Naam Iruvar: From Stage to Celluloid

The AVM productions banner occupies a pride of place in Indian cinema. With movies not only in Tamil but also in other languages such as Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and even Sinhalese, its seven decade journey has been a remarkable one, launching the career of many a star.

Born in Karaikudi in 1907, AV Meiyappa Chettiar as a teenager joined his father’s general stores business, AV and Sons. In 1928, they acquired the distribution rights of gramophone records of SG Kittappa and KB Sundarambal for the southern districts and thus began AV Meiyappa Chettiar’s tryst with the world of cinema. In 1932, he along with his friends started Saraswathi Stores in Madras, dealing in gramophone records. His foray into film making in 1934 had a disastrous start with a hat-trick of losses over the first few years (Alli Arjuna, Aryamala and Nandakumar). These movies were produced under various partnerships with his associates.

In 1946, AV Meiyappa Chettiar decided to strike it out on his own. Thus was born AVM Productions. This post is about its first production, Naam Iruvar.

Meiyappa Chettiar had great regard for theatre. In his autobiography Enathu Vaazhkai Anubavangal (My Experiences in Life), he writes about its importance and how a good stage circuit was essential for new actors and technicians to develop in cinema. Many of his early movies were based on stage plays.

Pa.Neelakandan, born in 1916 began his career as a journalist, working for a couple of Tamil magazines. His first play, Mullil Roja was staged by TKS Brothers in 1942 and won him instant fame. He then wrote a play called Thyaga Ullam, which was awaiting a troupe for its staging. It was around this time that NS Krishnan had been sent to jail in the sensational Lakshmikantan murder case. The responsibility of running his troupe, NSK Nataka Sabha fell on his close friend and associate SV Sahasranamam. The troupe was undergoing troubled times, with a split causing actors such as KR Ramaswamy and Sivaji Ganesan to move out. Sahasranamam was looking for a suitable script to stage when he heard of the success of Mullil Roja. He wrote to TK Shanmugam and requested to be introduced to Pa.Neelakandan.

Neelakandan met Sahasranamam the following week and narrated the script of Thyaga Ullam, which was based on the relationship between two brothers. Sahasranamam liked the script and it was decided that the troupe stage the play. He however suggested to Neelakandan that a character portraying the sister of the two brothers be included, which was agreed to. The play was renamed Naam Iruvar. In his autobiography Thirumbiparkiren, Sahasranamam says that the songs for the play were written by KP Kamakshi Sundaram, who would later go on to become a well-known lyricist. The song ‘Parakkum Bharatha Manikkodiye’ particularly was a hit with the masses. A few songs of Subramania Bharathi which were also used added immense value to the play. Sahasranamam also says that the concept of playback singing in a stage play was introduced in this production. The play, whose inauguration was presided over by noted journalist and author, Va.Ra was a tremendous success, with over 100 shows being staged.

AV Meiyappa Chettiar, who had watched the play nearly 10 times at the eponymous Walltax theatre decided to make it into a movie. He bought the rights from Pa.Neelakandan for a sum of Rs 3000 and also hired him as an assistant director for the movie. A few actors from the play were booked for the movie. Sahasranamam was offered the role of the hero, which he initially accepted. He later backed out owing to logistics of balancing the running of NSK Nataka Sabha and the shooting of the movie, which was being held in Karaikudi, where AVM Studios was then located. However, it would prove to be a big break for another actor who would go on to become of Tamil cinema’s most popular comedian and character actors, VK Ramaswamy. Notable names in the film included TR Mahalingam (who replaced SV Sahasranamam,), BR Panthulu, who would later go on to direct and produce several colossal movies, K Sarangapani and TR Ramachandran. The role of the sister to the two brothers was played by ‘Baby’ Kamala, a child prodigy who would later make waves in the world of dance as Kumari Kamala.

The most interesting side story in the making of this movie is the nationalisation of Subramania Bharathi’s songs. Meiyappa Chettiar decided to buy the full rights to use a few songs in the movie. The rights lay with the famous jewellers M/s Surajmals, who had bought them to reproduce in the form of gramophone records but had not used them. They demanded a sum of Rs 10000 to give up their rights, which was paid by Meiyappa Chettiar in full.  After Independence, the Premier of Madras, OP Ramaswamy Reddiar offered to buy out the rights from Meiyappa Chettiar in order to nationalise the works. A magnanimous Meiyappa Chettiar, the ardent patriot at heart he was, gifted the same to the government.

This post was first written for The Cinema Resource Centre blog.

Policekaran Magal: From stage to celluloid

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.

This post was first written for The Cinema Resource Centre blog.

Service to Stage

S.V.Sahasranamam

 

The 1950s brought about a paradigm shift in Tamil theatre. It was the decade that saw the emergence of social themes being  portrayed on stage, marking a change from the earlier eras where mythological and historical themes dominated the content. A key contributor to this change was S.V.Sahasranamam, the subject of this piece.

S.V.Sahasranamam was born in Singanallur, near Coimbatore on 29th of November 1913. His father Venkatramana Iyer was a Government servant employed in the Irrigation Department at a salary of Rs.5 per month. The family was of modest means, with the salary of the father being the only source of income. When Sahasranamam was six years of age, a massive plague affected the entire district and many families vacated the place. Sahasranamam’s parents however stayed back to undertake relief work, while he and his siblings were sent to live with their maternal uncle. Unfortunately for them, their mother was one of the many victims claimed by the plague.

