by Sachi Sri Kantha, June 13, 2013
MGR’s rivals for action roles during 1936 to 1947
Two of MGR’s pre-hero movies, namely Harichandra (1944) and Salivahanan (1945) deserve mention in tracing MGR’s ascend as a movie icon. In both of these movies the hero roles were played by P.U. Chinnappa (1916-1951, hearafter PUC) and Ranjan (1918-1983) respectively. Both were based on Hindu mythology. While in the Harichandra movie, MGR played a minor role, for the Salivahanan movie, he was cast as the villain. During the two war years (1944 and 1945), the total number of Tamil movies released had decreased to 14 and 11, due to shortage in film roles for shooting and the request of the then colonial government to the producers and financiers that war propaganda movies was the need of times that was in conflict with the sentiments of producers who sided themselves with the Indian freedom movement. MGR was lucky to have one movie in each of these years (see the PDF file of the table: number of Tamil Movies released between 1936 and 1947).
PUC’s given name was Puthukoddai Ulaganatham Pillai Chinnaswami. Ranjan’s given name was Ramanarayana Venkataramana Sarma. Both were action stars. In addition, PUC could also sing well. Thus, PUC was able to compete from his movie debut in 1936 on equal plank with M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (other popular singing star) for the Tamil movie and music fans. Both PUC and Ranjan were born a year earlier and later to MGR.
While PUC also debuted in Tamil movies in the same year (1936) as that of MGR, Ranjan debuted in a non-talking role in Ashok Kumar (1941), five years later. In this Ashok Kumar movie, M.K.T. Bhagavathar was the singing hero and MGR himself had starred in a minor role. He was paid a monthly salary of 350 rupees for this role. However within two years, Ranjan was cast as a hero in the Mangamma Sabatham (1943) movie produced by the Gemini studios, and it turned out to be a hit movie. It appeared that Ranjan (equally talented as MGR) had leapfrogged over MGR among the debuting action heroes in early 1940s, as MGR’s hero-role movie Chaaya (1942) under the Pakshiraja label was abandoned. Subsequently, in the Salivahanan (1945) movie, Ranjan was featured as the hero and MGR played the villain role. According to the Tamil movie insiders, in this particular film, there was some bad blood between Ranjan and MGR, in setting up the action scene. Within few years, Ranjan hit the bull’s eye again with his villain role in Chandralekha (1948) released under the Gemini banner.
I provide a table indicating the total number of Tamil movies released between 1936 and 1947 and compare the performances of PUC and MGR for the same period. The total number of movies varies marginally from the records maintained by the industrial sources and the Censor Board. I have cited the Censorship records, as presented by Krishnaswamy and Barnow (1980). As one could see, there was a decline in the total number of movies released between 1942 and 1946.
Background to the Production Troubles faced by the Rajakumari (The Princess)
1946 was the year which turned out favorably for MGR. He had starred in a subsidiary role as Lord Shiva in the Sri Murugan mythological movie, produced by Jupiter Pictures. His dance with fellow actress Malathi (Shiva-Parvathi dance) was well received when the movie was released on October 27, 1946 for the Deepavali occasion. In that year, through the courtesy and insistence of script writer Arul Susai Anthony (A.S.A) Sami (1915-1998) who had written the script for the Sri Murugan movie, he was contracted to play the hero role in Jupiter’s next movie Rajakumari (the Princess). Among those who played a prominent role in the completion of this movie, only M. Karunanidhi alive now. It was also his first Tamil movie for which he wrote the script. Before I present Karunanidhi’s impressions of his experience in the production of this movie, I have to introduce Sami, who was the director of this movie. It was his first directorial effort, and it was Sami who invited Karunanidhi to be a participant in the Rajakumari production.
Like MGR, Sami too was born in Sri Lanka, of Indian Tamil parents. The third individual, who was of Ceylon background for this movie was the woman villain and Jaffna-born Kathiresan Thavamani Devi (1922-2001). More about her follows later. The entry on Sami, in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (1999), offers the following details on Sami’s career in Tamil cinema.
“Tamil director born and educated in Colombo, Sri Lanka; son of a theatre contractor. Quit his job as university lecturer in Colombo to move to Madras, where his play Bilhana, originally written for the radio and later performed with great success by M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and by the TKS Brothers, went on to become a major film hit produced by TKS (1948). Sami, who scripted the film, got a job at Jupiter Studio, Coimbatore, where he wrote e.g: Sundarrao Nakkarni’s Valmiki (1946), A. Kasilingam’s Abhimanyu (1948, with Karunanidhi) and the story of Lanka Sathyam’s Mohini (1948). His debut as director, Rajakumari, on Arabian Nights movie, he also scripted, in MGR’s first hit in a lead role and put put Sami in the front-line of Tamil directors. His second film, Velaikkari, is a DMK film propaganda classic written by Annadurai…” Both were produced by Jupiter Pictures.
