Vietnam Veedu : From Stage to Celluloid

By Karthik  Bhatt

Monikers over a period of time become so deeply entrenched with one’s identity that it becomes impossible to identify the person without it. While Sundaram may not ring a bell readily, Vietnam Veedu Sundaram would immediately bring to mind the successful stage and cine writer from the 1960s and 1970s. This post on the film that gave him his identity.

Born in Trichy in 1940, Sundaram came to Chennai around 1955. His formal education had been cut short by poverty. Perhaps as an indicator of how his life would unfold, he found accommodation with and company of two others at the famed Club House in T Nagar (opposite the Siva Vishnu temple) who were already on their way to becoming well-known names in the tinsel world, Nagesh and Srikanth.  He joined the Dunlop Tyre Company as a machine operator even when their factory was under construction on a night shift.

It was around this time that the world of Tamil theatre was undergoing a transition of sorts.  A new order so to speak was developing, with the era of professional drama troupes (made up of members with acting as their chosen profession) slowly giving way to amateur troupes, where members juggled their day jobs with theatre. One of the earliest such troupes to be founded was the United Amateur Artistes (UAA) by YG Parthasarathy and N Padmanabhan (Pattu). It had its genesis in 1952, ironically in the tennis lawns of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha!

A chance encounter with YG Parthasarathy resulted in Sundaram becoming a part of UAA. He soon became an integral part of the support cast, taking care of costumes and set properties. His role included that of a copywriter for Pattu, who wrote the scripts for the troupe. Y.Gee.Mahendra in an interview recalls that Sundaram would unobtrusively add a few dialogues of his own, which would be retained as they were so good. Then came the script that would propel Sundaram to fame.

Vietnam Veedu was Sundaram’s first full length play. It dealt with the story that contrasted the pre and post retirement life of an honest company executive, Prestige Padmanabha Iyer and his family. Those were the days when retirement was looked upon as an event that brought about with it significant changes in lifestyle and was considered ominous, especially if there were family obligations still to be fulfilled by the householder. On completing the script, Sundaram took it to his mentor YG Parthasarathy in the hope that it could be staged by UAA. Much to his dismay, it did not find favour with him and it seemed that the script would remain on the shelves. Destiny would have other plans though.

The script caught the attention of Sivaji Ganesan, who by then had risen to great heights as one of Tamil cinema’s biggest stars. His passion for stage had remained undiminished though and he continued to be a busy drama artiste running his own troupe, the Sivaji Nataka Manram. Impressed by the script and its dialogues, he decided to stage the play. In his biography Enathu Suyasarithai he says that he was so impressed by the dialogues that he spoke them verbatim and did not improvise them, as he was prone to do at times. Yet another interesting incident he narrates in his biography is from the inauguration of the play. The first scene had Prestige Padmanabha Iyer paying tribute to the supreme sacrifice and love of his mother who had worked at a hotel, grinding batter and bringing him up with great difficulty. Sivaji Ganesan says that the moment he spoke the dialogue, he heard the sound of a person sobbing in the audience. It was SS Vasan, the boss of Gemini Studios, who was reminded of his mother who had brought him up under similar circumstances. At yet another staging, a visibly moved Vasan went up to Sivaji Ganesan’s father who was in the audience went up to him and hugged him.

The play was a resounding success and Ananda Vikatan published the entire play in a series of issues. Its success meant that it was not long before it was made into a movie. Produced by Sivaji Ganesan under his own banner Sivaji Productions, it was directed by P Madhavan and was released in 1970.

Vietnam Veedu Sundaram’s went on to write successful scripts for UAA such as Kannan Vandhaan (which was made into a movie as Gauravam) and Nalamdhaana.

Vietnam Veedu_SB

Song Book of Vietnam Veedu PC: Archives of TCRC

Vietnam Veedu2

A still from the film Vietnam Veedu PC: Archives of TCRC


Filmy Ripples: Train spotting in cinema (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

A major, gory train accident happened in November 1956, in real life, involving Tuticorin Express at Ariyalur near Trichy. This left 142 passengers dead and 110 injured, with many more missing, their bodies never to be recovered. Torrential rains had swollen the river Maruthaiyar to a level where the waters almost touched the rails on the railway bridge near Ariyalur, causing flash floods.

In fact, Sri. Lal Bahadur Sastri, who was then the Railway Minister even resigned on moral grounds.

The filmmaker T. Prakasa Rao rushed his crew to the scene of Ariyalur train accident and shot much footage, which he included into his Tamil movie, ‘Madhar Kula Manickam’ (meaning ‘Gem among women’) starring Gemini Ganesan & Savithri in the lead, released the same year. This movie was based on Rabindranath Tagore’s story ‘The Wreck’. Later, S. S. Vasan remade this film in Hindi as ‘Gharana’ which turned out to be a big hit.

