Penn, Yayathi and Mathruboomi. But the movie Uthama Puthiran was a block buster, catapulting the career of Chinnappa. His movies such as Aryamala & Kannaki made him a box office hero. Several other movies of him like Dhayalan, Dharmaveeran, Pruthivirajan and Manonmani too ran very successfully.

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Song book of Aryamala PC: From the archives of TCRC

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An ad of Manonmani in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

It was during this time, the professional competition between M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and Chinnappa became intense. Vanasundari, Ratnakumar and Sudarshan were the movies that Chinnappa acted last. He passed away in his late thirties in 1951.

One F.G.Natesa Iyer through his Rasika Ranjana Sabha, an amateur theatre group, introduced M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to Stage when MKT was in his pre-teen years. He also took professional training in Carnatic music. MKT teamed with S.D.Subbulakshmi toured even Ceylon & Burma to stage their dramas successfully.

MKT debuted in ‘Pavalakodi’ (1934), produced by Lena Chettiyar & directed by K.Subramanyam, in the music score of Papanasam Sivan.

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Inside the pages of Pavalakodi song book. PC: From the archives of TCRC

In all, he acted in 14 movies in his life most of which were record breakers. Thiruneelakandar, Ambikapathi, Chintamani were among the highly successful Tamil films. His film Haridas, released (1944) ran continuously for three years at Broadway Theatre, Madras. The super hit film ‘Chintamani’ (1937) lodged MKT firmly in Super Star status. During the period of World War II, MKT staged his plays & gave concerts to collect funds for Red Cross Society.

He was very popular in classical concert circuits when very many doyens ruled the roost in that field.

After ‘Haridas’ was released, MKT emerged as an unequalled singer-actor & in this pinnacle of his career he had to undergo a jail term of three years, along with N.S.Krishnan, though he had been booked for many more films by that time for which he had collected even signing amounts. When he was released from the jail by the higher court in London after three years of jail term, MKT started seeing decline. His own production ‘Rajamukthi’ also bombed. He passed away at his 49 in the year 1959.

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An ad for the film Haridas in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1943  PC: From the archives of TCRC

NS. Krishnan (NSK), the highly acclaimed ace comedian of Tamil Screen of forties & fifties, started his career too on stage. He joined The Original Boys Company in the year 1924, while he was very young. A year later in 1925 NSK joined the Drama Company, ‘Sri Bala Shanmukhanandha Sabha of TKS Brothers where he debuted in a play titled “Savithri”. Subsequently, he worked in various other dramas and donned a variety of roles.

His debut into cinema was through the film ‘Sathi Leelavathy’, produced by Gemini S. S. Vasan, as a comedian. However his debut film was released only in 1936, a year later than his second movie ‘Menaka’ (1935), in which TKS Brothers & K.T.Rukmini acted.  ‘Menaka’, based on a play by TKS Brothers, was shot on a schedule of three months at Ranjit Studios, Bombay. Menaka was the first film to use a Bharathiyar song in a movie. The producers were bold to do that despite there having been a ban on Bharathiyar’s works by the British Government.

Soon in his life he added T.A.Madhuram, a co artiste of par excellence, as his spouse, during the shooting schedule at Poona of the film ‘Vasantha Sena’, directed by Raja Sandow. The rest was history with this couple acting together in over 120 movies, as a pair, between 1936 and 1957.

NSK & Maduram were both singing actors. Towards the later part of his career he too was implicated in the Lakshmikantan murder case along with M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & had to undergo a prison term of thirty months.

N.S.Krishnan produced & directed the movie “Panam” (1952), after his release from jail term, in which he paired music directors Viswanathan & Ramanoorthy first time. Though Ramamoorthy was senior to Viswanathan, NSK decided to have Viswanathan’s name first due to phonetic reasons. And it stayed so!

He passed away in 1957 & few of his films were released much after his demise.

                                                                                                                                                           (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.

 

 

 

Filmy Ripples :Ghost voices of bygone era (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

You cannot accept or even imagine Indian Films without songs. Whether it is a romantic duet or a parody number or song with some philosophy engrained in it or even an off screen rendering in the backdrop of a visual, songs have thrived,to the enchantment of the movie goer. There are instances where the songs have outlived the memory of a film in which they featured. In contrast, western films had limited number of musicals like My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific where songs featured, as they were based on Broadway Musicals.

In the bygone days, the music came from those fragile vinyl records as they revolved under that magical pin! The success of Indian Cinemas’ music was amplified by the music companies such as HMV, Odeon, Columbia that published music, then. Out of these HMV fascinated me the most as a child, with its dog peering into the phonograph player, with inscriptions “His Master’s Voice”. In later adult years, I learnt that this logo was based on a painting by Francis Barraud, a Liverpudlian painter, with the same caption. Francis painted his late brother’s pet dog Nipper, as Nipper would run over to the phonograph and listen intently to the voice of his late master. In India, HMV became RPG when bought out by RP.Goenka Group and later came to be known as ‘Sa Re Ga Ma’.

