M. S. Subbulakshmi, G. N. Balasubramaniam, Serukalathur Sama, N. S. Krishnan, T. A. Mathuram, T. S. Durairaj and Thavamani Devi
The finest film of 1941 was perhaps Ellis R Dungan's Sakunthalai, produced by Chandraprabha Cinetone. M. S. Subbulakshmi, on her way to becoming a legend, played the title role. She was no great actor, but her beauty, rare charisma and fascinating voice impressed everyone without exception. G. N. Balasubramaniam, another legend of the Indian music world, played King Dushyanta of Hastinapuri. Not surprisingly, Sakunthalai had many songs, mostly sung by MS and almost all of them were hits. Notable among them are ‘Anandhamen solvanen', ‘Sukumaara', ‘Enthan idathu tholum' and duets with GNB, ‘Premayil' and ‘Manamohana anangey' (music S. V. Venkataraman and lyrics Papanasam Sivan.)
Serukalathur Sama played Sage Kanwa, the adopted father of Sakunthalai, and sang a couple of melodious songs with one of them ‘Mannannukkey' becoming popular.
Interestingly, the comical song by N. S. Krishnan and T. S. Durairaj, ‘Ennikki kaalayiley', was a hit. NSK and Durairaj are fishermen who find the king's ring inside a fish's belly. The fishermen fight over it and a bit of dialogue spoken by Durairaj ‘Adippayo… ungappan mavaney? Singandaa…!' caught the fancy of filmgoers and it became common parlance for years.
Dungan's directorial touch and passion for detail are evident in a scene between Sakunthalai and her adopted father ... the heroine has fallen in love with the handsome king and the two make love in the forest. Consequently, she is pregnant. Kanwa, away on pilgrimage with no knowledge of it all, returns home and finds his daughter not coming out to meet him as she always did. Sakunthalai, sick and somewhat guilty, is in bed when the sage comes in. She embraces him and when he holds her wrist, he realises from her pulse beat that his beloved daughter is about to become a mother. Though modern medical science may pooh-pooh it, ancient Indian Medicine believes there is something called ‘garbha naadi' (pregnancy pulse) in pregnant women. That Dungan, an American in Madras and a stranger to our culture and ignorant of the language, took so much pain to incorporate such details into his films evokes admiration.
There is a dance sequence in Dushyanta's court and the main dancer in the bevy of beauties is a slim, handsome maiden, whose name finds no place in the credits. From such modest beginnings, this young dancer rose to become a heroine, and later, after the demise of her husband, took over as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a brief while. Her name is V. N. Janaki!
Dungan realised that being a musical, Sakunthalai needed an effective background score. At that time in Madras, there were no facilities for multi-channel recording. So Dungan took the film to Calcutta where such facilities were available.
An interesting scene is Sakunthalai losing the king's ring while bathing in a river. It slips off her finger and is swallowed by a fish. Dungan took this ‘trick' shot cleverly with his camera. A long shot of MS bathing in a river was taken first. Next, a closer shot of MS patting her wet hair with her ringed hand. Later at Newtone Studio, a close-up of her face… of the ring on her finger… the ring at the edge of the finger... Then, a glass tank was brought filled with water, into which a whitish substance was added making the water viscous. The ring was dropped into the tank and shot at close range. Because of the viscosity, the ring travelled slowly, enabling its movement to be seen clearly by the audience. This sequence evoked enormous applause at every screening of Sakunthalai even in non-Tamil speaking areas!
Remembered for its soulful music and the presence of MS and GNB.