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He drew inspiration from Shakespeare


Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar skilfully adapted classic plays and stories from western literature to suit Tamil theatre.

Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar.

One of the two founding fathers of the Renaissance of Tamil Theatre is Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar.

Lawyer, Madras City Court Judge, playwright, stage star, producer and director he also extended his creative abilities into early Tamil cinema as actor and filmmaker.

Many of his plays like ‘Sabapathy,’ ‘Manohara,’ ‘Dancing Girl’ (Dasi Penn), ‘Galava Rishi,’ ‘Ratnavali,’ ‘Vethala Ulagam,’ ‘Chandrahari,’ ‘Leelavati Sulochana,’ ‘Vanipurathu Vanigan’ (Merchant of Venice) and ‘Amaladityan’ (Hamlet) created theatre history. Some of them like ‘Galavar Rishi’ (1932), ‘Ratnavali’ (1935), ‘Manohara’ (1936, 1954), ‘Leelavati Sulochana’ (1936), ‘Sabapathy’ (1941) and ‘Vethala Ulagam’ (1948) were made into movies.

Born in Madras in 1872, his father Pammal Vijayaranga Mudaliar was an Inspector of Schools and inspired by him, Sambandam was deeply interested in the study of Hindu epics, Tamil classics, and folklore and Shakespeare.

During that period Tamil Theatre was at its lowest ebb mainly because of its vulgarity and far from decent features.

An amateur group, Sarasa Vinodhini Sabha in Bellary spearheaded by leading lawyer Bellary Krishnamacharlu, visited Madras, staging plays in Telugu at the Victoria Public Hall.

Much to the surprise of many, the week-long festival was a smashing success.

Young Sambandam decided to take the plunge and found kindred interest in six friends of his. And on July 5, 1891, was born ‘Suguna Vilas Sabha.’

Now began the search for a suitable story for the maiden play of SVS.

One of Sambandam’s classmates at the Presidency College was the scion of the noble family of rajas of Paanagal. Ramaraya Nimgar was a scholar with a high degree proficiency in Telugu and Sanskrit. Mudaliar requested his friend also interested in fine arts to write him a play. The result was not satisfactory and Sambandam decided to write the play himself. ‘Pushpavalli,’ his maiden attempt at play-writing, went on board in 1893.

Play minus obscenity

The concept and plans, the promotion and the incorporation of Suguna Vilas Sabha and a band of educated cultured young men of Madras with commendable family backgrounds entering Tamil Theatre became news per se. The play minus obscenity was a hit.

Inspired by the success Sambandam wrote his second play, ‘Sarangadhara’ adapting the familiar folk myth tale of a king marrying a young woman who was in love with his son!

Later this story would be made as a movie in more than one language with considerable success.

On completing his legal education Sambandam underwent one year of legal apprenticeship under a senior lawyer.

After some years of practice on the Original Side of the Madras High Court, he was appointed judge of the Small Causes Court. This gave him ample time to pursue the sabha activities.

During the colonial rule the courts of law were closed during Christmas and year-end for about two weeks and the vacation was celebrated in many ways.

In a way this was a precursor to the December Season that has become an integral part of Chennai’s calendar.

Sambandam Mudaliar adapted many of the classic plays and stories from western literature modifying and changing them to suit Tamil. He drew much inspiration and source material from the immortal plays of William Shakespeare.

Sambandam Mudaliar loved to introduce innovations and trick sequences in his plays, which were greatly appreciated by theatre-goers of yester-decades. However, sometimes things went awry resulting in hilarious situations and boffos.

(‘Boffo’ is an old American vaudeville and theatre expression which means happy and healthy laughter, which starts in the lower parts of the stomach, and works its way up making the body shiver and quiver)

When movies began to talk Tamil in 1931 with “Kalidas” Tamil film producers made a beeline to Sambandam Mudaliar’s doors seeking his plays for filming.

Raw material for cinema

During that period there was no screenwriter as an entity as he is known today and theatre provided much of the raw material for Tamil cinema. In 1932 a noted Bombay-based producer approached Mudaliar and acquired his mythological play about Arjuna, “Galava Rishi” for filming.

Interestingly this film produced in Bombay was begun as a silent movie and after the success of “Kalidas,” it was made as a ‘talkie.’

The leading Tamil film music composer G. Ramanathan took his bow in cinema in this movie as an assistant to his brother G. Sundara Bhagavathar who composed music for “Galava Rishi.”

“Galava Rishi” was directed by T.C.Vadivelu Naicker, a noted Tamil scholar and prominent member of Suguna Vilas Sabha and a devoted disciple of Sambandam Mudaliar.

His play “Sathi Sulochana” was acquired by a Coimbatore-based company to produce the movie, written and directed by Sambandam Mudaliar.

The film turned out be a highly amateurish affair. It was more a filmed play or what is known as canned theatre. Mudaliar realised that the film direction was not his cup of tea!

However, he was interested in acting in movies and when his successful play Manohara was acquired for filming, he played King Purushothaman, father of Manohara. This movie was shot in Bombay and ran into many problems. It flopped at the box-office and vanished from public memory.

After the debacle of “Manohara” (1934) Mudaliar did not involve himself in motion pictures except to sell the movie rights of his plays. “Sabapathy” (1941) was one of the biggest hits of the year and it established the rather obscure comedian T.R.Ramachandran as a movie star and A.T.Krishnaswami as director.

Another Sambandam Mudaliar play which was made into a movie was “Vethala Ulagam” (1948).

In recognition of his exemplary service to Tamil theatre the Government bestowed on him the honorific title of ‘Rao Bahadhur.’

Even in advance years Sambandam Mudaliar kept in touch with Tamil Theatre and attended plays whenever he was invited.

Mudaliar lived almost to hundred and even during his last years he was deeply concerned about Tamil Theatre and its future.

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