Filmy Ripples : Exotic Child Stars of bygone era (Part 1)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

Child Artistes are not new to us as cine goers. Many mainstream Tamil film actors, such as Kamal Haasan, Meena, Sridevi, Shalini, Kushboo, Simbu, Hansika, and more debuted as child artistes. Besides, there are even more who were celebrities as children, but eventually moved away into oblivion. In our current context here, we will be looking at some of the ‘exotic’ child artistes who may not be even well known today but who, nevertheless, ruled the roost in the early ‘period’ films during the good old Black & White Talkie era.

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‘Kalathur Kannamma’ was the debut for Kamal Hassan as a child actor PC: From the archives of TCRC

Baby Saroja – An Icon of 1937

Tamil Cinema’s first ever child star was “Baby Saroja”, who debuted as a six year old in “Bala Yogini” (1937), directed by K.Subramanyam who also was her uncle. Baby Saroja was the daughter of K.Viswanathan (then owner of Chithra Talkies) who was the sibling of Director K.Subramanyam. Baby Saroja became an instant craze amongst the moviegoers, as it was the first time they were seeing a child actor in films.  She was then compared to the Hollywood’s child star, Shirley Temple. In ‘Balayogini’, Baby Saroja rendered a lullaby “Kanne Pappa”. This little super star also did a Bharatha Natyam number to a Tamil version of ‘Krishna Née Begane Baro,’ written by Papanasam Sivan. Such classical dance was a first on the screen in those times, which she learnt from Gowri Ammal, the last Devadasi of the Kapaleeswara temple, Mylapore.

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‘Baby’ Saroja on the cover of Cine Art Review 1937  PC: From the archives of TCRC

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‘Baby’ Saroja featured in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1937  PC: From the archives of TCRC

As she took the movie audiences by storm, Baby Saroja was a household name, not only in Madras but also even amongst the Tamil speaking community of far off Singapore, Malaya & Ceylon. Many named their female newborns as ’Saroja’, after this kid wonder of talkies. Japan-printed colour picture cards of Baby Saroja were distributed among her fans. Commercial establishments used her picture & name on their products such as Soaps, Matchboxes etc (of course with no endorsement fee given to the child). There were even ‘Navarathri Kolu’ dolls named after Baby Saroja, some of which, I understand, can still be found with the antique dealers of Chettinad. Baby Saroja became so synonymous with Tamil folklore of those times, that Lakshmi Viswanathan (a cousin of ‘Baby Saroja’) wrote in her Article “Shirley Temple of India” in The Hindu dated 10th July 2013, that Tamil soldiers who were joining the army during World War II, apparently sang a song, “Baby Saroja, Naan warukku poren Née kavalai padade” (meaning: Baby Saroja I am going to War but you do not worry), taking leave of Baby Saroja.

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‘Baby’ Saroja Navratri golu dolls. PC: Sriram Venkatakrishnan

Baby Saroja further acted in two more movies, “ Thyaga Bhoomi” & “Kamadhenu” which were very popular. In the film ‘Kamadhenu’ (1941), Saroja’s Mother & Father too acted in lead roles. After that Baby Saroja hung her boots & did not act in more movies, but not without leaving an indelible mark on Tamil Screen of yester years. Indian cinema has seen many child stars. But none attracted the sobriquet: Shirley Temple of India,  “Baby Saroja’, now in her eighties, lives in Chennai as Saroja Ramamrutham.

‘Kumari’ Rukmini

Rukmini, daughter of Dancer ‘Nungambakkam’ Janaki (who did roles in films such as Seetha Vanavasam, & Lavangi) and mother of Actress Lakshmi, debuted as a child star at her very young age in the film “Harischandra” (1935), as young Lohidasan. This, in fact, was an accidental debut, in the sense, Nungambakkam Janaki, who also had a role in Harischandra, was staying in a hotel room at Calcutta adjacent to where T.P.Rajalakshmi, the film’s heroine, was put up for the shoot.  As the producers of the film were still on the look out for a child actor to feature as Lohidasan, T. P. Rajalakshmi suggested baby Rukmini for the role, which was accepted by Rukmini’s mother. And, thus, “Baby’ Rukmini entered films in a male role as a child actor!

Following that, Rukmini acted as a child star in in Hindi Film ‘Jalaja’ too alongside the veteran, T.P.Rajalakshmi. Later both Nungambakkam Janaki as well as her daughter Rukmini together featured in the movie ‘Baghya Leela”.

Director K.Subramanyam cast her in Balayogini (1937) where she got noticed better.

It was in AVM film, “Sri Valli” (1945), she became a heroine & the credit titles named her as “Kumari” Rukmini”. In this film, both T.R.Mahalingam & Rukmini sang in own voices. However, after the release of the film on feedback from various sources, AVM decided to remove the sound track of Rukmini from the songs she had rendered & had playback singer P.A.Periya Nayaki sing for her.

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PC: Unknown

Rukmini got married at her seventeen to Director Y.V.Rao, while the shoot of ‘Lavangi’ was in progress. through which they had a daughter, who became Actress Lakshmi. Later, the couple separated.

Later, between 1961 & 1975 Rukmini appeared in various Tamil such as Kappal ottiya Tamizhan, Idayathil Nee, Karnan, Vennira Aadai, Kandu konden Kandu konden movies in small roles.

