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)

 

 

 

 

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Policekaran Magal: From stage to celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

On 5th April 2013 TCRC shared its first post. It was the lobby card for the film Policekaran Magal. You can revisit the post here

Today as part of our ‘From Stage to Celluloid’ series we discuss more on this landmark film.

S.V.Sahasranamam was one of Tamil cinema’s most well-known character actors. Along with the likes of S.V.Ranga Rao and S.V.Subbiah, he was part of a select group of actors who were a constant presence in films between the 1950s and 1970s in the roles of a father, grandfather or elder brother.

Born in 1913, Sahasranamam joined T.K.Shanmugam’s Balashanmukhananda Sabha at an early age, giving up schooling to become an actor. His association with the troupe was a long one, lasting for more than two decades. It was an association that got him his first film opportunity, when a play of theirs, Menaka was made as a film in 1935. It was also in this troupe that he forged a lasting friendship with the legendary N.S.Krishnan.

Sahasranamam quit the Balashanmukhananda Sabha in 1936 on account of a misunderstanding with the managers. After stints as a manager with a couple of film houses, he joined N.S.Krishnan, by then a star, as a manager in his production house Ashoka Films. Film opportunities kept coming his way and he acted in a number of films through the 1940s. His passion for stage however remained undiminished. His dream of establishing his own troupe bore fruit in 1953, when he started Seva Stage.

Starting with Kangal, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Vision, Seva Stage made a name for itself with its social themes and brilliant execution of the technical aspects. It was also to Sahasranamam’s credit that he managed to get noted writers such as T.Janakiraman, Ku.Alagiriswami and B.S.Ramiah to script successful and critically acclaimed plays such as Naalu Veli Nilam, President Panchatcharam, Vadivelu Vaathyaar and Policekaran Magal, which were later made into movies.

B.S.Ramiah, born in 1905 was an acclaimed journalist and writer best known in the literary circles for his association with Manikkodi, the magazine started by “Stalin” Srinivasan in 1933. He had made a name for himself as a short story writer. Sahasranamam approached Ramiah with a request to write a play for Seva Stage, thus marking the beginning of an association that would go on to produce great hits on stage.

Policekaran Magal was Ramiah’s fifth script for Seva Stage, after President Panchatcharam, Malliam Mangalam, Therotti Magan and the critically acclaimed Paanchali Sabatham . Revolving around a policeman and his family (most prominently the daughter), the play was a great success. Like other Seva Stage plays, this too did not lack in star value, with noted actors Muthuraman and V.Gopalakrishnan and actress S.N.Lakshmi playing important roles in the play. Muthuraman went on to play a role in the movie too, which was directed by C.V.Sridhar and came out in 1962. Vijayakumari played the role of the daughter in the movie, which was played on stage by Shanthini, a Seva Stage regular. J.P.Chandrababu and Manorama played the role of flower vendors, a crucial part of the plot. Sahasranamam reprised his stage role of the policeman on screen and even today, this movie is often spoken about as one of those movies which is impossible to remake thanks to the powerful portrayal by Sahasranamam.

The movie is also remembered today for its immortal melodies, most particularly Pon enben siru poo enben and Nilavukku en mel ennadi kovam.

Here are pictures of the film’s LP from our collection. The LP also carried the songs of another popular film of the time’ Sumai Thangi’.

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