Gone, but not forgotten
P. U. Chinnappa, whose fame slotted him second only to M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, died suddenly in 1952. Yet the DVDs of his films are still in demand.
Versatile: P.U. Chinnappa in Kannagi.
H e was one of the top celebrities in Tamil cinema between the late 1930s and early 1950s. He was ranked next to the first superstar, M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. But it all ended abruptly for P. U. Chinnappa when he died suddenly in September 1952, when he was around 40.
Pudukottai Ulaganatha Pillai Chinnasami (that was his given name) was born in 1917 in Pudukottah (now Pudukottai) which was then a maharaja-ruled State. His father was a stage actor of repute and this influence showed when he took to acting at age five. He preferred to be schooled by life and became a drop-out when he was in the fourth Standard.
During his childhood, he sang, acted in plays and even won prizes for his role in ‘Sadaram' in which he played ‘Boy Pucca Kalla.' As he grew up, he took up martial arts such as wrestling, boxing, fencing, stick-wielding, javelin and spear- throwing and became proficient in them as well as in music.
P. U. Chinnappa with T. R. Mahalingam
For a while, he earned a living from these arts. Later as movie star, he performed his own stunts and loved to get into fights in real life too!
He joined a Boys' Company and initially got only minor roles. But soon he began to get major and important roles, which attracted the attention of theatre-goers.
In the Madurai Original Boy's Company, a famed troupe of that era, his colleagues were Kali N. Ratnam, K.R. Ramasami, M. K. Radha, P. G. Venkatesan ( known as ‘the Saigal of South India' ), M. G. Chakrapani, K. K. Perumal, and M. G. Ramachandran - who played the female roles!).
Chinnappa, initially, received a princely salary of Rs. 15 per mensem, but with increasing fame his salary zoomed to Rs. 75 ! ( On a salary of Rs. 75, he managed to save enough to buy his first house in Pudukottai. Later on in life, he was supposedly the owner of 30 houses that were located in his hometown, Madras City and other places. However, when he died, his wife Sakunthala and son P. U. C. Rajabhadhur were left virtually penniless. To this day no one knows how his houses and other assets vanished. His son earned a modest living as a dubbing artist, and has worked with this writer on a ‘dubbing' project.)
In the controversial play ‘Chavukkadi Chandrakantha,' a biting satire on an amorous swamiji, he played the supporting role of the Zamindar of Chundur that put him in the spotlight.. When this play was filmed in 1936 by M. Somasundaram, S.K. Mohideen and others, he was cast in the same role and his name appeared in the credit as ‘P. U. Chinnasami.' The film was a success.
After this impressive debut, Chinnappa acted in a fistful of films such as ‘Punjab Kesari,' ‘Raja Mohan,' ‘Yayati' and ‘Anadhai Penn' among others. However, these did not enhance his fame. At one point, a frustrated Chinnappa gave up movies for a while and spent his time praying at home. Then all of a sudden, he received an offer from the South Indian movie mogul, T. R. Sundaram, who cast him in a double role in the 1940 ‘Utthama Puthran' - inspired by the Alexandre Dumas classic ‘The Man In The Iron Mask'. The film turned out to be a big hit, and this took him back to the world of lens and lights.
Then began his successful innings with films such as ‘Aryamala,' ‘Jagathalaprathapan,' ‘Kannagi,' ‘Kubera Kuchela,' ‘Harishchandra,' ‘Mahamaya,' ‘Manonmani,' ‘Sudharsan', ‘Mangayarkarasi,' ‘Krishna Bhakti,' among others. Many of these movies were major box office hits, and ‘Kannagi' (1942) was a mega success. Some were hailed as classics and these achievements elevated him to the top spot next to Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.
‘Krishna Bhakti' had a song–discourse scene, ‘Sengamalam Endra Daasi….' (music by S. V. Venkataraman and lyrics, Udumalai Narayana Kavi), in which Chinnappa sang and narrated the devout tale of a dancing girl named Sengamalam, who refused to yield to any man and devoted herself to Lord Krishna. Venkataraman told this writer years later, that during the shooting of this Harikatha sequence that lasted nearly six minutes, Chinnappa sang and spoke his dialogue all in one ‘take' - an amazing feat. (The close-ups and cut-aways were taken later and added to the master shot).
In the major hit ‘Jagathalaprathapan' (1943), in a stunning song sequence (‘Namakkini Bhyamadheu….') Chinnappa sang as if he was giving a concert. A brilliant trick photography by the talented cinematographer V. Krishnan, made it seem that Chinnappa – who appeared in a single frame – was playing all the accompanying instruments such as the violin, mridangam, ghatam and konnakol.
For some reason this song was not released as a gramophone record of the movie. Later Chinnappa rendered this song, issued as a private record by a recording company. Its ad showed Chinnappa playing all the instruments.
‘Konnakol', is not an instrument but involves calling out the rhythms such as “thaka... dhimi... thatha.!”A difficult art, which has almost vanished today. In the last line of the konnakol rendering, Chinnappa introduced a novel touch by saying, “thathinginatha thom… thathinginatha ….inthaaa!” as if he was handing it over to the mridangam player.
‘Kubera Kuchela' (1943), a surprise hit had excellent music (music by noted classic Carnatic musician Kunnakudi Venkatarama Iyer, assisted by N. S. Balakrishnan with lyrics by Papanasam Sivan and Udumalai Narayana Kavi). Famed music composer and actor S. V. Venkataraman, and T. K. Ramanathan composed the background music score. The movie had 17 songs including comic ones and one song, ‘Nadai Alankaaram Kanden…' (voice by Chinnappa and lyrics by Narayana Kavi) composed in the classic raga Karaharapriya became a super hit. Some critics consider this song as the best one of the 1940s, with some others ranking it even higher than the evergreen MKT Bhagavathar-Haridas immortal ‘Manmadhan Leelayai ...'
Although nearly 60 years have gone by since his death, Chinnappa's films are still in demand in the DVD format and some of them are also frequently aired on television.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu