Filmy Ripples – N.S.Krishnan, the Legend

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

It is generally said, however, a pathos scene is difficult to naturally enact, it is even more difficult to be successful as a comedian as timing & body language have to contribute to its success. Pure, vulgar-free comedy that stands out is a real tough job and all were not cut to deliver that.

In the very early talkie films, there was nothing like a separate comedian. It was only later, as part of the evolutionary process of cinema, comedians came into being in Indian films to provide a relief from the main story line, which, often, was heavy with emotions.

The early cinema (we are talking about pre-Nagesh period) had a bunch of good comedians such as T.S.Dorairaj, Kali N Rathinam, T.R.Ramachandran,

Sarangapani, ‘Friend’ Ramasami, A.Karunanidhi, Kakka Radhakrishnan, ‘Kuladeivam’ Rajagopal, A.Rama Rao, Chandrababu, Thangavelu, Muthulakshmi, T.A.Mathuram, & M.Saroja.

But the Monarch of the Tamil film comedians, undoubtedly, was N.S.Krishnan (NSK).

Tamil cine goers laughed their guts out at NSK’s thought provoking jokes. NSK has often been compared to the legendary comedian, Charlie Chaplin. But, while Chaplin scored with his slapstick comedy and body language, NSK relied more on his verbal humour, one-liners and subtle messages to the audience. His comedy, which also had its share of puns, was always wholesome at its best with no double entendre or misogyny involved.

As we cannot justifiably cover all the stalwart comedians who tickled our funny bones in a single Article, we hereby restrict our current write up to the Monarch of them all – N.S.Krishnan.

N.S.Krishnan was born as Nagerkovil Sudalamuthu Krishnan in 1908 in a poor family. His childhood years were spent selling snacks in a theatre in his hometown & working as a ball picker in a Tennis Club. His lack of formal education was amply made up by his native genius & curiosity.

Later, in his formative years he joined the celebrated drama company run by TKS Brothers. He was also proficient in a rural art form known as ‘Villu Paattu’.

Later he formed his own touring theatre group and traversed the length and breadth of erstwhile Madras Presidency with his plays, which always drew packed houses.

NSK’s entry into the celluloid world was through S.S.Vasan produced and Ellis Dungan directed film ‘Sathi Leelavathy’, where he was introduced as a comedian. Though this was his debut film, his second movie ‘Menaka’ got released before ‘Sathi Leelavathy’ could hit the screen. However ‘Menaka’ was adjudged the best movie of the year in 1935.

Menaka

An Advertisement of the Film MENAKA in the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1935  PC: From the archives of TCRC

It was during the shooting of ‘Vasantha Sena’ (1936), directed by Raja Sandow, NSK ‘met’ co-star T. A. Mathuram and both fell in love. Their marriage was held in a simple manner, while the shooting schedule moved to Pune, with Raja Sandow presiding over the ‘wedding’. The couple got the honor of being the first real-life couple acting as couple of reel life too, between 1936 and 1957, when they did a whopping 122 films, as a pair!

Vasanthasena

An Advertisement of the Film VASANTHA SENA in the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1936  PC: From the archives of TCRC

N S Krishnan, who popularly goes by his popular title, ‘Kalaivanar’, rose from humble beginnings as a ‘villu paatu’ artiste who became a master in the art of repartee. In tandem with his wife TA Mathuram, he regaled audiences, often stealing the spotlight from the lead stars. NSK was known to pen his comedy tracks himself and always ensured that he was never repetitive.  Noted lyricist Udumalai Narayana Kavi usually wrote the lyrics for Krishnan.

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In the early timeframe of his career, he worked with comedians like TS Durairaj, Pulimootai Ramaswamy, CS Pandian and Kali M Rathinam and later worked in most of the films of MK Thiagaraja Bhagavathar as Hero. Krishnan was also a gifted singer and his numbers in ‘Sivakavi’, ‘Raja Rani’ and ‘Manamagal’ became immensely popular.

He also produced the hit film ‘Nallathambi’, directed by C.N Annadurai. He directed films such as  ‘Panam’ and ‘Manamagal’ penned by Karunanidhi. SS Vasan’s magnum opus ‘Chandralekha’ too featured Krishnan in comedy tracks. There was a time in Tamil cinema when no film was complete without NSK!

