Talent and luck saw Bhagavathar go from strength to strength. As ‘Chintamani’ and ‘Ambikapathi’ ran to packed houses, there was no stopping the actor.
(The second of the three-part article on Thyagaraja Bhagavathar)
In 1937, two of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar's films, ‘Chintamani’ and ‘Ambikapathi’, were released (a history of sorts). ‘Chintamani’ (1937) was the first mega box-office hit of South Indian Cinema and the earliest film to enjoy a year-long run in many Tamil Nadu towns. ‘Chintamani’ was the story of Bilwa Mangal, a Sanskrit poet of Varanasi, who wrote the famed musical epic in praise of Lord Krishna called ‘Krishna Karnamritham’ (a mixture of fact, fiction and myth).
There were 25 songs in ‘Chintamani’ and many of them became super hits. One of them, ‘Radhey Unakku Kobam…’ found a place in the list of all-time hits of Tamil Cinema. It was a milestone movie that set new box-office records. Later in the year came the other Bhagavathar hit, ‘Ambikapathi’. It portrayed romantic love with a subtle touch of eroticism never before seen in a Tamil movie. It also gave a status to the screenwriter, Elangovan in this case. Above all, it made a name for a young American filmmaker in Madras, Ellis R. Dungan.
With ‘Chintamani’ running to packed houses, its hero, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, was the automatic choice to play Ambikapathi, the poet-son of the legendary Tamil savant and poet Kambar.
Papanasam Sivan was the music composer for this film too.
M.R. Santhanalakshmi played the heroine. Poverty forced her to act on stage where she made her mark. With her good looks, shapely figure and singing skills she entered films in 1935, in C.K. Sachi's ‘Radha Kalyanam’ opposite Carnatic musician, S. Rajam. This film did not do well and her career took off only after ‘Ambikapathi’.
‘Ambikapathi’ was shot in Calcutta at the East India Film Studio. Released during the latter half of 1937, ‘Ambikapathi’ was an instant success. Duncan's film was refreshingly cinematic and his treatment of romantic love between Ambikapathi and Amaravathi thrilled the South Indian audience. The intimate love scenes between Bhagavathar and Santhanalakshmi were considered daring at that time. When Bhagavathar winked at Santhanalakshmi, viewers were shocked. It was soon imitated by several screen heroes.
Papanasam Sivan added to its success with songs such as ‘Chandra Sooriyan…’ (sung by Bhagavathar and Santhanalakshmi,) ‘Ulaginil Inbam Verundo...’. (Bhagavathar) and ‘Satrey Sarinda Kuzhaley’ (Thyagaraja Bhagavathar). Two of Tyagaraja's well known kritis, ‘Nenendu Vedhu Kudura…’ and ‘Mokshamu galadhaa’ were also adapted by Papanasam Sivan.
Though T.A. Mathuram and N.S. Krishnan, the greatest comedy pair of Indian Cinema and husband and wife in real life were cast in this film, they were not paired together as they usually were in other films.
One of the major features of ‘Ambikapathi’ was its poetic dialogue. At that time, Tamil films usually had stilted or colloquial dialogue often bordering on the slang. Elangovan changed all that. His Tamil added lustre to the film. After the dual hits of ‘Chintamami’ and ‘Ambikapathi’, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, who had become a living legend by then, began to insist that producers should engage Papanasam Sivan and Elangovan before approaching him. During that period, the Bhagavathar-Papanasam Sivan-Elangovan trio was considered the right ingredient for a box-office success.
(To be concluded)