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Blast from the past

Pavalakodi 1934

M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (debut), S. D. Subbulakshmi (debut), S. S. Mani and K. K. Parvathi Bai

Box office hit: Pavalakodi

Pavalakodi created history for many reasons - it marked the debut of the first superstar of south Indian cinema, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, and that of stage and movie star of the early decades S. D. Subbulakshmi (later Mrs. K. Subramanyam). It also saw the introduction of the sadly neglected pioneer of Indian cinema, lawyer-turned-filmmaker K. Subramanyam as director.

Though, according to scholars, the story of Pavalakodi and Arjuna finds no mention in the Mahabharata, it was a successful play in Tamil in which Bhagavathar made a mark as a stage actor. Bhagavathar who reigned supreme on stage after the early demise of the iconic S. G. Kittappa had ideas of turning producer with this play, but SM. Letchumanan Chettiar (better known as `Lena'), a drama contractor of Chettinad, persuaded him to give up such plans and act in the film. It was produced by Meenakshi Cinetone and a wealthy distributor Al. Rm. Alagappa Chettiar was the moving force behind it.

Al. Rm. and his partners had a studio in Adyar which later became Neptune, Satya, (now MGR Janaki College). It had no compound walls then. One of the disgruntled partners took advantage of this situation and would begin to sound his car horn whenever Subramanyam said, "Start Camera"! Left with no option, the producers bought him out, but then a new crisis arose. from the crows of Adyar!

Adyar was more wooded than it is now. Numerous crows hovered over the food packs meant for the cast and crew of the film. In those days, all involved in a movie irrespective of their status ate the same food.

With shooting taking place in bright sunshine, the cast and crew would break for food only if a cloud cast its shadow on the sun. The artistes would rush as soon as the cloud cleared, abandoning the food packets, and the crows would swoop down to peck at the food. Their incessant cawing interfered with the recording of dialogue and song (as artistes had to sing songs on location just as they delivered dialogue). The exasperated director brought on board an Anglo Indian to shoot an air rifle into the sky to scare the crows away before he started shooting.

That was not all. There was a credit card in the titles, `Crow Shooter - Joe'. Perhaps the only one of its kind in movie history! The studio had no laboratory and Subramanyam and his team had no way of knowing whether a shot had been properly canned; they just hoped for the best. Not an ideal way of making movies perhaps, but that was how our pioneers worked .. The post production was done in Bombay.

Bhagavathar and Subbulakshmi excelled in their acting and singing (music composer Papanasam Sivan). The film was a box office hit and established Bhagavathar, Subbulakshmi and Subramanyam as stars of Tamil cinema.

A solitary print of this historic film is preserved at the National Film Archive of India at Pune.

Remembered for the debut of Bhagavathar, Subbulakshmi and Subramanyam, and for the fine music.


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