From Book to Celluloid : Valli Thirumanam

By Sugeeth Krishnamoorthy

Introduction: Of thousands of mythological stories passed on to us today by our ancestors, possibly no other story could have a more direct and closer bearing to us now than the story of Lord Muruga—who is the Native God of the ancient Tamil people. Valli Thirumanam tells the story of how Valli, a tribal girl, came to be Lord Murugan’s second wife. This story has been passed on orally through storytelling and staged plays, long before the print medium arrived. Even today, Valli Thirumanam continues to be one of the most popular plays in rural India, although, like most contemporary stages of its nature, they unfortunately smack of vulgarity,  rendering the ‘Bhakthi’ rather ineffective. Though, only a century ago, rural stage drama was an effective means for disseminating ‘Bhakthi’ propaganda and reaching out to the masses. it has sadly declined now.

Screenshot 2017-04-20 21.27.39.png

Valli Thirumanam by Shankardas Swamigal PC: unknown

Given its huge reach and its evolution over time, the story of Valli Thirumanam has undergone some minor changes here and there, the central theme—the challenges faced by Lord Muruga during his courtship of Valli—have been universally retained.

The play was also published in the literary form as well, and article reviews one such adaptation by Pammal Sammandha Mudaliar, for reference[1]. This play was published under the title ‘Valli Manam’ in the late 1930s. The second edition of this book was published in the year 1940. [2]

Story Synopsis : Nambirajan the tribal chief, fails to send Valli, his beautiful duaghter,  tend to the millet crops. The customary practice of the tribe is to send girls of marriageable age to look after and keep vigil on the crop, a portion of whose harvest is to be offered to Lord Subramanyam. The failure of tribal chief to carry out this duty is believed (by the Priest) to anger the Lord, which causes all crop to fail subsequently. Nambirajan, realising his folly, orders Valli, to leave for the forest immediately, taking her friend along. Valli requests Nambirajan to send the youngest of her elder brothers, ‘Kutti Anna’,along as well and the chief agrees. Kutti Anna, as we infer from the play, is possibly not of sound mind, and the playwright has modified this character’s dialogues[3] to infuse humour in the play.

During her sojourn, Lord Murugan appears in Valli’s dream and becomes the object of her affections. Firm in her love for him, she refuses to entertain other suitors. Lord Naradar who has come to earth, chances to hear a sweet voice and is surprised to discover that it belongs to a lovely girl albeit from the tribal community.[4] On enquiring he comes to know that Valli was born of noble birth to a deer that abandoned her in a tangle of creepers[5] immediately after birth. Nambirajan, who already had seven sons found her amidst the bushes and adoped her. In the past, Lord Murugan had helped Naradar, and so, as a token of gratitude, Naradar decides to offer Valli as a bride to the Lord as Guru Dakshina. When he reveals his plans to Valli, he is shocked at her downright refusal and at her claims of having fallen in love with a man who appeared in her dreams. Naradar vows to get Valli married to Murugan. Knowing that Murugan, already married to Deivanai (also proposed by him) would be alarmed at this second proposal, Narada goes armed with the plea that he has already taken a vow or sabatham and that it must be seen through. He prevails upon  Murugan to help him complete his sabatham, even if that means taking Valli against her own will.

To do so, Murugan then takes the avatar of a tribal hunter, who tries to woo Valli in the forest. When she doesn’t relent, he becomes a magic tree, and still later a lecherous old man whose every advance and proposal of marriage is rebuffed. Valli remains set in her adorations. praying to her Lord during every tribulation to protect her.

In the face of this failure, Lord Murugan seeks the blessing of his brother Vinayagar, hoping that this may help him achieve success. Assuming the guise of the ‘old man’ again, he invokes his brother who appears in the form of a wild rampaging elephant in the forests where Valli tends to her crop. Chased by the elephant, she calls out in fear to the Old Man. He promises to help on the condition that she marries him, to which she agrees, in desperation. Happy at having succeeded in his mission, he calls off the elephant (his brother), which vanishes.

When he seeks the reward of marriage, Valli, who has come out of her fear-crazed state,  refuses again. Defeated yet again, but not willing to give up yet, he goes against the rules of the game and recalls his brother in the form of the elephant, asking him to trouble her.

