S. D. Subbulakshmi (double role), Papanasam Sivan, G. Pattu Iyer, ‘Jolly' Kittu, K. K. Parvathi, Vidwan Shankaralingam and (Baby) R. Balasaraswathi
Lawyer-turned-filmmaker Krishnaswamy Subramanyam made an impressive debut as filmmaker in 1934 with Pavalakodi, which introduced the iconic M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and stage and screen star S. D. Subbulakshmi (Mrs. Subramanyam). The filmmaker made Naveena Sadaram in 1935 in which ‘Maa ramanan, Uma ramanan', now a Carnatic kutcheri ‘circuit' regular, was sung off-screen by Papanasam Sivan himself — it was heard at the beginning of the movie against the credit titles. Unfortunately, no recording of the song was made and his version has been lost to posterity forever. However, Subramanyam's 1938 hit Seva Sadanam, which introduced the legend M. S. Subbulakshmi, had her singing this song, making it an immortal melody.
In 1936, Subramanyam created another classic Bhaktha Kuchela about the ever popular tale of friendship between the poor Brahmin Kuchela (Papanasam Sivan) who had 27 children and Lord Krishna (S. D. Subbulakshmi). Subramanyam made history by casting Subbulakshmi in a double role as a male (Lord Krishna) and a female (Susheela, Kuchela's wife). Such casting is one of its kind in Tamil film history and even Indian cinema.
The two characters were so different — one being a poor, struggling mother and the other, an avatar of Mahavishnu. Subbulakshmi as Krishna wascharming, and many refused to believe that the role was done by a woman. She had a beatific smile which Kalki referred to as “Mullai sirippu” (the smile of the Mullai flower). He was then working for Ananda Vikatan and wrote a raving review of the film under the title “Mullai Sirippu”.
People associated Lord Krishna with the face of SDS for years, until a man called Nandamuri Taraka Ramo Rao began to play the role. R. Balasaraswathi fitted the role of the young Krishna equally well, again a girl playing the male. Only Subramanyam could think of such innovative ideas. Later Balasaraswathi grew into an attractive young woman, playing lead roles in Tamil and Telugu films. However, her reputation was built by her singing in more than one language — her off-screen singing in Rajee En Kanmani, ‘Malligaipoo maalai roja…', is one of the most melodious and popular songs in Tamil cinema. She married the Raja of Kolanka and now in her 70s lives with her two sons in Hyderabad.
Papanasam Sivan, besides composing the music, played Kuchela. His lean frame fitted the role to a T. In fact, in the early decades of Tamil cinema, he was the first choice to play Kuchela!
The film had more than 30 songs with some of them adapted from popular Hindi tunes of the period. Interestingly, Papanasam Sivan and Subbulakshmi sang duets. But no gramophone record appears to have been brought out.
Bhaktha Kuchela was launched in 1935 in Calcutta. Another historic film Nandanar had another icon K. B. Sundarambal playing the male role of Nandan. Both movies with unusual casting made news even during production with everybody wondering which one would release first.
Nandanar was released in 1935 and flopped at the box office. Kalki wrote a devastating review of the film.
Bhaktha Kuchela, released in 1936, proved to be a success.
Remembered for the innovative casting, pleasing music and Subbulakshmi's performance.