CHENNAI: Nearly nine decades ago, it clearly took a lot more for a woman to become a heroine in filmdom. It was imperative that she knew how to act, to sing, to dance and had a firm footing in theatre. But TP Rajalakshmi (TPR), the heroine of the first Tamil talkie Kalidas, did more. From her ninth year, when she launched her acting career, she fought her family orthodoxy to remain Tamil theatre and filmdom’s Cinema Rani who could perform any role, and even donned the director’s hat!
“From a conservative upbringing, my mother had to face stiff opposition from her relatives, who did not approve of her acting pursuits and opposed the ‘rebel’ in her. Those relatives were also the one to accord her a star status with respect, after she became a big heroine,” recalls 77-year Mallika, the actor’s older daughter. “Despite working in an industry considered modern, my mom was a traditionalist at heart. She, in fact, slapped her co-star CM Durai when he put his arms around her during the shoot of a romantic scene in Miss Kamala (1936)."
Miss Kamala was a huge milestone in TPR’s career, as it was a film she wrote, acted, directed, edited and even composed music for! Her other notable films include Madurai Veeran, Gulebhakavali, Jeevajothi, Kovalan and Sathyavaan Savithri. “As youngsters, my sister Kamala and I would see several actors visit us often, including the famous pair of NS Krishnan-TA Madhuram, actors TR Rajakumari, KLV Vasantha and even the great MK Thyagaraja Bhagawathar with whom she acted in Pavalakodi on stage. NSK would revere her even then as the forerunner among all heroines and never even sit on a seat near her. And yet, my mother took a lot of care to ensure that her children did not become associated with the film industry,” Mallika says, adding that she was never taken to watch films and plays, apart from playing small roles in a few films as a child artiste. It may be recalled that her father TV Sundaram was also an actor of repute. “As a child, I was asked to play a small role in Tamilthai and Bhakthakumanan in the early 1930s,” she says. “We still got to see Amma act in the legendary play Harischandra but that was because Gandhiji was watching the show to collect funds and we were taken to see him,” she says.
“When my mom had to play an old person in the film Tamilthaai, she had to apply powder on her hair to have grey hair because she was only in her 20s then. But the audience and some in the industry thought she had really become old and that affected her career, which took a slump then. Because she had entered films in her teens, people too believed she had become old as they had been seeing her onscreen for many years,” Mallika says. TPR passed away in 1964, when she was 53.
In a bid to honour her contribution as the first woman director and popular actor, a street should be named after her, Mallika said, also asking the South Indian Film Artistes Association and director’s union to honour TPR in a big way.