As the country celebrates 100 years of Indian cinema, Tamil Nadu will mark the centenary of one of its film industry pioneers — south India’s first heroine. And she was also its first woman director, producer and script and dialogue writer.

T.P. Rajalaksmi, whose birth centenary will be celebrated with a government function on Thursday, two years after she completed 100 years, died in 1964. She had a strong foundation in the theatre and became a natural choice as heroine for the first Tamil movie Kalidaas (1931). She rendered the Thyagaraja kriti Enta nerchina in Udayaravichandrika.

Even her entry into the theatre, then an all-male entertainment industry, was sort of a revolution, considering her social background.

She was born in Saliamangalam, near Thanjavur, to Panchapakesa Shastri, head of the village. She was hardly six years old when she got married and the family moved to Tiruchi in search of livelihood after her father’s untimely death.

“She had a good voice and got a toehold in theatre. But her husband and his family were against it and the marriage broke,” said writer K. Venkatachalam, whose book on the 50 best films between 1940 and 1960, is due for release.

Mr Venkatachalam said she was the first woman member of the Kannaiya Naidu theatre company and played opposite S.G. Kittappa.

Talking about her first movie, film historian and journalist Film News Anandan said: “We should call it a multi-lingual film. The hero T.G. Venkatesan was a Telugu and he spoke in his mother tongue and Rajalakshmi would respond to him in Tamil. L.V. Prasad, who played a minor role, conversed only in Hindi as he did not know Tamil or other languages.”.

Ms Kamala in 1936 saw Rajalakshmi diversifying her roles. She produced, directed, acted and also wrote dialogues for the film.

“Though it was a hit, her next venture Tamil Thai was a flop. But she continued to act in movies and the combination of Rajalakshmi and V.A. Chellappa, an actor of yesteryear made a name in the film world,” said Mr Venkatachalam.

In the film Nandakumar, produced by A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar, she played the role of Yasodha and T.R. Mahalingam was the Krishna. Her last film was Idhaya Geetham (1954).

“When Tamil Cinema, a monthly magazine, decided to bring out a special issue on the occasion of Deepavali, I suggested putting her picture on the cover along with Padmini, who had by the time emerged as the queen of Tamil cinema. She was moved and I could see tears welling up in her eyes. Her days were over in the film world, but she was desperate to get an opportunity, regretting that everyone had forgotten her,” said Mr Anandan.

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