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Vamanan

Born in Bangalore, brought up in Calcutta, achieving the peaks of success in Bombay, the tragically charismatic actor-director Guru Dutt spent a considerable part of his last two years in Madras, as Chennai was known then. It’s a  fact that most biographers do not care to look at, though hapless Guru Dutt could not do so as the dream factories of the South worked considerably more efficiently than Bombay and  paid up in time.  That was something that Guru Dutt could not ignore at that point of his career.

In his life-time best film, Pyaasa, Guru Dutt had asked with sublimely lyrical certitude, ‘Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye tho kya hai’ (even if one were to triumph over the world,  what’s it worth?). But when the resounding failure of his artistically ambitious Kaagaz ke Phool raised the existential question,  ‘Ye duniya agar chal bhi jaaye tho kya hai’ (what if success were to leave one), the man known for expressing  ‘the dark poetry of the death wish’ experienced the stark prose of rejection in real life!

Subsequent to the Kaagaz debacle, even after the success of ‘Chaudavin ka Chaand’,  a Muslim social which he produced and acted in the lead role but didn’t direct, and the classic Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, which he also directed but did not claim the credit for, Guru Dutt looked southward though the productions there were only remakes of proven Tamil/Telugu films rewritten and packaged with the Hindi audience in mind.

In this phase, Guru Dutt was first booked for ‘Bharosa’ (released in September 1963)  by by N.Vasudeva Menon, a top manager of AVM studios who turned an ambitious producer and studio owner himself. Made with expert technicians  (cinematographer Thambu, famed for Gemini classics like Avvaiyar) and K. Shanker (reliable film editor turned director), all Guru Dutt had to do in the film was play a good-hearted country bumpkin romping around with Asha Parekh.  While Guru Dutt fulfilled the demands made on him, the methodical Madras filmmakers did not waste his time or energy with retakes or rehashes. ‘Bharosa’ was followed by ‘Bahurani’ (released in January 1964), based on successful films in Telugu (Ardhangi) and Tamil (Pennin Perumai) which derived their storyline from Manilal Banerjee’s novel ‘Swayamsiddha’.  With the Anglo Indian veteran Marcus Bartley behind the camera and the masterly T. Prakash Rao calling  the shots, Guru Dutt stood out as the retarded son transformed by the redemptive influence of his good wife (Mala Sinha).

It was then that the influential film producer A.L.Srinivasan booked Guru Dutt for Suhaagan, the Hindi version of his Tamil hit,  Sarada.  K.S. Gopalakrishnan, whom ALS had introduced as a director in Sarada, was billed to direct the Hindi version too. But he was more than anxious that he would have to direct Guru Dutt. The latter’s reputation as a technically brilliant director had preceded him to Madras, and KSG feared that Dutt might give him a torrid time questioning the set up of every shot! Guru Dutt arrived, and was accommodated at Ashoka Hotel in Egmore. KSG didn’t go to meet him. He was not there even to welcome him on the sets on the first day’s shooting. After Guru Dutt’s make up was done, A.L.Srinivasan introduced him to K.S.Gopalakrishnan.

Guru Dutt called KSG aside and told him: ‘‘Gopalakrishnan, you might have heard about me. People might have told you that I am a big director and all that.  But I have left all that behind. I have come to act in your film. You are my director. It’s my duty to follow what you say. It’s your responsibility to get from me what you need’’.  The unassuming manner in which Guru Dutt  spoke put the lid on KSG’s fears  and he hugged Guru Dutt with tears in his eyes.

Komal Swaminathan, reputed playwright and writer who assisted KSG in the film and considered the friendship he formed with Guru Dutt during the shooting of Suhagan as one of the blessings of his life, has recorded these impressions. In the event, Guru Dutt and Gopalakrishnan became thick friends during the shooting of Suhaagan! Gopalakrishnan’s description of the tank in his native village , ‘teeming with Murrel fish’, whetted Guru Dutt’s appetite. All his life he was passionate about fishing. He spent a week in Gopalakrishnan’s village Malliam, sometimes angling for fish unmindful of the hot summer sun, sometimes partaking of the coconut toddy that was brought specially for him! KSG marvelled that his hero was as ardent about country stuff as for Chivas Regal! Amidst all this, Guru Dutt developed a liking for the Silappadhikaaram story and took along a translated script titled ‘Madhavi’ for a future project.

