Wednesday, January 5, 2011

S M SreeRamulu Naidu: Tamil movie Legend

He is the only Indian Film World personality, perhaps even elsewhere in the world who promoted and managed three motion picture studios, producing and directing movies therein in more than one language. That was not all. He produced and directed a single film of his "Malaikallan" (1954) in six languages including the original Tamil, like Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, and even Sinhala. This film created movie history, and even after half century and more it still sustains interest. The Hindi version "Azad" starring the two iconic immortals of Indian Cinema, the 'Tragedy King' Dilip Kumar in his first swashbuckling role (which at first he refused to do and was even amused when the south Indian producer, a stranger to Hindi Cinema approached him with the project!), created Indian Film History...
The heroine was perhaps the most brilliant actress and star of Hindi Cinema, Meena Kumari.
Such dynamic dashing and creatively brilliant producer- director- studio owner and more was S. M.Sriramulu Naidu (1910-1976). One of the key figures in the astonishing development of cinema in south India he can be described deservedly, as 'the Coimbatore Movie Mogul.' Indeed not many are aware that Tamil Cinema truly began in Coimbatore before it rippled out to the provincial capital Madras which took over as the fulcrum of the South Indian film industry.

Subbarayulu Naidu Munuswami Naidu Sriramulu Naidu was born in Trichy in 1910 where his father Munuswami Naidu was a station master with the South Indian Railway Limited(SIR) with its headquarters at Trichy(then known as 'Trichinopoly' or 'Trichy' for short.). During that period railways in India were privately owned by public limited companies incorporated in England, whose shares were quoted and traded on the London Stock Exchange. Only after India became free in August 1947 railways came to be nationalised.

After retirement, Munuswami Naidu relocated in Coimbatore where he established a bakery under the name and style of Davey & Company in 1932, along with Hotel Davey in a leased premises on Bank Road opposite the Coimbatore Railway Station. Sriramulu Naidu joined him after completing the Intermediate course in college. (In those days it was a two year Pre-degree course, known as 'F.A.' or Intermediate). A workaholic he slogged at the bakery and never hesitated to work hands-on in any job. .He did carpentry work, and also excelled in baking cakes and also other jobs which required hard concentrated physical labour. Naidu was strongly disciplined and punctual, and a truly no-nonsense tough guy. He never tolerated clock-watchers and their country cousins at any level and believed in calling a spade a spade, and a nut, a nut. That was Sriramulu Naidu..

A good mixer he believed in socializing and as a young man in his early 20s, he joined the famous Coimbatore Cosmopolitan Club around 1932, He described himself as 'baker'. Movies and all that were still far away on the horizon, and in the womb of time...

Movies had begun to talk Tamil in 1931 with "Kalidas" directed by the 'Grand Old Man of South Indian Cinema' H.M. Reddy produced by Ardeshir M. Irani at Bombay. That was the period when the few Tamil films that were made were mostly produced in Bombay, or Calcutta or sometimes in Kolhapur for there were no facilities for making talking motion pictures in Madras till about 1934.

The neglected movie pioneer Samikannu Vincent who created history and placed Coimbatore on the Indian movie map produced along with others in Calcutta "Valli Thirumanam" (1933). It proved to be a box office hit and its success drew many people into the new motion picture business. It seemed to them to hold good prospects of profits, besides other perks.

Not surprisingly, Sriramulu Naidu exuding dynamism and adventurous spirit decided to throw his lot with the motion picture business. He underwent some kind of training in Premier Cinetone Studio in Coimbatore and developed many movieland friendships and life- long contacts with the some of them. One of them was R.K. Ramakrishnan Chettiar, (brother of the famed statesman and onetime Finance Minster of India, Sir R.K. Shanmugham Chettiar), who later founded along with Naidu and others the famed Central Studios in Coimbatore. Another friend was the equally dynamic and creative K.S. Narayana Iyengar in Madras, who had promoted Narayanan and Company, and later, Pakshiraja Films. At first, Naidu worked as Iyengar's agent and looked after interests in Coimbatore. Later he became a partner in Pakshiraja Films. For many a reason he opted out and promoted his own company, and made his films under 'Pakshiraja Studios' banner. Besides he built his own studio, 'Pakshiraja Studios', taking over Kandhan Studio and rebuilt it to his requirements and other creative needs. Naidu's new studio was a model of discipline, cleanliness and one never found a cigarette or a 'bidi' butt thrown recklessly around the studio lots.