He also shared screen space in many films of the leading heroes, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, and despite the presence of these Titans always stood out with his comedy.

NSK went on to work as unparalleled comedian in as many as 150 films, MGR starred ‘Raja Desingu’ being the last one, released after his death.

On 8 November 1944, Lakshmikanthan the gossip columnist & Editor of ‘Indu Nesan’ was knifed by some unknown persons in Purasawalkam and was admitted to the General Hospital, Madras as an outpatient. But the next day, Lakshmikanthan was murdered mysteriously while still in the hospital. The police arrested eight persons as accused for the murder including M.K.Tyagaraja Bhagavathar and NSK. This came as a rude shock to their fans and the cine world.

After thirty long months of jail term they were acquitted for want of proof by the London Privy Council, thanks to the eminent lawyer V. L. Ethiraj who argued for them at Privy Council at London. (The same illustrious lawyer founded Ethiraj College for women).

Though N.S.Krishnan did manage to pick up the threads of his life again as an actor post his release from prison, things were not quite the same & he was financially drained and his fortunes plummeted rapidly.

When Krishnan was first sentenced to jail, Mathuram took a break from her acting career. Later she came out her self-imposed exile to generate revenues for financing her husband’s appeal to the Privy Council.

When NSK was in prison, T. A. Mathuram started a drama troupe called N. S. K Nataka Sabha, which staged plays written by and starring S.V.Sahasranamam. ‘Paithiyakaran’ (1947) was one of those plays. Later Mathuram converted the troupe into a film production company and made a film based on the play. While the film, being directed by Krishnan-Panju Duo,  was in production, Krishnan was acquitted released from prison. A new role was written for him in the film. NSK made fun of his stint in prison through the song jailukku poi vantha in which he described in prison life, his fellow inmates and the types of prisoners he met. MGR played a supporting role in the film.

In 1947, after his release from the prison, Nataraja Educational Society, Triplicane awarded him the title of ‘Kalaivanar’ to NSK through the ‘Father of Stage’, Pammal.K.Sambanda Mudaliyar. He is, to-date, known by this Title even without his name!

‘Manamagal’ (1951), produced & directed by NSK, saw the debut of Padmini as a lead actress. In this movie, A.Bhimsingh, who later became a big Director, was an Assistant Director to NSK. He also generously gifted his own expensive car to Baliah for his stellar performance in Manamagal.

MSV-TKR duo was formed as Music Directors by NSK for his Film ‘Panam’ (1952).

In his times, NSK was instrumental in bringing a number of leading Tamil stage and film personalities to the fore; he was also a Gandhian, patriot and philanthropist who became an active member of the Dravidian Movement. On the assassination of Gandhi, NSK raised a Memorial for the Father of the Nation at his own expense in the Municipal Park his hometown.

NSK was one of the founding fathers of South Indian Actors Association. He is reported to have even gifted his own land for its premises.

NSK passed away at his 49 on 30th August 1957, after bringing a lot of joy and cheer to his audience through his film roles.

Some of his well known films included Sathi Leelavathi, Ambikapathi, Madurai Veeran, Kala Megham, Uthama Puthiran, Sakunthalai, Arya Mala, Mangamma Sabatham, Harischandira, Haridas, Pavalakodi, Paithiyakkaran, Chandrakantha,  Chandralekha, NallaThambi, Managaiyarkkarasi, Rathnakumar, Vana Sundari, Panam, Amara Kavi, Kaveri, Dr. Savithri, Mudhal Thethi, Rangin Radha, Raja Rani, Manamagal & Raja Desingu.

Chandrakantha

An Advertisement of the Film CHANDRAKANTHA in the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1936  PC: From the archives of TCRC

In his personal life, he had three wives, Nagammai, T.A.Mathuram & T.A.Vembammal (T.A.Mathuram’s sister).

