From Book to Celluloid: Sevāsādanam

TCRC welcomes our next contributor Mr.Sugeeth Krishnamoorthy who will be penning the series, From Book to Celluloid which will be focusing on important films that were adapted from literature.The first in this series is on the film Sevāsādan.  – Editor

The early part of the 20th Century saw several changes take place in India.During this time,  the ‘Freedom Movement’ intensified against the British with the rise of ‘nationalism’,  ‘social reforms’ were debated deeply, a ‘cultural renaissance’ took place in several forms, and post-independent India started becoming a tangible reality.

Munshi Premchand’s novel Bazaar Ka Husn ( also called Sevasadan) deals with a host of social problems of its time, with ‘prostitution’ being its focal point. Premchand’s earlier novel Godaan had similarly dealt with social issues, but those typically concerned with land ownership and agricultural labour such as the exploitation of rural peasants. Sevāsādan, however, focusses more on an urban environment. Both novels involve deep debates around the multitutde of problems faced by society at that time, and look at these problems through various lens— Nationalistic, Sociological, Philosophical’and Practical. Issues like child-marriage, the dowry system and prostitution are discussed in detail in Sevāsādan.

Suman who is well brought up by her father, ends up in an unhappy marriage due to an unfortunate turn of circumstances, after her father is sent to jail. She moves to the city with her husband and has to live in challenging financial circumstances. Due to a series of fateful events in and around her life, and after she is cast out of her home by her husband, she turns to prostitution for survival.

The story deals with the challenges that Suman faces from leaving behind her ‘life of luxury’ to coming back to a normal ‘life of respect’. How did society and her own family members react when she came back? What was it that she lost, and what did she gain?

From a social perspective, the story is not just Suman’s. It speaks of a hypocritical society at that time, which cursed women who went into prostitution, but encouraged their use not only in the entertainment of the dissolute rich but also in for sanctimonious ritualism in auspicious events.

Behind closed doors, these women were desired by rich men who earned money using unethical means and splurged it on them. This group of people opposed the Anti-Nautch movement. The society at large, preferred to ‘ostracize’ these women, and did not give them a chance at rehabilitation.

There was another prevalent view. Many ‘prostitutes’ were exponents of art and culture, typically in the performing arts. The Mujra dance form had been patronized by the Mughal rulers, just as the “Devadasis” , who were exponents of the ‘Bharatha Natyam’, were patronized by South Indian rulers and temple authorities. However, with time, when the power of the Kings and the Temple declined under the British monarchy, thousands of women from these communities had to resort to common prostitution for survival. Yet, it was these very women who were summoned to perform the classical arts at weddings and ceremonies, supposedly for the advancement of culture and tradition, but were privately used to entertain male patrons in a more overtly erotic manner.

So, those supporting the Anti-Nautch movement were faced not just with the challenge of reforming the women indulging in prostitution and giving them a better life, but also with the re-purification of the cultural and artistic mores associated with them.

The main characters of the original book are Suman —who as a prostitute is known as ‘Suman Bai’—and lawyer Padam Singh, who takes immense trouble to reform prostitutes and reintegrate them into civil society. Then there are others: Suman’s father who goes to prison for a crime committed in a fit of anger, leaving the family orphaned; a loving uncle who takes care of Suman and her sister Shanta until their marriage; Bholi, a prostitute, who introduces Suman to Dalmandi —the market place—when she has no one to turn to for help; Padam Singh’s nephew, Sadan, who is a spoilt brat, who loiters around Dalmandi; and Padam Singh’s wife Subhadra. There are also other minor characters, Hindu and Muslim administrators, who carry forth debates on social change and their implementation.

Sevasadanam was translated and published in Anantha Vikatan magazine by Ambujamma, a supposed social worker. Director K. Subrahmanyam substantially modified the script from the eponymous book to suit the film version.

sevasadanam

PC: mstribute.org

The replacement of the Mujra culture for a south Indian  counterpart must have been easy for the director as there was a parallel social movement in South India against the ‘Dasi’ system.The elements that formed the crux of the original book – the extended debates around the socio-cultural problems faced by Society and measures needed to eradicate them—have mostly been excised, possibly because it would have been difficult to make them visually engaging. Instead, K Subrahmanyam focuses entirely on the human elements of the story, and cuts out the philosophical and ‘debate’ oriented elements.

Subrahmanyam has taken the liberty of adapting the screenplay to suit the sensibilities of a South Indian audience. For instance, he changes Suman’s character to Sumathi  (M.S.Subbulakshmi) gets married to a much older man, Eswara Sarma ( F.G.Natesa Iyer), a departure from the original story but an important statement on an equally important social problem of its time.  Secondly, he  introduces a new character, Gundamma, Eswara Sarma’s sister who constantly taunts Sumathi.

