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.

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.

S.S.Viswanatha Dass

The last day of 1940 was a day like no other in the history of Tamil stage. The scene of action was the famed Salt Cotaurs theatre (Royal Theatre) on Wall Tax road. The play being staged that day was the famous Valli Thirumanam. A huge crowd had gathered in great expectation, for although the play had been staged several times earlier by various troupes, they had come to watch and cheer the man playing the role of Lord Muruga, S.S.Viswanatha Dass. He had captured their imagination with his wonderful voice and had used the stage to good effect to arouse the patriotic fervour and spread the ideals of the freedom movement in them. Little did they anticipate what was in store.

Born into a family from the Maruthuvar community of Sivakasi on 16th June 1886, Viswanatha Dass started acting at an early age, learning the craft from the legendary Sankaradas Swamigal. Having first donned the grease paint at the age of 8, Viswanatha Dass established himself as an actor of repute and by the age of 14 had made a name for himself performing both Rajapart and Sthreepart. He was blessed with a melodious voice, which he put to good effect to attract huge crowds.

A meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in Tuticorin in 1911 led to Viswanatha Dass involving himself actively in the freedom struggle. Invited to sing the prayer songs at the public meetings, Viswanatha Dass was soon drawn into the movement by Gandhiji, who was captivated by his voice. Dass accepted the offer and took to wearing khadi and also ensured that the character he was playing on stage too wore khadi. It was thus not uncommon to see him don the roles of Lord Muruga or Kovalan dressed in Khadi! He would also include patriotic songs penned by the likes of Madhurakavi Bhaskaradas in his plays. With other troupes following suit, this soon became a common occurrence and idea of using the stage to stoke the fire of patriotism gained momentum. Viswanatha Dass traveled to places such as Singapore, Burma, Malaysia and Sri Lanka with his group, the “Shanmukhanandam Drama Troupe” and spread the message of the movement through his plays and songs.

His active participation in the movement meant that he was never far away from trouble. It was commonplace for the police to wait at the venue where Viswanatha Dass was performing and arrest him as soon as he sang patriotic songs. Legend has it that he was arrested 29 times in the 29 years since he first met Mahatma Gandhi, with legendary figures like V.O.Chidambaram and Muthuramalinga Thevar often appearing to bail him out.

With nothing to fall back on for finance save theatre, Viswanatha Dass was regularly under financial strain. In 1940, his ancestral property in Thirumangalam, Madurai had to be given up for auction due to his inability to repay loans raised on it. It was at this time that he was contracted for staging three plays in Madras. With a hope of raising some money to save the house, Viswanatha Dass left for Madras, unaware that it was to be his last visit.

The crowd (and the police) waited with bated breath as the play started. Seated on a peacock, and dressed in full regalia, Viswanatha Dass entered to thunderous applause singing “Maaya Vaazhve im mannmeedhe”. That was as far as he got. With a sudden seizure, he collapsed and lay motionless on stage. The police converged to control the chaos that ensued and doctors were summoned to attend on Viswanatha Dass. They arrived and pronounced him dead from a massive heart attack.

As the news of Dass’s demise spread, huge crowds thronged the theatre to pay their last respects to the man who had given them so much of joy with his singing and exploits on stage. The owner of the theatre, Cunniah Wodaiyar declared the place closed for further shows as a mark of respect to the great personality. On 1st of January 1941, huge crowds joined the funeral procession that started from the theatre and reached the Moolakothalam cemetery, where he was consigned to the flames at around 7 PM.

Today, Viswanatha Dass is a distant footnote in the annals of the freedom movement in Tamilnadu. Save for a statue near his native town, Thirumangalam and his house (which was demolished and converted into a memorial cum marriage hall recently), there is little to perpetuate his memory today.

The Archive of Indian Music website has two of his recordings, which can be accessed here:

http://archiveofindianmusic.org/artist_sound_clips/312

The National Theatres

The 1950s was a pivotal decade in the functioning of Tamil theatre. The Boys Company era had almost faded away , paving the way for the advent of professional theatre (primarily run by film actors) and eventually, amateur theatre (where the players had other day jobs besides acting). The themes dealt with on stage too underwent a change, with the focus shifting from historical subjects to social themes and drawing room dramas. With Nawab Rajamanickam’s Madurai Devi Bala Vinoda Sangeetha Sabha too entering the last decade or so of its active presence, it looked as if it was curtains for mythological themes. That they continued to attract audiences for more than three decades after its existence looked threatened was thanks to R.S.Manohar. November 14th marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of his troupe, National Theatres.

