A Ban on showing the ‘Avvaiyar’ Tamil Movie – 40 Years Ago
by Sachi Sri Kantha, March 12, 2019
While digging through my old diary entries, I came across a news item that mentioned about a public ban on showing the Avvaiyar Tamil movie of 1953 in Colombo. For historical record, I provide a scan of this item that appeared in the Virakesari (Colombo) daily of April 13, 1979, which I had tagged to my diary entry. It stated, “Government had issued a ban on showing Gemini Studio’s ‘Avvaiyar’ movie, which was to be shown today after a long time, as a New Year release. The mentioned reason for this ban was that this movie, starring Carnatic diva K.B. Sundarambal, promotes the emotional feelings of one community. The Censor Board saw this movie on Wednesday morning at the Colombo Liberty theater, and the ban announcement was announced after this showing.”
My diary entry of April 15, 1979 (Sun), was as follows: “To protest the ban of ‘Avvaiyar’ movie by the Censor Board, I wrote a piece with the caption, ‘The ban on Tamil folks to watch the Tamil old lady ‘Avvaiyar’ and sent the item to Sutantiran. Kovai Mahesan, the editor, published it on May 7, 1979. Unfortunately, now I don’t have either a draft or copy of what I wrote in that short commentary or a clip of the printed version of it.
Few weeks later, saner counsel might had prevailed and the imposed ban on the ‘Avvaiyar’ movie was relaxed. My diary entry of June 30 1979 (Sat) indicates, “For the 9:30 pm show, went to Sapphire theater, to watch Gemini’s ‘Avvaiyar’ movie. A movie that was first released 25 years ago. Script, lyrics and direction by Kothamangalam Subbu. Music: M.D. Parthasarathi and Mayavaram Venu. Nathaswaram: Inchikudi Pichchaikannu Pillai. Lead players: K.B. Sundarambal, M.K. Radha, Gemini Ganesan, Balaji, Kusalakumari, Sundaribai. Over 40 Avvaiyar songs.” Of course, I will never claim that my sole critical piece in the Sutantiran would have had this relaxing effect on the dumb Censor Board then.
The ‘Avvaiyar’ Tamil movie was a grand production of Subramanya Srinivasan (aka, S.S.Vasan, 1904-1969), the Cecil B. DeMille of India. According to a satirical reminiscence essay penned by noted Tamil writer Ashokamitran (1931-2017), ‘My Years with Boss at Gemini Studios’(2002), this movie was first announced as a ‘forthcoming productions in 1944 or 1945’, but it was released only in 1953. ‘Avvaiyar’ was a very popular biopic of ancient Tamil goliardic preacher-poetess Avvaiyar, starring the Carnatic diva K.B. Sundarambal in the title role. There would have been multiple reasons for the delay, only Vasan himself could have known; simultaneous production of Gemini’s mega hit movie, Chandralekha (1948) in Tamil and Hindi as well as war time shortage for film roles were two of these. I guess, another possible reason unmentioned by Ashokamitran, was Vasan wanted to wait Sundarambal (the heroine) to ‘age’ naturally for the title role. Sundarambal, born in 1908 would have been only 37 around 1945. According to the story line, a young Avvai rejects a marriage arranged by her parents, to transform herself into an old lady, blessed by the Lord Ganesa (Pillaiyar). By 1952, Sundarambal would have reached 44, more in character with the titular role she had to play. In the movie, child Avvai was played by Kumari Saraswathi (Sachu), nubile Avvai was played by dancer T.D. Kusalakumari, and Sundarambal makes her appearance only after the first 20 minutes.
I provide below two paragraphs from Ashokamitran’s memoir that tells us about Vasan’s insight into movie production in completing Avvaiyar movie. The penultimate sentence in the 2nd paragraph more or less confirms my guess that Vasan did wait for Sundarambal to ‘age’ naturally.
“I had seen all that had been filmed of the lady until then. The birth of Avvaiyar ran for two hours. Her childhood took up another two hours. Avvaiyar renounces worldly life in the next two hours and meets a hen-pecked man over two hours. Her confrontation with a ghost lasted two hours. Sorry, four hours. The lady is at the residence of a proverbially generous generous chieftain for another two hours. Here were several such two-hour episodes. The fact is that whenever Vasan thought one among his ‘ideas men’ was oversleeping in the afternoons, he would tell him, ‘Why not do a bit of Avvaiyar?’
Thousands of feet of film had been exposed, dozens of songs recorded, reams of dialogue written, spoken and recorded. Barring the central character of Avvaiyar which was played by K.B. Sundarambal, the others were chosen from whoever was available from among the in-house six hundred. And then Vasan sat down to make a selection from the miles of footage – only in films can the footage be in miles. He sat for hours or projection of all that had already been shot, and his editors stood by with scissors and splicers. Everytime he sat for a while closing his eyes, it meant a thousand feet were cut off. He streamlined the multistyled rendering, freshly shot and inserted connecting links from scene to scene, gave a truly poetic beginning to the film and ended the film with a spectacular ‘ascent to the heavens’ finale. Vasan worked like a man possessed. He always worked like one possessed and he drove his six hundred-strong subjects to a state of possession. Six months of feverish toil. Matters which had remained undecided for six years were decided in six seconds. Things which were thought unaccomplishable were accomplished in a week. In fact, the final version of Avvaiyar contained more footage shot during the final six months than any of the older footage shot over the previous eight years. I was amazed that out of a pile of sloppy stuff such a streamlined and interesting film could be made. Here was craft fine-tuned into an art.”
It sounds ridiculous now to reminisce that 40 years ago, the UNP government headed by J.R. Jayewardene banned it for public release! My postulations are, 1979 was the year that the Tamil militant movement was gaining steam. The phrase ‘Tamil Tigers’ was entering the social media, but neither Prabhakaran nor Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were clearly identified then. Though Vasan’s ‘Avvaiyar’ movie did not directly promote the Eelam Tamil cause, the mere mention of the Chola kingdom (whose flag symbol was tiger) in the movie dialog would have pinched the nerves of the few Tamil sycophants who were in the Censor Board.
At that time, I was a temporary assistant lecturer in biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya, and was involved in the students’ activities. For the Ilankathir (University of Peradeniya’s Tamil Sangam annual magazine), an article was solicited from me. Probably influenced by the ‘Avvaiyar’ movie that featured the nadaswaram music of Injikudi Pichai Kannu Pillai’s party, I contributed a short feature on the popular wind musical instrument nagaswaram (aka nadaswaram). The same Ilankathir issue, also carried a relatively longer article on Tamil entitled, ‘Ilankai and Eelam – Few Historical Notes’ contributed by Prof. Alvapillai Velupillai (1936-2015). I provide PDF scans of these two articles nearby.
Ashokamitran: My Years with Boss at Gemini Studios, Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2002.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1998.