Central Studios launched production, their first effort , "Tukaram" (1938), which was made in two languages Tamil, and Telugu. In the Tamil version the celebrated Classical Carnatic musician Musiri Subramania Iyer played the title role, while the famed Telugu stage and screen star, C.S.R. Anjaneyulu played the same role in the Telugu version. However the Tamil version did not do well as expected while the Telugu version fared badly.

At the dawn of 1940s Naidu and Ayyangar decided to enter movie production and the two launched their maiden Tamil production 'Aryamala" (1941), Produced under the banner of Pakshiraja Films at the Central Studios Naidu supervised the production also involving himself in all the aspects of direction.

"Aryamala", the Kaathavarayan folk tale, had the up-and-coming singing star of Tamil Cinema P. U. Chinnappa as hero. He had made a splash, with the Modern Theaters hit "Utthama Puthran" (1939) in which he played a double role. In 'Aryamala" Naidu introduced a new heroine to Tamil Cinema, M. S. Sarojini. The younger sister of another actress M. S. Mohanambal ( hardly remembered today), Sarojini had played minor roles in films featuring her sister and Naidu, with his flair for introducing new faces and experimenting with new ideas gave Sarojini the break casting her as the female lead.

It also had T.S. Balaiah, M.R. Santhanalakshmi, N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Mathuram. A folklore tale of mortals and gods and goddesses well narrated on screen with pleasing music, the film turned out to be a box office success. Interestingly, the film carries no credit for the director but the songbook mentions the noted cinematographer of that day Bomman Irani as director. (Some old-timers told this writer that Naidu worked on the sets leaning the ropes helped by the cinematographer, and two excellent technicians laboratorian Krishnan, and editor Panchapakesan (Panjabi!), who later created film history as directors under their professional name 'Krishnan-Panju'. Indeed Naidu was the livewire and moving force behind this box office hit.

Inspired by the success Sriramulu Naidu launched his second film "Sivakavi" (1943) also shot at Central Studios and had the first superstar of South Indian cinema immortal singing actor M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in the title role. A story of the well known Poyyamozhi Pulavar, the film was at first directed by the sadly neglected iconic personality of Indian Cinema, Raja Sandow. Due to misunderstandings with Naidu, Raja Sandow opted out and the producer took over the making of the movie. One of the biggest hits of the early 1940s of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar who was then at the zenith of his fame and fortune, the darling of the masses and classes, charmed men and women with his verveful singing in his silky, seductive voice.

Like in any MKT movie music reigned supreme with music and lyrics by Papanasam Sivan, and orchestration set by G. Ramanathan, another underrated music director of Tamil Cinema.

The script was written by Elangovan, the first star writer of Tamil Cinema. During those days Bhagavathar insisted with his producers that before they engaged him for a movie they should engage and pay advance to Papanasam Sivan and Elangovan.

Rajakumari played a supporting role as a court dancer who falls for the poet hero. The song and dance number of Bhagavathar and Rajakumari, beautifully filmed by Raja Sandow. 'Kavalayai theerpadhu. (Raga, Naatakurnji ) rightly earned its place in the galaxy of immortal movie melodies of south India.

Another song which attained immortality was another song by Bhagavathar praising the heroine , 'Vadanamey chandra bimbamo.' (Sindhu Bhairavi) . At first Papanasam Sivan wrote the first line as 'mugham (face) adhu chandra bimbamo'. After the song was recorded by MKT and when the positive print of the song projected on the screen, all including Sivan were stunned for the first line sounded like 'Muhammadhu chandra bimbamo.'! Hurriedly Sivan rewrote the line as 'Vadanamey.' and the song was freshly recorded. In those days there were no tape recording facilities for song recording and songs were recorded on sound negative which had to be developed and then projected on screen to check for impact and errors, if any. Till it came from the lab everyone waited with nail- biting tension.

