M.N. Rajam and A. L. Raghavan share their stage and film days with ARS.
Film actor M. N Rajam started her career as a stage artist. She was only seven when she joined the Madurai Sri Mangala Bala Gana Sabha. If children her age were sent to drama companies, it was because their families were in financial difficulties. Her father had been a Police Inspector in Madurai. When he lost his job due to loss of vision in one eye, he took to the stage. But he died soon after, leaving behind his wife and three children, of whom Rajam was the eldest.
A.L. Raghavan's entry into films was also through the stage, and in his case too it was the sudden death of his father that made him join theatre. His father too had acted in plays. “MGR acted as my father's wife in plays. And in later years, MGR would joke that he was my step mother!” laughed A.L. Raghavan. Rajam and Raghavan reminisced about their stage and film days at Sampradaya's' Samvada, in which actor ARS was the anchor person.
“My gurukula vasam in the drama company, included lessons in Maths, Tamil, music and dialogue delivery,” said Rajam. Even a weekly oil bath and a daily dose of cod liver oil for the children were ensured by the company.
In one of the mythological plays of the company, the roles of Vishnu and His consorts were played by child artists. A contraption with a plunger was rigged up and when the plunger was pressed, Vishnu and His Consorts on the snake bed would be slowly propelled upwards and would become visible to the audience. Once there was a slip on the part of the man operating the plunger, and the child playing Vishnu tumbled downwards, but Rajam, who played the role of Sridevi, cleverly improvised with the words, “O celestials, do not worry. Vishnu has descended to Earth and will solve your problems!”
Later the drama company, of which Rajam was a member, was taken over by N.S. Krishnan. So she was under NSK's tutelage for some years. Some of the plays she acted in then were ‘Paithiakkaran' and ‘Naam Iruvar.' Wasn't ‘Paithiakkaran' filmed too, asked ARS. “Yes, and the film had T.A. Madhuram in a double role. MGR was paired with one Madhuram and NSK with the other!”
NSK's plays were staged at Otha Vadai theatre. Sundays were busy days with two shows, the second show concluding only at midnight.
ARS said that special dramas (the ones with songs) were so popular, that special trains used to be run to meet the rush. There were trains called ‘S.G.Kittappa trains!'
Didn't meaty roles come Rajam's way only after she moved to TKS's troupe? “Yes,” she said, and pointed out the reason, which was earlier she had been too young to do major roles. TKS, popularly known as ‘Annachi,' was a great teacher and had taught Rajam the grammar of acting. He made a great Avvaiyar, and when Vasan wanted to film Avvaiyar, TKS was his first choice to play the lead role. But Annachi said a male playing a female role would not be accepted by the film-going audience, so the role went to K.B.Sundarambal.
In the play, Rajam, as Angavai, had to sing a song. One day, Rajam noticing M.S. Subbulakshmi in the audience, developed cold feet, and decided to feign sickness. She told Annachi that she had a bad cough and could not sing, butAnnachi said, “Never mind. You can cough in the middle of the song.” She did go on to sing, and at the end of the programme, MS complimented her on her singing!
Kalki was so impressed with her role in the play ‘Kalvanin Kadhali,' that he wondered whether God had created Rajam just to play that role. Rajam was also doing films at the time. For ‘Ratha Kanneer' she had to put on weight. When after some months, she did her usual role in ‘Kalvanin Kadhali,' Kalki asked TKS why the girl who had done the role earlier had been replaced. “I had become so chubby, that he couldn't recognise me!” chortles Rajam.
Raghavan has had many interesting experiences both as a singer and as an actor. He recalled his role as a child Krishna in Jupiter Pictures' ‘Krishna Vijayam.' As a Gopika churned the curd, the churning stick would ‘metamorphose' into Krishna. Raghavan who played Krishna would hide in the pot of curd, and would be attached to the stick, and would rise to give darshan to the Gopika. Rehearsals for the scene would go on till midnight. One day the pot broke and several bottles of Eau de Cologne had to be used to get rid of the stink from the sour curd!
He had to don the role of six different Krishnas, and trick shots were used to show all of them in one frame. Lalitha (Padmini's sister) acted in the film, and Raghavan was the one who taught her to speak Tamil! This was the film in which TMS made an entry as a playback singer. He sang for Narasimha Bharati, who played the senior Krishna.
Lyrics were given importance both in dramas and in films. The drama, ‘Mohini Theevu,' had ‘Unakkum Enakkum Isaindha Porutham' by Ramalinga Swami and‘Naalu Veli Nilam' had ‘Nambinaar Keduvadillai' by Bharatiar.
For the armed forces
Raghavan was part of a group of film artistes who performed in army and air force camps during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. Hangars became makeshift auditoria, and the programmes began at night. On the way back, the artists performed at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Jayalalitha who had just then entered films, danced to Susheela's ‘Kannan Ennum Mannan Perai', from the film ‘Vennira Adai.' Raghavan's rendering of Bharatiar's ‘Pagaivanukkarulvai' brought tears to the eyes of President, Dr. Radhakrishnan . Raghavan's ability to yodel and to sing all kinds of songs, from comic to romantic ones,earned him the praise of Naushad.
When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Bhoomipaladasa of Jupiter Pictures wrote ‘Ulaga Mahan Gandhi', a song that Raghavan sang at all condolence meetings. M.M. Mariappa, who was the first playback singer for MGR, learnt the song from Raghavan. Raghavan has never regretted his choice of profession, and in this context recalled Semmangudi's words: “Even my grandsons sing your film songs. Your music has a wider reach than classical music.”
ARS, who gently jogged the memory of the artists, asked Rajam to conclude with some words about Sivaji Ganesan and Nawab TSR.
Sivaji had donned female roles in dramas. Usually any boy who played female roles began to walk and talk like a female in real life too. When a boy's voice cracked, he would withdraw from the company. But Sivaji, who had played female roles in plays, was the only one who was able to convert what would have been a drawback into an asset, according to Rajam. Thus the mincing feminine walk was modified into a kind of stylish, signature walk by Sivaji. Coy feminine glances were given a male touch and used by him in emotional scenes.
Nawab TSR's ‘Nandanar' was the only Tamil play Mahatma Gandhi watched. Gandhi was seated on the dais! The buffoon in the play wore spectacles that didn't have lenses. At the end of the play, Gandhi summoned him, stuck his fingers into the holes where the lenses should have been and said,” Joot?” Gandhi's puckish smile had the entire audience chuckling.