Born in Namakkal in 1925, Manohar’s tryst with theatre started when he was in school. His father was an employee of the Postal Department and had been posted on transfer to various places. On one such transfer, the family shifted to Madras, where Manohar studied at the Ramakrishna Mission School in T.Nagar. It was however during his graduation at the Pachaiyappa’s college that his first major break in acting came about. In an interview to senior journalist Majordasan, Manohar says that he had to substitute for an actor playing the title role in Manohara at short notice. The performance however went off well and Manohar, whose name till then was R.S.Lakshminarasimhan took up the name by which he would be known for the rest of his life.

Manohar founded National Theatres in 1954. The first couple of plays, Inbam Enge and Ulagam Sirikkiradhu interestingly, were social themed. His first hit (and probably the biggest) was Ilankeswaran, which premiered in Madras in 1957.

Written by Thuraiyur K.Murthy, Ilankeswaran was based on the version of Ramayana where Ravana is portrayed as the father of Sita. Needless to say, the play attracted its share of controversy and was not a great success in its initial run in Madras. The play however was a massive hit in Srilanka, where it was staged continuously for more than two months. On his return, organisers could no longer afford to ignore him and over the next 3 decades or so, it became his masterpiece, being staged nearly 2000 times. Other successful plays in the repertoire were Chanakya Sabatham, Thadaga Mudhreyan, Dronar and Malik Khafur, all written by Madurai Thirumaran (who also directed a few films in the 1980s), Narakasuran and Thirunavukkarasar.

Grandiose sets and trick shots were hallmarks of the troupe. Separate rehearsals spanning two or three days were held exclusively for the technical team to perfect the trick shots. Despite his busy film commitments, Manohar made it a point not to miss any performance. His shooting schedules were structured according to his stage commitments, with co actors such as M.G.R and Sivaji Ganesan being understanding enough and supportive of his dedication to theatre. With his stage productions being big budget ones costing more than Rs.50000, the remuneration he earned from films helped immensely.

National Theatres completed its Silver Jubilee in 1979. A Committee with Justice Mohan as the Chairman, V.Emberumanar Chetty as the Secretary and dignitaries such as C.R.Pattabiraman, M.A.M.Ramaswamy and V.P.VRajan (editor of The Mail) was formed to celebrate the occasion. A public function, which was held in April 1980 was a great success.

A freak injury sustained thanks to a trick shot that went wrong put an end to Manohar’s active involvement with the stage in the 1990s and he was never the same force thereafter. He however performed a few benefit shows for the Muthukrishna Swamy Trust in 2003.

Manohar passed away in January 2006. His fifty year association with stage spanned 31 productions and nearly 8000 shows in all, both in India and abroad. Today, his legacy is being kept alive by K.R.S.Kumar (Nadaga Kavalar Kalai Koodam) and D.Balasundaram (Tamizharasan Theatres), people who had been associated with him at various stages in his career.

The Sankaradas Swamigal Memorial

This Thursday, the 13th of November marks the 92nd death anniversary of Sankaradas Swamigal, the man who spearheaded the renaissance of Tamil theatre. He passed away on the night of 13th November 1922 in Pondicherry, where he had shifted to during the last few years of his life. Writing in his memoirs Enadhu Nataka Vaazhkai, T.K.Shanmugam says that Swamigal’s last few years were a far cry from the glory days of his remarkable career that spanned more than 3 decades and around 70 works. A stroke had paralyzed and immobilized him, confining him to bed. His death truly marked the end of an era. He was just 55 years old at the time of his death.

It is thanks to T.K.Shanmugam that we know something about Sankaradas Swamigal’s life today. In addition to writing about his interactions with him in his memoirs, Shanmugam also wrote a short biography of Swamigal titled “Tamizh Nataka Thalaimai Aasiriyar” which was first published in 1955. In the foreword, Shanmugam writes that amongst his dreams to perpetuate the memory of Swamigal was to construct a memorial for him in Pondicherry. That dream was to translate into reality sometime soon after, when a memorial for Swamigal was constructed in the Karuvadikuppam Cemetery (where his last rites had been performed) in the outskirts of Pondicherry.

On a visit to Pondicherry last year for a function, I took some time off to visit the cemetery. The location, just off the ECR was quite easy to find, thanks to its proximity to a famous local Saint’s Samadhi. It was a Saturday afternoon and there was not a soul in sight (literally!!) save  a watchman and couple of tipplers who obviously on a high had parked themselves comfortably on the benches. With trees aplenty and silence all around, the place did present a rather ghoulish appearance. I would not have ventured anywhere close to the cemetery had there been work in progress!