Bhagavathar sang another song , "Manam kaninthey. (Rathipathipriya). During this period noted Carnatic musician, M. M. Dhandapani Desikar was recording a private song in the same raga and requested Bhagavathar not to bring out the gramophone record of the film song. Bhagavathar in a gracious gesture did not record the song for a disc. That song by Desikar 'Jagajanani..' became a super hit. That was MKT.

Jayalakshmi, musician, painter S. Rajam's sister played the heroine and Rajam went along to Coimbatore as chaperone. To keep him busy he was cast as a handsome Brahmin (really Lord Muruga in disguise) whose cameo performance can still be watched with interest. Jaya was then married and the family insisted on Rajam tagging along.

Many other songs rendered by Bhagavathar also became classic hits. Those include, 'Swapana vaazhvil magizhindu.' (Bhuvanaghandhari). 'Vallalai paadum vayaal.'(Senjuritti).

"Sivakavi" was a grand success and ran for a prolonged period even in non-Tamil speaking areas in the Madras Presidency. Those were the days when linguistic chauvinism had not yet reared its ugly head and people watched other language movies without prejudice, for the thematic content and more particularly melodious music.

Another 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 and shot at Central Studios it had an interesting -and a novelty of the time- 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 during that day.

While he was sailing merrily along the silvery moon his boat was rocked during late 1944 when he was arrested for his alleged involvement in the murder of the founding father of yellow journalism C. N. Lakshmikantham. However during the sensational Criminal Session trial at the Madras High Court the Prosecution found no evidence against him, and filed a 'Nolle Proseque" (No prosecution] and withdrew its case against him, and he walked out a freeman in early 1945.

After this event he 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 of a despotic demon (whose life is inside a pigeon kept in faraway inaccessible place!) (D. Balasubramaniam). His daughter (M.S. Sarojini) tries to reform him with no success. A divinely blessed young man (T. E. Varadan) with magical powers ,falls in love with the daughter and after many interesting adventures in obtaining the bird, he destroys the demonic villain and marries the princess and also saving his foster mother (M.R. Santhanalakshmi).

However "Kannika" fared badly at the box office.

The story of Arjuna falling in love with Pavalakodi, the princess of Pavala Theevu (Coral Island), has been popular in the Tamil-speaking world for many generations, though no such episode is found in the Mahabharata or any other epic. It was successfully adapted for stage and the play featuring M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and S. D. Subbulakshmi even travelled to neighbouring countries such as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The first film version of "Pavalakodi" was made in 1934, which marked the debut of actors Bhagavathar and Subbulakshmi, and director K. Subramanyam.

The second version was made in 1949 by Sriramulu Naidu and when the film was planned, Naidu intended to cast T. R. Rajakumari, who was famous at that time after the amazing success of "Chandralekha" (1948), as Pavalakodi and the then leading singing star Mahalingam as Arjuna. But, not surprisingly, Mahalingam preferred to play Lord Krishna and not Arjuna for a valid reason. Mahalingam created a sensation in Tamil theatre during the 1930s as a kid playing Krishna and proved equally successful when he played young Krishna in the hit film "Nandakumar" (1938), an early production of AV. Meiyappan in partnership with noted Marathi filmmaker Keshav Rao Dhaibar, who was for many years associated with the legendary film company, Prabhat. Following its success, Mahalingam played the young Krishna in quite a few films and grabbed the opportunity to play the grown-up Krishna in the Pakshiraja production.

To play Arjuna, Naidu cast T. E. Varadan, paired with Rajakumari which however created few waves.

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 hawking it singing a song which became a big hit, "Annam vaangalaiyo. Amma.. Annam vaangalaiyo." (lyrics by Papanasam Sivan and music by C. R. Subbaraman).

