… A LOOKBACK …
1941 saw the entry of Vasundhara Devi into cinema in S. Soundararajan’s ‘Rishyasringar’, a slice of Hindu mythology about a sage’s son, who had the gift of bringing rain to places he visited. The title role, the rain-bringer was done by Ranjan, whose name appeared in ads and such as R. Ramani (his original name was of course, R. Venkataramana Sarma!). The dame who came to lure the sage’s son to her rainless land was Vasundhara. Her glamorous looks, dances, singing and fame she already had, all these factors catapulted her to stardom.
T. G. Raghavachari, the lawyer-turned-filmmaker who was responsible for bringing Vasudhara into films, also wrote the script and worked in the making of the picture anonymously!
‘Rishyasringar’ was a good success and made Vasudhara and Ranjan stars.
Y. V. Rao, by now a ‘name’ director in South India, the first Indian filmmaker to make movies in four languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi quite a great achievement that during his day, came up with an innovation this year. He directed ‘Savitri’ a mythological film for Rayal Talkie. To play the title role of the legendary lady who won over the Lord of Death, Yama, to get back her dead husband Satyavan alive, Rao brought in the famous Marati star Shanta Apte, the heroine of V. Shantaram’s classic ‘Duniya Na Mane’. She knew no Tamil but sang and spoke herself in the film. Rao did something more. For the role of Sage Narada, he chose M. S. Subbulakshmi. For obvious reasons this mythical sage had to have his (her!) torso covered. Maybe not strictly according to Hindu epics but the director did not care nor did he have any choice after casting MS!
This was the first time Narada, a stock character in most mythological movies was done by a female in South Indian Cinema. Narada, the patron saint of music, meant songs and the sage descending the skies to earth or other worlds with a song was almost a cliché in South Indian cinema. [In the era before ‘double printing’ was possible to show Narada sailing a cross the skies, the actor was made to walk on a compound wall of the studio, carrying his musical instrument and singing while the camera in very low angle recorded the sage, the sky beyond and all! Some of the Naradas too fat or not so agile, often fell off the wall, bruising themselves in sensitive parts of their anatomy! Surely those were the days.)
With ‘MS’ in the movie songs rendered by her dominated ‘Savitri’. Some of them like “Sollu Kuzhandhai…” became popular. But the film made in Calcutta did not do as well as expected.
A word about the musical instrument ‘thambura’ which Narada has been shown carrying strung across his shoulders. According to Hindu epics and scholars it is the classic instrument Veena, that’s associated with Sage Narada. If so, how come Veena has been substituted by ‘thambura’. The logical explanation seems to be that Veena is much heavier to carry around (especially with treading on compound walls!) slung across one’s shoulders! Besides it is much more expensive than the thambura…
With the sensation of ‘Vanaraja Carson’ not surprisingly perhaps smart filmmakers were chewing the cud about another similar film set in jungles built around a young woman of the woods parading in minimum clothing like a modern day Eve. Even though K. R. Chellam bared a lot in the earlier hit, she made by now cliched statements how she was not told about the daring baring role at the time of signing the film and blah – blah. So it proved tough for Tamil Cinema- wallahs to get an actress with less or no inhibitions and a discreet mouth. A Bombay-based production company formed mostly by South Indians, of that city set up such a film. That was the period when jungle based films with scantily clad actresses like glamorous Dorothy Lamour, were being made in Hollywood. One such film had been re-hashed to suit Indian conditions by the well known Hindi film comedian Bhagwan, who had done the script. He was hired to make the film titled ‘Vana Mohini’.
The quest for the local Lamour began and as Bhagwan was not happy with the dames he met in and around Madras, Viswanatha Iyer, one of the producers, a native of Cochin, took his director to Ceylon where they met Thavamani Devi. Beautiful, bold and bare-worthy, she had gone back home after the failure of her first film ‘Sathi Ahalya’ and readily responded to play the jungle dame.
M. K. Radha was cast as the hero falling in love with her while Kulathu Mani, a big made character actor, fairly well known in his day, played the jungle king lusting after the girl. The main attraction in the cast was however was Chandru. Not a human but a majestic elephant! In Hollywood made jungle films, the woman had usually a chimp. As chimps, especially trained ones were impossible to find in India (it required a S. S. Vasan to bring one all the way from Hollywood for one of his films some decade and a half later.) Bhagwan had given his heroine an elephant as her protector-companion.
(To be continued)