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Blazing new trails

A pioneer of Tamil cinema, K. Subramaniam, was one of the earliest to use the medium as a means for social change, remembers RANDOR GUY.


Subramaniam with Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Hollywood mogul Cecil B. De Mille.

A GREAT pioneer of Indian Cinema sadly neglected. A patriotic and socially conscious filmmaker who contributed immensely to the growth of cinema in South India. Such an outstanding personality was writer, director, producer and studio-owner K. Subramaniam. He was one of the earliest in South India to realise that cinema was a powerful medium to be used as a tool of social protest. He made progressive, content-oriented movies during the 1930s holding a mirror to society, driving it to take a good look at itself.

He made movies not only in Tamil but also in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, and the first Hindi film ever made in Madras, "Prem Sagar". At a time when technical facilities were primitive and finding money for making pictures a Herculean task, he fought many odds and worked hard to create an impressive body of work. Besides the three classics, "Balayogini", "Seva Sadanam", and "Thyaga Bhoomi", Subramaniam made other memorable movies — "Bhaktha Kuchela", "Bhaktha Chetha", "Vikata Yogi", "Vichitra Vanitha", "Manasamrakshnam", "Geetha Gandhi" and others.

Not many are aware that K. Subramaniam began his movie career as early as 1931. He was closely associated with another sadly neglected pioneer of Indian Cinema, Raja Sandow, who directed silent films in Madras. Working with him he learnt the ropes of movie- making in all its aspects and with his flair and talent for writing he wrote the story and screenplay for silent films like "Sathi Kausalya" (1931), and "Taranhar" ("Pride of Hindustan", 1931), both directed by Raja Sandow.

Krishnaswamy Subramaniam was born on April 20, 1904 at Papanasam in Thanjavur District into an affluent family. His father Krishnaswamy Iyer was a successful lawyer. Subramaniam also studied law and became a lawyer. More interested in cinema than in practising law, Subramaniam, thanks to his wife's family's links with films, worked under Raja Sandow.

M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the first superstar of South Indian Cinema and an excellent singer, was a top stage star in the late 1920s-early 1930s. In 1931, he wanted to enter cinema by filming one of his hits. The same idea occurred to AL. RM. Alagappa Chettiar and his friend SM. Letchumanan Chettiar. One night Subramaniam and the two Chettiars saw Bhagavathar's play "Pavalakodi" and decided to picturise it using the same troupe. Thus began the illustrious career of K. Subramaniam. "Pavalakodi" was produced in Madras at Meenakshi Cinetone with Bhagavathar as Arjuna, and the popular stage actress S.D. Subbulakshmi in the female lead. Soon she would marry Subramaniam as his second wife. After this movie she became a star in films and assisted her husband.

"Pavalakodi" had 50 songs, a fact announced with pride on the front page of the songbook, handbills and posters. The composer was Papanasam Sivan.

"Pavalakodi" was released in 1934 and enjoyed a nine-month run in many places. Subramaniam was now in demand and he made two films both in Calcutta. One was "Bhaktha Kuchela" and the other "Naveena Sarangadhara", both released in 1936. An innovative creative person Subramaniam came up with a novel idea in "Bhaktha Kuchela". S. D. Subbulakshmi played Susheela, the wife of Kuchela and mother of 27 children, and also the male role of Lord Krishna. A woman doing both female and male roles was a daring move in an Indian movie and proved successful.

An ardent patriot, Subramaniam — conscious of the strict British censoring of Indian films — introduced a daring scene in "Naveena Sarangadhara". The King sentences his son to death without enquiry and the citizens rise in protest and march to the palace, all of them wearing the Gandhi caps.

Soon Subramaniam built a studio, Motion Picture Producers' Combines (MPPC), in the heart of Madras. Under the banner of his production company, Madras United Artistes Corporation, he made his first classic, the socially significant "Balayogini" (1937).

In this critical and box-office success, he dealt with social issues like class and caste conflicts, craze for foreign goods, fads and fashions. It had quite a few children in major roles like S. Varalakshmi, R. Balasaraswathi, and his cherubic niece, "Baby" Saroja who skyrocketed to fame overnight.

"Seva Sadanam" (1938) saw the introduction of a charismatic sensation who rose to become a living legend — Carnatic musician, M. S. Subbulakshmi. Already known as a singer, her appearance in this movie, her debut, made news. The story was based on a novel by Munshi Premchand being serialised in Ananda Vikatan (owned by S.S. Vasan).

The social satire highlighted the dismal position of women in South India, especially among Brahmins. The hero (F. G. Natesa Iyer, a senior railway official and talent scout) marries a poor girl (MS). He is old enough to be her father, and the young wife is harassed by her sister in-law. At last the husband realises his folly and grants her her freedom. Disgusted with himself and angry with orthodoxy and tradition, he throws off his poonool. An act of sacrilege that outraged most Brahmin moviegoers of that time.

In 1939 came "Thyaga Bhoomi". A classic film that took a brave new stance on important social issues, like the position of the Hindu wife in marriage and society. A film that the British Indian Government considered vitriolic enough to ban after it had a successful run for many weeks. "Thyaga Bhoomi" was also based on a serial story in Ananda Vikatan written "Kalki".

Subramaniam was shrewd enough to realise that a film written by such a reputed writer had certain advantages from the box-office angle. Vasan — who had just entered cinema as distributor — bankrolled the movie. The talented trio — the distributor, writer and filmmaker — introduced an innovative strategy to arouse public interest. When production began, each issue of the magazine carried still photographs of the film instead of the usual sketches.

A family melodrama of a rural Brahmin woman (S.D. Subbulakshmi), her problems with a fashionable husband (K.J. Mahadevan) and his mistress, her orthodox priest and progressive father (Papanasam Sivan) with a passion to eradicate untouchability, her baby she had to abandon (Baby Saroja), her fight for equal rights and rejecting the husband when he comes back to her on his bended knees, and her joining the Indian Freedom Movement and courting imprisonment, all these elements made the movie memorable and a classic.

The changing scenario in cinema and audience preferences, difficulties in raising finance and his advancing age prevented him from making many more of his dreams come true. He also made several documentaries and served on several institutions, local, national and international.

Widely travelled, he was simple, unassuming and humble with no airs. He was one of the founders of the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce but this apex body has totally forgotten about his Birth Centenary.

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