A.L.Srinivasan, who was famous for the frequent parties he threw, looked after Guru Dutt very well, even as the latter was solicitous of the needs of his producer. ‘‘Unlike some Hindi stars, he would be on time on the sets. On the last day of his shooting, he had the director take every manner of shot of him, in case the need arose for such shots later’’, recalls Ms. Jayanthi Kannappan, Srinivasan’s  daughter-in-law.  The KSG unit was later shocked when on the last day of editing they got the news of Guru Dutt’s untimely death.  Suhaagan, which was released months later, was advertised as Guru Dutt’s ‘last and best’. Though it was no hit film, it did not rock the boat of the producer either.

 

ppasami, 81, who worked for A.L.S. productions, and was Guru Dutt’s attendant in Madras for three schedules, remembers Guru Dutt fondly. ‘’He was generally accommodated in the now defunct Oceanic Hotel. I have seen many heroes from Hindi cinema. But Guru Dutt was a different breed. He was a thorough gentleman. Unlike many stars, he had no airs. I will always remember him with respect’’

 

(A version of the above article appeared in the columns of Times of India, Chennai)

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and an author of many books on Tamil cinema)

 

By Vamanan

 Past events and things gain an aura of nostalgia in the present. This has happened in a material sense to ‘Maya Bazaar’ which first hit the silver screen in the summer of 1957. Its Telugu version acquired alluring hues and a contemporary sound in 2010, thanks to film colorization and digital re-mastering undertaken by C. Jagan Mohan. Today, in the diamond jubilee year of the film we can appreciate the great masters of old who made ‘Maya Bazaar’ such a great experience as well as the epical figures in the film who seem so life-like and real!

It’s is no use complaining that the love story between Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu and Balarama’s daughter Vatsala aka Sasirekha is apocryphal based on the argument that the Mahabharatha does not speak either of Balarama having a daughter or the latter romancing Abhimanyu! The Mahabharata’s famous claim that it encompasses everything was not achieved by one author sitting down to write an all-enveloping work; it is the Ocean into which all the rivers of the racial consciousness flow! We have only to see the new Maya Bazaar shimmering like a lotus petal in the morning dew  to realize that it is a celluloid window opening into a gallery of epic characters from Sri Krishna (NTR) to Rukmini (Sandhya), Abhimanyu (ANR, Gemini Ganesan in the Tamil version) and his half-Rakshasa cousin, Ghatothkacha (the one and only S.V.Ranga Rao)!

Maya Bazaar is a magical film in more ways than one. The most literal aspect, the highlight of the film is, of course, the seamless special effects it brings into play as the miraculous doings of Ghatothkacha. We have fire gushing like flowing water, carpets curling up, and any number of objects appearing and disappearing at will to the utter consternation of villainous characters. Ace cinematographer Marcus Bartley, an Anglo Indian with ages of experience shooting films achieved these effects more with ingenuity than with apparatus, with the help of his special effects man Harbans Singh. The FX are not much considering the unbelievable flexibility digital technology has given technicians these days to manipulate images. However, the Maya Bazaar strategy was not just to stun with special effects but to harness them effectively for the ends of the plot which was about harassing Kaurava malcontents with creepy happenings.

But more powerful and preternatural was the extraordinary control director K.V.Reddy, the maker of such Telugu classics like Bhakta Pothana and Yogi Vemana, and of the folklore hit Paathala Bhairavi (Telugu, Tamil), exercised over the script and his actors in his first mythological. Some scenes, like the first one which shows the celebration of the ‘coming of age’ of the young Vatsala, played adorably by Sachu both in the Telugu and Tamil versions, have such a likeness to life. One is transported to Dwaraka where Krishna, Rukmani, Subhadra and others are blessing the girl. In the narration of the romance of the lead pair (ANR-Savitri in Telugu, Gemini Ganesh-Savitri in Tamil), and its resolution through entertaining magical intervention, the loss of kingdom by the Pandavas is reduced to a shadow of a suggestion! In this way the narrative cleverly sidesteps the dark and looming spectre of a fratricidal war to focus on an entertaining romance that outmanoeuvres its opposition.