Vexed and helpless, Valli calls out to Lord Murugan for protection. Murugan, who can no longer ignore the earnest pleas of the unswervingly loyal Valli, makes the elephant, the ‘old man’ and the tree disappear and appears in their place, promising to take her away and marry her.

When Valli is chased by the Wild Elephant, she agrees to marry, and Murugan sends back the Elephant. She later refuses to marry him. This cannot happen, since Valli has given her word and promises could not be broken in Hindu mythology. So, here lies the catch.

When chased by the Wild Elephant, Valli says this out of fear – ‘Okay, I will marry’ ( She does not specify who to the ‘Old Man’, she only said that ‘she will marry’, and in her heart, she promises to marry only Lord Murugan). The happy old man sends back the elephant.

Later, when the Old man seeks her hand in marriage, she now says, I said ‘Okay, I will marry’ but did not say ‘Okay, I will marry you’.

So, technically, Valli has not broken her promise to the old man. It was the old man, who was fooled

When Valli seeks forgiveness for insulting the ‘hunter’ and the ‘old man’, he forgives her and sends her home. But he is not yet done with his trickery.

Taking another disguise, he goes to her father, the Tribal Chief, and warns of the schemes of a thief to kidnap his daughter. The Chief dispatches his sons to keep vigil. However, Murugan manages to steal into the house unnoticed (by the sleeping brothers) and takes off with Valli to Kazhagu Malai, setting the king and the brothers on a chase. Eventually, Murugan reveals himself to the family.

The family seeks his forgiveness, but Murugan refuses. He says that he is now the ‘son-in-law’ of the family and cannot forgive them, but will still be magnanimous enough of give them his blessings. Valli and Murugan are then married and live happily ever after.

Analysis : The story gives us elements of understanding of our own history. At some point in time, may be thousands of years ago, our ancestors were migrants. They were tribals and the concrete jungles in which we live today, were once agricultural lands and forests. In the play, we understand large forest lands are slowly being transformed into agricultural lands where ‘Thinai’ (millets) are grown. We surmise that lands were part of the forests as characters in the play mention the sight of wild animals like tigers, bears and wild elephants.[6]

The drama also reinforces the long accepted practice of polygamy. The happenings in this drama beg the questions: How could Lord Murugan, who was already married, accept another woman in his life? Why should Valli waive her rights to conjugal exclusivity, and share them with Deivanai? In the play, there is little attention given to Deivanai, and her reaction to this arrangement is only to be assumed as being favourable (as suggested by the fact that they all live together).[7] Naradar is not free of blame either, letting his ego overcome the fact that Lord Murugan was already married to a bride brought by him

The other aspect that is very clearly visible throughout the drama is the ‘male dominated society’ of its time. Murugan, Naradar, Vinayagar[8] are al male chauvinists at some level, and the women are accepting and submissive.

For instance, Valli seeks forgiveness to Lord Murugan, for shouting at his various avatars (the hunter, the tree and the old man), and Murugan graciously agrees to forgive her. But common sense says that it was in fact Murugan’s fault in the mater, and Valli was entirely innocent as she had no idea that it was her Lord Murugan taunting her. Logically, shouldn’t Murugan have sought Valli’s forgiveness?

This leads to the other interesting question. Why then, did Lord Murugan have to take various avatars to conquer Valli, and more importantly, taunt and frustrate her at various points? When he knew that Valli desired him, all that he needed to do was to go to her in his original form. Obviously, if that was so simple, there would be no story to begin with, so the author offers an explanation, which appears logical on the face of it:

Valli desires to marry Lord Murugan and tells Lord Naradar that she would marry only the man of her dreams. Now Murugan has to fulfill this wish of Valli. But Naradar, on being insulted by Valli’s outright rejection of his proposed (but undisclosed) suitor, vows to avenge his defeat. Without knowing who was actually inside Valli’s heart, he swore that Valli would end up marrying Lord Murugan and no one else. So, he goes to Lord Murugan and tells him that there is someone else in Valli’s heart, but he should conquer and marry her, come what may.[9] So, Lord Murugan, in order to appease both his devotees, has to play a balancing act wherein he has to take on various guises to taunt Valli (to humour Narada), but finally appears as himself (the only guise Valli recognises) to ask for Valli’s hand in marriage. He thereby fulfills the wishes of both Valli and Naradar making it a win-win situation for them.

