With the Vietnam war tearing up not only Vietnam but also public opinion in the US, it was to be expected that Vietnam became a synonym for discord and strife. But back in the late sixties, it was left to school drop out K. Sundaram to immediately tap the symbolism by naming his play on a family divided against itself as ‘Vietnam Veedu’! His audience in the amateur drama circuit in Madras consisted of the urban middle class who were avid newspaper readers bombarded by headlines of the war in the Southeast Asian country. In the event, the play and the film that followed were so successful that Sundaram came to be known as ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram!
There was something of the then smouldering Vietnam in Sundaram himself. Son of a lawyer in Tiruchi, Sundaram’s turbulent adolescence was marred by a disastrous academic record and dismally low self esteem. He once remarked that he had the appearance of a figure in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Sundaram’s anxious mother took him to Reverend Lourdes Xavier of the Immaculate Conception church at Poondi, near Thanjavur. The latter’s assurance that the boy would make good though without any formal education came as some reassurance to both mother and son. Sundaram later returned the favour to the kind Padre with Gnana Oli, a stage play based loosely on Les Miserables and featuring Major Sundarrajan. Sivaji Ganesan played the protagonist in the celluloid version shot prominently in and around the Poondi church.
Sundaram’s chance entry upon his arrival at Mambalam, into Clubhouse, iconic haven of film world aspirants like Nagesh, Vali and Srikanth, was providential. His meeting with thespian Y.G.Parthasarathy, whose association stirred up his passion for the stage was equally serendipitous. After being asked to push Parthasarathy’s broken down car to his house, Sundaram returned on invitation in the evening only to become a junior member of his dramatic troupe!
Initially Sundaram had wanted to be an actor….perhaps a comedian in keeping with the mocking and dismissive disdain everybody treated him with. It was the veteran comedian T.S.Durairaj who identified Sundaram’s métier and asked him to concentrate on writing. Working night shifts as a tyre inspector in an industrial unit, Sundaram did the dramatic rounds in the day and soon caught the eye of none other than ‘Puratchi Nadigar’ MGR. Sundaram had written the play for the factory’s first anniversary which was presided over by MGR. The impressed star wanted the playwright to come on stage and not only predicted that he would go places but also recommended him to topnotch film companies like Devar Films and Padmini Pictures. Sundaram’s participation in the story department of such production companies improved his rock-bottom finances apart from teaching him how to write for films.
There is some fortuitousness again in the manner in which Sundaram’s Vietnam Veedu-tale based on his own father’s fixation for family prestige, reached the portals of Sivaji Ganesan, then a shining star whose name had become synonymous with histrionics. When Sundaram did really reach the Presence, Sivaji glanced at the youth and remarked, ‘Your shirt is bigger than your frame’. Sundaram responded with, ‘’I am not the master of my own shirt, Sir’’ referring to the fact that the shirt in question was borrowed.
The scope for melodrama that Vietnam Veedu provided tickled Sivaji’s fancy as did the fact that he would be using the Brahmin lingo in a big way for the first time. The dollops of dramatic English lines that Sundaram had larded the dialogues with were an added attraction. Sivaji luxuriated in the glow of Prestige Padmanabhan, and his powerful, if mannered and quirky essay mesmerized stage audiences before holding cinema goers in thrall.
Sundaram’s Gnana Oli and then Gowravam, part of whose storyline Sundaram had gleaned from Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, gave ample scope for Sivaji to indulge his sweet tooth for grandiose melodrama provided by a megalomaniacal character whose tragedy could have been avoided with a little wisdom. Though he was more at home as a script writer than as a director, Sundaram wielded the megaphone himself in Gowravam, fortified by Sivaji’s own preference as well as the guidance of ace camera director A. Vincent. Hugely effective songs from the MSV,Kannadasan,TMS combination (Devane in Gnana Oli; Neeyum Naanuma and Palootti Valartha Kili in Gowravam) heightened the tragic dimensions unfolded in Sundaram’s films. He wrote scripts and dialogues for many Sivaji starrers. Even as Sundaram basked in the limelight with his successes for Sivaji, he wrote for MGR in ‘Naan Yen Pirandhaen’ and ‘Naalai Namadhe’, a remake of Yadon ki Baarat.
Realising that he was caught in the image trap of the two titans of Tamil cinema, Sundaram sought some way out. He claimed to have begun the genre of ‘social mytholology’ by showing the workings of divinity in contemporary individuals and situations (Namma Veettu Deivam). Sundaram had a strong religious streak which came out in many films (Devi Sri Karumariamman, Aayiram Kannudaiyal and Navagraha Nayaki among others). But the cake goes to films like Payanam, with its interesting directorial touches, as wells as turns of dialogue and plot in etching the character of a motley assemblage of train passengers.
The small screen provided ample acting opportunities to Sundaram in the evening of his life. But he was also toying with a film based on his mother’s life. He had debuted with his father’s story and would have come full circle if he had had his way.
(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and author of several books on Tamil cinema)
(The above article appeared in Times of India, Chennai edition)