The film was written by Elangovan, whose popularity was at its peak during that period. N. S. Krishnan-T. A. Mathuram provided their characteristic brand of comedy. Somewhat surprisingly, Krishnan sings a song in Hindi, "Kyaa karna. bhagwan.".

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.

T. E. Varadan, a handsome Science graduate who got a break thanks to Naidu appeared in after a few films after which he bade goodbye to movies, and entered business, where he did much better! (The well-known cricketer T.E. Srinivasan, is son).

Then came in 1950 from Pakshiraja one of the classics of Tamil Cinema directed by the sadly neglected movie maestro 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 guy 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. (Not many are aware that the film music maestro M. S. Viswanathan worked under Naidu as his 'harmonium assistant' at Jupiter Pictures - Central Studios, Coimbatore.) 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 even among film technicians.

An incident concerning noted stage and screen actor V. Gopalakrishnan (Gopi) and producer Naidu known for his tough guy- no-nonsense attitude is worth recounting. There was a dream sequence - a song in which Lalitha in love with Gopi (who is in love with Padmini!) dreams out a fantasy. On the scheduled day, Ramnoth could not report for work due to his wife's illness. Gopi, a true blue disciple of the director, a mere lad of 18-19 doing his B. A. Hons., went back to his hotel room. Naidu was annoyed and sent for Gopi. He pulled him up for his absence and asked him to report for shooting that night which he would direct himself in the absence of Ramnoth. Gopi refused and, after some arguments, he was sent back to Madras the same night! And Naidu shot the dream scene that night with Ragini, the youngest of the Travancore Sisters, 'doubling' for Gopi! She was dressed up as a male and Naidu shot her using long shots and mid-shots mostly from the back! That was Sriramulu Naidu.

"Ezhai Padum Paadu" was a hit which created film history as the first Tamil film to be released on Deepavali Day, 1950, at 'Casino' cinema, Madras. It was then screening only English movies since it was built some years earlier. ('Les Miserables' was 'rehashed' in 1972 as "Gnana Oli" with Sivaji Ganesan, 'Major' Sundararajan and Sarada in lead roles, and directed by P. Madhavan.)

The film was also made in Telugu as "Beedala Paatlu".

His next film was "Kanchanana"(1952, Tamil and Malayalam) based on a hit magazine hit serial by well known writer 'Lakshmi,'(Thripurasundari), 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. There was also a Malayalam version of this film.

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, however it did not fare well. This film was also made in Telugu.

During 1951 the Hindi filmmaker Amiya Chakravarty made a hit "Badal" 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 jhagirdhar whose daughter falls in love with him, inspired Naidu to acquire the popular novel of the famous lawyer-Tamil scholar-sometime poet laureate of Tamil Nadu, Namakkal Va. Ramalingam Pillai, 'Malaikallan'. Obviously, the storyline was inspired by Robin Hood and Mark of Zorro ".

The crowning glory of Naidu's career was "Malaikalan" (1954) which established M. G. Ramachandran as box office hero. 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 iconic movie star Dilip Kumar, and one of the finest actresses of Indian Cinema Meena Kumari in lead roles. This film broke all box office records and proved to be a red-hot money spinner. Pleasing music score by C. Ramchandra also was a major attraction in the film.

Naidu was a no- nonsense tough guy who never tolerated indiscipline and believed in calling a spade, a spade, and nut, a nut. And was a very persuasive person too who could make trees sing! While launching "Azad" (1955) he met Dilip to play the leading role. The Tragedy King of Hindi Cinema was amused that a Tamil film producer, whom he has never heard of before, should have come all the way to Bombay to engage him to play a swashbuckler's role, in his first Hindi film production! However, Naidu would never take no for an answer, and persuaded Dilip to sign on the dotted line to work in the Hindi version of "Malaikalan". He also brought on board Meena which proved to be one of the memorable movies of Hindi Cinema. During that period there were no star-hotels in Coimbatore, and Naidu took Dilip around many bungalows in the city and also the rooms in Pakshiraja Studios. Dilip chose to stay in the studio and so did Meena Kumari. Something almost incredible today...!

