Naidu - hits and misses
Malaikallan, with its racy story, established MGR as a box-office hero.
Resounding successes: Meena Kumari in Azad.
(This is the second and last part of an article on Sriramulu Naidu.)
A nother box office hit of Naidu, as producer-director was ‘Jagathalaprathapan' (1944) featuring P.U. Chinnappa in the lead role, with M.S. Sarojini, U.R. Jeevaratnam, and many other actresses. A folk tale shot at Central Studios it had an interesting song sequence with Chinnappa who besides, singing, plays many instruments himself. In one shot, he appears singing and playing different instruments in a single frame! It was considered a marvel of technical achievement in those days.
The boat was rocked in late 1944, when Naidu was arrested for his alleged involvement in the murder of C.N. Lakshmikantham. The case against him, however, was withdrawn for lack of evidence.
After this event Naidu parted company with Central Studios and established his own studios, Pakshiraja taking over Kandhan Studio in Coimbatore on long lease. Under his baton it became a humming hive of motion picture production not only in Tamil, but also in Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam and even Sinhala. In his first movie at the new studio Naidu made, ‘Kannika' (1947), a folklore tale. It was not a box-office hit.
To play Arjuna, Naidu cast T.E. Varadan, who was paired with Rajakumari. Mahalingam virtually lived the role of Lord Krishna - he in fact sidelined the love story of Arjuna and Pavalakodi. As the go-between in the love affair, Mahalingam revealed his flair for comedy. In one sequence, Arjuna is converted into a swan (really a duck, suitably disguised!), and Krishna carries the bird around singing a song which became a big hit, ‘Annam vaangalaiyo... Amma... Annam vaangalaiyo' (lyrics by Papanasam Sivan and music by C.R. Subbaraman).
In spite of the excellent star cast, pleasing music and comedy, ‘Pavalakodi' did not prove to be a success mainly because moviegoers thought Mahalingam should have played Arjuna.
Then in 1950 from Pakshiraja came one of the classics of Tamil Cinema directed by K. Ramnoth – ‘Ezhai Padum Paadu' - with Naidu as producer. It was a fine adaptation of the French literary masterpiece Victor Hugo's ‘Les Miserables.' Chittoor V. Nagaiah played Jean Val Jean superbly but another actor stole the thunder. He was the lawyer-turned-actor-screenwriter N. Seetharaman. He acted as the tough Police Inspector Javert and his performance impressed the Tamil film-goers and critics alike that he came to be known for the rest of his life as ‘Javert' Seetharaman!
Others in the cast were Serukalathur Sama, T.S. Balaiah, V. Gopalakrishnan, T.S. Durairaj, Lalitha and Padmini, (the noted ‘Travancore Sisters' who began their film career by doing dance numbers were now blossoming into full fledged actors), and ‘Lux Soap Beauty' Kumari N. Rajam. (Now in her 80s, and known as Thanjavur N. Rajalakshmi, she is a successful Bharatanatyam guru). Nagaiah, the multi-lingual star of many talents, rose to great heights with his performance in the lead role as the reformed thief.
Initially, the singing actor, Nagercoil K. Mahadevan (the screen Naradar!), was cast as the bishop who reforms the thief. After a few scenes were shot, Sriramulu Naidu replaced him with Serukalathur Sama, which was a change for the better. Written by Elangovan, the film had melodious music composed by S.M. Subbaiah Naidu. One song ‘Vidhiyin vilaivaal….' (voice [Radha]-Jayalakshmi) picturised on Kumari Rajam was shot in a single ‘Take' without a cut by Ramnoth. It was a technical marvel during that period. Even today, it leaves a stunning impact among film technicians.
‘Ezhai Padum Paadu' was a hit and created film history as the first Tamil film to be released on Deepavali Day, 1950, at Casino cinema, Chennai.
Naidu's next film was ‘Kanchana' (1952, Tamil and Malayalam) based on a magazine serial by well known writer Lakshmi,(Thiripurasundari), a medical doctor, and her popular family tale was made by Naidu featuring K.R. Ramasami, Lalitha and others. Even though it was a well made film it did not fare well as expected. For his next film, Naidu engaged the noted filmmaker of his day, college professor turned writer-director A.S.A. Sami, who made ‘Ponni' (1952) featuring Sriram and Padmini, in lead roles. A sentimental family drama, it did not fare well. This film was also made in Telugu.