 

NSK Interview

Stills from a short Interview of NSK in the magazine KALKI DEEPAVALI MALAR 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

The Tamil Nadu Government dedicated the Children’s Theatre on Wallaja Road, Madras as a memorial building in 1979, named it ‘Kalaivanar Kalai Arangam’  in his honour . His revered public statue adorns a major junction in T.Nagar in Chennai.

If NSK were to be alive today he would have been 108 years old!

 

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Filmy Ripples : When Film Stars are from the Fauna (Part 1)

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

Animal magnetism is so profound that Humans have always been fascinated by them. Wild animals have long inhabited the depths of the human imagination no less than they have occupied the natural habitats of our shared planet. The Fauna had not spared even the Mythology as Indian, Roman & Egyptian folklore is aplenty with animal characters.

As a reflection of the natural inquisitiveness & keenness of humans about animal world, movies too have been featuring various animals, big & small, since long.

Hollywood had given film lovers innumerable movies featuring animals, representative few of which I would like to list here: Black Stallion, Absent minded Professor, Jaws, Snakes on a Plane, Dunston checks in, Born Free, Turner & Hooch, 101 Dalmatians, Lassie, Anaconda, King Kong, The Birds, Beethoven.

Hollywood’s Silent era movie Ben-Hur–A Tale of the Christ” (1925) is said to have been the ultimate in animal cruelty in a film, as over a hundred horses apparently gave their lives to complete the climactic chariot race scene. The injured animals in the film were reportedly shown little mercy. Below is the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur (1925)

We have to discuss here in vivid as to how the filming was done with flocks of birds that “acted” in Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated film ‘The Birds’ (1963), a supernatural thriller, featuring birds as violent rebel against humanity. This writer fondly recollects watching this very Movie during his college days at the Sahni’s Theatre in T. Nagar in 1963.

21 The Birds

PC: Unknown

Inspired by Daphne de Maurier’s short story “The Birds”, first published in a 1952 issue of ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine & also a real life incident at Cornwall, England where a farmer and his wife survived an inexplicable attack by a flock of birds, Hitchcock thought of filming ‘The Birds’, intrigued by the sheer idea of birds turning murderous. The movie, financed by Universal Pictures and filmed on Bodega Bay near San Francisco, is considered amongst the most scary-movies.

When Hitchcock first discussed with his Art Director Robert Boyle, who was tasked with developing means of shooting scenes birds attacking humans, the plans were to deploy mechanical birds. But it resulted in utter failure, after spending great amounts in developing a variety of mechanized and prop birds, as the test footage showed them to be unconvincing and ridiculous. The film was therefore forced to rely on live birds, either trained to ‘act’ alongside human actors or superimposed into pre-shot footage via what are called ‘composites’, using a ‘sodium vapour’ process as an alternative to the normal blue screen method, as supervised by the award winning Animation Expert Ub Iwerks of Walt Disney Studios.

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A still from The Birds .PC: Unknown

The Unit shot special footage of seagulls at the San Francisco city garbage dump, which was used for reference material by the special effects team and as cutaways in the film itself.

The unit of ‘The Birds’ kept the live birds housed & fed in forty large pens in the Studio, for the movie’s shoot, under the watchful eyes of a member of the American Humane Association. It is reported, despite that numerous questionable practices, including tranquilizing birds to keep them within the frame and reportedly using wire to tie the beak shut of birds did happen. Animal Trainer Ray Berwick was fined by authorities to have captured more wild birds than was the limit, besides having to release the birds that exceeded the permit. Understandably, It was very tough dealing with the birds as they were non-cooperative performers. Several weeks into production, incidents of bird-inflicted injuries became commonplace that the entire production team had to be given anti tetanus shots as a precaution.

In one sequence in the film, about fifteen hundred small birds like sparrows and finches were poured down a false chimney and into the set, when the set was closed off with plastic sheeting to prevent the birds from flying up into the lighting rigs above. For those few birds that did escape, they used liberally scattered birdseed across the floor to entice & recapture them. One actor recalled when the birds would just swoop down the chimney set and realize that there was nowhere to escape they just dropped in the confined areas. That while recording the shot the cast were warned to shuffle their feet to the extent possible, to avoid stepping on and killing any of the birds.

