Filmy Ripples : Film Directors of nascent stages of Tamil Screen

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

A film’s narration is in the hands of its Director, besides its Editor & Cinematographer. While a Director’s role in filmmaking is second to none, he has to have teamwork with other functionaries.  The Directors are the professionals who see every sequence shot through the eyes of the ultimate cine goer. They are like the captains  of a ship and pilots of an aircraft.

These days, there is so much talent in the industry that we often witness the avtar of a new talent in film direction.

But think of the times when Cinema itself was in nascent stage & the Directors had the risk of experimenting with a pristine audience. In such a stage there were some outstanding Film Directors in Tamil Cinema who contributed to Tamil Cinema from its silent era, about whom we will talk here. We have excluded here the legend Ellis.R.Dungan, as we had covered in details about him earlier.

Sunder Rao Nadkarni

Sundar Rao Nadkarni, a Konkani from Mangalore, was an actor from Silent Film Era & later became an all rounder as editor, cinematographer, director and producer. He lived his formative years in Bombay which enabled him to delve deep into Marathi theatre and cinema. Thereon, Nadkarni moved to Coimbatore and finally Madras, where he settled down permanently. Inspired by the success of Sabapathy when AVM wanted to launch another comedy, he noted Nadkarni who went on to direct the Tamil Mega Hit film of AVM, En Manaivi (1942).

Following this success, Nadkarni also made other successful Tamil films. But his greatest hit was M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar starred Haridas (1944), which set a record by becoming the first Tamil film to run for 110 weeks at the Broadway theatre in Madras.

Haridas

An ad for Haridas in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1943 PC: From the archives of TCRC

He directed all the top Tamil actors too during his active years, such as T. R. Rajakumari in Haridas (1944), Narsimha Bharathi in Krishna Vijayam (1950), and MGR and Savitri in Mahadevi (1957). (Nadkarni was the co-producer of ‘Mahadevi’).

Raja Sandow

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Raja Sandow PC: Unknown

K. Raja ‘Sandow’ (original name: P.K.Nagalingam) was one of the legendary film-makers right from the silent movie era. Besides, he was also a successful actor, producer and director.

According to Randor Guy, it was a sports enthusiast millionaire from Bombay, Omar Sobhani who took P.K.Nagalingam, for his athletic abilities, to Bombay, where he later met Director Patankar who gave him a break in ‘Baktha Bhodhana’ (1922), purely owing to his physique & good looks. Thus he started his film career. In fact, ‘Sandow’ in his name was appended for his physique, after the Hollywood strongman Eugen Sandow.

Between 1922 & 1943 Raja Sandow ruled the roost in silent  (such as ‘Veer Bhemsen’ (1923) & ‘The Telephone Girl’ (1926)) as well as talkie films in Tamil & Hindi. Later he took to film direction and even had scripted for talkies. The ‘Reformist’ Sandow brought many reforms to Tamil cinema & spearheaded making social themed movies with messages. He was also initially handling the Directorial part of the celebrated MKT movie, “Sivakavi” but was replaced by Sriramulu Naidu. A pioneer in the first generation of Indian film making, he also used to act in Tamil & Hindi till his sudden demise at his 48 in1943.

Y.V.Rao

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Y.V Rao PC: Unknown

Yaragudipati Varada Rao (born 1903) aka Y.V.Rao was a man of many parts that he was a filmmaker, actor and a film director. He was a visionary in his professional thinking & was a pioneer in making films in various Southern languages besides Hindi, right from silent movie era, when he started as an actor in silent films. Then he shifted to Madras in the 1920s & was cast as hero in many silent films like “Garuda Garva Bhangam”, “Gajendra Moksham” , and “Rose of Rajasthan”. Moving on, Y.V. Rao started his directorial debut with silent films, such as ‘Pandava Nirvana’ (1930), ‘Pandava Agnathavaas’ (1930) and ‘Hari Maya’ (1932).

Rao was at the pinnacle when he directed Tamil film, ‘Chintamani’ (1937) with MKT as its hero. The film created box-office records and proved to be a turning point in the annals of Tamil cinema and also in the life and career of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.

Y.V.Rao married Actress Kumari Rukmini, through which they had a daughter, who would later come to be recognized as Actress Lakshmi.

Acharya

G. Raghavachari was a successful Madras High Court lawyer who was also active in the early Tamil Cinema writing and directing, without identifying himself for his work, as in those times cinema was a taboo in many minds, leaving Raghavachari to be anonymous in the movies he worked, including the popular film ‘Rishyasringar’ directed by him.

It was in 1943 at the insistence of movie mogul S. S. Vasan his name appeared as “Acharya” in the credit titles in Gemini’s ‘Mangamma Sabatham’.

During his days he was the most knowledgeable in South Indian Cinema and was involved in productions such as ‘Chandralekha’ (1948) & ‘Apoorva Sahotharargal’ (1949). As per Randor Guy, it was Raghavachari who directed the famous drum dance sequence in Chandralekha, using multiple cameras to film the sequence, though he walked out of the film in mid way.

