K. B. Sundarambal, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer
The tale of the low-born farmhand, Nandan, and his unfathomable devotion to Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram is something many Tamils are familiar with. It was written as a musical titled, ‘Nandan Charitram’ by Gopalakrishna Bharathiar in the early 19th Century. Bharathiar’s work was immensely popular as Harikatha Kalakshepam. Later, it was made into a play and a silent film in 1923 and 1930. When cinema began to talk Tamil in 1931, it was produced thrice — in 1933, 1935 and again in 1942.
Nandanar (1935) created history at many levels. One of the legends of Carnatic music, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer made his only appearance in cinema as the rich Brahmin landowner, Vedhiyar, under whom Nandan worked as a farmhand. The music maestro was a bohemian and agreed to play the role, although the lead was to be played by a woman, K. B. Sundarambal. Indeed KBS had reservations for she was not a Brahmin, while Maharajapuram was one! Such class and caste distinctions prevailed in those days. But the great musician was above such narrow views. He received a fee of Rs. 3,000, while KBS got an unheard of salary of Rs. 1 lakh. A big fortune indeed in 1935, when a sovereign of gold was sold at 13-odd rupees and petrol was on tap at less than half a rupee per gallon! The two acting in the film became news and expectations ran high among moviegoers who eagerly awaited its release.
Noted Hollywood-trained filmmaker Manik Lal Tandon directed the film, produced by Hassandas Classical Talkies. He made many Tamil films from the 1930s to the 1940s.
A man of charm, wit and humour, Viswanatha Iyer faced the wrath of the tradition-bound Brahmin community, especially in his hometown, Kumbakonam. But he was one who never batted an eyelid when it came to breaking rules! During the making of the film, Tandon faced an embarrassing situation. In a scene, when Vedhiyar (Viswanatha Iyer) realises that Nandan (KBS) is indeed a soul blessed by Lord Nataraja, he falls at his feet to make amends for ill-treating him in the past. As Iyer was a Brahmin and KBS hailed from an obscure background, she did not want him to prostrate before her. But it was necessary for the story. However, Iyer agreed to do the scene. He looked at KBS as an incarnation of Goddess Saraswathi! Tandon tackled the situation by making the two fall at each other’s feet!
Regretfully, Nandanar failed at the box office and ‘Kalki’ in a famous review in Ananda Vikatan tore it to pieces. For uncomplimentary reasons, the film negative was destroyed in a mysterious fire and the insurance company refused to pay the claim and won the case in the Madras High Court. Today, there is no trace of this historic film, except for a few stills, some 78-rpm gramophone records, and fast fading memories of old-timers still around after 70-plus long years…
Remembered for the incredible Rs. 1 lakh paid to KBS, and the only movie in which Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer acted.