Mohan V. Raman pays tribute to T. P. Rajalakshmi, the first woman director of South Indian Cinema, in her centenary year
There are many legends in the history of South Indian cinema. Among them T.P. Rajalakshmi occupies pride of place. With 2011 being her centenary year, it's only fitting to recall her contributions to the industry. She was the first woman director in South Indian cinema — and the second in Indian cinema after Fathima Begum. A pioneer, she paved the way for other women such as P. Bhanumathi, Vijayanirmala, Jayachithra, Sripriya, Suhasini, Revathy, Jayadevi and V. Priya to wield the megaphone in Tamil cinema. TPR produced, directed, wrote and donned the lead role in her films “Miss Malini”, which she also edited, and “Madurai Veeran” in the 1930s. What was so remarkable about her was her dogged determination and willingness to go the extra mile to realise her dreams.
TPR was born to Panchapakesa Sastri, the Karnam of Saliamangalam village in Thiruvaiyaru, in November 1911. Even as a child, she had this remarkable ability to sing whichever song she heard. She studied up to Standard V. At the tender age of 7, she was given in marriage to one Muthumani. Soon after, there was some misunderstanding between the two families and she never went to her husband's home. Her father died — he did not commit suicide as is often reported. Unable to get any support, her mother Meenakshi moved to Tiruchi.In Tiruchi, TPR began taking part in theatre productions to help the family which was in abject poverty. Her mother took her to meet V. S. Shamanna Iyer, whose drama company was camping there. Luckily for TPR, Sankaradas Swamigal, considered the father of Tamil Theatre, was there. He recommended her as she had attractive features. This move angered Muthumani's family, leading to the dissolution of their marriage.
Rajalakshmi's first role was in “Pavalakkodi”, a play later made into a film, launching the careers of M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S. D. Subbulakshmi and its director K. Subrahmanyam. She then joined Aryagana K. S. Chellappa's Drama Company and later moved on to K. P. Moideen Sahib's troupe. She remained there for three years, the longest she had spent in any troupe. She played the lead role in all their productions and even travelled to Rangoon to perform. On her return, she joined the famous Cunniah Company — the first woman to be admitted there. Here she played Sita to S. G. Kittappa's Rama. Thereon, she stopped working for any particular drama company, but became what is known as a “Special Drama” star. She even acted opposite MKT in “Pavalakkodi” when the play was staged in Chennai.
In 1929, she joined The General Pictures Corporation founded by A. Narayanan to act in the silent film “Kovalan”. She shifted to the Associated Film Company in which K. Subrahmanyam was involved. She worked in “Ushasundari” and “Rajeswari” (1931), playing the lead in the latter film opposite Raja Sandow. When the Imperial Film Company was keen on making a “talkie”, it approached K. Subrahmanyam for suggestions on casting and he recommended TPR. She donned the heroine's role in the first South Indian talkie “Kalidasa”, sang two keertanas, two patriotic songs and performed a kurathi dance. She then did “Ramayan” (1932) and “Sathyavan Savithri” (1933). In 1933, S. Vincent made “Valli Thirumanam” — this catapulted her to stardom and she was bestowed the title “Cinema Rani”. It was here she met, fell in love with and later married the actor playing Narada, T. V. Sundaram. She stayed in Calcutta to make several films such as “Kovalan”, “Draupadi Vasthrabharanam”, “Harichandra”, “Gule-Bakavali” and “Lalithangi”.
On her return, she set up Sri Rajam Talkies. She wrote, directed, edited and acted in “Miss Kamala” (1936). She followed it up with the highly successful “Madurai Veeran” where she teamed up with V. A. Chellappa again. Her next directorial venture, “Indhiya Thaai”, proved to be a failure; undeterred she carried on. Her younger brother T. P. Rajagopal was a talented musician and composed the music for all her home productions. Her other brother T. P. Rajasekharan assisted her in business.
“She was given the Kalaimamani award in 1961 and as MGR did not want her to come in a taxi, he sent his car to pick her up and have her dropped back,” recalls her daughter Kamala. Kamala's only tryst with the film industry was when she played the infant Nandanar in the 1938 film “Nandakumar”. “We owned several properties in Kilpauk, all of which were sold for the upkeep of the family. In the end, she suffered a stroke and without her knowledge was shifted to a rented house in Aspiran Gardens. She wanted to celebrate her grandson's first birthday. The family melted the gold in her Kalaimamani award, made some rings and gave them to TPR to present to her grandson. She was not aware of the dire straits the family was in.” Rajalakshmi passed away in 1964.
Her daughter asked me in an emotion-choked voice, “This is my mother's centenary year. Will anyone remember her in a fitting manner?” I did not know what to say. Will the cinema industry and the Government wake up and honour the first Queen of South Indian Cinema?