The introduction of ‘gadgets’ in the film makes for great interest. There is the mirror box that shows the image of the object of one’s deepest desires – something like the real-life technology of Skype with webcam! — and the ‘Satya Peetham’, apparently gifted by Sage Viswamitra to Harischandra for his incomparable truthfulness, which brings out the truth from people akin to the present-day truth serum! These not only add to the film’s interest but play a very important role in the script. While in the Mahabharatha, the climax has to come after the Kurukshetra carnage, Maya Bazaar’s purpose is served by having Shakuni expose himself by confessing before the ‘Seat of Truth’ about his diabolical deed of usurping the kingdom of the Pandavas and exiling them to the forest. This exposes him in front of Balarama, who had all the while been supporting the Kauravas because of his fondness for Duryodhana. The defeat of the Kauravas is thus effected by a series of discomfitures created by a ‘Maya Bazaar’ of hair-raising happenings as well as an involuntary confession! 

 Another enchanting aspect of the film is its music and song (Ghantasala/S.Rajeswara Rao). The moonlight boat song, for example, lingers in the mind decades past the first viewing of the film. But if the song and the night setting work a magic of their own, the way three pairs are interwoven into its picturisation is indicative of the delicate handling of story aspects. Even as Vatsala and Abhimanyu enjoy themselves in the boat, a guard informs Balarama and Revati about them. They rush to accost the young pair. But as Krishna immediately catches a whiff of the danger to the young lovers, he sends them packing and takes their place along with Rukmani! Balarama and Revati find them in the boat and take it to mean that the guard made an error of judgement. After Krishna and Rukmani alight from the boat, Balarama and Revati decide to go for a boat ride themselves, though Revati had just then made a caustic comment against Krishna and Rukmani.  Laced with humour and satire, how much excitement and interest the song situation packs in itself!

 Made in the Vauhini studios of Vijaya Productions (citadel of the redoubtable Nagi Reddi-Chakrapani duo), Maya Bazaar had attention lavished on every detail of film production. Sachu, one of the very few today who can speak first-hand of the production values of Maya Bazaar, marvels at the importance director Reddy and his team gave her though she was but a child artiste then. In the time lapse scene that shows the child Vatsala growing up in to a beautiful damsel (Savithri), such intimate attention was paid to her costumes, hair styling and jewellery to match them with those of Savithri! Sachu cherishes the memento she got for the 100 days run of Maya Bazaar, a silverine souvenir with the stamp of Vijaya’s inspiring logo. It was her first in a time-defying career.

The noted writer Pingali Nagendra Rao  penned the lines and songs of Maya Bazaar. They were rendered appropriately in Tamil by Vijaya’s resident Tamil writer, Thanjai Ramiah Das, who generally did a great job. ‘Laahiri Laahiri Laahirilo’ was transposed so beautifully into ‘Aaha Inba Nilaavinile’ befitting the situation. Nambiar (Shakuni) and Thangavelu (Lakshmana Kumaran) played their roles evocatively in the Tamil version.

Maya Bazaar Sachu

Sachu as the child Vatsala in Maya Bazaar

Maya Bazaar came on the scene a few years after Parasakthi abrasively lambasted mythology and religion.  Maya Bazaar was produced by Telugus but its magic helped revive the mythological genre in Tamil films too! However, while the Maya Bazaar print has been has been restored and coloured in its Telugu version, Tamils have still to make do with the old, time-worn black and white copy. It’s time it was restored and revived in Tamil too. It would be a tribute to the heady old days when Telugus and Tamils worked hand in hand to make Southern cinema proud. If ‘Vivaha Bhojanambu’ was a hit in Telugu, ‘Kalyaaana Samaiyal Saadham’ didn’t stand behind. The Tamils would sure look forward to a large screen, DTS sound Maya Bazaar with seminal artistes like Savithri, NTR and Ranga Rao striding the screen. So here’s to the restored Maya Bazaar in Tamil!

