T. R. Mahalingam, B. R. Panthulu, V. K. Ramasami, K. Sarangapani, T. R. Ramachandran, T. K. Ramachandran, T. A. Jayalakshmi and ‘Baby’ Kamala
During 1946 in Madras, a play, “Thyaga Ullam”, written by the then unknown journalist-playwright, Pa. Neelakantan, was running to packed houses at the ‘Wall Tax Theatre’ known as ‘Ottha Vaadai Kootthu Kottah’ in Tamil on Wall Tax Road near the Central Station.
It was the stage production of NSK Nataka Sabha, owned by T. A. Mathuram and managed by S. V. Sahasranamam. With N. S. Krishnan away in prison following the Lakshmikantham murder case, Sahasranamam organised the troupe, roping in an array of good talent such as actor-singer K. R. Ramasami and an unknown actor named V. C. Ganesan! One of its big hits was “Thyaga Ullam”. AV. Meiyappan saw the play and acquired the movie rights. Neelakantan was engaged as writer and assistant director. This marked his entry into movies, a modest start to a successful career as film director.
Meiyappan cast Sahasranamam as the hero, a role he played on stage, and the others in the NSK unit were also given the chance to do the same roles in the film. Shooting began at his studio on the outskirts of Devakottai. Thatched cottages were put up on the vacant land which served as lodgings, rehearsal halls and offices. Those who called it ‘hay and rope studio!’ had to eat humble pie when success showered on Meiyappan.
Sahasranamam could not report for work as agreed due to his pre-occupations in Madras - problems in the drama troupe, the murder case and lack of time. Meiyappan, a hard-headed businessman, was not amused. He replaced Sahasranamam with the hero of Sree Valli, T. R. Mahalingam. It turned out to be a change for the better.
One of the stage actors, who donned the same role of a black marketeer in the film, was a young man, cast mostly in elderly roles. With a good range, a flair for comedy and a fine sense of timing in dialogue delivery, he quickly made a mark as a character actor and had a long innings in Tamil cinema. He was none other than V. K. Ramasami!
T. A. Jayalakshmi, tall and slim, who did small roles, was the heroine. After a few films, she quit, marrying soon-to-be noted producer-studio-owner Vasu Menon. Naam Iruvar had a team of comedians led by T. R. Ramachandran. V. K. Karthikeyan, also a comedian, showed promise but sadly faded into obscurity.
The role of the good-hearted elder brother of the hero was done by an import from the Kannada stage and screen, B. R. Panthulu. A little known actor in the 1940s, he rose to great heights as producer-director of Tamil and Kannada films, and during the 1960s, he was a name associated with colossal budget films.
Yet another person in the cast who later made it big as a dancer was Kamala, then ‘Baby’ Kamala. She appeared as the kid sister of the hero.
1947 was the year when India got its freedom - the end of the oppressive and exploitative British colonial rule of two hundred years and the dawn of free India. The name of Mahatma Gandhi sent Indians into raptures, kindling in them patriotic fervour. Meiyappan exploited this mood to good advantage in Naam Iruvar. Statues of Gandhiji, songs in his praise, characters wearing Gandhi caps, spinning the Charkha and greeting each other with ‘Jai Hind!’, ‘Baby’ Kamala dancing to songs with lyrics penned years ago by that revolutionary poet Subramania Bharati and rendered off-screen by the living legend D. K. Pattammal (Music - R. Sudharsanam) — Meiyappan packed them all into the film.
Naam Iruvar turned out to be a big money-spinner and pushed AVM to the zenith of success. The film made its hero T. R. Mahalingam a big star. The film, a milestone in South Indian cinema, ushered in a new era in Indian film history, the AVM era!
Remembered for: The scintillating song and dance numbers, ‘Aaaduvomey…..’ and ‘Vetri Ettum’, performed by ‘Baby’ Kamala who soon emerged as a cult figure and ushered in a cultural revolution in Bharatanatyam.