One hundred years of superstardom

For an industry so completely steeped in fantasy, exaggeration and the abstract, Tamil filmdom accords numbers a special importance: be it first-day-first-shows, silver jubilee weeks, hundredt

Published: 24th October 2010 12:11 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:13 PM   |  A+A-

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For an industry so completely steeped in fantasy, exaggeration and the abstract, Tamil filmdom accords numbers a special importance: be it first-day-first-shows, silver jubilee weeks, hundredth day celebrations, landmark number of films by an actor/filmmaker, or even the number of star strings consciously chosen by fan club members to adorn their heroes’ hoardings when his film is due for release.

If Rajini 25 (celebrating the silver jubilee year of the superstar in filmdom in 2000), Kamal 50 (the actor-filmmaker’s semi-centennial in films), K Balachander 100 (as his 100th directorial venture Parthale Paravasam was promoted) were special events on the film calendar, 2010 ought to be the all-important bumper year for the film fraternity.  This year is special for many, being the birth centenary of, among others, M K  Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, hailed as the first superstar of the Tamil film industry,  a title that actors even four generations after MKT, like Vijay and Ajith, who have reached a landmark 50 films this year, aspire to.

MKT was not revered for his acting prowess as much as for his screen presence and appeal. And so great was his sway among the people, and therefore, among the filmmakers, that they queued up to cast him, and he would only say, “Rope in writer Ilango for the dialogues and Papanasam Sivan (whose 120th birth anniversary was celebrated in September this year) for the lyrics. I will then decide if I want to be part of your film.” MKT was the rage then, highly bankable and immensely popular, earning him the title of Tamil cinema’s superstar, and making it impossible to ignore comparisons with the superstar of our age, Rajinikanth. And what an exciting coincidence that the film that has extolled and celebrated heroism to unheard-of levels, Rajinikanth’s Endhiran , would release in the same year as MKT’s centenary. Especially when only Rajinikanth could, six decades on, surpass MKT’s record theatre run achieved for the film Haridas (1944), by the latter’s Chandramukhi (2005). Haridas ran for a record 114 weeks at Broadway cinema, Madras, while Chandramukhi outperformed it, by running for 800 days in a city theatre.

In a career spanning exactly 25 years, MKT acted in 14 films of which six were superhits. Acknowledging MKT’s role in the infant years of the film industry, and his role as the proponent of the ‘hero’ culture of the Tamil film industry, the Tamil  Nadu government has announced that the state will organise a centenary celebration for him. While an official announcement on that is still being awaited, MKT’s family and well wishers are now organising an event in honour of the actor-singer.

Another luminary of tinsel town to have completed a ton in 2010 is award-winning director-producer B R Bandhulu. He is known for having strived for the improvement of the technical quality of films made then, and his films have been regarded for being ahead of their time technically: he made India’s first technicolour film ( Veerapandiya Kattabomman ) and was the maker of Kannada’s first colour film, Sri Krishna Deva Rayulu.

But for film fans, his contribution was supreme on two accounts: for having

depicted some of the most fascinating characters/ lives in Tamil cinema, like Karnan, Kattabomman, V O Chidambaram Pillai, and for immortalising that towering colossus Sivaji Ganesan, through films and characters such as these.

For vintage Sivaji, be it in Kappalottiya Thamizhan, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, or in the refreshingly light-hearted Sabhash Meena or Bale Pandiya , the film industry definitely owes it to filmmaker Bandhulu. A grand showman, he was considered in the league of flamboyant producers like S S Vasan of Gemini Studios and A V Meyyappa Chettiar of AVM Studios.

Bandhulu, a Telugu by birth, was equally revered in Karnataka, and had several Kannada hits to his credit. A mega event in his honour was organised in July this year in Karnataka.

This year also marks the century of two other doyens of the film industry in its nascent years, both an intrinsic part of the popular Gemini Studios: music director and actor M D Parthasarathy, and writer-actor-director Kothamangalam Subbu.

M D Parthasarathy and contemporary musician Saluru Rajeswara Rao formed a formidable duo and worked for the films produced by Gemini Studios. It was an

interesting collaboration in those days, with MDP contributing to the Carnatic element and Rao weaving in western influences in their music.

Some of the landmark films in Tamil film history that MDP composed music for include Avvaiyar, Chandralekha, Mangamma Sabatham and Madanakamarajan. He was an actor both prior to and after his stint as a music composer with Gemini Studios, until the film house halted its film production activities in the late fifties. In his later years, MDP contributed to the Egmore Dramatic Society, the then renowned theatre group where he was an actor, and also hosted several shows on All India Radio. He is widely regarded in film circles both for his knowledge of music and his acting abilities, a combination that is rarely seen.

An event in honour of the music genius MDP was organised in Chennai in September with eminent film historians participating. Another person of eminence, who was part of Gemini Studios, was Kothamangalam Subbu (Disclaimer: The writer is Subbu’s granddaughter).

A trusted associate of the Gemini Studios’ owner, the legendary S S Vasan, Subbu dabbled in many areas of filmmaking in the 1940s and 1950s: as an actor, director, writer and lyricist. Though he had begun his career as an actor, known especially for playing humorous characters, he was later part of the story department of Gemini Studios. He directed one of the most popular films of his time, chronicling the life of the revered Tamil saint-poet, Avvaiyar, in which he also played a small role. He also adapted R K Narayan’s popular novel Mr Sampath in Tamil, and made it into a film, Ms Malini. He was also a writer and columnist, contributing to S S Vasan’s publication Ananda Vikatan.

His most famous work to date remains Thillana Mohanambal , a novel on the music and devadasi traditions of Tanjore, which was later made into an immensely successful movie of the same name. The novel appeared as a weekly series in Ananda Vikatan, written by Subbu who chose the pseudonym of Kalaimani, and was a huge hit with Tamil readers.

At a time when popular books were yet to be adapted with equal success in the visual form, including Kalki’s Parthipan Kanavu and Akilan’s Paavai Vilakku, Thillana Mohanambal was unique, and a huge success as both a novel and film, said a noted film chronicler, ‘Film News’ Anandan. Besides being a film personality, Subbu was a noted stage performer, whose Gandhi

Mahaan Kadhai
, a villisai (Tamil folk form) concerts about Gandhi were a huge draw. A centenary event in honour of this multifaceted personality will be held in November in Chennai.

— narayanan.sharadha@gmail.com

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