When a measure like demonetization that affects all people comes into play, you can be sure it will be factored into films in a variety of ways in the times to come. Film is a mass medium and a mass happening is certain to find echoes in it. In fact, the very first demonetization in India that took place in 1946 figures brilliantly in a little known film of the period. The film, ‘Vijayalakshmi’, flopped when it was released, but ironically it is perhaps the only film of 1946 to have survived seventy turbulent years since it saw the light of day!
Though named eponymously after its female protagonist, the film is dominated by the avaricious father-in-law Ganapathi Iyer, who finds his Nemesis in the demonetization of thousand rupee notes. In a superbly crafted climax that is based on superimpositions, unconventional camera angles and evocative music, the character that marries the religiosity of the priestly class with the greed of the loan shark finds superb evocation.
Based on a Marathi stage play, Bandaachi Soon, written by playwright Sri Ganesh Krishna Shastri Pathak, Vijayalakshmi was directed by the veteran filmmaker P. Pulliah, most famous for directing N.T.Rama Rao in the iconic mythological Sri Venkateswara Mahatyam (1960). Ironically, Vijayalakshmi is on the other end of the spectrum, being for most part a delightful vehicle of cinematic realism that presents credible characters and situations.
B.R. Panthulu, known more as producer director of seminal films like Veerapandiya Kattabommon, Kappalottiya Thamizhan, Karnan and Aayirathil Oruvan, if not for his essay of the role of ‘School Master’, excels himself in a riveting portrayal of greed. With the varied palette of a practised actor, he brings facial expressions, as well as mannerisms of speech and gait to make the character of the miserly Ganapathi come alive.
After his religiously conducted Lakshmi Puja, which is more a gloating over accumulated riches in his iron safe than any devotion to the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Ganapati Iyer receives a letter from his son Ramu. He begins to utter mournful cries learning that Ramu has resigned his job. Questioned by his anxious wife, he says, ‘Praanan Poana Enna, Panam Poana Enna, Rendum Onnu thaanedi’ (Losing money is akin to losing one’s life), underlining his philosophy of life with the skewed equation that wealth equals life !
This immediately leads to exploitation and ill-treatment of women, of course with the complicity of other women, as is to be expected in a patriarchal society with scant respect for the rights or feelings of women. Prodded by his wife, Ganapati Iyer sends his daughter-in-law packing to her father’s place so that he can make more money getting his son married a second time. ‘’A two-stringed gold necklace, all the silver ware, and 10,000 as dowry for the second marriage. I can put away another 15,000 rupees in my safe,’’ he chuckles happily, gloating over future acquisitions! Note hungry Ganapati is of the kind that invites the woes of demonetization!
Even at the outset, the film juxtaposes Ganapati Iyer’s worship of material wealth (Lakshmi in a sense) with the joy and gaiety of heroine Vijayalakshmi (M.V.Rajamma, the super mother of later years), suggesting that a worthy woman is truly more valuable than material things a man may possess. That this constitutes the denouement of the film, speaks of the thoughtful way the film has been structured all through. Did not Pudovkin lay down that editing is the foundation of film technique!
The year 1946 was a challenging one for the film industry with famine conditions prevailing in certain parts of the then Madras Presidency and the introduction of 12 ounce ration of rice. The demonetisation of 500, 1000 and 10,000 notes also hit the money bags financing the film industry as it did the stars who received part of the payment in black. Though the introduction of prohibition in 8 districts of the Presidency made it seem that favourable conditions had been created for the film trade, there was actually little enthusiasm at the box office.
It was under such dismal conditions that a band of filmmakers like Pullaiah (director), B.R.Panthulu (lead actor), A.T.Krishnaswami (dialogue writer and director), G.Govindarajulu Naidu (music director), among others, got together to make a distinctive film like ‘Vijayalakshmi’. It turned out to be an excellent film, but bombed at the box office. It has also escaped the notice of the chroniclers of Tamil cinema till now, but still lives to tell a tale!
(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and author of several books on the subject)
(A version of this article appeared in the columns of Times of India)