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)

The news of the Magsaysay having been conferred on T.M.Krishna came out this morning. Actually, one could not understand why in the world the award was conferred. He is a singer. If it is for that, then he is a rather very mediocre singer among those singing classical music in Tamil Nadu. No cutcheri of his is worth a second listening. He just delivers what he has learnt. Somewhat like a music instructor belting it out. He doesn’t even deserve to sit in a chair that Sanjay Subramaniam has gotten up from.

But it seems the award has been given for his ‘humanitarian’ activities. If one enquires about the nature of those ‘humanitarian’ activities, they point to his ‘progressive’ articles in the English daily, The Hindu. We are told that he attempts to take music to the poor and less privileged. Hasn’t this ever happened before? Has he made any lasting contribution towards this end? Krishna’s contribution, if any, is having written shallow and strident articles without any deep understanding, by picking up ideas opposed to tradition as well as ‘progressive’ slogans. Gnani’s superficial articles are any day many times better than what Krishna has turned out.

Generally, it is the wont of Brahmins to hop a few feet more in an attempt to mask or pass over their original identity. Those who secretly hide their Brahminism under their armpits generally make shriller sounds. As T.M. Krishna makes such blaring protestations, I have always distrusted him and his The Hindu-Iyengarish background.

Everything I happened to learn about him only reinforced that doubt. He is somebody who has no connection with Tamil cultural mores. He hails from a rich upper class family that has no introduction to Tamil literature and its artistic values. He is an empty vessel that makes noise in public space, in a politically correct vocabulary with an eye on sensationalism.

So, it is his The Hindu background alone that constituted the eligibility for the award. If not for this award, it wouldn’t have been necessary for a person of my calibre to even deign to comment on such an unbefitting person. The conferment of this award is wholly a case of the rich and powerful making internal adjustments to crown one amongst themselves. From here, he may go on to be conferred the Gnanpith for his naive articles. He has the money power and media power to make a bid even for the Noble. In recent times, this (the Magsaysay) has been a moment of much revulsion.


(Translated by Vamanan)

Tamizh Cinemavil Samskrita Ilakkiyam

Published in Dinamalai, Nellai 


He stood a hefty and towering six feet three and was better educated than four Tamil stars put together! But A.C. Thirulokchander M.A. carried himself with such ease – he had imbibed the deportmA.C.Thirulokchanderent by observing his role model  L.V.Prasad – that film stars looked upon him with favour. Even the usually interfering MGR allowed himself to be moulded in a completely different light under his baton in Anbe Vaa (1966).  Sivaji Ganesan, who addressed Thirulokchander as Mudaliar, considered him a close friend. In the event, he gave the latter the privilege of directing him in 25 films, the largest for any director in his stable of filmmakers.

Named after a Punjabi gentleman whom his father admired, Thirulokchander might have well become a bureaucrat if a year had not stood between him and the eligibililty to take the  IAS examination as his father desired. In the interregnum, he joined the veteran filmmaker R. Padmanabhan, a temperamental character whose capricious ways had become the talk of film circles, as his third assistant. Thirulok realized even at this stage that his physical stature and academic qualifications might put off film folk and learnt how to play them down! He struck it off well with MGR,  Padmanabhan’s sulking hero brought by court injunction to complete his Kumari (1952). MGR vibed with the young and well educated intern,  discussing politics with him at length.

Thirulok gleaned his knowledge and appreciation of film technique and grammar in Jupiter Pictures, watching directors like L.V.Prasad and working under S. Balachander. He would describe with awe how the ace cameraman Jiten Banerjee once unfolded 20 different opening shots for a scene. Banerjee had emphasized that the shot should be integral to story telling and have a close bearing to narration and character, and also taught Thirulok the importance of finding the best angle for a shot.

Inheriting his yen for voracious reading and story telling from his mother, Thirulok succeeded in selling his folklore stunt yarn (Vijayapuri Veeran 1960) to Joseph Thaliath of Citadel Studios and assisted him in making the film.  This was his ticket to AVM Studios where his instant rapport with AVM Saravanan, one the rising sons of Meiyyappa Chettiar found him scoring a double whammy.

First, Thirulok’s sensitive family drama based on the vicissitudes in the relationship of two men who had fought shoulder to shoulder in the army was picturised under Bhimsingh’s direction as Paarthaal Pasi Theerum (1962). Then,  another folklore stunt film, Veera Thirumagan (1962) was slotted for his own direction. The film which had beautiful music by Viswanathan Ramamurthy was not a success, but Thirulok’s meaningful camera angles can be seen in such evergreen hits as ‘Roja Malare Raaja Kumari’.  As the commomer hero   (Anandan) queries in song whether he can yearn for the hand of a princess, He is shown in a tell tale high angle shot, while the princess is picturised from a low angle shot as she answers in the affirmative from the vantage point of her royal status.