Following the death of his mother, he was sent to Pollachi to be brought up by his father’s elder brother’s family. While in school, he developed an interest in theatre and acted in small roles in school plays. One day, he happened to watch a performance of “Abhimanyu Sundari”, by the Madurai Sri Balashanmukhananda Sabha, a Boys Company which in its later avatar became the T.K.S.Nataka Sabha. Captivated by the performance of T.K.Shanmugam as Abhimanyu, Sahasranamam decided to join the troupe. He followed it to Coimbatore from Pollachi, his travel expenses being met by the sale proceeds of his new English text book!

Sahasranamam was required by the manager of the Balashanmukhananda Sabha to produce a letter from his father to the effect that he had no objection to his son joining the troupe. This posed a problem for Sahasranamam, whose journey had been without the knowledge of his family. However, in his keenness to join the troupe, he created a consent letter and forged his father’s signature on it. He was duly admitted into the troupe. His joy was however short lived, as the manager of the troupe suspecting foul play brought Venkatramana Iyer to the camp the very next day. Confronted by his father as to whether he wanted to continue studying or take to acting, Sahasranamam replied that he wanted to be an actor. Venkatramana Iyer had no choice but to agree.

The Boys Company essentially followed the Gurukula System, where besides learning various components of acting, the students also learnt to carry out routine administrative works related to the functioning of the troupe. Sahasranamam was a quick learner and the rigorous training he underwent held him in good stead as an administrator when he later started Seva Stage. It was also here that he forged a friendship with Kalaivanar N.S.Krishnan, a fellow actor in the troupe. It was a relationship that developed into a strong bond, with Sahasranamam in later years becoming his manager.

Sahasranamam’s film debut came about with Menaka. A famous novel written by Vaduvur Doraiswamy Iyengar, it had been made into a successful stage play by the Balashanmukhananda Sabha. A production house named Shanmugananada Talkies which had been formed by a group of businessmen from Coimbatore decided to make it into a movie, with the entire cast of the stage play being roped into the movie as actors. Sahasranamam, who had donned a role in the play travelled along with the entire troupe to Bombay, where the film was shot.

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 as a manager in his production house Ashoka Films. More than an administrative manager looking after the production activities, he became N.S.Krishnan and T.A.Mathuram’s trusted lieutenant, managing their schedules and at times even driving them to various locations. Such was the confidence the pair had in Sahasranamam’s abilities that the responsibility of running their drama troupe N.S.K Nataka Sabha was thrust on him during the time N.S.Krishnan was in jail in connection with the Lakshmikanthan murder case.

His long standing desire of establishing his own troupe bore fruit when he formed Seva Stage in 1953. The troupe ushered in a new era of experimental theatre, with social themes being its focus. The first play staged by the troupe was “Kangal”, which was the Tamil adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Vision. The play was a resounding success, with the main roles being donned by Sivaji Ganesan, Pandari Bai and her sister Mynavathi. The success of this play was followed by yet another experimental venture, Irulum Oliyum, which featured just four actors and four scenes. Vaanavil, an adaptation of Temporal Power, a novel by the famed British novelist Marie Corelli provided the audience with the unique experience of a revolving stage, which was a first for Tamil theatre. The technical aspects of these plays, especially the sets were taken care of by Kalasagaram Rajagopal, the famous sculptor.

Yet another first brought about by Sahasranamam was the establishment of a drama school in 1957 to teach various aspects of theatre to aspiring artistes. The school was inaugurated in a function at the R.R.Sabha, Mylapore by C.Subramaniam, with various dignitaries such as Rukmini Devi Arundale participating. The first batch comprised of 26 students. Noted personalities such as Khi.Va.Jagannathan, S.D.Subramania Yogi and T.K.Shanmugam visited the school to teach them. Amongst the batch of 26 students was Komal Swaminathan, who later became one of Tamil stage’s most powerful playwrights.

Productions such as Policekaran Magal, Naalu Veli Nilam, President Panchatcharam and Therotti Magan ensured Seva Stage’s continued success on the theatre scene. Sahasranamam managed get noted writers such as T.Janakiraman, Ku.Alagiriswami and B.S.Ramiah to script these plays. With an array of noted film personalities such as Muthuraman, Devika, S.N.Lakshmi and Pandari Bai to name a few acting in them, these plays did not lack star value either. Many of them such as Policekaran Magal were also later made into movies, with Sahasranamam reprising his stage roles on screen. Panchali Sabatham, a stage adaptation of Subramania Bharati’s immortal poem was yet another production that won many accolades for being a pioneering attempt. This play was also staged in Calcutta during the Rabindranath Tagore Centenary Celebrations as a part of the performances by the delegation from Tamil Nadu.

He was a part of the Indian cultural delegation that visited the Soviet Union in 1960. For his contribution to the field of theatre, he was awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy award in 1967.

Sahasranamam suffered five heart attacks between 1974 and 1988. He was in the midst of producing a new play, “Nandha Vilakku” when he suffered his final heart attack. He passed away on February 19th, 1988.

Sahasranamam’s birth centenary was celebrated recently, with his protégé Kalaimamani P.R.Dorai and son S.V.S.Kumar organising a yearlong celebration.