BLAST FROM THE PAST
Seva Sadanam 1938
M. S. Subbulakshmi, F. G. Natesa Iyer, S. Varalakshmi
instant hit From Seva Sadanam
Seva Sadanam, directed by K. Subramanyam, saw the movie debut of M. S. Subbulakshmi who went on to conquer the world with her melodious voice, beauty, grace and humility. Her films were few – only five in number – but she won a lasting place in everybody’s heart. Leaving films in the mid-1940s, “MS”, as she is affectionately known, scaled great heights in the Carnatic music firmament.
Seva Sadanam was based a novel “Bazaar Ka Huns” in Hindi by the famed writer Munshi Premchand. Translated into Tamil by a prominent social worker of Madras, “Sister” R. S. Subbulakshmi, it was serialised in the weekly, Ananda Vikatan. The basic theme was of a poor young girl becoming the second wife of a man old enough to be her father. The injustice done to such unfortunate girls, especially in the Brahmin community, and the inhuman custom of dowry, which plagues our land even today, were highlighted in the story. Ever a socially conscious filmmaker, K. Subramanyam was impressed with the serial and purchased the film rights for Rs. 4,000, then a high price. He and his wife S. D. Subbulakshmi suggested the proposal to MS and her husband T. Sathasivam who agreed to launch Seva Sadanam as their first film venture in collaboration with Subramanyam. The film created a stir in certain sections of South Indian society, especially among Brahmins.
In one sequence, F. G. Natesa Iyer, the railway official-stage actor who played the old husband, is struck with remorse and throws away in sheer disgust his “yagnopavitham”, the sacred thread a Brahmin wears as an iconic symbol of his faith and community. This scene drove the orthodox to heap abuse on the director but he did not bat an eyelid.
MS’ popularity soared higher and some of the songs she sang in Seva Sadanam such as ‘Maa Ramanan…’ became hits and the gramophone records sold well. Recent research by this writer has unearthed an interesting fact that Subramanyam had planned to produce the story of a Tamil saint, Vipranarayana, as the first film of MS and not Seva Sadanam. The folk myth was a popular stage-play and filmed more than once. The heroine is a temple dancer from the traditional Devadasi clan to whom the saintly man is attracted! According to tradition, temple dancers did not wear a blouse, but Subbulakshmi refused to do such a role. Left with no choice, Subramanyam had to drop the project after advertising the film!
Ever the innovator and trendsetter, Subramanyam created Tamil film history during the making of Seva Sadanam. He shot some sequences featuring MS on actual locations instead of the studio. He shot a scene in the bungalow in the then thinly populated Thyagaraya Nagar owned by a prosperous doctor of Madras, U. L. Narayana Rao. It became a much-talked about event attended by the high-decibel chattering bejewelled silk sari-clad Madras upper middle-class Brahmin women which did not amuse the much harassed director!
The film was an instant hit and established MS as a film star. Regrettably no trace of the historic film exists except for a few faded stills, gramophone song records and, of course, the evergreen memories of old timers and MS-aficionados.
Remembered for the movie debut of M. S. Subbulakshmi.
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