Rajakumari was released on April 11, 1947. Velaikkari (Woman Servant) was released on February 2, 1949. While Rajakumari was scripted by Karunanidhi, Anna wrote the script for Velaikkari. While MGR was the hero for the Rajakumari, his then love-interest V.N. Janaki played the lead role for Velaikkari.
Karunanidhi, in his autobiography Nenjukku Neethi [Justice for the Heart] recorded the following:
“I was working at the ‘Kudi Arasu’ [journal] office as a student learning from Periyar [E.V.Ramasamy Naicker] for an year [in Erode]. Then, I received an invitation from Kovai [Coimbatore]. That invitation was for writing a movie script. A.S.A. Samy was the person who sent me this invitation. With the help from friend Muthukrishnan, I went to Kovai and found the details. I had to write the script for the movie Rajakumari, to be produced by Kovai Jupiter Pictures. I asked permission from Periyar. He did permit me with the farewell, ‘Do accept the offer.’
I accepted the offer, with the condition that I’ll write the script, if it does not distract my party related services. After Mr. A.S.A. Sami agreed to my request, I began writing the script. That was the movie Puratchi Nadigar [revolutionary actor] MGR starred as the hero for the first time…
My [first] wife and I stayed at a house in Singanallur near Kovai with a rent for ten rupees. After hearing that my father’s health living in Tiruvarur had taken a worse turn, Padma and I rushed there. Father was struggling for his life. Our family was unable to care for him with top class treatment. Merely, local treatment was done. No other way left. For nearly 15 days, father was dangling towards death. Mother and I were seated next to him. How many memories! Father who yearned to see my progress did shed tears. He couldn’t speak much. ‘Have you completed the next story?’, he asked softly. ‘A little more left’, I replied. ‘I’ll be finishing mine now.’ Even while suffering from the grip of death, his natural literary wit was aptly delivered.
Only a month ago, he wished to see the newly released ‘Rajakumari’ movie. He had lost his eyesight then. However, he was keen on listening to the script dialogue penned by me and did see it at a theatre in Tiruvarur. He was so delighted to see me grow as a writer.”
Karunanidhi’s in the second volume of his autobiography had included a segment of the speech made by MGR in June 1971, while opening a people settlement section of his then constituency Parangimalai and naming it as ‘Karunanidhipuram’. I provide the translation of MGR’s speech, which appears in Karunanidhi’s autobiography.
“I’m delighted to take part in this opening function. The Tamil Nadu chief minister Kalaignar and I have a friendship link for over twenty years. Then, I was at Coimbatore. Because there was a spread of plague disease, he had sent his family to native place, and he lived with me in my house. At that time, the rent for my house was only twelve rupees. We two were together. While I was a Congress Party man, he was a member of the Self Respect Movement.
In those days, I attempted to pull him to my side. But what happened? I was the one who was pulled to his side. Now, he is the president of the Kazhagam, and I function as the Treasurer of Kazhagam. All this happened, because of his ‘pull’.
While at Coimbatore, many years ago, he wrote the script for movies such as Rajakumari and Abhimanyu. But in the title credits of those movies, his name was excluded. Merely, because his name did not appear in the title credits, he never failed to show his talents and skills. He worked hard. Even though his name didn’t appear, he was satisfied that his ‘thoughts’ had been exposed. He never failed to include his party-linked thoughts in the movies.”
Rajakumari – A movie that was almost not made
But, Karunanidhi’s contribution to this Rajakumari was obliterated as a ‘script assistant’ to A.S.A.Sami. Though a disappointment for the young script writer (then in early 20s) he would soar as a trendy writer of alliterative Tamil in the next few years. Not only Karunanidhi, every major hand in the making of this movie had disappointments and faced ‘troubles’. Jupiter Pictures producers M. Somasundaram and S.K. Mohideen were first disappointed with the selection of hero MGR and the selection of an extra in the company’s pay role as a villain, by the director. Director Sami was disappointed by the half-hearted approval offered by the producers for his early efforts. Hero MGR was in trouble during the making of the movie, because he had to cop out from playing the ‘Sivaji’ role to the drama scripted by Anna and also suffered from the fear that his debut movie as a hero may be abandoned by the producers in midway. Lady villain Thavamani Devi was disappointed that her ‘sexy’ dress designs were being vetoed by the director. A senior character actor M.R.Saminathan who played the role of magician had disappointment with the debut director Sami.