Scientific Approach Analysis : “Valli Thirumanam’ can also be explained through a more scientific approach. By the standards of her time, Valli was definitely a ‘hot headed’ and  independent woman, who insisted on choosing her own life partner. It was natural therefore that the ablest of the opposite sex would fight it out and the winner would be the one chosen to produce through marriage the finest (healthiest) offspring. So, there is the need for an alpha-male in this context. Here, Lord Murugan plays that role.

The alpha-male ( Lord Murugan) must seduce and subdue ‘unyielding, stubborn, and egoistical’ female ( Valli) and win her over, all the while demonstrating his superior prowess through song, lyricality, poetics and histrionics, and heroism to convey his (physiological and reproductive) superiority as a suitor

Film Versions : Valli Thirumanam has been adapted many times to the film format. The iconic R.Natraja Mudaliar made the play a silent film in the early 1920s. It was made into a ‘Talkie’ in the year 1933. It was made as a film in the 60s, as well, but for this analysis, we chose the film ‘Sri Valli’ made by A.V. Meiyappan in the year 1945. Although the film bears a slightly different name, the core elements of the film are the same.

Image.jpg

Valli Thirumanam (1933) an ad from The Indian Express archives

T.R. Mahalingam plays the lead role of Lord Muruga, while the role of Valli is played by Kumari Rukmini[10]. The film’s script retains basic elements of the legendary script.

In the film, the hunting party of the tribal chief finds an abandoned baby girl. The chief picks up the girl and adopts her. The girl grows up into a charming maiden, who is subsequently sent to the Thinaipunam[11] —to tend to the chief’s crop —along with her friend and her youngest, elder brother ‘Kutti Anna’ ( also called ‘Killi’ in the film version.) This role was essayed by the legendary comedy actor T.R. Ramachandran, whose clever emoting and body language, suited the role ( of a man of stunted emotional and intellectual development) to a T.

The aspects of Lord Naradar meeting Valli, the subsequent challenges, Lord Murugan’s avatars as the hunter, the  magic tree and the lecherous old man have more or less been retained in the corresponding scenes of the film version. The film provides additional weightage to the scene where Valliis been chased by the wild elephant—a classic AVM company marketing strategy. There are minor changes to the script. For example, in the scenes where the Chief sees Valli with another man, feels ashamed and puts her in prison; where Lord Murugan rescues her, slays his pursuers (using his divine powers), and then revives them upon Valli’s earnest appeals; and where the chief then humbly requests Lord Murugan to accept his daughter in marriage, which Lord Murugan does.

The movie ends with the marriage of Murugan to Valli  and a still frame of Murugan with Valli and Deivanai, on either side.

Additional Commercial Elements in Film :

  1. Songs and Aesthetics: A film made on this scale should naturally have additional filler elements, unlike a stage play. The songs rendered by the lead pairs were great hits. In fact, the ‘Meiyyadha maan’ song is very popular even today. [12] The ‘Mayile Thoothu Sellaiyo’ song is also quite pleasant to hear. The scenes with the Thinaipunam set in a large tract of forest land is convincing and aesthetically pleasing as the studio sets have been designed to simulate large swathes of open land, with accents such as birds, like the peacock, which elevates it even further. Fortunately for us, a good print of this film has survived, the viewing of which will surely help us appreciate the film better.
  2. Comedy Track: In the original play, ‘Kutti Annan’ has no romantic interest, but in the film version, there is an attempt to create a love interest for him, in the form of Valli’s friend who is part of her entourage. Also part of this story line are the almost invariable comedy couple fixtures of T.R. Mathuram and N.S. Krishnan. Subamma (T.R.Mathuram) plays the role of a sanskaari woman who lives in wait for her athai paiyan[13], despite knowing that he is in love with Valli. Later, he realises his folly and with the help of Lord Muruga, he marries Subamma.
  3. Bharathanatyam: The late ‘30s saw a political and cultural movement strongly in favour of reviving Bharatanatyam[14]. Baby Kamala[15] had come to become the symbol of this revival in film. So, Bharatanatyam was used in many films, mainly as an additional commercial element, even if it had no logical bearing to the original script of the film. In this film, Kamala plays the role of the younger Valli, who performs Bharatanatyam to a song in the film,[16] although how a girl born and bred in a tribal community with no exposure to the art could do so, obviously defies logic.