maya-bazaar

S.V.Ranga Rao in Maya Bazaar as Ghatothkacha 

Vamanan

Like the ascending and descending notes of ragas and scales Ilaiyaraja uses to compose his tunes, his relationship with his song tracks has seen many ups and downs through the decades. The maestro known for moving fans with his music has been forced in recent times to move courts to protect his copyright.

For a few years after making a redoubtable debut with Annakili (1976), when Ilaiyaraja was just another composer, albeit brilliant and promising, he made no claim of ownership on his tracks and music labels like Inreco and HMV purchased the audio rights from the producers.

This is why the tracks of such all-time classics like the Rajinikanth-Shobha starrer, Mullum Malarum,  the blockbuster Kalyanaraman featuring Kamalhasan in two roles, the musically vibrant Rosappu Ravikkaikaari and Annakili are with HMV. And Inreco has the tracks of the nationally awarded Nenjathai Killaadhe featuring some truly memorable hits, Sigappu Rojakkal in which Kamalahasan played a psychopathic killer and Priya, the first Tamil film with stereophonic recording.

Such films signalled a bright new cinema of fresh faces, talented directors and a newer approach to cinema. Ilaiyaraja’s scintillating music proved to be the anthem of this breed of films. By the early eighties, Ilaiyaraja was on the way to achieving a status that no music composer had attained in Tamil cinema, the name above the title.

The start of the eighties saw a greater democratization of film music through the proliferation of cassettes. Film production too peaked from around 60 in the mid seventies to well above a hundred. Ilaiyaraja had about forty films a year – a huge vindication for a composer who had been challenged in the field about his capacity to arrange music!

It was then that Ilaiyaraja took charge of his audio tracks, propping up the Echo label through his Pannaippuram boyhood friend Subramaniam. It was a business that could not go wrong. Ilaiyaraja got his audio rights as part of his payment for composing music for films and there was a huge demand for his songs.

Yet, the enterprise did not do very well as it could not meet the huge demand, and pirates made a killing. Echo was then made over in 1988 to ‘New York’ Parthasarathi, an erstwhile music director who had moved over to the US and made a mark with his music company there.  Parthasarathi and Ilaiyaraja released the latter’s first compact disc of hits in Singapore but the celebration lasted for a few years only till the producer of the mega pic Thalapathy (1991) sold the audio rights to a another label (Lahiri) at a huge price. This opened Ilaiyaraja’s eyes to the commercial potential of his work yet again and he stopped giving films to Echo. He started his own company, ‘Raja Cassettes’, but as Ilaiyaraja’s elder brother R. D. Bhaskar put it then, ‘We should not have entered a business we had no idea about’!

By this time there was a halo round Ilayaraja, and he was being hailed as Ragadevan, a musical god. Eknath, a prominent video library owner was drawn into the circle of devotees and given the audio rights for a price. He gave up after a score of films saying the money he paid for the tracks could not be recouped from cassette sales. AVM came in on the 61st year of its audio business but let go after a crop of releases as the humungous hype was not converting into profits. These tracks, which had been given for five years were then transferred to Pyramid Audio which has about 150 Ilaiyaraja films now.

In the new millennium, when audio rights include a spectrum of digital rights like downloads through mobile networks, rings tones, caller tunes, internet streaming and the like, Ilaiyaraja had sounded the warning bugle against piracy and named some companies as copyright holders. Now, he has restrained a few of them from infringing his copyright. The problem in this muddle is that even law-abiding retailers have no foolproof means of ascertaining a legal Ilaiyaraja track! A high end retailer in Chennai, who was chagrined at being raided for selling illegal Ilaiyaraja CDs wanted to know of some foolproof method of doing just that!