In my childhood in the village, around late forties, I used to sprint to one of the neighbouring houses where a ‘thatha’ lived, to see & listen to his gramophone, as he played ‘oridam thannile’ song. Here is the video of the very song from the 1949 fim ‘Velaikkari’, sung by P.Leela & V.N.Janaki (wife of MGR) in the music of C.R.Subburaman & S.M.Subbiah Naidu.

In the initial days of Talkie Cinemas, it was a prerequisite that the main artistes had singing ability. Personalities such as M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.G.Kittappa, P.U.Chinnappa, Honnappa Bhagavathar, K.B.Sundarambal, M.S.Subbulakshmi, G.N.B, T.R.Rajakumari , T.R.Mahalingam, N.C.Vasanthakokilam were all singing stars. Most of them could travel to high altitude octave levels with ease. They had to be mostly loud in rendering as was the need of the recording technology available.

Somewhere, the play back artistes, who lent the actors their ghost voices, took avtar as a professional tribe in cinemas. That has a background too.

When AVM was making ‘Nandakumar’ he found a song rendered by the actress playing Krishna’s mother, Devaki was far from satisfactory. So he got an innovative spark of replacing the sound track of the song recorded by the actress with an external voice and shooting the song with the actress lips ‘sync’ing.  And he got cracking with that idea which finally worked. AVM commissioned a then prominent Carnatic musician of Bombay, Lalitha Venkataraman, to render the song. It worked, as the song was re-shot with the actress moving her lips to Lalitha Venkatraman’s singing. This is the origin of the playback system in Tamil cinema. Necessity, sure, is the mother of invention! It was a major breakthrough in those times, which practice is continuing with great tradition & aplomb even into these days of state of the art sound engineering.

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A still from a scene in the film Nandakumar published in the 1937 issue of Cine Art Review Magazine. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The current generation or even the immediately preceding one might not have had the opportunity of listening to the old Tamil film songs of fifties & prior, leave alone knowing the names of playback singers of those times? This writer has catalogued nearly seventy Tamil Film play back singers (some of them actors too) of sixties and the prior period extending back to thirties. These names, alphabetically, are: A.G.Ratnamala, A.L.Raghavan, A.M.Raja, A.P.Komala, A.S.Mahadevan, Balamurali Krishna, C.R.Subbaraman, C.S.Jayaraman, Chandrababu, D.K.Pattammal, G.N.Balasubramanyam, Gajalakshmi, Ganasaraswathi, Ghantasala, Hemant Kumar, Honnappa Bhagavathar, Jamunarani, Jesudas, Jikki, K.A.Chokkalinga Bhagavathar, K.B.Sundarambal, K.R.Ramasami, K.Rani, K.V.Janaki, K.Vijaya, Kanaka, Kothamangalam Seenu, L.R.Easwari, M.H.Hussain, M.L.Vasanthakumari, M.M.Dandapani Desikar, M.R.Santhanalakshmi, M.S.Rajeswari, N.S.Krishnan, Nagerkoil Mahadevan,  P.A.Periyanayaki, P.B.Srinivas, P.Bhanumathi, P.Leela, P.Suseela, P.U.Chinnappa, Pazhani Baghirathi, R.Balasaraswathi Devi, Radha Jayalakshmi, Raghunath Panigrahi, S.C.Krishnan, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, S.Varalakshmi, Sarangapani, Sirkazhi Govindarajan, Srinivasan, Sulamangalam Jayalakshmi, Sulamangalam Rajalakshmi, Sundari Bhai,T.A.Madhuram, T.A.Mothi, T.M.Soundararajan, T.R.Mahalingam, T.R.Rajakumari, T.R.Ramachandran, T.S.Bagaavathi, T.V Ratnam, Thavamani Devi, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Tiruchi Loganathan, U.R.Jeevarathinam, Udutha Sarojini, V.J.Varma, Vasundara Devi, V.N.Sundaram, V.Nagaiah, V.T.Rajagopalan, V.V.Sadagopan. Huff….even reading this long enumeration of singers of yesteryears makes one pant!

Here is another  popular song, in the lighter vein, “Oosi pattase” from the film ‘Digambara Samiyar’. (1950), in the voices of Gajalakshmi & V.T.Rajagopalan. The tune of this duet, between a young girl and her grandfather,  was inspired by a popular Hindi tune ‘O…..dilwalo!’. The music directors G.Ramanathan & S.M.Subbiah Naidu.

From the early talkie Tamil films and up till the fifties the film songs followed the classical Carnatic genre and there are gems among such compositions. Those days many senior music directors were employees of big Studios which owned orchestras.

