When sound came to Tamil cinema in 1931, it came basically in the form of songs. During the first decade of its history, the Tamil film was a mere vehicle for songs. This was because early Tamil talkies mimicked company dramas that were the popular mass entertainment form. Understandably an audience fed on music in all their entertainment forms expected the moving pictures also to be fashioned along similar lines.
This aspect of Indian cinema, the song sequences, lends it a distinct character and helped popularise Carnatic music. But this was rather disastrous for the development of a grammar of cinema, as it thwarted any growth of a visual grammar. People went to cinema to listen, as if at a concert, not so much to watch.
From stage to movies
When moving picture began, artistes from company dramas moved into the world of cinema. They were singers familiar with Carnatic music. Here the difference between Carnatic musicians and stage singers must be registered. The former were trained classical musicians and sang in concerts. The later only acted and sang on the stage, though some like K.B. Sundarambal and Devudu Aiyer, after gaining fame through dramas, gave solo concerts.
When cinema made its appearance in Tamil Nadu, Carnatic musicians, along with other educated classes, dismissed the new entertainment form as a plebeian preoccupation that did not deserve any notice. Things began to change when cinema stabilised in Chennai beginning with the founding of a sound studio in 1934. Movie business began to mean big money. The prospects it offered soon caught the attention of Carnatic musicians. Cinema as an industry had grown in the few years and it could now provide the facilities demanded by Carnatic musicians who enjoyed an independent status as musicians. In the early days of the gramophone also, Carnatic musicians had been similarly hesitant about recording their performance.
It was at this point in the history of Tamil cinema that G.N. Balasubramaniam entered the scene. It was a time when almost all Carnatic music luminaries had a stint in films led by the legendary Papanasam Sivan.
Technological developments had profoundly affected film history. In the early days of talkies, sound was recorded simultaneously, as the film was being shot.Songs being the main entertainment component of a Tamil film, singers rather than actors were sought after. Looks and the ability to act were secondary. If a vocalist was well-known independently, then she/he was welcome in the tinsel world. This is how GNB made an entry into films in 1934 through the film directed by M.L. Tandon Bama Vijayam” as the celestial musician Naradar. He went on to act in four more films. In 1937 he acted in “Sathi Anusuya” directed by Fram Sethna, again as Naradar. GNB had nine songs in this film. This was followed by “Sakunthalai” in which he teamed with M.S. Subbulakshmi. The film was directed by Ellis R.Dungan. After a gap of six years, two films in which GNB featured – “Rukmangadan” directed by P.S.V. Aiyer and “Udayanan Vasavathathattha” directed by T.R. Ragunath - came out in 1947. Over a period of 13 years, GNB had acted in just five films. Except “Sakunthalai” the other films did not create much impact. But we do not have a print of those films and that closes the possibility of a re-reading of these films.
Fortunately a print of “Sakunthalai” has survived. When you watch the film, it is clear that GNB was not familiar with the medium of cinema or acting and that he was there only to sing... Dungan in his autobiographical book A Guide to Adventure devotes nearly five pages to “Sakunthalai” but makes no reference to the hero GNB. Moreover MS, with her magnetic presence, bewitching smile and captivating songs, simply overshadows him.
When artists like GNB featured in films, classical music compositions had to be modified to suit films. Only the essential features of the ragas were retained. So the songs were reduced in duration without the embellishments characteristic of the style. Such modifications have been effected earlier when classical music was recorded on 78 rpm 10-inch discs that played for only three or four minutes. This process of popularising classical music and making it acceptable to a wider audience was set off mainly by the advent of talkies. Carnatic music was taken millions of film viewers who otherwise had no access to it. This led to a democratisation of classical music.
Rise of playback
The technology of recording songs separately and placing them in the soundtrack became available in the early 1940s. It was no longer necessary to synchronise song recording with picturisation. There was no need for actors to possess singing ability. It marked the end of the era of Carnatic musicians as actors. A new class of film artists known as playback singers came into being.
However, some Carnatic musicians continued as playback singers. D.K. Pattammal was one the earliest. That tradition still continues with Bombay Jayasri and Unnikrishnan entrancing film goers by lending their voice to characters in films.