But despite all the discordant notes that have attended its sales, Ilaiyaraja’s music is still a sought after product by his fans. The sad note is that rather than scoring music, a  composer has to spend his time scoring out those selling his music without his permission.

The latest in the series of issues over use of Ilaiyaraja’s film songs is old friend and colleaugue SPB, who himself sang scores and scores of the maestro’s songs being served a lawyer’s notice for performing Ilaiyaraja’s songs without his permission.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music with many acclaimed works to his credit)

(Most part of this article was originally published in the Times of India, Chennai)

muhammad-bin-thuglak-thiraippada-kaatchiVamanan

When the legendary thespian ‘Avvai’ T. K. Shanmugham came to preside over one of Cho Ramaswamy’s early plays in the fifties, he advised the amateur playwright and actor not to give English titles to his Tamil plays. Cho, who had till then come up with ‘Why not?’,  ‘Wait and see’ and ‘What for?’, soon responded with ‘Quo Vadis’ which is Latin for ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘Sambhavaami Yuge Yuge’ which is, of course, a Sanskrit phrase from the Bhagavad Gita!

Irrepressible, unpredictable and with a mind all his own, Cho would in later life narrate with glee that K. Balachander threw up his hands in despair at having to direct him on stage! It was not given even to the most reputed stage director of his time to be able to tame Cho, the enfant terrible of the amateur Tamil stage. Cho would later go on not only to portray the controversial and enigmatic Muhammad Bin Thuglak on stage and cinema, but also make the ‘Pagla Sultan’ his mascot and the name of his influential magazine on political affairs! While taking a decisive stand on many issues based on threadbare argument and logical acumen he would also ensure that he caught the eye mainly because of his devil-take-the-hindmost Thuglakian style.

There was something of this quixotic gambit in the way he forced himself on dramatist Koothabiran as an aspiring actor threatening to walk into every scene of the latter’s ‘Thaenmozhiyaal’ if a meaningful role was not written for him. Koothabiran decided discretion was the better of valour, but did not know how to name the character, an interloper into his script! Cho was generously willing to share his own name, with the result being that he was rather well noticed by audiences! While he could be self-deprecatory and dismissive of many of his achievements — the title card of Muhammad bin Thuglak, his first bid at direction says ‘Trying to learn direction:Cho’ — he was never the one to shrink from the limelight.

Viveka Fine Arts, the amateur drama group whose most famous writer and actor Cho became, was actually formed by his brother Krishnaswami aka Ambi and three of his friends. The thrill of performing on stage as well as the joy of meeting friends was what brought together the gang. Cho was not only the prolific playwright of the group but its stormy petrel who would fearlessly cock a snook at the powers that be.  One of Cho’s lifelong regrets in this regard would be his petulant public reaction to Kamaraj’s impatience at his derisive attacks on the Congress government of the time. While he began to adore Kamaraj in the seventies as an incorruptible leader dedicated to the welfare of the people, he could not bear to think how flippant he had been at the start of his dramatic career in responding to the great leader. As for any fireworks against his plays by the Kazhagam malcontents, or any move for a ban, Cho welcomed them as more publicity! Chief Minister Karunanidhi even tried writing a rebuttal play but soon gave up that line of attack. In the event, Cho would become MGR’s favourite comedian, and act in Karunanidhi’s home production, Engal Thangam, pulling off a marvellous performance as an avid MGR fan! But later on, reviews of MGR films in Thuglak would jeopardize Cho’s role as a comic sidekick of MGR!

But after the success of Thuglak on stage and screen, and the launch of Thuglak as a fortnightly early in 1970, Cho’s dialogues in every film began to centre on politics. There were a few films here and there that made it seem that Cho would take portrayal of characters seriously, but he was more into playing himself again and again as a cynical critic of the political system. No role would be complete without a reference to his role as a commentator on political events. In ‘Aarilirundhu Arupadhu Varai’, while playing Rajinikanth’s understanding friend quite well, he quips as an aside, ‘What do we have to do with politics?’ Rajini responds with, ‘Look who is saying this…’ and Cho blushingly agrees that sometimes he says such misleading stuff!He would lament that he had written only four or five political plays but they overshadowed his other plays. His ‘Saathiram Sonnadhillai’ dealt with caste prejudice trenchantly.  ‘Is God Dead’ focussed on the dearth of values and ethics in various segments of society. ‘Yaarukkum Vetkamillai’ exposed the hypocrisy of society on prostitution. Cho directed his plays like ‘Unmaiye Un Vilai Yenna’ and ‘Yaarukkum Vetkamillai’ on celluloid but was not happy with the result. He would make no bones in confessing that he had not been able to make the transition from stage to cinema smoothly. He envied K.Balachander on that score but made no effort at averting staginess on screen.

