M. M. Dhandapani Desikar, Serukalathur Sama, Kothamangalam Subbu, L. Narayana Rao and Sundari Bai
The folk myth of a low-born farmhand, Nandan, and his deep devotion to Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram has been familiar among Tamilians. 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.
Later, it was made into a play and a silent film in 1923 and 1930. When cinema began to talk and sing Tamil in 1931, it was produced as a film thrice, in 1933, 1935 and again in 1942. The most successful of them all was made in 1942 by Gemini Studios. Well-known Carnatic musician and one of the votaries of the Thamizh Isai Movement M. M. Dhandapani Desikar played Nandan. Famed Tamil film star Serukalathur Sama played the Brahmin landlord.
The film was directed by Murugadasa (A. Muthuswami Iyer), a pioneer of Tamil cinema. S. S. Vasan produced it, one of his early ventures after he had launched Gemini Studios in 1941. Murugadasa and Vasan used some of the original compositions of Gopalakrishna Bharathiar and Carnatic music maestro (known as Thamizh Thyagaiah) Papanasam Sivan composed the songs that are not in the Gopalakrishna Bharathiar musical. The music directors were M. D. Parthasarathy and S. Rajeswara Rao who were on the studio rolls. Some songs became popular like “Sivalokanaathanai kandu sevithiduvom…” in raga Nathanamakriya (Bharathiar composed it in Senjurutti), “Vazhi maraithirikkirathey…” (Thodi), “Ellorum varungal…” (Bilahari; Bharathiar sang it in Behag), “Pitham theylia marundhondru…” (Shankarabharanam), “Ayeey mettha kadinam…” (raga maalika; Bharathiar composed it in Punnaagavaraali), “Varugalaamo…” (Maanji) and “Chidambara dharisanam…” (Mukhari, Asaveri by Bharathiar.) Desikar’s singing talents were fully exploited by Vasan. A stickler for quality, he recorded some songs by the famed musician many times and shot them again and again. Not surprisingly, Desikar was upset and even felt hurt. (Desikar told this writer in later years that for sometime they were not on talking terms!)
As a marketing strategy, Vasan announced a trail-blazing Rs. 10,000-prize song contest for Nandanar. The moviegoer was asked to choose ‘Ten Best Songs’ in the order of merit and drop the answer sheet along with the counterfoil of the cinema ticket in a box provided at movie houses where the film was being screened. Vasan had the pre-chosen list of the songs deposited in a sealed envelope with the Indian Bank, First Line Beach (now Rajaji Salai), well before the prize scheme was announced. This was the first time such a scheme was introduced in South India and it contributed to the box-office success of the film.
Nandanar was a major success. When the 60-plus-year-old film was screened recently by Vintage Heritage (a society which screens old movies), it drew large crowds to the surprise of many. Obviously, classics never fade or pall. Nandanar is undoubtedly one of them…
Remembered for: Its music and first-of-its-kind song-prize scheme!