Filmy Ripples: Dancing Queens of Tamil Screen (Part 1)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

Dance and Tamil cinema have had a long association. And when you talk of early period Tamil movies mostly the dances were in classical Bharatanatyam format, choreographed by veteran gurus such as Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and the like.

About a hundred years ago, the dance was performed only by professional dancers either belonging to Devadasi tribes or Royal Courts. Even it was considered a taboo for women from family backgrounds to learn or perform dances. As such the same was not in the domain of commoner. It was the cinema, which brought dance forms to the public at large, through the movies. Leave alone the Films, today, in stark contrast, the dance forms are hugely popular with the public with no such past inhibitions.

Our films have had very many talented, graceful & beautiful dancing stars. It was an added advantage, for the female artistes, if they could dance well. Even otherwise, the not -so-good heroines at dancing too did dance, thanks to the choreographers who taught them to make a semblance of the dance, per se!

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Kamal and Vyjantimala in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1945 PC: From the archives of TCRC

In this write up we are covering some of the popular dancing stars of Tamil films in its early period.

In the bygone era of cinema, the dances were in slow pace giving more importance to mudras & abhinaya than brisk body movements, as in tune with the rest of the movie’s ingredients. You will agree, the following visuals would stand by my observations!

Hemamalini Arni

Here is a dance sequence by Hemamalini Arni, (in her thirteen, then) to the classical song ’Nadanam aadinaar” from the film “Kannika” (1947). In the music composition of Papanasam Sivan. Hemamalini Arni, who had tutelage in Bharatanatyam under Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, also had sung her own vocals in this song “Natanam Adinar”. Hemamalini Arni was gifted a Standard Car by Sreeramuly Naidu for her role in ‘Kannika’. Director M.V.Raman offered her a role in one of his films when she was seventeen, which she refused. It is said, Hindi Film’s ‘Dream Girl’ Hemamalini was named so by her mother, who was a family friend of Hemamalini Arni, in sheer inspiration of Hemamalini Arni,’s first name. Hemamalini Arni is settled in Hyderabad, running her own Dance School for Bharathanatyam.

M.S.Sarojini

In the same film “Kannika’ there was a song-dance sequence with Actor M.S.Sarojini dancing to the hit song of that time,  “Yaaro vandhu en kan pothinaar”, written & composed by Papanasam Sivan. The voices were of M.S.Sarojini & S.S.Mani (nephew of Papanasam Sivan). When the noted Guru Muthukumara Pillai was in Coimbatore in mid forties teaching dances to actors at a drama company, he trained Director Sriramulu Naidu’s actress wife M.S.Saroja for her lead role in the film ‘Kannika’ & Pillai himself too made a cameo appearance in the film. Muthukumara Pillai, who had trained legends like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kamala Laxman, belonged to the oldest generation of nattuvanars whose hereditary artistic dance practice was rediscovered in the twentieth century as the dance form Bharatanatyam.

T.R.Rajakumari

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A photo of T R Rajakumari PC : From the archives of TCRC

The run away hit “Sivakavi” (1943), produced by Sreeramulu Naidu, featured M.K.Thygaraja Bhagavathar & the ravishing T.R.Rajakumari. the latter played the role of a Court Dancer who loved the Poet Hero. The song & dance sequence, “Kavalaiyai theerpathu” earned its place in the galaxy of immortal movie melodies of South India. T.R.Rajakumari was considered the Dream Girl of Tamil Films in the forties.

Here again, you might observe the dancing very laid back with its  slow pace, which characterized the films of early films.

Vasudhara Devi

Vasundara Devi (1917-1988), the mother of Vyjayanthimala, was a dancer in her own right as she starred & danced in notable films such as “Rishyasringar” and ‘Mangamma Sabatham”  (1943). 

Though she was a trained in Bharathanatyam dancer, the Director, Acharya of Mangamma Sabatham had used some of the hit songs Bollywood’s Carmen Miranda in the music of Rajeswara Rao in the film for this seductive song & dance sequence of Vasundhara Devi, as can be seen in this video.

