T.K. Shanmugham, T.K. Bhagavathi, M.S. Draupathi, T.K.Sivathanu, ‘Friend’ Ramasami

A.S.A. Sami was a fine writer-director who made films such as Rajakumari, Velaikkari, Arasilankumari, Karppukarasi, Kaithi Kannayiram, Thanga Pathumai, Thuli Visham, Neethipathi, Ponni and Ananda Jothi, contributing in great measure to the development of Tamil cinema during the Forties and Fifties.

Arul Susai Arogya Sami, born in 1915, belonged to a middle-class family in Palayamkottai and spent his early life in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where his father had a business enterprise. Sami had his education in Colombo and took his B.A. (Honours) Degree from the London University, for which one could qualify studying in Ceylon in those days. He taught in a college in Colombo and as a serious student of the literature of the East and West, he showed a flair for writing plays. Inspired by a play in English by a well-known South Indian professor-scholar based on the Sanskrit folk myth of poet Bilhana, he wrote a play in Tamil, Bilhanan. He produced it in his college for its annual day celebrations, with success.

With the clouds of the Second World War (1939-1945) gathering on the horizon and the shifting sands of the political situation in the island, the Sami family shut shop in Colombo and relocated to Palayamkottai.

While thinking of his future in India, he submitted his play, Bilhanan, to the Tiruchi Station of All India Radio. AIR accepted his play at once and broadcast it with the first superstar of South India, then soaring high, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, in the title role. Bhagavathar taking part in a radio play then was an unusual event indeed. Thanks to Bhagavathar, the play was a hit. One of the entranced listeners was another celebrity, a legend of Tamil theatre, and film star, T.K. Shanmugham. An ardent talent-scout, he contacted A.S.A. Sami and acquired the play for his famed TKS Brothers drama troupe. Later, he produced it as a movie in 1948 and Sami reshaped his play for the screen.

A king (Bhagavathi) looked around high and low for a suitable teacher to educate his lovely daughter Yamini (Draupathi). After much search, he engaged the famed poet Bilhana. To prevent any hanky-panky between the teacher and the princess, the king tells his daughter that her teacher is blind, and the teacher that the student is ugly with many facial deformities! He hangs a curtain between the two while the lessons are in progress, and one day thrilled by the sight of the full moon, Bilhana sings a poem in its praise. Yamini is stunned and wonders how a blind man can compose a poem about the moon. Thrilled to the core, she pulls down the curtain and finds that Bilhana is a handsome young man and he finds the princess an epitome of female allure! The two fall in love and decide to marry.

The king comes to know about the fallen curtain and opposes the marriage and when the lovers do not listen to his advice and he sentences both to death. His friends and people rise in protest and understanding the power of true love, he pardons the lovers and gets them married.

There are two versions of the popular story — one by T. K. Shanmugham which is under review and the other by a Muslim outfit titled Bilhana.

Not many are aware that the Salem-based movie mogul T.R. Sundaram of Modern Theatres had plans to produce the same tale and released an ad with M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar as Bilhana. Sadly the project had to be dropped as MKT was arrested following his alleged role in the sensational Lakshmikantham Murder Case in December 1944.

All the members of the T.K. Shanmugam drama troupe played suitable roles, while the lyrics were by Subramania Bharati, Bharathidasan and Kavimani Desiya Vinayagam Pillai. T.A. Kalyanam, now forgotten, composed the music...

Writer-director K.V. Srinivasan directed the film. He was a cousin of K.J. Mahadevan, writer-producer-director of films such as Hullo Mr. Zamindar and Rajee En Kanmani.

This version of Bilhana, made in Coimbatore at Central Studios, was only an average success because people felt it was stagy in presentation. However, it did leave an impact and people remember this film even to this day….

Remembered for the interesting storyline, impressive performances by Shanmugam, Bhagavathi and Draupathi…

This article has been corrected for an editing error.