Sabapathy: From stage to celluloid

Sabapathy was one of Tamil cinema’s earliest full length comedies. 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.

This post was first written for The Cinema Resource Centre.

Manohara: From stage to celluloid

Tamil theatre was unarguably the biggest breeding ground for Tamil cinema, whose origin and development encouraged the easy migration and transition of actors, technicians, authors and themes from theatre. It was a relationship which began in the early days of cinema and lasted right upto the 1980s. Some of the most memorable films in our industry have been remakes or adaptations of stage plays. The Tamil theatre background of our greatest actors is well documented. Equally worthy of documentation is the contribution of various playwrights whose subjects were remade as films that were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Foremost amongst them in this regard was Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar.

Born in 1873, Sambandha Mudaliar authored nearly a hundred works comprising of plays, short stories, books on religion and of course, his extremely informative autobiography. Rightfully known as the father of Tamil theatre as we know it today, ten of his plays were remade as films. Undoubtedly the biggest hits amongst them were Manohara and Sabapathy. This post is about the former.

Manoharan, as the play was titled was Sambandha Mudaliar’s 6th play. In his memoirs “Naadaga Medai Ninaivugal”, he says that idea for the story was born when he attended a religious discourse on the life of Dhruva. The scene where Dhruva is grief-stricken on seeing the humiliation his mother suffers at the hands of his father’s second wife, Suruchi struck a chord with him and he decided to write a play with this scene as its fulcrum. Thus was born Manoharan, with the character of the second wife being replaced by that of a mistress. Sambandha Mudaliar played the title role of Manoharan.

The play was inaugurated on the 14th of September 1895 at the Victoria Public Hall. Sambandha Mudaliar says that though the collections on the occasion amounted to only Rs.200, it was well appreciated by those present. The songs were composed by the legendary Sankaradas Swamigal. The climax of the play was the famous “Sangili Scene” (as it came to be popularly known amongst the public), where the hero broke free from the chains with which he was tied to the pillars. Sambandha Mudaliar writes that almost inevitably after every performance, he would collapse from the exertion caused by the scene.

The play was a resounding success. Sambandha Mudaliar says that the play was staged a record 859 times (upto the year 1932) by various troupes with his permission and probably an equal number of times without his permission. Many actors who would go on to become leading stars in cinema donned various roles in the play, notable amongst them being “Nadippisai Pulavar” K.R.Ramaswami and R.S.Lakshminarasimhan, who took on the screen name Manohar after he became famous playing the role in a college performance. Interestingly, Sivaji Ganesan played the role of the queen in K.R.Ramaswamy’s play! It was also published as a book for the first time in 1907, with subsequent reprints being made even upto the 1980s.

The play was made into a movie twice. The first one, which was made in Bombay in 1936 and had Sambandha Mudaliar playing the role of the king Purushothaman sank without a trace. The second one however, made in 1954 is much remembered even today, thanks to the brilliant performance of Sivaji Ganesan. The dialogues of the original play were virtually rewritten by Mu.Karunanidhi.

Film historian Randor Guy gives us more details on the film here.

This post was first written for The Cinema Resource Centre.

Naan Kanda Naadaga Kalaignargal

Today is the 50th death anniversary of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, the father of Tamil theatre as we know it today. In an era where Special Dramas full of musical content ruled the roost, it was he who laid down the grammar and framework within which theatre would be performed and continues to be performed today.

Though he is best remembered for his plays, his contribution towards documenting Tamil theatre of his times is equally worthy of commemoration. His memoirs “Nataka Medai Ninaivugal” which traces his on-stage career and the growth of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha is a treasure trove of information on how Tamil theatre was performed in his days and remains a much sought after book for research on the subject. However, a book that is little known today is “Naan Kanda Naadaga Kalaignargal”.

First published in 1964 (which makes it 50 years too this year), this slim sized book running to 56 pages contains brief sketches of various stage actors of his times. What makes the documentation remarkable is that while it includes the stage careers of matinee idols such as M.G.R, Sivaji Ganesan and M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, it primarily covers sketches of stalwarts of the stage such as Govindaswamy Rao (A Marathi who founded the Manamohana Nataka Sabha), C.Cunniah,(the man considered to be a pioneer in mythological plays and renowned for staging 1008 continuous shows of Dasavatharam at the People’s Park),T.P.Krishnaswamy Pavalar (his one time protege and later founder of the Pavalar Boys Company) and Balambal (an artiste who ran an all ladies drama troupe and was famous for donning the role of Manohara in Sambanda Mudaliar eponymous epic).  Also featured are V.V.Srinivasa Iyengar, his old friend and later Judge of the Madras High Court and S.Satyamurthi, the great orator and Congress leader who was a member of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha.

Sambanda Mudaliar’s assessment of Srinivasa Iyengar’s acting capabilities (rather the lack of it) make for amusing reading. He says that despite being known for his sharpness, Srinivasa Iyengar’s memory powers were not all that good and that prompters had to be arranged on either flank of the stage to prop him up whenever he slipped on the dialogues. He however adds that he always made it a point to invite Srinivasa Iyengar for the Grand Rehearsal before every play to take his feedback and work on it as he was a very good critic. He also adds that Srinivasa Iyengar once wrote 10 one act plays for the Suguna Vilasa Sabha.

Satyamrthi however comes in for effusive praise from Sambanda Mudaliar for his acting skills. Initially given small roles, Satyamurthi graduated to bigger roles with his bold acting. He was also one of the mainstays of the Sanskrit division of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha, donning many important characters in plays in that language. Sambanda Mudaliar says that Satyamurthi also donned the role of Manohara in a few shows and that in his first show in the role, he insisted that Sambanda Mudaliar stay in the flanks and encourage him, which he did.

Packed with amazing detail, this book is indeed a treasure trove of information and is a worthy tribute to the people who gave it all for their passion, often in exchange for little reward.