When asked by a fan about the raga of a film song, Maharajapuram Santhanam would sport his impish smile and quip, ‘Cinema Raagam’. Cinema music is freewheeling in its approach to melody, the only rule being that it must be evocative. Carnatic music is bound by a long tradition, and any creativity is within the confines of accumulated wisdom.
But despite this diametrical difference of approach, Carnatic musicians have had a shot at film music. Some have even had an innings. Certain periods in Tamil cinema have been easier for this two-timing, but versatile artistes have found it possible all the while! In recent times, artistes have additionally to double as judges in reality shows shot late into the night and live media events with a lot of razzle dazzle.
Maharajapuram Santhanam himself sang a snatch of song in the 1974 film Roshakkaari, but it did not involve any foray into a new genre as he only sang an Alwar pasuram with which he used to woo his concert audiences. He had not reached the peak then, and it is possible the song added a wee bit to his rising popularity. Later, he would return the compliment to the music director (M. S. Viswanathan), performing jugalbandhis with the latter’s orchestra.
Santhanam’s father Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer had done one better, taking up an important acting role in the much hyped Nandanar (1935). Having come into his own in the early twenties, he became the first charismatic Carnatic musician to essay a celluloid role. But Viswanatha Iyer knew that Carnatic music was his métier and but for a single deflection of course would stick to it. His younger contemporary, G. N. Balasubramaniam was of the same ilk, but used films as a parallel career for more than a decade and acted in five films. He was unlike most Carnatic performers, being well educated, urbane and groomed outside the gurukula system, and needed the new gramophone and celluloid mediums to survive the hostile ambience. But except GNB’s single film with M. S. Subbulakshmi, there is not trace, not even a gramophone record of his celluloid phase. Apart from other things, it also shows that he never took his film music seriously. In the case of MS, however, her film work dovetailed beautifully into her persona as a classical singer with a yen for the spiritual.
The Carnatic element was so pronounced in the first decade Tamil talkie that it drew musicians and artistes of all hues towards it. Musiri Subramania Iyer unwillingly donned the title role in ‘Tukaram’ (1938), only for the dough, and a young K. V. Narayanaswami, later to be known for his sensitive and sublime Carnatic singing, portrayed the young Kannappa Nayanar in a film of the same title (1938). Professor P. Sambamurthy, famous for his array of works on Carnatic music, had his all-woman orchestra play the background score for the film Rajabhakti (1937). He was also responsible for the music of Urvasiyin Sabatham (1939) and Krishnakumar (1941). Rukmini Devi, who later refused a presidential candidature, mimed to an erotic padam in Rajadesingu (1936) for a clip tagged on as an added attraction. V.V. Sadagopan, Carnatic musician and first actor in Tamil cinema to shoot in London (Navayuvan 1937), acted in four films before embarking on a concert career and then preferring to teach music and launch a movement for an alternative pedagogy for music.
T. N. Rajarathinam, both by personal and public estimation the Nagaswara Chakravarthi, acquiesced in playing the title role in ‘Kalamegam’ (1940). Neither the film nor the celebrated piper’s singing cut much ice and that was the end of his pipe dream of cinema.
GNB’s star disciples MLV and (Radha) Jayalakshmi had, in contrast, an eventful record as playback singers in the fifties in addition to their concert careers. P. Leela, after a great stint as a playback singer, began a concert career with the comment that she was basically a classical singer who became famous in cinema. Balamuralikrishna, a Carnatic legend in his lifetime, has been the film world’s bridge to classical music. His singing for films has been selective, but always successful.
Sirkali Govindarajan, with his rigorous training in classical music was successful as a playback, Tamil Isai performer and devotional singer. Yesudas did the same with great success and in more than one language. In the next generation, P. Unnikrishnan has balanced his Carnatic concerts with playback singing admirably.