Acting in just three films made Baby Saroja a child super star. Laksmi Viswanathan recalls her sibling’s fascinating stint in cinema and how her films are etched in people’s memory

I grew up listening to tales of the movies from my family elders who were among the pioneers of Tamil cinema. My family was involved in producing, directing and acting!

They travelled to far off Calcutta for shooting because of better technical support there. Three movies based on original stories were all they were involved in. Yet to this day, those films are remembered by many who saw them and others who have chronicled the history of Tamil cinema.

The first of the three, BalaYogini, 1937, had a social reformist theme and was written and directed by my uncle K. Subrahmanyam. It made a child star of my sister Saroja. With her delicate voice she sang a lullaby to her doll ‘Kanne Papa,’ a melody taken from a Bengali song, which went viral without the aid of the internet. She became the beloved Baby Saroja. Nothing was ever the same for her or my parents again. Shirley Temple was making waves in Hollywood. Our own Shirley Temple with a broad smile and immense talent took the movie audiences by storm. Every girl child born in Tamil Nadu that year was named Saroja! Little dolls were made in her likeness and displayed in every house during Navaratri kolu. Some can still be found with the antique dealers of Chettinad.

Path-breaking strategy

The success of Bala Yogini got another role for Baby Saroja. This time around, the writer was the rising star of Tamil literature, Kalki Krishnamurthy. His novel Tyaga Bhumi was serialised in the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, while the film was being shot. It was a path-breaking experiment in marketing. Stills from the film were published each week with the serialised novel, creating unprecedented excitement among the readers. Movie goers eagerly awaited the film’s release. The story itself was revolutionary for the times. Caste politics, social inequity, women's rights, animal welfare, the colonial cultural divide, and ultimately the freedom movement and Gandhian philosophy... all found a place in the script. Baby Saroja was the little super star. Papanasam Sivan acted in the film besides composing the songs.

Nobody had seen Bharatanatyam in movies. Saroja learnt to dance to a Tamil version of ‘Krishna Née Begane Baro,’ penned by Sivan and sung beautifully by my mother Alamelu Viswanathan. Her guru for this dance was the last Devadasi of the Mylapore Kapaleeswara temple, Gowri Ammal. Colour postcards of Baby Saroja, smiling and dancing, were printed in Japan to be distributed among her fans. The film had a great 22-week run when the British banned it. The reason was that it had a strong content sympathetic to the freedom movement. The producers ran the film in Gaiety theatre continuously for 24 hours for free viewing before the ban order was issued! Later when the ban was lifted, it was seen by millions more who were thrilled by the story and the charming Baby Saroja. D.K. Pattammal sang some of the patriotic songs in the film which became hits.

Caught in the limelight, my parents were the hero and heroine in their next movie adventure Kamadhenu (1941), directed by Nandlal Jaswantlal from Bombay who also handled the camera (he was a fabulous cinematographer). He went on to make box-office hits in Hindi such as Nagin and Anarkali. My parents' screen names were Vatsal and Vatsala. This film too featured Baby Saroja. The story dealt with social issues of the day, and for the first time, parents and daughter acted in a film together.

Interesting anecdotes

The adventures of producing films, acting and being stars were related to my generation like stories from a fairy tale. Some anecdotes like the time when a crowd pushed the car going to Kodaikanal, carrying Baby Saroja, when it got stuck in a swamp on a rainy night are still fresh in my memory. The passengers on a bus also bound for Kodaikanal offered to help on condition that they could see the child star. Soon Saroja was woken up from sleep, and made to sit on the bonnet of the car with the headlights of the bus focussed on her! The crowd cheered, gave a helping hand gladly and all were soon on their way to the hill-station.

Saroja became part of the Tamil folklore of that era. Soldiers who were enlisted in the army just before World War II, apparently sang a song bidding adieu to Baby Saroja (Baby Saroja, Naan warukku poren Née kavalai padade). Cinema made her so popular much before the modern day marketing hype.

Indian cinema has seen many child stars. But none attracted the sobriquet: Shirley Temple of India!

Saroja has fans even today not only in Tamil Nadu but also in places like Singapore and Malaysia where the three films in which she appeared are remembered. She smiles as she did in those days when she recalls her childhood as a super star.