M.K. Gopala Ayyangar, Rajasundari Bai, P.K. Duraiswami Iyer, Rukmini Bai and J. Sushila
It’s the epic story of the king who gives up his royal status to become a sanyasi. He does this as a challenge from Rishi Vashista who states that as he’s not a Brahmin he cannot become a Brahmarishi, blessed with powers gifted by the gods. This story has been made in many mass media for several decades all over India — on stage, in harikatha and as therukoothu. There are many versions of the story that are popular not only in India but also in several countries such as Indonesia and Burma where Buddhism is prevalent. Not surprisingly, the story of Viswamitra has been made as a movie. The first version was a silent film made in 1921 under the title Vishwamitra Menaka directed by popular filmmaker of his day, Kanthilal Rathod.
Interestingly, the first talking picture version was made in Tamil in 1936 (now under review) as Viswamitra. It was produced and directed by Tamil cinema pioneer Ananthanarayanan Narayanan who founded the first studio Srinivasa Cinetone in Madras with sound recording equipment. The sound engineer was his madisaar-wearing wife Meenakshi Narayanan, the first woman sound engineer in film history. She was well-trained in Carnatic music. Her husband taught her sound recording, and she sat at the sound console in the studio and recorded music. Not many remember her today.
Narayanan made Srinivasa Kalyanam, the first Tamil film with sound recording in Madras. In the film, multi-talented and now forgotten P.S. Srinivasa Rao played Lord Venkateswara (Srinivasa). Not many are aware that it was Narayanan who gave a break to the veteran Tamil film personality Serukalathur Sama, still fondly remembered.
Phani Barma did the first Bengali version in 1952 and in the same year, it was produced in Hindi by the celebrated Marathi filmmaker Baburao Pendharkar. The sage’s epic tale is very popular in Andhra Pradesh too. It has been done as a stage play by several famed troupes and was filmed more than once. The superstar of Telugu cinema N.T. Rama Rao played the sage on stage in his earlier innings. His film versions were super hits. His son Balakrishna also made his own version. Sivaji Ganesan played the same role in the big-budget Tamil production Rajarishi, a spectacular film with colourful sets and costumes. Almost all the artistes appear in it anonymously. It was directed by the successful filmmaker and editor K. Shankar and produced by N. Sakunthala and presented by Kalaignanam.
Scared of his position, Lord Indra sends his court’s celestial dancers Thilothama and Menaka to seduce the aspiring Brahmarishi Viswamitra to wake him up from his penance. At first, Thilothama comes to tempt him, but she does not succeed. Then comes Menaka who succeeds in tempting Viswamitra. The result of the union is the celebrated daughter Sakunthala, the heroine of Abhignana Saakunthalam, a classic work by mahakavi Kalidasa.
Realising his mistake, Viswamitra refuses to accept the girl child, and Menaka abandons the infant in the woods and goes back to Indraloka.
The story of the girl child Sakunthala, fed by birds with honey from flowers, was made as a movie more than once. The classic version was directed by Ellis R. Dungan with G.N. Balasubramaniam playing Dushyantha and the legendary M.S. Subbulakshmi playing the female lead. In the film released in 1940, the prelude for the story includes a dance number by Sri Lankan dancer Thavamani Devi who plays Menaka.
M.K. Gopala Ayyangar, a popular stage actor of his day, played Viswamitra in the film under review. Rajasundari Bai, popular for playing vampish roles, played Menaka. The baby-voiced off-screen playback singer M.R. Rajeswari is her daughter. J. Sushila played Thilothama.
The film was an average success because of the popularity of the tale and the film being the first about the sage to be produced in Tamil.
Remembered For The arresting visual presentation of celestial charmers and their dances, and deft direction by the veteran filmmaker A. Narayanan.