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Updated: May 28, 2011 16:41 IST

Blast from the Past - Vana Mohini 1941

Randor Guy
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Vana Mohini
Vana Mohini

Chandru (Elephant!), K. Thavamani Devi, M. K. Radha, S. S. Kokko, Kolathu Mani, ‘Comedian' Ambi T.V. Krishnaswami, Kamala Bai, K. T. Sakku Bai, Krishna Bai, S. Basha, S. R. K. Ayyangar and N. Appu

In the history of Indian Cinema, and perhaps world Cinema, the only instance where an animal (in this case, an elephant!) named Chandru, received top billing in the credits was in the 1941 hit, Vana Mohini. The film made history at many levels.

The film bestowed stardom on the heroine, the seductive K. Thavamani Devi of Sri Lanka. A rehash of a Hollywood ‘jungle' movie featuring Dorothy Lamour, Vana Mohini saw Thavamani wear the same costume, a revealing Hawaiian-style sarong. This was the first time such an outfit was worn in a Tamil movie and the sarong contributed a lot to its success!

(Dorothy Lamour [1914-1996, real name Dorothy Kaumeyer, her surname was changed in Hollywood to rhyme with ‘glamour'!] was one of the leading stars of American Cinema during the 1930s and the 1940s and became an icon of ‘sarong-surrounded' sex appeal. Her films such as The Jungle Princess (1936), The Hurricane (1937), Her Jungle Love (1938), Aloma of the South Seas (1941) and Rainbow Island (1941) gave her that image. Besides, she built a solid reputation playing the female lead in many Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road To... movie hits such as Road To Singapore (1940), Road To Zanzibar (1941), Road To Morocco (1942), Road To Utopia (1945) and others. However, she is today known only for her sex-in-sarong-kind of movies. Her ‘jungle films' did very well in India and the neighbouring countries).

Vana Mohini was inspired by a Lamour movie, and the story, screenplay and direction were by noted Hindi film actor and director Bhagwan (the maker and hero of the musical Hindi film hit of the 1950s, Albela). Besides Thavamani, it had M. K. Radha (the Tamil film star and hero of the Gemini Studio's ‘magnum opus', Chandralekha), and an elephant named ‘Chandru'.

A wealthy planter N. Viswanatha Iyer produced the film, who found the elephant in the thickly wooded forests of Travancore. . Not surprisingly, the elephant virtually stole the film and indulged in many tricks raising gales of laughter in cinemas when Thavamani Devi sat on it and went around the woods!

Besides Thavamani, Radha and ‘Chandru', the music was another major plus point in Vana Mohini. The film had 10 songs and Thavamani sang many of them. One of them, “Ariyaathey En Manam,” became a big hit and is still hummed by old-timers. Her melodious voice and singing talents won her the honorific of “Singalathu Kuyil.” The music composer was Ram Chitalkar who later became the icon of Indian Film Music under the name C. Ramchandra!

Vana Mohini was a booming box office success and Thavamani's fame soared higher. Now she began to insist on designing her costumes and doing the make-up herself, making it a condition of her contract! Something unheard of at that time in Indian Cinema!

Thavamani Devi hailed from Jaffna and her father was a wealthy and successful barrister in Ceylon. Blessed with stunning looks and melodious voice, she was not surprisingly attracted to the fine arts like music and dance. Encouraged by parents, she moved to Madras, the cultural capital of India.

Here in the provincial capital of the Madras Presidency (as it then was) during the British Rule, she learnt Bharatanatyam. She also took lessons in Carnatic music.

The story was all about a tribal woman who lives in a cave with only an elephant as a companion. An evil-minded man is out to capture her. A prince (Radha) comes to the forest to search for his missing uncle and meets the woman (Thavamani).

Both fall in love and are captured by the villain. How the hero with the help of the elephant destroys the villain, finds his uncle, and marries his heartthrob forms the rest of the story.

In 1957, the Salem-based movie mogul T. R. Sundaram re-made it in Sinhala as Wana Mohini, directed jointly by him and the well-known multilingual filmmaker A. B. Raj.

Remembered for the excitingly exotic Thavamani, the melodious music and the heart-warming performance of Chandru, the elephant.

Keywords: Tamil cinema

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