The watchman showed me the way to the memorial, which lies a bit removed from the cemetery in the mid-left of the sprawling campus. Surprisingly neat and well maintained, the memorial has a statue of Sankaradas Swamigal seated on a slab, with a mandapam surrounding it. The statue seems to be  a later development as a revised edition of “Tamizh Nataka Thalaimai Aasiriyar” brought out much later mentions only a photo being placed at the memorial.

Every year on his death anniversary, stage artistes and film personalities gather here to pay homage to his memory.

Much to my chagrin, the battery in my camera drained precisely the moment I entered the cemetery and hence I had to make do with some poor quality low resolution pictures of the memorial, which you can see here.



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It was on my way back that I noticed that not far way from the junction of this road and the ECR is a statue of  yet another remarkable personality whose upbringing and association with Tamil theatre is legendary, Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan!!

An earlier article on the life and times of Sankaradas Swamigal that I wrote can be accessed here: http://madrasramblings.blogspot.in/2013/02/the-father-of-tamil-theatre.html

Lord Muruga and Tamil theatre

The influence of Lord Muruga on Tamil theatre has been immense. Various incidents of His life, particularly his marriage with Valli have been the subject of many plays. The most well known play based on this episode is “Valli Thirumanam”, written by Sankaradas Swamigal, a man whose devotion to the Lord was exemplary. Legend has it that Sankaradas, taking a break from stage following a disagreement with Samy Naidu with whose drama company he was associated with as a playwright and teacher donned the ochre robe went on a pilgrimage to various shrines of Lord Muruga, which earned him the title Swamigal. It was later at the insistence of Kanjira exponent Manpoondia Pillai that Sankaradas Swamigal made a comeback to stage.

Valli Thirumanam was the masterpiece of the Special Drama repertoire, being staged by almost all drama companies of the time. Many a stage actor of those times made a name for themselves acting in the play. Most notable amongst them were the super hit pair of S.G.Kittappa and K.B.Sundarambal. Drama contractors would hire them for this play in particular. Such was the command over the play that at times Kittappa would act as Valli and Sundarambal as Muruga!

Yet another theatre personality whose devotion to Lord Muruga was exemplary was Sathavadhanam T.P.Krishnaswamy Pavalar. Born in 1890, Krishnaswamy Pavalar is noted for having used the far reaching medium of Tamil stage to spread the message of the freedom movement. His plays such as Kadharin Vetri and Desiya Kodi were based on themes aimed at rousing the patriotic spirit of the masses.

Krishnaswamy Pavalar was an accomplished poet too, composing works such as the Tirukazhukundram Tripurasundari Pathigam and the Vembadi Vinayakar Pancharatnam, that are little known today. His works on Lord Muruga too, the Porur Murugan Abisheka Maalai and Kandar Kavacham remain largely untraceable. A dedication of his to Lord Muruga which however stands even today is the idol of Muruga as Pazhaniandavar, which he donated to the Adhipureeswarar temple in Chintadripet.

The harmonium was an integral part of stage plays especially in the early era. Harmonists enjoyed special status and it was common practice of the times to make a special mention of the musician playing the instrument in the drama notices. Some stalwarts who played the instrument were K.S.Devudu Iyer and S.G.Kasi Iyer (the brother of S.G.Kittappa). But the man who towered above them all was Woraiyur T.M.Khader Bhatcha, a man who was renowned for his rendition of songs on Lord Muruga.

In his memoirs Enadhu Kalai Payanam, V.K.Ramaswamy says that T.M.Khader Batcha was  the man to go to in case a drama was not doing well. Such was the popularity he enjoyed that a mere announcement in the drama notice that he was performing as part of the play was enough to ensure a packed audience. Ramaswamy says that dressed in the traditional attire of veshti, jibba and angavasthram made of cloth from the mills of Glasgow, Khader Batcha with his huge frame was a sight to behold. Breaking the tradition of the harmonium players being seated behind curtains and away from the public eye, he was the first person to play the instrument in full public view. Describing his performance, Ramaswamy says that the audience would break into rapturous applause at the sight of Khader Batcha stroking his mustache after singing the first line of his most popular song, “Surulimalai meedhil mevum seela”   on Lord Muruga. Sadly, details of Khader Batcha’s life are very sketchy and he remains largely unknown today. A few records uploaded by old time collectors on Youtube however exist.

Here is Khader Batcha rendering “Saravanabhava Guhane Vaa” :