During 1951, the Hindi filmmaker Amiya Chakravarty made ‘Badal,' a hit, featuring Premnath and Madhubala in lead roles. Naidu dubbed it in Tamil (‘Puratchiveeran') and Malayalam (‘Desabhakthan,' 1952). A Robin Hood-ish tale of the hero opposing the despotic jahagirdhar whose daughter falls in love with him, inspired Naidu to acquire the rights of ‘Malaikallan,' popular novel of the famous lawyer-Tamil scholar-poet laureate, Namakkal Va. Ramalingam Pillai.
The crowning glory of Naidu's career was ‘Malaikallan' (1954), which established M.G. Ramachandran as a box-office hero.
The Hindi hit
Naidu forged ahead to produce and direct this film besides Tamil, also in Telugu (‘Aggi Ramudu'), Malayalam (‘Taskara Veeran'), Kannada (‘Bettada Kalla'), Hindi (‘Azad'), and Sinhala (‘Soorasena'). All the versions were box-office hits and the best of them all was the Hindi film featuring Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari in lead roles. This film broke all box office records. Pleasing music score by C. Ramchandra also was a major attraction in the film.
T.R. Varadan and Sarojini in Pavalakodi.
During that period there were no star-hotels in Coimbatore, and Naidu took Dilip Kumar around many bungalows in the city and also the rooms in Pakshiraja Studios. The legend chose to stay in the studio and so did Meena Kumari. Music was composed by the wizard C. Ramchandra with lyrics by Rajendra Krishen.
In 1959 Naidu made ‘Maragatham', based on an interesting crime thriller by T.S.D. Sami, the film had a sub-title –‘Karunkuyil Kunrathu Kolai'- within brackets. The screenplay was by Naidu, while dialogue was penned by ‘Murasoli' Maran, and was excellently narrated on screen, and well directed by Naidu.
‘Maragatham' narrated the happenings of rich zamindari family in which the maharaja is murdered and the blame falls on his innocent brother (veena maestro S. Balachandar), and his lovely wife (Sandhya, Jayalalitha's mother). The cast included Sivaji Ganesan, Padmini, T.S. Balaiah and comedian T.S. Durairaj, who played villain.
Balachandar excelled with an understated performance, while Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini made a delightful pair. J.P. Chandra Babu, as the lovelorn butler was his usual sparkling self.
The film had excellent sets (A.K. Sekhar) and outdoor locations picturesque with fine cinematography (Sailen Bose) and catchy music. One song, in particular, a duet between Chandra Babu and Jamuna Rani, singing for pretty Lakshmirajam, ‘Kunguma poovey… konjum puraavey…' became a hit and is still popular even after half a century. (Music S.M. Subbaiah Naidu).
In 1969, Naidu re-made it in Telugu as ‘Vimala' with Telugu Cinema cult figure N. T. Rama Rao, and multilingual top star Savithri in lead roles. Naidu also made films in Malayalam. He made ‘Prasanna' (1950) in which he cast Padmini and Lalitha in lead roles along with T.S. Balaiah and others. He also made the story of Sabarimalai Ayyappa in Malayalam and Tamil which proved hits.
In 1963, Naidu made ‘Kalyaniyin Kanavan,' which had Sivaji Ganesan and Saroja Devi in lead roles. This film did not fare well.
For many reasons Naidu had to shift his base from Coimbatore to Bangalore where he took over Chamundeswari Studios. But things were never the same. Advancing age and other problems prompted Naidu to give the studio to his nephew for management and this did not work out.
The later years of Naidu's life were far from happy, and he passed away in 1976, when he was only 66. Sriramulu Naidu's contribution to the growth of cinema in this part of the country in more than one language awaits a proper assessment to this day. Sadly he remains a neglected figure of Indian cinema. Indeed it is a matter of deep regret that the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema published by the Oxford University Press some years ago does not contain an entry for Sriramulu Naidu, whereas lesser figures are highlighted in the book.
It is time a book on Naidu's work and contribution to Indian cinema is brought out by a competent person for the benefit of the future generations of filmmakers, historians, movie buffs and students of cinema.
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