The man behind many of MGR’s hits, Chinnappa Devar shot to national fame with the Rajesh Khanna-starrer Haathi Mere Saathi

“Had Aradhana flopped, would you have asked me to reduce my salary? You gave me my full payment even before we started, and showed your faith in me. I will do the film for what I committed to, Devar ji.” This was Rajesh Khanna’s reply to ‘Sandow’ M.M.A. Chinnappa Devar, recalled R. Thyagarajan, the producer’s son-in-law. The film Haathi Mere Saathi was planned in 1969 as Devar, who was making a few small-budget films without his usual ‘superstar’ MGR, wanted to make a big film. MGR was busy with his political activity and could not give him dates. Director Sridhar, Devar’s neighbour and close friend suggested that Devar make a Hindi film.

Devar had earlier made Deiva Cheyal in which the protagonist was a middle aged man, who was helped by an elephant. This was reworked — the hero was young, and the first-half was full of romance and action while the second-half had a fair share of sentiment. Devar went to Bombay and narrated the script to Sanjeev Kumar. Since the actor thought he would not be suitable for the first-half, he suggested the name of a rising star — Rajesh Khanna. Upon hearing the script, Rajesh, who was shooting for Aradhana agreed and recommended two young boys to assist Devar in the script — Salim-Javed. Aradhana was a super hit, and Rajesh Khanna’s salary had quadrupled, which prompted Devar to go back to Bombay and ask him if he wanted more money.

A big hit

Devar had booked Shankar Jaikishan to compose the music for Haathi Mere Saathi. Director Sridhar advised him to approach duo Laxmikanth-Pyarelal as he felt they were more suited to Devar’s quick style of functioning. When he approached them, they’d said they were busy. During the meeting, Devar found out it was Lakshmikanth’s child’s first birthday. He purchased gold coins and went to the party uninvited. No one knew who the dhoti-clad simple man was when he showered the child with the coins. Apparently, Laxmikanth’s wife asked the composer: “How can you refuse to compose music for a man who showers our child with gold?” Well, the duo’s ‘Chal Chal Chal Mere Haathi’ for the film became a big hit.

The film's shooting commenced in Vauhini Studios in early 1970, and the outdoor portion was shot in Ooty. The film was directed by M.A. Thirumugam, Devar’s younger brother, a competent director and editor (he edited the 1954 Sivaji classic Manohara). The film was released in 26 theatres in Delhi and its suburbs. The competition was Maryada featuring Raaj Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. The results of the first few days were not encouraging, and Devar was disappointed. Rajesh Khanna rang him up and told him not to lose hope, and to come to Delhi. By the time the group from Madras reached Delhi, the film had become a box-office hit. Rajesh Khanna and director-producer Shakti Samantha formed the company Sakthi Raj films and released the film in Bombay where too the film was a top grosser.

Marudur Marudachalamurthy Ayyavoo Chinnappa Devar was born on the June 28, 1915. His father was an agriculturist. Devar began to work after Class V. To join the film industry, he mastered various martial arts and improved his physique. He and his brother first acted in the 1940 film Thilottama. It was a fight sequence where only their shadows were filmed. Devar earned the title ‘Sandow’ because of his physique and fighting skills.

He had started playing small roles in films shot in Coimbatore, and in 1947 while acting in the film Rajakumari, a deep friendship is said to have developed between him and MGR. MGR too apparently recommended Devar in the films he worked. This went on till 1956 when Devar started his own production company Devar Films, and asked MGR to be the hero. MGR agreed, and they made Thaikkupin Thaaram. The film was a success, and launched Devar as a filmmaker. When MGR became busy with his own production Nadodi Mannan, Devar was forced to make a few other movies.

In 1960, he started to record the music for Thaai Sollai Thattadhe and cast Ashokan as the hero. When the recording was over, MGR heard the songs and wanted the story to be narrated. Apparently, after this there was a promise between them that MGR will adhere to all of Devar’s conditions and, in return, Devar would make films only with him and no other ‘big’ hero. This ‘agreement’ led to Devar making 16 films with MGR, the last being Nalla Neram in 1972, the Tamil remake of Haathi Mere Saathi.

If Devar shot to fame in the Tamil industry because of one superstar — MGR, he shot to national fame because of another — Rajesh Khanna!

The caption for a photograph accompanying this article has been corrected - M G Ramachandran is seen with Devar .

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