M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Chittoor V. Nagaiah, P. Kannamba, T. V. Kumudhini, M. G. Ramachandar, N. S. Krishnan and T. A. Mathuram
A popular folk myth drawn from Buddhist tales built around Asoka the Great, his son Veer Kunal and young amorous wife was filmed more than once as a silent film in Hindi as Veer Kunal, and in Tamil as Ashok Kumar. (Kunal became Gunaalan in Tamil.) However, there is no historic proof of the story which has many parallels with another oft-filmed folk myth Sarangadhara.
Bhagavathar’s career was now on an upswing and the South Indian movie-goers eagerly awaited his next film. He was in such a position that he could afford to take life easy which he did. He gave himself to many exciting things in life such as bathing in Ghazipur rose water. Besides, he was in great demand for his Carnatic music concerts. So his films took longer to make, a year and more. Anyway he pleased the public with Ashok Kumar, directed by Raja Chandrasekhar, another noted South Indian filmmaker of those days.
Ashok Kumar is about Asoka’s son Gunaalan, whom Tishyarakshita, the Emperor’s young wife, lusts after. Shocked, he rejects her amorous advances, and like the proverbial woman scorned, she tells her husband that his son tried to seduce her! Enraged, the ageing emperor orders his son to be blinded and banished. The condemned, but innocent, prince suffers, loses his child and is reduced to beggary. Ultimately, the Buddha restores his sight, rights all wrongs and all, except the Queen, live happily thereafter!
Bhagavathar played the role of the prince, while Kumudhini was his devoted spouse. Nagaiah and Kannamba played Ashoka and the queen. The duo with a wide range of talent came to be deservedly regarded as two of the greatest artistes in Indian cinema.
Pasupuleti Kannamba who hailed from Andhra Pradesh made her debut in Tamil with Krishnan Thoodhu (1940) and Ashok Kumar was her second film. She did not know Tamil then and had her lines written in Telugu phonetically, and spoke with ease, which was indeed remarkable.
One of the highlights of the film was a song and dance sequence, ‘Unnai kandu mayangaatha…’ sung by Bhagavathar to which Kannamba danced. No dancer, she worked hard for the sequence which was shot brilliantly during a single night at Newtone Studio by the sadly neglected Indian movie maestro, K. Ramnoth, without credit.
MGR played a minor supporting role and was credited as ‘M .G. Ramachandar’!
A newcomer playing a bit role as the Buddha was Ranjan, his first film, who in a few years’ time was to take the sub-continent by storm with his stunning performance in S. S. Vasan’s Chandralekha (1948).
Like any Bhagavathar film, music was the dominating factor in Ashok Kumar too. Songs such as ‘Satvaguna bhodhan…’, ‘Bhoomiyil maanida janmam…’, and ‘Unnai kandu…’ became instant hits and the credit should go to Papanasam Sivan. Indeed, during his heyday, Bhagavathar insisted that his producers hire Sivan and Elangovan to handle the music and script respectively.
NSK and Mathuram provided the comedy as usual.
Remembered for Bhagavathar’s melodious songs.