With the full backing of AVM (in Thirulok’s case this was Saravanan), Thirulok’s story telling and cine techniques found a place in a number of AVM films. Naanum Oru Penn, based on a Bengali story, and Ramu, re-crafted from Kishore Kumar’s Dhoor Gagan ki Chaao Mein not only met with success, but also earned silver medals as national awards for best regional film. The director’s mettle in the thriller genre was seen in  Adhey Kangal.

But it was Thirulok’s breezy romantic comedy for MGR, Anbe Vaa (1966) which marked the high point of his innings in AVM.  It was an uncommon triumph for MGR too, who had been figuring in a series of scrappily made cops and robbers flicks with a dash of ‘mother sentiment’ and romance thrown in.  Set in Shimla and shot richly in glorious colour, Anbe Vaa is an atypical MGR film structured as a Roman Holiday in reverse, being about a rich and overworked business magnate who finds love when he gets away to Shimla incognito. Thirulok’s versatile gifts as a film director which include fresh story telling, intelligent lines, good song positioning, and extracting creditable performances were at play in Anbe Vaa. The extraordinary finesse he brought to takings and editing was at its height in the evergreen hit song, Pudhiya Vaanam Pudhiya Bhoomi.

It’s ironical that despite Anbe Vaa’s extraordinary success, Thirulok never got to make another MGR film but became Sivaji’s favoured director and lavished his cinematic skills on the thespian, as for example in the latter’s triple role tour de force, Deiva Magan.  Sivaji’s forte in portraying tragic heros stood out in Thirulok’s Babu (remade from Malayalam Odayil Ninnu) and Avanthaan Manidhan (from Kannada).  The director’s skill in portraying national integration stood out in Bharata Vilas, while his yen for comedy was seen in Anbe Aaruyire. Thirulok’s Iru Malargal, a love triangle comprising Sivaji, Padmini and K.R. Vijaya that he directed for veteran sound engineer and studio owner Dinshaw Tehrani was eminently successful.

If Thirulok’s film career lasted more than three decades and spanned over sixty films, it is because he was swift to get inspired and swifter to execute.  Do Raha’s sensational success provoked him to come out with its Tamil version, Aval (1972).  As a producer himself (Cine Bharath), he was quick to realize Ilayaraja’s talent and employed his musical score fruitfully in his Bhadrakali (1976) which is chockfull with hits. After the tragic death of the film’s heroine Rani Chandra, he successfully used a dupe to complete the film.

Thirulok realized Rajinikanth’s promise soon enough by casting him in ‘Vanakkathukkuriya Kaadhaliye’, a film about a girl with ESP  His last film, Anbulla Appa (1987), which came a full 37 years after his entry as an apprentice in cinema, sank without a trace. After that he engaged himself in directing TV serials, and authored his rambling reminiscences apart from keeping in touch with old friends like Saravanan and under study S.P.Muthuraman.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and has authored many books on the subject)

(A version of this article appeared in Times of India, Chennai)

Naan-Anaiyittal - Enga Veettu Pillai

MGR singing Naan Aanai Ittaal  — the black shirt and red carpet signify the DMK’s flag


Tamil Nadu in 2016 lives up to its well-earned if dubious reputation of being the place and point where the phenomenon of the interweaving of cinema and politics began.   A screenwriter who has been Chief Minister five times makes his final bid against a former glamour actress who is the incumbent Chief Minister and seeks to be elected for the fourth time. Both are challenged by a former action star of more than a hundred films.

Congress leader K. Kamaraj sounded the warning about this aspect a few years before climacteric 1967 by warning people about the ‘hunter’ on the prowl (‘Vettaikkaaran’ being the title of M.G.Ramachandran’s successful 1964 film). Kamaraj then enunciated a question pointedly, ‘Can actors administer a state ?’

He brought up this issue at a time when actors were pejoratively  called ‘koothadigal’  (street performers). His perception of the DMK was not just that of a party which used the popularity of actors and stars for its politics, not just a party with a preponderance of stars, actors, scriptwriters, directors and producers, but a party of actors per se.

It was Kamaraj’s political guru Satyamurthy, an amateur stage actor himself, who understood the value of reaching  people through the stage and cinema. At his instance, K.B.Sundarambal enlivened Congress meetings singing patriotic songs in her stentorian voice and was later inducted to the Legislative Council. Other artistes too made the stage, as well as the mass medium of cinema, reflect the ferment of the mass movement for Independence.

