P. U. Chinnappa, T. S. Balaiah, M. V. Rajamma, N. S. Krishnan, T. A. Mathuram, T. S. Krishnaveni and Kali N. Ratnam
One of the major Hollywood hits of 1939, The Man in the Iron Mask, based on the exciting novel of the French adventure fiction maestro, Alexandre Dumas, found its way into Tamil cinema as Utthama Puthran. Produced and directed by the Salem-based movie mogul, T. R. Sundaram, it proved successful and established the singing star of the 1940s, P. U. Chinnappa (1915-1951).
Chinnappa (original name Chinnasami) migrated to cinema, like many during that day, from Tamil theatre and made his debut in Chandrakantha (1936) in a supporting role. After a few movies, he played hero in Yayathi (1938) when his career ground to a halt.
Disgusted with life, he took refuge in religion, observing fasts and silence for days together. One fine morning, Sundaram approached him in Pudukottai and the result was Utthama Puthran, advertised as ‘a nationalist movie’. Ever a talent-scout, he cast Chinnappa in a double role as twins — the evil one throws the good one in prison after forcing him to wear an iron mask. Chinnappa besides being a good singer was well-versed in sports such as wrestling, boxing and silambam. In this film, he did all the stunts, including fencing, without a ‘double’.
Even though the British Indian government banned the Tamil rebel poet Bharati’s work, Sundaram had the hero render the famous song ‘Senthamizh Naadenum Podhiniley’ and got away with it. Not surprisingly, this patriotic song became popular.
That was not all. In an unusual feature rarely seen in Indian cinema, there was a sequence of the twins engaged in a duel while singing a duet, throwing challenges.
M. V. Rajamma, an import from Kannada theatre and cinema, played the heroine. Utthama Puthran was her second film with Chinnappa, the first being Yayathi. Soon she became a star, carving a niche for herself in the industry. She later appeared in mother roles enjoying a career spanning half a century.
Balaiah played the villain. His distinctive style of dialogue delivery helped him enjoy a long innings in the field. As usual, there were many comedy sequences featuring NSK, Mathuram, Kali N. Ratnam, and P. A. Periyanayaki. Utthama Puthran was the first Tamil film in which the hero played a double role — it was indeed a feather in Chinnappa’s cap. In later years, there was another version where Sivaji Ganesan played the twins, which was also a big hit.
Remembered for: Chinnappa’s double role, and excellent photography.