Valli’s characterisation in the film: Consistent with that in the play, Valli’s portrayal is that of an  egoistic, dominant and an arrogant female in the film. In fact, she even calls the Vedan (Hunter) ‘da’ in retaliation when he called her ‘di’. Valli’s nature is accentuated by using Subamma’s polar opposite character as a foil. Subamma is very submissive, and the suggestive lyrics that she sings out also tells us about her, when she calls out to her Machaan (N.S.Krishnan) and tells him “I will even behave like a prostitute ( if need be) and enhance your pleasure”[17]. So possibly, the question being posed in the perspective of a male (chauvinist) of the time could have been, “if Subamma could be like this, why should Valli be like that?”, thereby adding more weight to Valli’s character in the film.

The film presents a great opportunity for us to understand various facets of life, not only of our own past, but of early Tamil cinema, of society and its thinchief. Since, the copyright of the film has possibly expired, the film can be seen on public access websites like YouTube. [18]

REFERENCES:

[1] Another version of ‘Valli Thirumanam’ available on the Internet has been penned by the legendary playwright— Sankaradas Swamigal. This version, along with the original song couplets which were played on stage, can be downloaded from the Tamil Heritage Foundation website: http://www.tamilheritage.org/old/text/ebook/ebook.html

[2] The book is available for free download on the ‘Internet Archive’, as the copyright of the book has likelu expired.

[3] While all the characters speak in Literature based Tamil, Kutti Anna speaks in Local Madras Bashai. “Annathai’ instead of ‘Anna’ for example. The character has now been replaced on stage by a dedicated buffoon.

[4] Elements of Racism – Naradar cannot believe that a girl from the Tribal community look so divine and have such a sweet voice.

[5] Valli Kodi (creeper)

– Hence, she was named Valli.

[6] Valli was once chased by a wild elephant, and ever since was in fear of wild elephants. Lord Murugan uses the knowledge of her fear to his advantage while seeking her marriage.

[7] Through an equivalent form of ‘divorce’ or otherwise.

[8] Who agrees to come in the form of a wild elephant and frighten Valli.

[9] Again, another example of male chauvinism— Naradar felt that upholding his vow of marrying Valli to Murugan, to preserve his ego, was more important than Valli’s desire to marry someone of her own choice.

[10] Actress Lakshmi’s mother.

[11] Forest Lands, where Thinai ( Millet) was grown.

[12] This song has even been satirised in local TV Programs that offer stand-up comedy.

[13] First Maternal cousin— It is customary for maternal cousins to marry amongst themselves in Tamilnadu.

[14] The political movement was launched against Devadasi women, who had allegedly added erotic elements to a traditionally pure dance form and polluted it. The advocates of the Anti-Nautch movement wanted to bring the Devadasi girls to mainstream society and purify and restore the dance as a symbol of culture and Bhakti. This has been described in the ‘Sevasadanam’ article.

[15] Baby Kamala was a child prodigy and her Bharatanatyam skills were used extensively.

[16] The older Valli ( Kumari Rukmini) also performs Bharathanatyam in this film.

[17] The phrase Daasiyai Pol Nadandhu Inbam Kooduven in the song ‘Amman Maganai Nee Aati Vekira’ is a typical male chauvinistic song.

[18]Film Viewing Link—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oCVp7BDvkM

Advertisements

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.

TKS bros.jpg

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’.

Pammal_Sambandha_Mudaliar

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

Manonmani.jpg

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.

Pavalakodi

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)

 

Filmy Ripples : Tamil Cinema’s evolution from Theatre (Part 1)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

Tamil cinema was literally born in 1910, with the release of the first silent ‘Tamil’ film ‘Keechaka Vadham’, produced, directed, shot and edited by R. Nataraja Mudaliar, known today as the father of Tamil cinema. The film was based on an episode from the epic Mahabharata & was received very well.

It is said that Nataraja Mudaliar met one Stewart Smith, a cinematographer from Britain who was then filming a documentary on Lord Curzon & learnt the basics of cinematography from him. Later, in 1915, Mudaliar also established South India’s first film studio at Purasawalkam, Madras. In this first silent Tamil movie, stage artistes of that time, Raju Mudaliar and Jeevarathnam played the roles of Keechaka and Draupadi respectively. The cost of this 600 feet length film is said to be Rs. 35,000, then considered expensive. The production was completed in just five weeks, with Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar writing the screenplay.

download.jpg

Nataraja Mudaliar PC: unknown

Some sixteen long years later, ‘Kalidas’ was the first Tamil Talkie film (shot at Bombay) to be released in October 1931 on Diwali Day, as produced by Ardeshir Irani & directed by H.M.Reddy.  P. G. Venkatesan and T. P. Rajalakshmi did the lead roles in the movie, which, though principally in Tamil, also contained additional dialogues in Telugu and Hindi.