Cho took himself seriously, at least in the later part of his life, as an interpreter of Hinduism both through the printed word and television serials. He even questioned the demonization of Brahmins by the Dravidian ideologues. He could take very conservative viewpoints on the epics and puranas but he himself was disruptive in his individualistic plays. In his scripts, more often than not, Hindu gods lose out in the face of contemporary society’s crassness and corruption. While even god’s avatars cannot rid us of corruption, the heavens turn topsy turvy on the introduction of our ‘democratic’ practices and even Saraswathi, the goddess of learning is confounded by the values of our writers!

(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and an author of many works on the subject)

spb-at-recordingVamanan

For a singer who was stopped at the entrance of the film studio when he alighted from the carrier of a friend’s bicycle for his first recording, S.P.Balasubramanyam has gone more than the proverbial long way. He has become the most prolific playback singer in the history of Indian cinema, a statistic buttressed by his incomparable record, particularly in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada cinema. Celebrating fifty years of his singing from the date of that December 15, 1966 debut, SPB, or Balu to friends, completed a whirlwind world tour of live music shows to mark the event, capping it with a reverential and emotional paada puja to K.J.Yesudas, a senior contemporary who is just about six or seven years his elder.  An unexpected musical inflection not unlike ones that SPB sometimes produced in his renderings!

SPB’s hectic career encompassing scores and scores of soaring hits may seem to be a heady merry-go-round of melodies invoking a phantasmagoria of starry images to the music struck fan, but somebody had presaged it all, if only in microscopic form. This man was S.P.Kodandapani, a failed singer who was struggling to find opportunities as a music composer. Hearing the young SPB sing in a music competition, Kodandapani not only predicted straightaway that he would have a smooth sailing for at least forty years as a singer but also went on to give him his first break in the Telugu film, Sri Sri Sri Maryadha Ramanna. Kodandapani subsequently showed his mettle as a music composer but didn’t live to see his protégé going great guns. On his part, SPB remembered to commemorate the man who prophesied his marathon musical run by naming his recording studio after him. Unfortunately, he had to sell it off later in the wake of home productions that bombed.

Soon after SPB’s initial breakthrough, the star music directors of the day, M.S.Viswanathan and K.V.Mahadevan were seeking out the mellifluously free-flowing, youthful and individualistic voice of the twenty something. MSV debuted SPB in Tamil in ‘Iyarkaiyennum Ilayakanni’, a daintily-voiced duet in Santhi Nilayam, a nativised version of Sound of Music. MGR, temporarily miffed with his most popular musical voice TMS, chose SPB to sing with P.Sushila in his ambitious Adimai Penn (1969). The lavishly mounted ‘Aayiram Nilave Vaa’, picturised on MGR and Jayalalitha became a hit and continues to enthrall listeners to this day.

Both MSV and KVM had hit the height of the heady efflorescence of their creativity in the early sixties, but the emergence of fresh voices like that of SPB helped them give a new impetus to their music. MSV’s uplifting romantic song for Sivaji and Jayalalitha in Sumathi En Sundari, ‘Pottu Vaitha Mugamo’ , entranced SPB himself so much that he made a beeline to the radio station to hand over a copy for broadcast! SPB numbers composed by MSV for the young Kamalahasan in K.Balachander films gave a new verve to film song with hits like ‘Kadavul Amaithuvaitha Medai’, ‘Junior Junior’, ‘Kamban yemaandhaan’ and ‘Engeyum Eeppodhum Sangeetham’. In Sankarabharanam, KVM dared to make SPB sing in the Carnatic idiom that he was not trained in, but the film burst on the national consciousness as a re-assertion of the richness of Indian’s great musical heritage.

