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.

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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.

Aryamala

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.

Haridas

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)

 

Sabapathy: From stage to celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

The next in our series from ‘stage to celluloid’ we discuss one of Tamil cinema’s earliest full length comedies, Sabapathy.

The film, which was released in 1941 was produced by A.V.Meiyappa Chettiar and directed by A.T.Krishnaswamy. The plot was based on Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar’s play by the same name.

In his autobiography Naadaga Medai Ninaivugal, Sambandha Mudaliar says that Sabapathy was the first farce that he wrote. The story, which revolved around a young, rich (and not so intelligent) zamindar and his foolish servant (both named Sabapathy) was first written in 1906. Sambandha Mudaliar writes that the inspiration for the servant was derived from observing the man Fridays of a few friends. In particular, he credits Narasimhan, the personal assistant of his close friend V.V.Srinivasa Iyengar, the noted lawyer for having served as the base to building the character! He also acknowledges the influence of Handy Andy, the famous book written by Samuel Lover where the character could do nothing right.

The story was written in eight parts, each of which was capable of being staged as a separate stage play. Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar himself played the role of the zamindar, while many of his troupe members donned the role of the servant. So popular was the play that it continued to be staged even after the movie had released and had become a huge success. Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar writes of an interesting incident in 1944, where he, aged 71 years at that time had to appear in the role of zamindar for a scene during a staging to raise funds for the Thondaimandala Thuluva Vellalar School on Mint Street.

The movie had T.R.Ramachandran and Kali N.Ratnam (both of them from stage backgrounds) playing the roles of the zamindar and the servant respectively. Having zeroed in on the choice of T.R.Ramachandran to play the role of zamindar, A.V.Meiyappa Chettiar brought him to Sambandha Mudaliar for his approval, which was given after a brief test of his capability to do justice to the role. Kali N.Ratnam was a well-known actor and vaadhyar who served with the Madurai Original Boys Company, earning the prefix of Kali thanks to his portrayal of the Goddess in a play about Kannagi. Amongst those who trained under him were P.U.Chinnappa and M.G.Ramachandran. The female lead was played by R.Padma (a Lux soap model!) while C.T.Rajakantham was paired opposite Kali N.Ratnam. The Kali N.Ratnam-Rajakantham partnership was a successful one and featured in several movies. C.T.Rajakantham was alive until the 1990s and even acted in the popular Marmadesam (Vidaadha Karuppu) serial.

The movie is a delight to watch even a good seven decades after its release thanks to the simple comedy and great characterisation of the actors.

Randor Guy’s article on the movie can be accessed here

Here is a popular 9 minute segment from the film.