Rukmini passed away in 2007.

S.Varalakshmi

Do you remember the song “singara kanne un thaen oorum” from the Block Buster Veera Pandiya Katta Bomman? Yes, the sweet voice belonged to S.Varalakshmi, the singing star. She too started her career as child artist in Balayogini (1937), when she was nine years old. She also acted in Seva Sadanam (1938) along with M.S.Subbulakshmi, followed by a role in Parasuraman (1940) opposite T.R.Mahalingam. But her major role was in Modern Theatre’s box office hit ‘Aayiram Thalai Vaangi Apoorva Chinthamani’ (1947).

In all, Ms. Varalakshmi acted in nearly four hundred films and worked with all the leading stars of Tamil and Telugu cinema, including M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.  She also won critical acclaim as a talented singer, having started singing at her seven and has sung for over a hundred songs in various films.

She married film producer A.L.Srinivasan, the brother of Kannadasan. S.Varalakshmi breathed her last in 2009 at her 84.

T.R.Mahalingam

T.R.Mahalingam (TRM) started very young as a child in Theatre with his acting & singing, his self-professed role model being S.G.Kittappa. TRM was a Star in Special Dramas of those days & had been playing the role of a young Lord Krishna. When AVM planned the movie “Nandakumar’ they cast the fourteen year old T.R.Mahalingam for the very same role of a young Krishna. Thus Mahalingam debuted into Movies with AVM’s production ‘Nandakumar’ (1937).

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An ad for Nandakumar from Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1937 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Moving on, he acted in several films, which, however, did not do well. It was only with AVM’s ‘Sri Valli’ (1945) he got into fame, again. It was in this film that he sang his all-time famous high-pitched number ‘Kaayaadha Kaanagathe Nindrulaavum’ with an amazing artistry that is envied to this day. The film, which celebrated Golden Jubilee in many theatres, made T.R.M, a super star.

He successively acted in two more Mega Hit movies of AVM, released immediately after Indian Independence, namely, ‘Naam Iruvar’ (1947) & ‘Vedhala Ulagam’  (1948). In the former TRM captivated cine goers by his immaculate rendering of the patriotic songs of Mahakavi  Subramanya Bharathi. In fact, on a visit to the cinema hall in Madurai where Naam Iruvar was running, his dancing fans physically carried him. In “Vedhala Ulagam’ too there were Bharathi songs in the stellar voice of T.R.M. Mega hit film  ‘Gnana Soundari’ (1948) produced by Citadel Films followed next. Closely following the success of Gnana Soundari, Citadel produced ‘Idhaya Geetham‘ (1950) with TRM & T.R.Rajakumari, but the film did not do well. (To digress a bit, Citadel Studios was then located in Kilpauk, in the same place the RBI quarters stand today, on Poonamalli High Road, close to Ega Theatre.)

Then TRM produced & acted a string of movies himself such as Mohanasundaram, Chinnadurai, Machcha Rekhai, Theruppaadakan and Villaiyaattu Bommai.  While acting in ‘Mohanasundaram’ with S.Varalakshmi as his heroine he had a crush on her, but it did not materialize further. This totally crippled T.R.M financially & he was totally abandoned by those around him. But Kannadasan cast him in his own movie “Malaiyitta Mangai’ which gave TRM a respite in life. But this too was short lived. Soon TRM found himself out of place as the era of singer-actors became extinct. The new era cinema started looking different with new breed of actors & singers. TRM refused to accept this change but was still adamant about the tradition of actors singing their songs. He sporadically got roles in films like Thiruvilayaadal (1965), Agathiyar (1971), Thiruneelakhandar (1972) and Rajaraja Chozhan (1973) .His song ‘Isaithamizh Nee Seida’ in ‘Thiruvilaiyadal is a well remembered one.

Thus he went into oblivion & returned to his native, returning to Stage Plays. TRM passed away in 1978 at his 58. But even to date his enchanted voice is remembered fondly by many.

‘Kumari’ Kamala

“Kumari” Kamala, born in 1934 in a family of artists, debuted in the film ‘Valibar Sangam’ (1938) and later in ‘Ramanama Mahimai ‘(1939) as Baby Kamala, while she was only four years old. She also appeared as a child artist in Hindi films like ‘Kismet’ and ‘Ram Rajya’ in 1943. Those days this young danseuse was very popular in the movies.

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‘Baby’ Kamal featured in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Kamala is a noted Bharatnatyam dancer, though she later learnt Kathak & Hindustani music. She had acted in more than a hundred films in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Kannada. Kumari. She appeared in Jagathalaprathapan (1944) performing the ‘Pambu’ Dance. In her next film, ‘Sri Valli’ (1945), she played a double role. Her film ‘Nam Iruvar’, based on Bharatnatyam theme, made a great impact on audience. In 1953, Kamala performed during her coronation festivities of Queen Elizabeth II.

She was briefly married to cartoonist R. K. Laxman. In 1980, Kamala moved to New York permanently where she started a dance school, “Shri Bharatha Kamalalaya” in Long Island.

                                                                                                                                  (To be continued)

 

From Book to Celluloid: Sevāsādanam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PC: mstribute.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES:

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

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

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

4 Anantha Vikatan 8-5-1938

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

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

OTHER LINKS :

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