T.R. Sundaram

T._R._Sundaram

T.R.Sundaram PC: Unknown

T.R.Sundaram (born 1907) was from a wealthy family & was a graduate from Leeds University. He was married to a Britisher, Gladys while in UK.
Sundaram entered Tamil films in the early 1930s & was involved in film production in partnership. Later he promoted his own company “Modern Theatres” in Salem. He became a successful studio owner & directed “Sati Ahalya’ (1937). Some of the films made by Modern Theatres included ‘Arundathi’ (1943), ‘ Sulochana’ (1947), ‘Utthama Puthiran’ (1940), Manonmani’ (1942), ‘Aayiram Thalaivangi Apoorva Chintamani’ (1947), ‘Adithan Kanavu’ (1948), ‘Digambara Samiyar’ (1950), ‘Manthiri Kumari’ (1950), ‘Ponmudi’ (1950), ‘Valayaapathi’ (1952), ‘Sarvadhikari’ (1951), ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum’ (1956), and ‘Pasa Valai’ (1956). T.R.Sundaram was a great & strict disciplinarian at work.

Manonmani

An ad of Manonmani in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

TRS gave breaks to many like M Karunanidhi & Kannadasan who became legends.Almost all the top stars have acted for Sundaram except the legend M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. Even the American filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan worked for him, directing ‘Manthiri Kumari,’ and ‘Ponmudi.’

Modern Theatres, one of the most successful film entities, has produced nearly two hundred movies in various languages. Out of this studio came out the first Malayalam movie, ‘Balan’. Besides, the first Tamil film in Gevacolor, ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum’ was also from Modern Theatres.

T.R. Sundaram who passed away in 1963.

K.Subramanyam

Subrahmanyam, a lawyer by profession, decided to go into movie making and founded in 1937 the Motion Pictures Producer Combines Studio where later Gemini Studios stood. He was a founding veteran of Tamil Film Industry & one of the founders of Nadigar Sangam in 1952.

He started his film career working on silent films directed by Raja Sandow. He started Meenakshi Cinetone, debuting his Directorial career with film Pavalakkodi, in which M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar too debuted as an actor.

His remarkable movie was Balayogini, dealing with many social issues of the times. In 1938, he made Sevasadanam, advocating  woman’s empowerment, Bhakta Cheta, on the subject of untouchability and  “Mana Samrakshanam’, a war effort film. His best-known work was Kalki Krishnamurthy written nationalistic film Thyagaboomi, which got banned by the British government, for its explicit National flavor.

As to his personal life, he first married Meenakshi and later Actress S.D.Subbulakshmi. Through these two wed locks, he had children such as S. V. Ramanan, Dr Padma Subramanyam & Abaswaram Ramji, amongst others. His grandson S.Raghuram became a legendary dance choreographer in Indian film industry.

When Subramanyam’s studio was gutted in a major fire, the property came up for auction through a court order. At this juncture, Subrahmanyam persuaded S.S.Vasan to bid for it and enter film production. This is how Vasan’s Gemini Studios came into being.

Sriramulu Naidu

Sriramulu Naidu (born 1910 at Trichy) was another illustrious figure in the development of South Indian cinema. He was a great film personality who promoted as many as three motion picture studios in Coimbatore. In his younger days he was managing his railway retired father’s  bakery in Coimbatore. It was the early thirties when Tamil films were made only in far off Calcutta, Bombay or Kolhapur as till around 1934 the South did not have facilities for movie making. When Premier Cinetone Studio opened in Coimbatore, Sreeramulu Naidu joined the Studio & got trained in several aspects of film msking. Later he co founded the famed Central Studios in Coimbatore, where ‘Tukaram’ was made in Tamil 1938, in which the famous Carnatic Musician Musiri Subramanya Iyer debuted I Cinema. In 1941 Sreeramulu Naidu at Central Studios made ‘Aryamala’. In this movie, Naidu introduced M.S.Sarojini as the heroine. (Later he married her too). In this film Naidu learnt he Art of film making from the other capable co-technicians. When a Madras-based Narayana Iyengar promoted Pakshiraja Films at Coimbatore, Sreeramulu Naidu joined him as his agent and eventually became its Partner. But he quit that and founded the legendary Pakshiraja Studios at Coimbatore, where once Kandhan Studios stood.

Naidu’s second film ‘Sivakavi’ (1943) with MKT in the lead was also a grand success. Raja Sandow initially directed this film but since he fell out with Naidu, the latter took over its direction.

SIvakavi

Song book of Sivakavi. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The other noted films under his direction included Pavalakodi, Kalyaniyin kanavan, Kanchana, Malaikallan & Maragatham ‘Malaikallan’ (1954) was made in various languages including Hindi. In Tamil version the pair was MGR- Bhanumathi & in Hindi the pair was Dilip Kumar-Meena Kumari.

If there was a Hall of Fame for the Film Industry in India, like it is in Hollywood, all the above illustrious as well as industrious men would have surely found their coveted places therein. The current Tamil Film Industry owe a lot to these relentless pioneers.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

sevasadanam

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)