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A revolutionary filmmaker

The birth centenary of Y. V. Rao, one of the most talented filmmakers of yesteryear, went unnoticed in June. RANDOR GUY profiles the pioneer.

HE WAS many personalities rolled into one: a filmmaker, a film star, and a film director who thought ahead of his times and chimes. A resourceful person of varied talents and one of the most talented filmmakers of Indian cinema of the yester-decades, and that was Y. V. Rao. And a sadly neglected pioneer of Indian cinema whose birth centenary in June went unnoticed. He was the first filmmaker in India to make motion pictures in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Konkani and Hindi, apart from the silent movies too.

A rare achievement that, most certainly a record in international cinema! He had the distinct privilege and historic honour of directing the first Kannada talking picture, Sathi Sulochana in 1934. He was also the first filmmaker in India to make a movie about movie world, called, Viswamohini in 1940 when most other South Indian films were about gods, goddesses, kings, and demons.

His Tamil film, Chintamani (1937) established stunning box-office records and elevated its hero, M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, also a renowned musician, to superstardom, who went on to become a legend in his lifetime. He was also obliquely responsible for creating a historical event in South Indian cinema. His second wife Kumari Rukmini, mother-in-law Nungambakkam Janaki, daughter Lakshmi, and grand daughter Aiswarya, and mother-in-law, have all been in the acting profession. Lakshmi, a multi-lingual star, is now a famed television talk show host.

Yaragudipati Varada Rao was born in May 1903, into a prominent and wealthy Telugu Brahmin family in Nellore, now in Andhra Pradesh. After his education at Nellore and a brief career in Telugu theatre, he took off to Kolhapur and Bombay to act in silent pictures. After a while, he came down to Madras during the late 1920s. Impressed by Rao's handsome looks and agility, Prakash cast him as hero in many silent films like "Garuda Garva Bhangam", "Gajendra Moksham" , and "Rose of Rajasthan" .

From film editing to directing, it was but a short leap ahead, and Rao began to direct silent films, like Pandava Nirvana (1930), Pandava Agnathavaas (1930), and Hari Maya (1932, this film was produced in Bangalore by the legendary figure of Karnataka theatre and cinema, Gubbi Veeranna. Rajam, wife of Rao played the female lead).

A Marwari businessman, Chamanlal Doongaji from Bangalore, interested in cinema, launched South India Movietone in 1932, and made a Kannada-talking picture, Sathi Sulochana, a mythological built around Ravana, his son Indrajit, and daughter-in-law, Sulochana.

Y. V. Rao, already famous in Bangalore for his Hari Maya, was asked to direct the film.

Sathi Sulochana was shot at Chatrapathi Cinetone, in Kolhapur and the shooting took eight weeks.

For the battle scenes, Rao used many hundreds of junior artistes, and as many as four cameras a novelty during the period. A good editor, Rao manipulated his footage excellently to create an impressive on-screen impact. Produced at the cost of Rs. 40,000, Sathi Sulochana, the first Kannada talking film, created a sensation in Bangalore.

Rao soared to the top in 1937 with his Tamil box-office bonanza, Chintamani. For Chintamani, Rao first chose to cast Serukalathur Sama as Bilwamangal. However, he was not happy. So he replaced Sama with M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. This change proved to be a turning point in the history of Tamil cinema and in the life and career of Bhagavathar.

To play the title role, Rao brought on board the celebrated Kannada singer, stage and filmstar K. Aswathamma. He cast himself in a major role as the friend who introduced the Devadasi Chintamani, to Bilwamangal.

The well-known multilingual singer and stunt actor P. S. Srinivasa Rao was asked to play that role. But in the last moment, he had to be replaced for he was down with typhoid. Left with no other choice, Rao cast himself in the role and gave a new name to himself, Manohar, which was actually the name of the character!

Aswathamma had a melodious voice and took her bow in Kannada cinema in 1935 in Sadarame, a box-office hit. Sadly, she was afflicted with the then much dreaded and deadly disease, tuberculosis, and she could act only in three films. She died young but her fame lives to this day, thanks to her memorable role in Chintamani.

Chintamani, made in Calcutta, created history and established incredible box-office records. It ran for more than a year in many places.

Bhagavathar, with his honeydew voice and facile singing enthralled south Indians and the phenomenal success of Chintamani, elevated him to the status of a legend in his lifetime.

Aswathamma became a Tamil star with this film and also a household name in South India. Her hairstyle of putting up her long hair into a plaited knot with flowers strung around it, known as `bichoda,' attained popularity during those days. When Y. V. Rao soon turned producer, he named his unit Chintamani Pictures.

His next venture was in Tamil, Lavangi (1946), a mix of fact and fiction built around a poet, Pandit Jagannath, who was believed to have served the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

The heroine was Kumari Rukmini, daughter of dancer Nungambakkam Janaki. She entered films as Baby Rukmini and went on to become a star. Rao directed the film, and during the making of the film, the two fell in love and got married. In 1941, Rao went to Calcutta a make a Tamil musical of historic interest.

A mythological, Savitri, attracted considerable attention. The title role was played by the Marathi and Hindi star, Shantha Apte. Making her act in a Tamil film was a daring move made by Rao, which generated public interest in the film even during its making. Unlike the artistes of today, she insisted on speaking and singing in Tamil. Rao sent a Tamil tutor to Pune to get her to learn the language. The project was put on the backburner for nearly a year until Shantha Apte was ready to speak and sing on her own. Such was her devotion to her profession.

Another innovative feature, which raised public interest, was Rao's move to cast M. S. Subbulakshmi in the male role of Narada. M.S. was always popular and her role as the male sage became the talk of the town. Savitri had many songs, mostly sung by M.S. and some by Shantha Apte. Music was by Papanasam Sivan and Kamaldas Gupta. However, Savitri did not make waves as expected. But some of the songs rendered by M.S., set in classical Carnatic ragas, proved popular. One of her songs, "Manamey Kanamum... " is sung even today at Carnatic music concerts by leading musicians. The later years of Y. V. Rao's career and life saw a decline, with marital discord, legal cases, and the lot. He separated from his wife Rukmini. Many film projects were announced but did not take off, and the few, which did, fared badly. Impaired by financial worries and personal problems, he was most unhappy and passed away in 1973. However, his celluloid creations, especially Chintamani shall live forever...

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