M.R. Krishnamurthi, (Palayamkottai sisters) P.S. Ratna Bai and P.S. Saraswathi Bai, C.S. Shamanna (in seven roles!), M.S. Raghavan and M.S. Murugesam
Thiruvetriyur Kasiviswanatha Mudaliar, a prominent playwright, was a popular citizen of the late 19th-century Madras. He was also involved in the Brahmo Samaj Movement during that period and contributed to its growth in his own way. He had his own theatre troupe which enacted his plays with a social purpose. His famous plays included Thasildar Natakam and Dumbachary Vilasam.
Dumbachary, based on the play, was all about a vain person (‘Dumbam’ in colloquial Tamil means ‘vanity’) and the hero (Krishnamurthi) was one such person who inherits considerable wealth from his father and spends it all on his mistress, Madanasundari (Saraswathi Bai), neglecting his wife (Ratna Bai) who thinks the world of him. The father, before he dies, tells the wayward son a secret that part of his wealth lies buried in the backyard of his house to which he can have recourse in times of necessity. As it often happens in moralistic tales, he realises his folly and seeks his wife’s pardon, and both are happily united. The word, ‘Dumbachary’ soon became an idiomatic expression for a vain person. Similarly, the name of the mistress ‘Madanasundari’ also became famous.
This film, also titled Utthama Manaivi, was produced in Calcutta at the Pioneer Film Studios. It was financially backed by the famous Coimbatore unit Chellam Talkies under the control of A.N. Maruthachalam Chettiar (fondly known as ‘Chellam’), one of the leading figures of Tamil cinema in its early decades.
The film had as many as 35 songs, some of them from the original play while the rest were adaptations of popular Hindi movie tunes of that period. However, none of the songs became popular.
When movies began to talk Tamil in 1931 with Kalidas, most of the early movies were mythological and such. This film, made in 1935, was the first to have a contemporary theme, known in Indian movie parlance as ‘socials.’ This film was proudly announced as the first Tamil social and was directed by M.L. Tandon, one of the noted filmmakers of India.
Manik Lal Tandon studied filmmaking at the famous University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, and also worked on many students’ films made in Hollywood as part of the training programmes introduced by some studios. His classmates were Michael Omalov (of Navayuvan fame) and the celebrated American Tamil filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan. Tandon made memorable movies in Tamil such as Bhama Vijayam and Dumbachary. He also made films during the late 1940s for Modern Theatres. Advancing years and problems with his sight forced him to retire to his hometown, Bombay. Tandon was responsible for bringing Dungan and Omalov to Calcutta and later to Madras. Omalov, however, left India even while his first and only film was still on the anvil with shooting going on in London city. (It was the first Tamil film to be shot in part in London.) Dungan, however, stayed till 1950 creating Indian film history...
In the play, one of the outstanding features was the incredible seven roles played by the comedian character actor of his day, C.S. Shamanna. He played different roles in the play changing his make-up, costume and more within a matter of seconds and many people refused to believe that it was the same man! However, this role repeated in the movie did not create much impact because quick changes of costume are no great shakes in cinema.
Remembered for: the popular storyline and impressive performances of the famous ‘Palayamkottai Sisters’ and Krishnamurthi.