Randor Guy, in a chapter on MGR, provides the following tidbit. “Sami, making his debut as a director, began shooting the film at the Central Studios, Coimbatore. When he had finished shooting a part of it, it was seen by the producers and S.K.Mohideen, one of them, did not like what he saw and wanted the project to be shelved. M. Somasundaram, the top man in Jupiter, was not sure what he wanted to do after this opinion. Sami, however, argued that the future of MGR and his too were at stake and virtually begged Somasundaram to permit him to complete the film. ‘Instead of burning it at 5,000 feet, you can do so at 11,000’, he argued and Somasundaram gave him the green signal to go ahead and complete the film. When it was released, the film turned out to be a hit. MGR, manly and muscular, was hailed as an action hero and compared with the Hollywood superstar Douglas Fairbanks…”
Further details on the troubles in bringing this movie to completion, appear in Aranthai Narayanan’s book, Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai [The Story of Tamil Cinema]. I provide the following verbatim translation below.
“ ‘Sami, why not you write a story script, and direct it?’ asked Jupiter Somu. A.S.A. Sami accepted this offer. Jupiter Somu also made two conditions. (1) First produce me a story. If I accept, you can direct it. The story should be like the recent successful hits Aryamala and Jagathala Prathaban. (2) Except for a few roles, you should use the actors who are in our company pay role.
With the help from cameraman V. Krishnan who is well versed in magic shots, Sami produced a raja-rani story and presented it to Somu. The story was appealing to Somu. ‘I have named the movie! It’s Rajakumari. Why? T.R. Rajakumari (1922?-1999; then a leading actress) will be the heroine for this movie. Hero – P.U. Chinappa.’
‘As we had planned previously, why not make this movie in a low budget, with actors who have yet to establish their reputation,’ retorted Sami. He did not want to experiment with star actors in his first movie.
Somu asked, ‘OK. Who can be the hero and heroine?’
Sami told, ‘In the Sri Murugan movie [released in 1946, produced by the same Jupiter Pictures] MGR and Malathi had acted forcefully as Lord Shiva and Parvathi. Their duet dance was well received. They also had good chemistry between themselves. Why not use them as hero and heroine?’
The news leaked. M.G. Ramachandran couldn’t believe his ears. He went and checked with Somu. Somu in turn, double checked.
“Why Sami? Are you insisting that we should have our Ramachandran as the hero for this Rajakumari movie? Then, MGR was observing the response from Sami.
‘If you offer encouragement and support, I have the confidence that I can finish this movie successfully with Ramachandran as the hero.’, quipped Sami.
Work began. During the shooting of Udayana-Vasavadhatta (a movie released by another company in 1946 for which Sami wrote the script, and Chidambaram S.Jayaraman was the music director), when music director Chidambaram Jayaraman had solicited a suitable opportunity to his brother in law, A.S.A.Sami invited that brother in law. M. Karunanidhi joined the team.
In the story, there is a queen. She has a body guard. The hero had to fight with this bodyguard and win. Somu had contracted a famous body builder to play that role.
M.G. Ramachandran queried Somu: ‘In your company, there is a suitable actor for that role. Why you had to invite someone from outside?’
Somu – ‘Whom are you talking about?’.
‘We have Sandow Sinnappa Thevar.’
‘He is an extra, earning a monthly salary in our company. We have to use another well-known guy.’
MGR’s response: ‘You don’t know the talent of Sinnappa. I know well. He fights vigorously. It will be a help for a young actor. Please choose him.’
Somu – ‘Even for you, this is your first opportunity as a hero. It will be great, if a well known guy fights with you. There’s a body builder well known as Kamaldeen pailwan. I’m interested in him.’
MGR – ‘Excuse me. You have to use Sinnappa. If not, I don’t need this fighting scene.’
Finally, it was decided to have Sinappa Thevar in that role.
K. Thavamani Devi had the woman villain role. She had to distract the man villain T.S.Balaiah with her dance. When she arrived at the set, all were aghast, including the director Sami. She had appeared with a blouse (and without a bra), exposing her cleavages. Director Sami requested her to tighten both sides. Thavamani Devi in turn retorted, ‘The scene to be shot is a dance to distract the villain. This should be the way, if it looks natural’ and rejected director’s suggestion. Even though, it was a night shooting, Sami had to call the producer Somu to the floor to settle this dispute. Somu had a word with Thavamani Devi and finally a compromise was made. She had to place a big paper flower in between to hide her cleavage.