Kumari Rukmini

Both the mother ‘Kumari Rukmini’ & grand mother ‘Nungambakkam Janaki’ of the talented actress Lakshmi of the 70’s cinema, were dancing stars in the early years of Tamil films.

“Kumari Rukmini” debuted as a heroine in AVM’s Sri Valli (1945). As per Randor Guy, AVM originally wanted to cast Vasundhara Devi as heroine but since she interfered with the choice of Heros, he replaced his choice with Rukmini with a fresh talent, T.R.Mahalingam, as her hero.

Here is the song & dance sequence in the song ‘Sinthai arinthu vaadi’ from Sri Valli.

                                                                                                                               ( to be continued)

Filmy Ripples: Moonlit Movies (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

The poets, from as early as Sangam literature times, have been obsessed with Moon. Due to the attributes such as soft glow, grace, cool & calmness that Moon affords, poets always compared a moon to a women and the gender of the Moon itself was considered Female. So the natural association of a woman & moon came to be in place in literature. As a corollary the ‘nayika’ always considered the moon as her beloved friend to whom she could confide her emotions from the deep fathom of her mind! In fact, she considered Moon as her friend & emissary.

The song writers in cinema, known as lyricists, inherited such literary legacy and endowed the Moon in many a film song, There have been so many memorable songs in films with Moon as a subject of reference, either in the lyrics or visual form. Of course, the trend prevailed till such time in cinema till a generation changed along with the changed world they lived in. Now, you hardly have any reference to a moon in film songs, as the song writers too are from a different generation and any such references would perhaps become incongruent today, as subtleties & niceties of life & their associated charm are often not taken cognizance of in the current fast world! Technology, lifestyle & mindset of people too have so much changed that such moon sequences are thing of the past, as they were relevant only to the period of largely the Baby Boomers & to an extent Generation X.

The old talkie movies from the Black & White era, often had sets depicting a glowing moon in a scene that portrayed peace, tranquility & romance. Often, there were water bodies in the scene, reflecting the studio moon, to add to the magic of the frame. Sometimes, a row-boat is added too to the water-body, trusting the physical prowess of the rowing actor. The studio hands did their best to imitate a real moon by propping up dome lights in the backdrops, as the artificial creepers slowly swayed on the sets denoting mild nightly breeze, thanks to the giant fans! And whenever the heroine was in her solitary space or with her hero, it was time for a melodious song, with the Moon invariable featuring in the frame.

The soul stirring “Chanda oh Chanda” by KishoreDa from ‘Lakhon mein ek’ in the music of R.D.Burman and  the immortal “Chaudvin ka chand ho” by Rafi in the composition of Ravi too are remembered to this date.

Such numbers demanded situations, which the present day films do not simply have or can relevantly have, as sentimentalism in romance has become a thing of the past. So to say, the moon has retired, sort of, in our films!

This writer made his own little research of some fifty popular Tamil film songs, referencing the Moon, from 1950 to 1973. Surprisingly, fifty percent of such songs were in the decade of fifties, summing up to twenty five. The sixties’ films had just seventeen songs on Moon. The early seventies had just about four only. This showed a diminishing trend of cinema, as far as moon was considered, based on the viewership expectation of the relevant times. Of course, even among later films there were romantic ‘moon’ melodies, by exception, such as in eighties, when infatuation about the ‘moon’ in cinemas had already become almost extinct. Who can forget “En iniya pon nilave” from ‘Moodupani’ (Lyrics:Gangai Amaran) & ‘Ilaiya nila pozhigirathu” (Lyrics:Vairamuthu) from “Payanangal Mudivathillai” (both Ilayaraja composed)? Then, there were “Nilave vaa” from Mouna Ragam (1986) “Vennilave Vennilave” from Minsara Kanavu (1997).

But, don’t you clearly think that Moon as the friend of heroine has slowly shied away from cinema?