Another pinnacle of the SPB’s career was his singing with Lata (Ek Duje ke liye). After spilling hot coffee on Lataji’s spotlessly white sari during the recording, he had thought that his career in Hindi films was finished! But Lata went on to sing umpteen songs with SPB, and wowed live audiences around the world with him.

The emergence of Ilaiyaraja in the late seventies and eighties as the reigning composer in the South, put SPB right on top of the world. Apart from being the most popular and effervescent voice of the time, he was after all a long-time chum who had said cheers with Ilaiyaraja during the latter’s years of struggle! The Rajinikanth, Kamalahasan era of Tamil cinema is studded with SPB gems honed by Ilaiyaraja to showcase the former’s versatile singing which spans the spectrum from the jazzy and comic to the lingeringly romantic. Many a musical featuring actor Mohan clearly rode on the magic of SPB’s art (Who can forget ‘Nilaave Vaa’ in Maniratnam’s Mouna Ragam!). In the A.R.Rahman era too, SPB figured prominently for some time (winning a national award for ‘Thanga Thaamarai’ in Minsara Kanavu to boot), but the new trends in film song tired the old romantic.

A born mimic, SPB has acted (Keladi Kanmani featured him in the lead), dubbed (for Kamalahasan, for instance), composed music (Mayuri, Sigaram, Unnai Sharan Adainthen), and produced films (Shubha Sankalpam, Tenali etc). He is hosting a Telugu TV reality show titled ‘Paadutha Theeyagaa’, which has been having an incredible run for 20 years introducing a host of talented singers. As a singer who has emerged as a musical phenomenon, SPB’s career has crossed a golden barrier, and he himself is 70, but his voice still sounds ageless!

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music)

(This article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)

Vamanan

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 survVijayalakshmi.jpgived 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)

 

Vamanan

 

In the context of the literature Noble to Bob Dylan for the lyrical content of his songs, it is pertinent to ask whether Tamil film songs have any literary value. But there is an obvious difference between Dylan’s oeuvre and Tamil film song in general. Bob Dylan was a counter-culture icon, who apart from being his own song writer, music composer and performer had great freedom to be individually expressive. The film lyricist, on the other hand, works to a commission….he is writing for a situation which for most part is pedestrian and clichéd. He is hemmed down by tunes to which he has to write to. No wonder train-loads of Tamil film songs are not worth the paper of which they are written though they too in some mindless way reflect the preoccupation of their times!

Tamil cinema has for long been influenced by the traditions of the professional Tamil stage. Sankaradas Swamigal was a doyen of the Tamil stage in its golden period. His song-filled scripts proved to be the template for numerous drama troupes and schooled actors in the cadences of Tamil diction, in epic mythology and the expression of dramatic situation and feeling through song.

 Actors like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan grew up in such a tradition, and though they learnt realistic acting styles while enacting novels of the day, they were alive to the indigenous song-filled tradition. This explains why Sankaradas’s ‘Kaayaadha Kaanagathe’, sung by Muruga when he appears before the tribal belle Valli as a hunter in search of a deer, was delivered by a cavalcade of actors on stage, and also reprised on screen by T.R.Mahalingam, Sivaji Ganesan and  Vijayakanth. Does this persistence across film eras make ‘Kaayadha Kaanagathe’ literature?

Papanasam Sivan, pre-eminent composer-lyricist of the opening decades of Tamil cinema, honed some of the evergreen songs of the thirties and forties. His ‘Radhe Unakku Kobam Aaagadhadi’ was Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s first hit, it launched T..M.Sounderarajan’s singing career in the late forties and later had Sivaji miming to it in Kulamagal Raadhai (1963).  Sivan’s ‘Manmadha Leelaiyai Vendraarundo’ has gone on to become a proverbial saying. Not literature?