During the shooting, there was conflict between M.R. Swaminathan who played the magician role. Swaminathan complained to Somu; ‘You have made someone who came from Ceylon yesterday into a director. What’s his age, and my age? I’m a senior actor.’ ”
From these details, one could infer that if Rajakumari project was abandoned by the Jupiter Pictures, the bigger losers would have been MGR and Sami, as well as Karunanidhi. All three had a stake on their future career trends; MGR as a hero actor, Sami as the trendy director and Karunanidhi as a trendy script writer. Somehow, they made it certain that the movie was completed with some delay in shooting schedule. One could also guess that MGR was successful with producer Somasundaram in negotiating to have Sandow Sinappa Thevar (an in-house extra) as his fight rival, rather than a well-known body builder, who was unknown to him. Considering the previous ‘bad blood’ experience he had with Ranjan in the Salivahanan movie, MGR was cautious in not hurting his body (which was his prime insurance) in fight scenes with an unknown personality. This one, he won. But, he lost (or negotiated tactfully to exclude himself) the offered chance to play the ‘Sivaji’ role in Anna’s drama in 1946.
Sivaji Ganesan’s reminiscence of his ‘big’ opportunity
This is what the 18 year old Sivaji Ganesan (aka V.C. Ganesamoorthy), who replaced MGR for that Sivaji role had reminisced in his autobiography:
“It was the time when the Dravida Kazhagam party was growing rapidly. The year was 1946. Preparations were on in Chennai conducting the Seventh Conference for Self-Respect Awareness (Yezhavathu Suyamariyathai Mahanadu). To enhance this further Anna wrote the play Sivaji kanda Hindu Rajyam… Originally, M.G. Ramachandran was chosen to play the role of Sivaji and the costumes tailored for him. For some reason MGR turned down the offer.
With hardly a week left for the play, D.V.Narayana Swamy, the stage manager, was extremely worried. He told Anna that MGR had refused to act this role. Both had a brainstorming session to find alternatives. They keenly examined the prospect of finding a substitute among us. I suppose they had looked for a man with a large nose and big eyes and I must have fitted the bill, because they trained their eyes on me!”
Karunanidhi, in his autobiography recorded why MGR refused to act in that ‘Sivaji’ drama scripted by Anna, with a derisive bite on MGR as follows:
“There were advertisements in Anna’s ‘Dravida Nadu’ newspaper that M.G.Ramchandar would act as Sivaji on that drama. Then, [my] friend M.G.Ramachandran was acting in movies with the ‘Ramchandar’ [stage] name. But suddenly, he had announced that he could not act in Anna’s drama. Others had threatened him that if he did act in that drama, his future prospects in the art world would suffer. Thus, via Nadigamani D.V. Narayanaswami (hereafter D.V.N.), he had informed his decision to Anna.
That MGR had suggested to D.V. N. that Anna’s drama script had to be re-written in many places, and after hearing this comment, Anna was surprised and didn’t permit to change the lines according to MGR’s wish and having this as a reason, MGR had rejected to act. This had been told by D.V.N. himself in many meetings.’
One should note that when Karunanidhi wrote these lines in 1987, he had fallen out of MGR and wanted to place him as an inferior actor in comparison to Sivaji Ganesan. Again, it could be inferred that at the age of 29, MGR was more interested on establishing his career as an action movie star, than being a drama star. One cannot blame him for this choice, because Rajakumari was being shot in Coimbatore (and it was facing so many problems during shooting), but the Sivaji drama (a propaganda item for Dravidar Kazhagam) was to be staged in Chennai. And, at that time, he was a Congress Party supporter, as was noted by MGR himself. MGR’s rejection in 1946 turned out to be a lucky break for Sivaji Ganesan in dramas, who himself had to wait for another six years for his lucky break in movies.
For Rajakumari movie, MGR was contracted to have a salary of 2,500 rupees, paid in 200 rupees per month installment. However, as it took 18 months to complete the shootings (with all the troubles it faced on its progress), MGR had to act an additional six months without pay! Sandow Sinnappa Thevar paid back the trust MGR had on his skills and standing up for him against the producer’s wish. Subsequently, when he in turn became a successful producer in 1960s and 1970s, MGR had acted in 16 of the ‘Thevar Films’ productions between 1956 and 1972.
Erik Barnow and S.Krishnaswamy: Indian Film, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, New York, 1980.
M. Karunanidhi: Nenjukku Neethi autobiography, vol.1, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 2nd ed. 1985. (Tamil)
M. Karunanidhi: Nenjukku Neethi autobiography, vol.2, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 1987 (Tamil).
R. Muthukumar: Vaadhyar – MGR Vazhkkai, Kizhakku Pathippagam Chennai, 2009. (Tamil).
Aranthai Narayanan: Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai, 2nd ed., New Century Book House, Chennai, 2002 (Tamil)
T.S. Narayana Swamy: Autobiography of an Actor Sivaji Ganesan (October 1928 – July 2001), Sivaji Prabhu Charities Trust, Chennai, 2007.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, new revised ed., Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.
Randor Guy: Starlight, Starbright – The Early Tamil Cinema, Amra Publishers, Chennai, 1997, pp. 178-183.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past series – Rajakumari 1947. The Hindu (Chennai), Sept.5, 2008.