Vakeel Padmanabha Iyer’s character is more or less the same as the character played by Padam Singh, and his wife Subhadra (Jayalakshmi Varadachariar’s swan song)  retains the original name.[1]Subrahmanyam introduces another character, Suguna, who is the daughter of the prostitute Kamalesh Kumari—possibly an analogous character to Bholi.

Sumathi is continuously harassed in her house, by her husband Eswara Sarma and her sister-in-law. She is given moral support by Vakeel Padmanabha Iyer and his wife, Subadra. On suspecting her fidelity one day, Padmanabha Iyer throws Sumathi out of the house. Later, he learns about the evil ways of his sister and in disgust tears his sacred thread.2 Sumathi later becomes ‘Sumathi Bai’, resulting in the cancellation of her sister Shanta’s marriage,as in the original,.

But from here on, Subrahmanyam seems to have diverged in some aspects. The book features Suman’s husband becoming a fakir and spreading the message of cultural reform. However, in the film, Eswara Sarma is seen to have become the leader of a Nationalist movement called ‘Desa Sevika’. Sumathi, her sister Shanta, and Kamalesh Kumari come together to start ‘Sevasadan’, a home to look after destitudes and orphan girls.

In the original, Shanta gets married to Sadan and Suman is forced to leave her home, leaving her lonely and abandoned, questioning her very own existence. What happened to Suman later, forms the underlying theme of the story.

The film was the second in a trilogy of social and Nationalist films made by ace Director K. Subrahmanyam—Balayogini  (in Tamil and Telugu), Sevasadan and then Thyagabhoomi. In this film, the director introduced several iconic actors like M.S.Subbulakshmi, F.G.Natesa Iyer, S.Varalakshmi (who played Kamal Hasan’s mother in Guna) and Seethalakshmi (the widow who played Gundamma)[3].

According to Anantha Vikatan[4], the film also introduced for the first time, playback recording of songs[5].

There are several reports available on the internet that cite Sevasadanam as a ‘critical and commercial’ success. This is untrue as. K. Subrahmanyam himself admitted, in an interview, that although the film was a ‘critical success’, it was a commercial failure.[6]

Most unfortunate, however, is the fact that no copy of this film is known to exist. Reviews of the films can be found here and there, and usually no more than 2 to 3 pages. Most of the information published has been ‘rehashed’ over and over, with possibly nothing new. It is for this reason that the primary book reference becomes more important, giving immense depth to each aspect of its film version. Reading the book and then the film reviews patiently gives the viewer a better understanding of the film, which, we can only hope, resurfaces from some hidden corner of the earth, to give us a glimpse into our own past.

REFERENCES:

[1] ‘I Won’t do it Again’ – Jayalakshmi Varadachariar – Talk A Tone October 1944 – NFAI – Jayalakshmi Varadachariar explains her disillusionment with Films and says that she will never act again.

2 This scene apparently raised a storm by the ‘conservatives’ against K.Subrahmanyam, compounded by the director showing, for the first time, a real widow playing a role on screen.

3 There are some reports that say that the widow was first introduced in Balayogini.

4 Anantha Vikatan 8-5-1938

5 Prior to this, songs were recorded live. The orchestra played the music, while the actors sang the songs themselves. This was the reason that early cinema featured legendary singers like M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.D.Subbulakshmi and P.U.Chinnappa as actors.

6 “Mythology – A Missionary of Hindu Religion” – Director K. Subrahmanyam Speaks Out, TALK A TONE, Nov. 1943 – NFAI.

OTHER LINKS :

  1. Sevasadan Book Link :- https://www.amazon.in/Sevasadan-Munshi-Premchand-ebook/dp/B01N5OCM1J?_encoding=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0&deviceType=desktop&redirect=true
  2. NFAI – National Film Archive of India, Pune.
  3. Sevasadam Songs – http://mio.to/album/Sevasadanam+(1939)
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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.

mkt

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.

dandapani-desigar

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.

 

 

 

Centenary Birthday of M.S.Subbulakshmi

On 16th September The Hindu Metro plus paid a tribute to M.S.Subbulakshmi , the actor to commemorate her centenary birthday. The article written by Srinivasa Ramanujam states : ‘ Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, or MS, as she is popularly known, was a musical genius. But there was another side to her; she was also an actor, having essayed fine performances in the films she was part of. Today, on her birth anniversary, we take a look at those projects… ‘

Have a look at the full article with the pictures here.

Meanwhile we have been busy at our archives and we found an advertisement of the film Savitri where MS played Naradar, A male character. The ad was found in the supplement of the Tamil Magazine Ananda Vikatan dated 12-10-41.

savitri