E.V.Ramasami Periyar’s  tirades against Brahminism and  religion were not far behind. They were getting traction among actors in drama companies and were beginning to echo in films too. Jupiter’s Chandrakantha (1936), which narrated the story of a wayward pontiff occasioned derisive comments against Brahmins in the streets. Bharatidasan, who had emerged as the poet of the ‘self respect‘ movement, was employed as a writer by Modern Theatre’s T. R. Sundaram and gave the antagonists of Puranic stories the aura of  Dravidian heroism. M.R.Radha brought an unbridled swagger and incredible gumption to his unconventional performances on stage, fighting pitched battles with the orthodox to mock and deride religious superstition and hypocrisy. N.S. Krishnan used humour and sarcasm to ridicule social prejudices.

In this background, C.N.Annadurai emerged as EVR’s chief lieutenant. An amateur actor and drama and cinema buff himself, he networked young actors and writers of the self-respect movement giving them a shoulder to boost their career or just to cry over. Even as a young actor called V.C.Ganesan was given the title ‘Sivaji’ by Periyar, N.S. Krishnan became ‘Kalaivaanar’, M.R. Radha ‘Nadigavel’, K.R.Ramasami ‘Nadippisai Pulavar’, D.V. Narayanasamy ‘Nadigamani’ and S.S. Rajendran ‘Ilatchiya Nadigar’.  M.G.Ramachandran, who had first met Annadurai in 1944,  joined the brigade charily in 1953. The future Puratchi Nadigar (Revolutionary Actor) would however worst every one of his histrionic rivals to emerge as the major face and force of the DMK that Annadurai formed in 1949 as a more inclusive, ambitious and flexible political force.

The film scripts of  Annadurai (Velaikkaari, Nallathambi, Oar Iravu) and Karunanidhi (Mandhiri Kumari, Parasakthi, Manohara) were dovetailed versions of their eloquent and alliterative oratory on stage, with the difference being that the latter took his career as film writer and producer more seriously and could make monetary sense of it. When the chips were down a few years after the demise of Annadurai, the duel was however between the wily script writer turned administrator Karunanidhi and the do-gooder celluloid idol MGR.

Veteran stage and film professionals like T. K. Shanmugam and A.P.Nagarajan believed  it was the end of the road for MGR as an actor and politician when he was thrown out of the party in 1972. Initially MGR too feared that he was finished. But the surge of mass support in the days that followed was only a sign that the larger-than-life image he had assiduously fashioned for himself was indeed more spectacular than life itself! In the event, Karunanidhi’s attempted projection of his own son Muthu as a young hero, as well as his cooption of actor Jaishankar pitifully fell by the wayside.

Comedian N.S. Krishnan had been a role model for MGR in public munificence and in the complete control he exercised over his cinematic elements –  story, dialogue, shots, lyrics, tunes and choice of supporting artistes.  But if NSK in real life seemed to be playing to a death-wish script, MGR’s script was working itself to apotheosis. Rather than being a mere conduit of the messages of the party, MGR towered over them as the messiah. Puratchi Nadigar therefore had an easy makeover as Puratchi Thalaivar – a delayed  answer of sorts to Kamaraj’s question on actors and government.

The seamless sync of MGR’s private, public and cinematic images left no room for doubt in the public’s mind who the real hero was in the dramatic clash between Karunanidhi and MGR. Even before MGR  named Karunanidhi as the Theeya Sakthi, manifold supporters of the party were certain who the villain in the drama of the party schism was. MGR had all along been subordinate only to the all-enveloping charisma of Anna, whom he invoked again and again in his films and who ultimately occupied pride of place in the name of his new party as well as its flag.

That MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran, herself a former actress was made Chief Minister after his demise, and that Jayalalitha, his leading lady in the most number of films in his career, categorically proved she is his political heir –underscore the fact that Tamil Nadu’s political fabric under the Kazhagams is impenetrably interwoven with cinema. It is a phenomenon inaugurated by Annadurai and pursued by Karunanidhi,  taken to its height by MGR and continued successfully by Jayalalitha. It has peaked and won’t be easy to replicate.

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

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


Susheela is in high spirits. A musical finale not easily replicable has been played out as a culmination of her eventful caP.Susheela with awardreer. Her prolific musical output has been documented in a way that has got her into the Guinness Book of World Records. The event has warmed the cockles of the hearts of her myriad admirers. Heroines of yesteryear have flocked to her residence to express their joy.

A cultural icon of the Tamils and the Telugus, Susheela is also appreciated for her contribution to Malayalam and Kannada film song. Though she is a Telugu and her film songs in her mother tongue handsomely outnumber her Tamil songs, she is undoubtedly the main female figure of the golden age of Tamil film music. The most prolific lyric writer Vali made his debut writing for her (Nilavum thaaraiyum in Azhagar Malaikalvan)  while SPB of a thousand duets sang his first with her (Aayiram Nilave Vaa).

But it’s more the quality of her numbers than the quantity that has earned her the love of music lovers. The sheer melody, lyrical significance, musical excellence and popularity of many of her songs have made an iconic singer of South India. Many of the jewels of Kannadasan, Tamil cinema’s lyricist par excellence, are framed in Susheela’s inimitable voice. While carving a niche for herself in the film world dominated by men, she retained her dignity and self-respect as a tremendously gifted and resourceful songstress. A winner of many national and regional awards, she is also the recipient of the Padma Bhushan.