When the film reels arrived by train at Madras Central Station from Bombay, thousands flocked there to follow the reel box, showering flowers all the way to Kinema Central, the theatre where it was screened (later known as Murugan Theatre).

However, according to Randor Guy, Kalidas was a “crude experiment” with poor lip sync. Despite the numerous technical flaws the film had, it received critical acclaim & became a major commercial success. I understand, no print of this landmark talkie film is available now.

raaga_13027_imagehtmlcontent_0

PC: unknown

It is a relevant point to ponder here, as to how, when the films took avatar as above, did the film ‘industry’ then get their actors! Well, the actors for cinema were sourced from stage plays. The evolution narrated below would explain the anthology in that regard.

The stage plays had their antecedent in street plays literally called ‘theru koothu’, which, as a form of entertainment, has its origins to the Sangam periods of Tamil Nadu & forms part of its ancient Tamil culture. The subjects of Koothu have been from religion or history. Even today ‘therukoothu’ happens in rural areas particularly on special days or during temple festivals. With Its informal dance structure, therukoothu depicted scenes with little dialogues but with abundant songs, often sung by Artists in their own voice. They were dressed in complex heavy costumes and bright elaborate makeup. Males often played even female characters.

Over the time, stage plays got evolved. In Tamil Nadu there were formidable stage play troupes some of which created artistes who became to be absorbed as cine actors, when cinema appeared. As such the early cine actors had the characteristic that profiled characteristic stage actors with stopping dialogue delivery, often loud. There seems to have been seamless supply of actors to cinema, this way, as there was no other institutionalized training places like Film Institutes!

In the bygone era, many renowned Drama Companies such as Madurai Bala Meena Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Sri Bala Shanmukananda Sabha, Kannaiyar Company, Madirai Sridevi Bala Vinodha Sabha, Tiruchi Rasika Ranjani Sabha kept the flag flying high in the field of Tamil Dramatics and produced great Artistes like S.G.Kittappa, K.B.Sundarambal, T.K.S.Brothers, N.S.Krishnan, KaLi.N.Rathnam, K.P.Kesavan, K.K.Perumal, K.P.Kamatchi, P.U.Chinnappa, M.G.Ramachandran, S.V.Sahasranamam, M.V.Mani, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & many more.

There were personalities like Sankaradas Swamigal & Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar who brought dignity to stage plays, in which people from respectable backgrounds did not part take in the prior period. They gave grammar to the stage and in their own way institutionalized play stages with astute discipline.

playwrights-tks

Sankardas Swamigal PC: unknown

Sankaradas Swamigal, who is largely considered as the father of Tamil Theatre, started in 1910 his own drama company known as ‘Samarasa Sanmarga Nataka Sabha’. It was here that the legendary actor S.G.Kittappa learnt his ropes. Around this time, the concept of “Boys Company” – some sort of Gurukula System was slowly gaining popularity. In this system, boys stayed together residentially and learnt under masters of drama.

Sankaradas Swamigal was involved with Bala Meena Ranjani Sangeetha Sabha which had on its rolls several boys who would go on to become subsequently big names in the world of theatre and cinema, such as Nawab T.S.Rajamanickam, M.R.Radha, S.V.Venkatraman and K.Sarangapani. Swamigal thus had the privilege & distinction of having mentored several stalwarts.

In 1918, Swamigal with likeminded few started his own Boys Company, ‘Tattva Meenalochani Vidwat Bala Sabha’. It was here that the celebrated T.K.S. Brothers were brought under the tutelage of Swamigal. T.K.Shanmugam, who was later known as “Avvai Shanmugam’ (Lloyds Road was renamed after him as Avvai Shanmugam Road) was the favorite of Swamigal.

Swamigal maintained very strict discipline and kept vigil over his wards against any vices and any violators were reprimanded.

In short, Sankaradas Swamigal was a one man institution in those days, which, should we say, was unknowingly emulated by later institutionalized training formats such as Film Institute or other acting schools?

                                                                                                                                                            (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.