(Watch the real footage of the train wreck after the 39th minute in the below video from the film Madhar Kula Manickam)

‘Neelagiri Express’ (1968) was a successful thriller movie involving a train journey, whose screenplay was written by Cho. Jayashankar, Asokan, Vijaya Laltha were among the prominent actors besides Cho. The movie was a remake of Malayalam movie ‘Cochin Express’, which was also remade in Telugu & Kannada. The Hindi version ‘The Train’ had Rajesh Khanna as its hero.


A song book of Neelgiri Express. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The scene in ‘Thillana Mohanambal’, where Sikkal Shanmugasundaram  & Danseuse Mohanambal travel with their parties aboard a train cannot be forgotten. The old wooden coaches of Indian Railways featured in the sequence were fitting to the film, set to some early period in time.

The movie ‘Raman ethanai Ramanadi’ (1970) too had a song ‘Chithirai madham pournami neram’ by P.Suseela, filmed aboard a train by Director P.Madhavan. Penned by Kannadasan, the music for this song was set by MSV to the chugging of a steam train, complete with its long whistles.

Coming back, to later films you may recall the flash dance performed by Kamal Hasan and troupe in the Tirumayilai Rapid Transit Station in the film ‘Avvai Shanmukhi’ or the dramatic interactions in ‘Anbe Sivam’ between Kamal & Madhavan at Pollachi Junction? Who could forget those intense dramatic scenes shot in Railway Stations or Rail crossing gates (Moonram Pirai, Puthiya Paravai)?

Bharathiraja’s ‘KIzahkke pogum rayil ‘, which debuted Radhika, is still remembered for its hero and heroine communicating through their graffiti on the rear of the last van.


Song book of Kizhake Pogum Rail. PC: From the archives of TCRC

In the film Thalapathi the train played mother to none other than Superstar Rajinikanth, as Srividya abandoned her baby in a goods train, as the haunting melody ‘Chinna thaay aval, thanga raasa’ played off screen. The wailing whistle of the train in the opening of the song, indeed, added much dramatics to the pathos.

In another Mani Ratnam film ‘Alai Pauyuthe’, suburban trains and railway stations figure as major locations, as the hero waits at a railway station every morning to catch a glimpse of the heroine. In ‘Gentleman’, the song chikku bukku raile is dedicated to trains.

The ever popular ‘thaiya thaiya’ song & dance sequence filmed atop a moving Nilgiri Mountain Rail is ever remembered from the film ‘Uyire’.

In Gautam Menon’s ‘Vinnai thandi varuvaya’ the leading pair is shown to share their first moment of intimacy in a train journey.  Even in the recent ‘Kakka Muttai’ the child workers are shown collecting coal pieces strewn around the Basin Bridge yard for a living.

The recent movie ‘Thodari’ featured Dhanush as a Railway pantry worker.

The list is endless, as many more instances of bondage of trains to Tamil films.

The Train related sequences dominated many Hindi films too, to name a few, in random order: Dil Se, Ajnabee (old), Chennai Express, Aashirwad, Dost, Kaala Bazaar, DIl tho Pagal Hain, Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge, Kuch kuch hota hain, Bunty aur Babli, Julie, Sholay, Burning Train, Kitaab, Mera Naam Joker, Pakeeza, Professor, Waqt, Railway Platform, Toofan Mail (1934), Aap ki kasam, Coolie etc.

Some of the memorable songs that featured in old Hindi films were shot on trains, to name a few: ‘Uparwala jaan hain’ (Kaala Bazaar),  ‘Main chali main chali’ (Professor), ‘Gaadi bulaa rahi hain’ (Dost), ‘Hum dono hain premi’ (Ajnabee). Whereas the immortal song ‘Chalte chalte’ rendered by Lata & filmed on late Meena Kumari (her last movie) in the cult classic film Pakeeza (1972), which was in production for sixteen years, had the hallmark wailing whistle call of a passing steam engine at the end of the song, bringing great emotions to the fore, as set in the storyline.

The Hollywood had its share of romance with trains & locomotives as the following long list of films would suggest: Skyfall, From Russia with Love, French Connection, Spiderman 2, Strangers on a Train, A Passage to India, Bowani Junction, Gandhi, Murder on the Orient Express, The lady vanishes, Arizona Express, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cassandra Crossing, Murder she said, 39 steps, North by North West, Von Ryan Express, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Bridge on the River Kwai.

The modern film making even permits the real bogey visuals being replicated by CGI (computer-generated imagery) capabilities. But that’s a different story.

There is an exclusive overseas company by name ‘train chartering’ which provides total solutions to film shoots, whether movie, TV or Ad. Films. They provide train and rail locations & offer consultancy for filming on a Train or Railway Station anywhere in UK, Europe & America, their services spanning Locations, Sourcing trains, carriages, delivering Train carriages to non-railway sites such as studios etc. They claim to have Trains and carriages from 19th century onwards.

The Indian Railways seem undeterred in encashing its popularity among filmmakers, as they recently hiked the hire charges on special trains (of four coaches and one Semi luggage van with a distance cap of 200 km) for film shooting purposes to a whopping      Rs. 4.74 lakhs per day.

The obsession of film makers to trains will only continue to grow and, may be, in times to come, there may even be films shot on the ensuing Bullet Train in India!

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