Hailing from a musically inclined family in the princely state of Vizianagaram,  Susheela acquired a diploma from the music college in her home town and came to Chennai for further studies.  Her got her first singing chance easily enough with Pendyala Nageswara Rao choosing her for a duet with A.M.Raja in Petrathaai (Kannathalli).

Initially Susheela was a staff singer of AVM studios. The positive side of her years in AVM was the honing of her Tamil diction as well as the professionalism she brought to her career. Though she speaks Tamil with a strong Telugu accent despite her 63 years in Chennai, her Tamil singing sets the benchmark for excellence in Tamil pronunciation. That’s why Susheela was chosen along with T.M. Sounderarajan to render the State song of the Tamil Nadu government in 1970 (Neeraarum Kadaluduthu). Earlier, she had rendered Bharatidasan’s paean to Tamil, ‘Tamizhukkum Amudhendru Paer’ in the sweetest of strains.

The fifties were competitive times with many female singers in the field and Susheela had to fight her way up. That she progressed steadily can be seen from the fact that a musical genius like G.Ramanathan trusted her with great numbers like ‘Mullai Malar Mele’ and ‘Inbam Pongum Vennila’.  She was often fancied for dulcet duets with A.M.Raja with the latter himself opting to sing with her in the enormously successful Kalyana Parisu (Vaadikkai Marandhadhu Yeno, Aasaiyinaale Manam). Viswanathan-Ramamurthy came up with ‘Thangathile Oru Kurai Irandhaalum’ which lit up a million hearts.

Paava Mannippu (March 1961) set the stage for a new musical phase that would crown Susheela as the queen of Tamil film song.   There was an upsurge of innovation, melody, meaning and orchestral colour. As Susheela’s art shone in dainty songs like ‘Paalirukkum Pazhamirukkum’, it was clear that the golden key to the kingdom was in her voice. Master composers like Viswanathan Ramamurthy and K.V.Mahadevan would henceforth make it the measure of their melodies. V. Kumar and others would follow suit.

It’s significant that Chief Minister Jayalalitha has recalled that Susheela sang for her mother Sandhya.  The classic images of some of the most charismatic heroines like Devika (Sonnadhu Nee Dhaana), Saroja Devi (Unnai Ondru Kaetpaen), Savithri (Malarndhu Malaraadha), Sowcar Janaki (Maalai Pozhudhin Mayakkathile), Padmini (Mannavan Vandhaanadi), Kanchana (Enna Paarvai), K.R. Vijaya (Athai Madi Methaiyadi) and Jayalalitha (Unnai naan sandhithaen) mirror a greater charisma because of Susheela’s song. The actresses knew that the fragile moments of their fleeting beauty were sculpted for life in the evergreen melodies that flowed from Susheela.

Musical instruments acquired their signature passages in her songs. Mangalamurthy’s superb accordion accompaniment in Susheela’s entrancing melody ‘Athaan En Athaan’ drew attention to the instrument.  Satyam’s soaring notes on the Shehnai in ‘Aalayamaniyin Osaiyai’ masterfully underscored the serene atmosphere of the song. Hanumatha Rao’s consummate tabla playing lent ‘Maalai soodum mananaal’ an ineffable grace.   ‘Enna Enna Vaarthaigalo’ in which Susheela’s voice and the keys of the piano frolic together shed light on Joseph Krishna’s mastery over the instrument. Nanjappa’s honeyed phrases on the bamboo shimmered in ecstatic hues around Susheela’s vocals in ‘Kannukku Kulamedhu’.

Susheela was extremely receptive to musical ideas and fast in grasping them. She was also uncannily sensitive to microphone positions and the needs of sound engineers to get a recording right. The later decades of her career saw a great deal of competition emerging and singer-music composer politics playing out to her detriment, but she kept on doggedly. She wisely patched up with Ilaiyaraja after some initial misunderstanding. She is a woman of much poise and reserve but can be scorchingly sarcastic in private. She has a piquant sense of humour too. She once remarked about raagas in the general run of film songs – ‘’One can say they represent an all-India raaga. Even if you search all over India, you won’t be able to find the raaga!’’  At eighty plus, Susheela  still rocks

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and has authored many books on the subject).

Our Light and Delight

Posted: February 21, 2016 in Uncategorized

”When anyone writes about me, all the hair on my head stands up. Don’t think I am merely being modest. I know where I come from and who I am. But it is the truth that is important.  Stress on the Person seems so much to narrow it”.

This is what Mother told me when I was on a visit to Pondicherry from Bombay. It referred to an article I had written on her in a Bombay newspaper. (Amal Kiran)