Music was composed by the wizard C. Ramchandra with lyrics by Rajendra Krishen and songs like 'Radha Na bole re..''Apalam chapalam.' and 'Kitna haseen hai mausam ..' became hits. Some of these tunes were used by Naidu in some other versions of the film.

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. Totally fiction, of course, the title was an obvious inspiration from the sensational 'Karunkuzhi Parcel Murder Case', though the content was totally different.

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 crime foisted on his innocent brother (Veena maestro S. Balachandar), and his lovely wife (Sandhya, Jayalalitha's mother ) who waits for her husband who had escaped from prison, and pines for her daughter (Padmini) believed dead but alive and comes to live with her, saved by her in a boating accident, not knowing her identity! Roly-poly noted Tamil Cinema comedian of yester-decade, sadly under-rated T. S. Durairaj plays the interesting role of the villain behind the murder with the real killer (T.S. Balaiah). The prince (Sivaji Ganesan) falls in love with his sister's daughter (Padmini) without knowing who she is!). Ultimately as it always does in movies, Truth comes out, killers are exposed, parted couples, and young lovers united, and all's well that ends well...

Balachandar excels with an impressive performance, understating his role in cinematic fashion while Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini make a delightful pair to watch. Ganesan is a treat to watch as a disguised servant to find out the truth behind the murder. J.P. Chandra Babu, famed but ill-fated singer comedian as the lovelorn butler is his usual self. Sandhya, buxomly lovely plays her role well.

The film had excellent sets (A.K. Sekhar) and the outdoor locations picturesque with fine cinematography (Sailen Bose) and also catching music, with one song, a duet between Chandra Babu and Jamuna Rani, singing for pretty Lakshmirajam, 'Kunguma poovey konjum puraavey..' It became a hit and is still popular even after half a century. (Music S.M. Subbaiah Naidu).

"Maragatham" still sustains interest even after five decades, and is worth watching even toady... The hallmark of a memorable movie..

In 1969 Naidu re-made it in Telugu as "Vimala" Telugu Cinema cult figure N. T. Rama Rao, and multilingual top star Savithiri. 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 Ayyaapa in Malayalam and Tamil which proved hits.

In 1963 Naidu made "Kalyaniyin Kanavan" which had Sivaji Ganesan and Saroja Devi lead roles. However this film did not fare well.

For many reason he had to shift his sphere of activity from Coimbatore, to Bangalore where he took over the Chamundeswari Studios. Sadly things were not like before. Advancing age and other problems prompted him to give the studio to his nephew for management which did not prove happy..

Later years of his life were far from happy, and he passed away in 1976, when he was only 66..

His 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 -and even shame - that the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema published by the Oxford University Press some years ago does not contain an entry for Sriramulu Naidu, whereas lesser figur
es and- even also-rans- are highlighted in the book.

1. Kalyaniyin Kanavan (1963)
2. Sabarimalai Shri Ayyappan (1962)
3. Vimala (1960)
4. Maragatham (1959)
5. Thaskaraveeran (1957)
6. Azaad (1955)
7. Aggi Ramudu (1954)
8. Malaikallan (1954)
9. Desabhakthan (1952)
10. Kanchana (1952)
11. Kanjana (1952)
12. Prasanna (1950)
13. Kanika (1947)
14. Aariyamala (1941)

1. Kalyaniyin Kanavan (1963)
2. Shri Sabarimalai Shri Ayyappan (1961)
3. Vimala (1960)
4. Azaad (Hindi) (1955) (as S.M.S. Naidu)
5. Aggi Ramudu (1954)
6. Oka Talli Pillalu (1953)
7. Ponni (1953
8. Kanchana (1952)
9. Beedala Patlu (1950)
10. Ezhai Padum Padu (1950)
11. Pavalakodi (1949)
12. Jagadhala Prathaban (1944)
13. Sivakavi (1943)
14. Malaikallan
15. Bettadalli
16. Surasena
17. Tushkaraveeran
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