The birds tied to their trainers with thin cords were propped towards meat placed near the camera position to induce them to fly towards it. When that did not prove frightening enough trained birds were encouraged to land on the heroine and she would then bat them away. Once it became clear the birds were not landing on her with another enthusiasm and were instead flying around the set, air jets were used to force them back in her direction. By the middle of the week stagehands were resorted to simply throwing crows and gulls at Hedren, and by the end of the week Hitchcock had live birds attached to Hedren’s costume with elastic bands.

Actor Rod Taylor claimed that the seagulls were even fed a concoction of wheat & whiskey, to get them to do so much as the Director expected.

In fact, the young debutant heroine Tippi Hedren had been reassured on multiple occasions that a particular sequence would only feature mechanical props in lieu of live birds. But that turned out to be a lie. She once recalled in an interview as to how ravens, seagulls and pigeons were hurled at her, one by one, by Bird Trainers.

The scene in which the heroine watches the birds attacking the villagers was filmed on the sets from a phone booth, When the heroine opens the door of the phone booth, the seagulls that were trained by Bird Trainer fly into the booth.

The film’s final shot was a complex affair, combining both live and puppet birds requiring 32 separate film exposures to create, and was widely cited by Hitchcock as the single-most difficult shot of his career.

Bollywood does not lag behind either, when it comes to casting animals in films, though not in the scale & efforts of ‘The Birds’. Some of the lovely animals have stolen our hearts in Hindi films, like the Bull Mastiff Dog named Pluto in the recent “Dil Dadkane do”.  And there have been Doves, Swans, Ducks, Deer, Peacocks, Elephants, Horses, Snakes and whatnot which have routinely featured in many a movie in the past. Who can forget that popular song, ‘Kabutar Ja Ja’ filmed on that courier pigeon & its employer heroine! Even stars as big as Rajesh Khanna had to share their screen presence with performing animals as you may see in this video sequence from the film “Joroo ka ghulam’ (1972).

In old Tamil films of mythological or historical subjects, the sets routinely featured, even in romantic settings, deer, pigeons & peacock giving constant company to the heroine & her sidekicks. Kodambakkam had its own animal suppliers whether the scene involved a snake let out by the villain or a monkey to assist the hero with odd jobs. Those days, prior to the advent of strict regulations on animal usage, there used to be hearsays that the snake suppliers to films even stitched up the reptile’s mouth! In some of the early films even stock shots of animals were used. This meant that instead of actually filming an animal especially for a scene in the given film, they used to buy out shots, which are called library shots or stock shots.

The above scene, involving a Peacock as a romantic emissary was from Sri Valli (1945).

In the Tamil film “Ambikapathi” (1937) directed by the legendary American Film Director, Ellis R. Dungan, he created a scene where Chola King Karikalan makes a triumphant return into his capital after a successful campaign, in which a meandering line of caprisoned elephants was shown by him in a lengthy shot as the elephants pass through the frame in a slow paced procession, which was majestic.

The film ‘Sakunthalai’ (1940) begins with a scene where the hero (GNB) & his entourage are on a hunting spree. In this scene they are shown pursuing a Tiger, which was a stock shot.

Whereas, a lion cub featured in the same film ‘Sakunthalai’, directed by Director Ellis. R. Dungan, who adopted it after the shooting was over. According to Film Historian Muthaiah, Dungan used to keep his pet overnight in a cage in his room, but, during the day, tie it to a tree in the hotel where he stayed. But when the cub grew fast, it snapped his strap and ran after the hotel guests when the police had to intervene & asked Dungan to find a new home for the lion cub.

                                                                                                                                                            (To be continued)

Filmy Ripples: Ghost voices of bygone era (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

The voices of M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & Dhandapani Desikar need special mention here. The former was a Super Star of his time, with innumerable renderings to his credit, since his debut in ‘Pavalakodi’ in 1934. Half of his fourteen films were run away hits. His 1944 movie ‘Haridas’ ran for three years at Broadway Theatre, Madras. His well known songs include  “Amba Manam Kanindhu”, “Soppana Vazhvil Makizhndu”, “Sathva Guna Bodhan”, “Krishna Mukunda Murari”, “Radhe Unaku Kobam Aagadadi”,  “Vasantha Ruthu” and more. Convicted in Lakshmikanthan murder case, he later died after his release when he was just forty nine.