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Music Director MD Parthasarathi with his orchestra at Gemini Studios. PC: unknown

AVM’s orchestra was known as Saraswathi Stores Orchestra. Even though these orchestras had many Western instruments like Trumpets, Clarinets & French Horns, besides typical desi instruments like Jaltharangam, Veena, Morsing, Hormonium, they all played Carnatic tunes. To say it all, in those days even the Madras Corporation had a Band consisting of Western Instruments playing songs like Chakkani Raja or Nagumo! There was also a famous private Brass Band in the old Madras known as Nadhamuni Bros. Band, which was, out and out, a Carnatic music band. This shows how strong the classical music had influence on general public.

It was only at the advent of MSV-TKR in the early fifties the cine music assumed a light music genre, which is why they were called Mellisai Mannargal. In fact, MSV-TKR duo stepped into main stream music direction when C.R.Subburaman died abruptly leaving unfinished music assignments. The era of MSV-TKR heralded a new chapter in Tamil film music. It was also the induction of musical instruments like Accordion, Dilruba, Bongos, Grand Piano, Spanish Guitar, Mandolin and the like into orchestration. They experimented with numerous genre of music. You could spot jazz, blues, samba, rock, cha cha cha and what not in some of their compositions. Their music never drowned the lyrics. Together they created magic through the voices of living legends for decades well into seventies. You need a dedicated write up to discuss their music.

In the early days they used the lyrics of celebrated personalities like Bharathiyar , Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Thayumanavar et al. Then there were composers of the tall order of Papanasam Sivan, Bharathi Dasan, Kalki Krishnamurthy. There were other well known lyricists such as Udumalai Narayana Kavi, Aroordas, Maruthakasi, Kamatchi sundaram, Thanjai Ramaiahdas, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram much before the later lyricists such as Kannadasan & Vaali.

Papanasam Sivan wrote many beautiful songs for films which are greatly remembered & revered. Mostly these were set to Carnatic tunes. Some of these, like ‘Maa Ramanan’ which was a cinema song, has come to be sung on Carnatic Stages even today. Papanasam Sivan’s Carnatic compositions were largely popularised by D.K.Pattammal & D.K.Jayaraman. Another interesting thing about Papanasam Sivan is, neither his name was Sivan nor was he from Papanasam. He was, in fact, born Polagam Ramaiah. His ‘mudra’ name in his compositions was ‘Ramadas’. He spent a lot of time in Papanasam, thereby adopting the “Papanasam” tag. Also, it was a tradition to address men of respect as Sivan in those days, this explains the suffix to his name. It is also said that there was lot of influence of Mahavaidyanatha Sivan, during his tenure at Trivandrum, on his compositions, thereby making Sivan as his second part of the name.

AVM used many songs of Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathi in their films such as Naam Iruvar, Vethala Ulagam, Ore Iravu, Vazhkai. The rights to Bharathiyar’s works were held by a gramaphone company owned by Surajmal & Sons which bought the rights for Six Hundred Rupees. Later AVM bought the rights from them for Ten Grand. It was at the instance of Omandur Ramasamy Reddy , who was the then Chief Minister of Madras Presidency between 1947 & 1949, AVM relinquished their rights.

Bharathidasan’s ‘Thunbam nergaiyil’ written by Bharathi Dasan as expression addressed to a child was used in AVM’s ‘Oar Iravu’ (1951) in the voices of M.S.Rajeswari & V.J.Varma and filmed in a situation of romance between lovers, played by Lalitha & Nageswara Rao

                                                                                                                                                              (to be continued)

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.

The First Kannada Talkie: “Sathi Sulochana” (1934)

Keeping in line with our focus on the regional cinemas of Southern India, we at TCRC bring to you a piece published by The Hindu in 2004, where historian Randor Guy writes about the first ever Kannada talkie film, “Sathi Sulochana.” It was released in 1934 and featured Rattihalli Nagendra Rao and MV Subbiah, who were popular theatre artists at that time. The film was directed by Yaragudipati Varada Rao, who cast himself in  an important role in the movie. YV Rao was also the director of “Chintamani,” the record-breaking Tamil film that was released in 1937. YV Rao’s “Chintamani” was the first Tamil film to run continuously for a year and is said to have played an important role in catapulting actor-singer MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to stardom.

In his piece on Sathi Sulochana, Randor Guy offers some very interesting trivia about the production of the movie:

Sathi Sulochana” took two months to be completed. Shooting was done in natural sun light and by using man-made reflectors. Shooting with artificial lighting in that town was difficult. Mirrors were carried by camera-assistants on their shoulders to reflect sunlight onto the set to provide back-lighting and the men had to keep moving, shifting the mirrors to be in alignment with the moving sun! The sets had no ceiling and were covered by a white cloth.”

MV Subbiah Naidu in “Sathi Sulochana” (1934), the first Kannada talkie

We at TCRC are proud to feature such gems from our illustrious history of cinema. Please feel free to write to tcrcindia[at]gmail[dot]com with your feedback and suggestions.