With Tamil Nadu’s heady mix of cinema and politics and Tamil cinema’s penchant for mass heroes as well as melodramatic and escapist fare, intellectuals are entitled to turn up their noses regarding any claims of creativity in general and of literary worth in Tamil film song in particular. Modern poet Gnanakoothan didn’t hide his disdain for film songs and flayed them for crudity and butchery of lyrics at the altar of music. Acclaimed novelist Vannanilavan finds only a line or two of literary value even in the best of songs of Kannadasan.  Bharatidasan, the poet of the self-respect movement, wrote the songs for some films initially, but considered it infra dig. Poet Abdul Rahman famously put down film lyricists with the jibe, ‘Ammi Kutha Sirpi Yedharkku’ (No need for a sculptor to roughen the surface of a grinding stone). He later changed his opinion and affirmed that film lyrics also are a kind of poetry.

There is also the fact that a reputed writer like Jayakanthan wrote film songs. His ‘Thennan Keetru Oonjalile’ , sung by PBS and S. Janaki under the baton of M.B.Srinivasan is one of the greatest melodies of Tamil cinema. His ‘Kandadhai Sollugiraen’ (anthem of a modern writer who bears witness to his times) and ‘Veru Idam Thedippovaalo’ (angst-filled cry of a rape survivor) for the celluloid version of his own novel, ‘Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal’. are very meaningful songs. Do they qualify as literature? Famed novelist Kalki Krishnamurthy came up with ‘Kaatrinile Varum Geetham’ for M.S.Subbulakshmi’s Meera, and it turned out to be not only her best but also one of the most entrancing songs of all time!

Most common folk who affirm Tamil film song’s literary worth mostly give one name, Kannadasan! Whether it’s a love song (Naan Pesa Ninaippadhellaam), inspiring anthem (Adho Andha Paravaippola) or patriotic song (‘Naadu Adhai Naadu’, ‘Pani padarndha Malaiyin mele’) and songs reflecting a variety of human predicaments from birth to death, Kannadasan set the bench mark for excellence. Vali came a second but was oftentimes chagrined to be mistaken for the former!

Vairamuthu, fresh from his popularity as a ‘new poetry’ performer in Kavi Arangams, debuted with a bang with ‘Oru Pon Maalai Pozhudhu’. He holds the record of winning the National Film Award for Best Lyric six times. Lyrical excellence?

In times of ‘Kolaiveri’ lambasted by judges, social activists and lay people for breeding misogyny and violence in the youth , the late and lamented Na. Muthukumar kept the flag of poetic creativity flying. But did he have the musical support that somebody like Kannadasan could boast of?

Kannadasan lived in times when there were music composers like MSV and K.V.Mahadevan who were supremely alive to the nuances and rhythms of the lyric. While MSV claimed that the words themselves yielded the tune, KVM insisted that lyric came first every time. Also, most male artistes of Kannadasan’s time came from the stage and were grounded in music even if they did not sing, while female artistes were either dancers or reasonably acquainted with dance. On the other hand, many intellectuals and writers who flay film lyrics don’t understand that the film lyric cannot  be prised out of its musical and cinematic setting.

The question of the literary worth of film songs is a contentious one, but it is also a fact that texts accepted as literature have been beautifully presented in Tamil cinema. Bharati’s ‘Chinnanchiru Kiliye Kannamma’, tuned by the genius C.R.Subburaman for ‘Manamagal’, has gone on to become a famous Carnatic song. Bharati’s songs have been used many times from 1935 to this day. From snatches of Silappadhikaram to verses of the Divya Prabandham and Thevaram and songs of Tiruppugazh, many a literary piece has been meaningfully popularized in films. Who can forget T.M.Soundararajan’s flawless rendering of Arunagirinathar’s ‘Muthai Tharu Paththi’ with all its percussive flight and intricate interweaving of words. While occasionally film song does indeed boast of some literary merit, or at least a touch of it, now and then what is accepted as literature also becomes a winning film song!

 

(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and a lyricist himself).

(This article was published in the Chennai edition of Times of India)