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A photo of a young M K Thyagaraja Bagavathar in the 1937 edition of Cine Art Review Magazine. PC: From the archives of TCRC

Here is the visual of the ever green song ‘Vasantha Ruthu’by MKT in the film Sivakavi (1942).

M.M.Dandapani Desikar was a great musicologist & composer. Songs such as ‘Jagat Janani’, ‘Inba kanavonru kanden, ”Thamarai pootha’ composed by him are hugely popular. His singing prowess was evident in ‘Nandanar’ (1942) produced by Gemini was a musical treatise, as he sang the compositions of Gopalakrishna Bharathi & Papanasam Sivan. Desikar also served as the HOD of Music Department of Annamalai University.

dandapani-desigar

A photo of Dandapani Desikar from 1942 Kalki Deepavali Malar. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The below video features Sivan’s Composition Pirava Varam (from the film Nandanar) set in the unusual Lathangi raga, which is now a concert regular. The singer was MM.Dandapani Desikar

There was another singing star in the forties by name V.V.Sadagopan. He was a man of many parts, by being a university rank-holder, ICS aspirant, film actor, music teacher, performer and composer.  He was a disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar & Professor of Music in Delhi University till 1975. However, he went missing since he got off a train at Gudur in 1980, on his way from Delhi to Chennai. Since that none has information about him.

“Premaiyil yaavum matandhene” was a haunting romantic duet, based on Raga Desh, composed by Music Director S.V.Venkatraman, in the voice mellifluous voices of M.S.Subbulakshmi & G.N.Balasubramaniam. The movie was Sakunthalai (1941) , directed by Ellis Dungan.

D.K. Pattammal was inducted into playback singing in Tamil screen by the lawyer-turned-filmmaker cum director, K. Subramaniam, for ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1939), at the instance of Papanasam Sivan. She only accepted songs of devotional or patriotic flavour and declined offers to sing romantic songs. She sang in many super hit films of the yesteryears. But there was a song ‘Sri Saraswathi’ which she recorded for Gemini’s ‘Miss Malini’ (1947), which was not featured in the film, though she was paid a handsome remuneration for the same.

M.L.Vasanthakumari was in the top amongst playback artistes of those times. In ‘Krishna Bhakti’ she even appeared on screen, rendering ‘Enta Veduko’ in a concert scene. N.S. Krishnan produced ‘Manamagal’ gave her the all-time hits ‘Ellam Inba Mayam’ and ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye’, which are being sung even by the kids in Super Singer reality show. There were many other memorable numbers of MLV such as ‘Konjum Purave’.

J.P.Chandrababu was a versatile actor-singer of his own unique style.  He had an unique voice. In AVM’s ‘PeNN’ (1954) he even sang ‘Kalyanam..haha..kalyanam’ for S.Balachander, the actor-director-veena maestro. There are many memorable songs of Chandrababu to name a few: ‘Pambara kannale’, ‘Naan oru muttalunga’, ‘sollurathe sollipurren’, ‘Jolly life’, ‘Budhiyulla manithar ellam’. In fact his entry into the filmdom was very dramatic. While fishing for a film role, his life took through struggles leading to utter frustration that he attempted suicide in the premises of Gemini Studio in 1952, having failed to meet S.S.Vasan. Later, when Vasan came to know of this episode he gave him  a small role in the film Moonru Pillaigal. Chandrababu rose to become a sought after artiste that in the film, ‘Sabhash Meena’ he commanded a remuneration that brushed past that of his co star Sivaji Ganesan. But in his later days he was broke and died penniless! This writer has seen him walking the Dr.Rangachari Road in his lesser fortunate days.

There were many other formidable ghost voices of those times which deserve detailing here. But for want of space in this write up we are constrained in not dealing with them. This does not in any way undermine their mighty contribution to Indian Tamil film music.

The magic of pre sixties’ Tamil film music, till recently, were available only on those old vinyl records. Now that the technology has brought them to us through other music formats, there no stopping to patronise these classic gems.