The Moon appeared on earlier Movie screens in different contexts. When the single woman was in the clutches of Cupid, when she was with her new found love, when they disagreed on things, when they parted temporarily, when the parting was permanent, in times of sorrow and so on. There had to be some situation when the directors were too eager to film the Moon with a melody!

Some of the Music Directors, in the Pre- Ilaya Raja era, who had composed amazing songs on or about the Moon include, alphabetically:  A.M.Raja, A.Rama.Rao. Aswathama, C.Ramchandra, G.Ramanathan, Ghantasala, K.V.Mahadevan, MSV, MSV-TKR, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, S. Rajeswara Rao, T.G.Lingappa, T.R.Paapa, T.V.Raju & Vedha.

Here, we are going to talk about some twelve popular song sequences from Tamil movies of yester years, as representational of the various ‘Moon’ songs from 1943 to 1968, used in varied emotions & sequences. You will find, each of them was in different contextual situation, as we observed earlier!

1) Moon as compared to the facial features of Nayika: “Vadaname Chandra Bimbamo” from Sivakavi (1943)

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Song book of Sivakavi PC: From the archives of TCRC

Starting from the film ‘Sivakavi’  (pairing M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & S.Rajalakshmi) it had very beautiful song sequence where the hero compares his heroine’s face to a moon’s crescent, though the frame does not show any moon, per se. The musical score was by G.Ramanathan, the lyricist being Papanasam Sivan. By the by, the heroine of the sequence was S.Rajalakshmi, the elder sister of late Veena Maestro S. Balachandar. This song, “Vadaname Chandra Bimbamo”,  showing the romantic overture of hero & heroine, was a super hit song in the film.

There is an interesting anecdote on this duet by MKT & Jayalakshmi, set in Sindhubairavi Raga. Papanasam Sivan first wrote the opening line as “mugham athu Chandra bimbamo”. However, sequel to the recording when the Positive was projected every one was taken aback as it sounded like “Mohammed Chandra bimbamo”. Immediately Papanasam Sivan rewrote that line as “Vadaname Chandra bimbamo” still retaining the intended meaning. Those days, in the absence of tape recording, songs were first recorded on Sound Negative and later developed, to be projected. This was a tedious process to locate mistakes, if any.

 2) Moon & sky as a simile to inseparableness: ‘Neela vaanum nilavum ploey’ from “Pon Mudi” (1950)

The lovers (P.V.Narasimha Bharathi & Madhuri Devi) in Pon Mudi swear to live as inseparables in the simile of the Moon & the Blue sky, in this rather poetic song.

The story of ‘Pon Mudi’ was by Bharathidasan & was made into a movie by Movie Mogul T. R. Sundaram at Modern Theatres, Salem. For Direction, TRS engaged Ellis R. Dungan who delivered Pon Mudi full of glamour, though far ahead of its times. He gave Ponmudi excellent technical inputs, good cinematography and slick editing. As per Randor Guy, for the love scenes on the beach, Dungan brought the sand from Madras to the studio in Salem and shot the sequence, along with long shots of Madras’ Elliot’s Beach. G. Ramanathan was Ponmudi’s Music Director who himself has sung this song along with T. V. Rathnam.

3) Moon in times of loss of peace: “Amaithi illathen maname” from ‘Pathala Bhairavi’ (1951)

Filmed on N.T.Rama Rao & Malathi, the popular hit of those times, ‘Amaithi illathen maname’ rendered by P.Leela & Ghantasala was in a sequence where the love-lorn pair share their status of mental restlessness with the glossy Moon, up above the world, so high, as if an alibi to their romance.

In scenes featuring the moon in the background in this film, no hidden lights were used behind the painted moon, as a source for lighting. Instead, a drawn circle on a screen was lit to make it look like the moon. Cinematographer Marcus Bartley ensured that the actors in such scenes had their shadows away from the screen, which showed an illusion of a moon. Besides, he also used dissolve techniques.

Marcus Bartley, an Anglo Indian, served as a photographer with ‘Times of India’ in Bombay, in early years. While being there, he learnt cinematography and keenly studied the various methods and its applications & later became a ‘News Reel Camera Man’ for ‘British Movie Tone’ in India. He keenly observed the various lighting systems in photography in the films. He also experimented with these new techniques in photography.

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Marcus Bartley at a shoot. PC: unknown

Bartley debuted as the cinematographer for the Tamil movie “Tiruvalluvar” (1941) and worked for many notable films, including the Malayalam film “Chemmeen” for which he earned a Gold medal at Cannes Film Festival.

If you observe the set properties of this song sequence it would explain the attention to details that was involved by the Art Director. An entire ambience has been created by the Art Directors M.Gokhale and Kaladhar, as enhanced by the cinematography of Marcus Bartley and the lilting music of Ghantasala.

Pathala Bhairavi was the first big budget film produced by Vijaya Vauhini Studios. Major portions of the film were shot in lavish sets and many trick shots were deployed. On the centenary of Indian cinema in April 2013, CNN News 18 included Pathala Bhairavi in its list of “100 greatest Indian films of all time”.

                                                                                                                                                (to be continued)

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

By P V Gopalakrishnan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The story of Lena Chettiar, the used-car dealer who turned into a film producer!

We at TCRC are always looking out for interesting trivia about yesteryear film personalities. Also, given that our search analytics told us that people were looking into the TCRC blog for information on one of Tamil cinema’s earliest superstars, actor-singer M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, we thought of putting together a separate post about him. We started looking for information about his 1934-released debut film “Pavalakodi.” But it was one of the producers of “Pavalakodi”, one Mr. Lena Chettiar, who ended up piquing our curiosity.

“Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) was produced under the Krishna Pictures banner promoted by Lena Chettiar. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu.

Writing about the film “Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) in The Hindu’s Blast From The Past column, Randor Guy profiles Lena Chettiar (click here to read the post about “Prabhavathi”):

S. M. Letchumanan Chettiar, popularly known as Lena Chettiar, was a powerful figure in the world of Tamil Cinema. A native of Chettinad, he was a ‘drama contractor’ in his early days, staging plays in various southern parts of the state by hiring freelancing actors and selling tickets for their plays. He also dealt in used cars and was the first man in this part of the world to print and circulate handbills about used cars in Tamil. Most of the Naattukottai Chettiars were wealthy, but did not know English. They found these handbills a novelty and encouraged Lena Chettiar.”

Randor Guy also reports that it was Lena Chettiar who convinced M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to not venture into production himself and stepped in to produce it for him:

M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s (a top-ranking freelancing stage actor then) play with another stage actress S. D. Subbulakshmi, ‘Pavalakodi’, was a raving hit not only in the Tamil-speaking areas of South India but also in Ceylon. Bhagavathar was seriously planning to enter movies with Pavalakodi and Lena advised him against venturing into production on his own and convinced Bhagavathar to team up with him. With his rich pals, Lena produced Pavalakodi in 1934, which marked Bhagavathar’s film debut and proved to be a major hit.”

Lena Chettiar produced numerous films under various labels and eventually, started promoting the ‘Krishna Pictures’ banner in the early part of the 1940s under which he produced films in Tamil and Telugu for nearly 15 years. The last film that he produced, before the founding of Krishna Pictures, was “Krishnan Thoothu,” which was the Tamil debut of Telugu film star Kannamba. In his post about “Krishnan Thoothu,” Randor Guy mentions Lena again:

 He wielded enormous influence beyond the confines of the movie business in official and political circles. Soon after this film, he promoted his own unit, Krishna Pictures, in T. Nagar. His office on Thanikachalam Chetti Road (named after the noted Justice Party leader O.T. Chetti) was indeed a landmark of that area with its Krishna temple besides the building put up by Lena.”

Producers seldom get mentioned in serious writing about cinema. But in the early days of cinema in India, we at TCRC have noticed that often it was the producers who  moved mountains to fuel innovation and creativity. Lena Chettiar seems to be one such gentleman and we at TCRC are glad to bring back to public memory, stories of such film entrepreneurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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