M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, K. Aswathamma, Serukalathur Sama, L. Narayana Rao, Y. V. Rao
Bhagavathar’s first mega hit was Y. V. Rao’s Chintamani, produced by one of the famous institutions of South Indian cinema, founded by the wealthy yarn merchants of Madurai - Rayal Talkie Distributors. Rayal Talkie distributed, financed and produced films, besides owning cinema houses. Chintamani, one of the biggest grossers of Indian cinema of its day, gave so much profit to Rayal Talkie that a cinema appropriately named Chintamani was built in that temple town.
This Bhagavathar film was based on the life of a poet Bilwamangal who created the classical Sanskrit work “Sri Krishna Karnamritham”. He fell for a courtesan Chintamani and the impact of this affair formed the content of a popular folk myth. Performed on stage in many languages, it was filmed as a “silent”, and then in Bengali, Hindi and Telugu before Y. V. Rao took it up in Tamil. Interestingly, the producers had Serukalathur Sama in mind for Bilwamangal’s role! But better sense prevailed and Bhagavathar was signed. Sama was shifted to the supporting role of Lord Krishna and the bearded sadhu (Krishna in disguise!) who comes down to earth and meets the hero! Indeed in the initial press publicity for Chintamani, the name at the top of the cast was Aswathamma and not Bhagavathar.
Chintamani was played by a tall, singing actor from the princely Mysore State, K. Aswathamma. A good singer, she came into the limelight in 1935 in Sadarame, a Kannada hit made by noted Tamil filmmaker Raja Chandrasekhar. Chintamani marked her debut in Tamil, which took her to dizzying peaks of success. Sadly, she did very few films, with early death caused by tuberculosis. She was popular all over South India, thanks to her gramophone records.
The film was made in Calcutta with Y. V. Rao himself playing a major role. L. Narayana Rao, a stage comedian, played Chetti, a rich businessman who lusts for Chintamani. The music (Papanasam Sivan) was superb and almost every song became a hit. The songs by Bhagavathar (“Radhey unakku…” “Gnana kann...”) and Aswathamma (“Krishna Krishna…” “Divya Darishanam…”) and their duets (“Maya prapancham…”) became all-time hits. The Chintamani song discs were popular and sold by thousands. But Bhagavathar’s voice was not heard in them. For, actors under contract with one gramophone company were prohibited from working for other companies. Film songs were sung separately for the recording company concerned, using its own staff-orchestra and each company had its own music director. K. V. Mahadevan, one of the leading film music composers of South India, was resident music director for HMV. For example, X sang a song in a film, and if she was not an HMV artiste, that song would be sung by some other female singer under HMV’s wing. Thus, one heard a particular voice in the film and on the gramophone record, the voice could belong to somebody else depending on the recording company and its contracts. When Bhagavathar came to movies, there was a great demand for his film songs. Aware of his potential, Bhagavathar demanded Rs.10, 000 per song as royalty to be paid to him personally, irrespective of the royalties payable to producers on sales of records. AV. Meiyappan, the moving force behind Saraswathi Stores, flatly refused. Besides he had his “resident music director”, Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma, a talented classical musician whose voice sounded like Bhagavathar’s, sing the songs of Chintamani and marketed them under the “Odeon” label. The public did not know the difference and bought the records thinking Bhagavathar had sung them! In those days, the name of the singer was not mentioned on the record label. Bhagavathar, no match for AVM in business sense, came off his horse at once and rendered two songs of Chintamani (“Radhey unakku…” and “Gnana kann…”) on Meiyappan’s terms. Chintamani was a raving success all over South India and ran for one year in many places. Bhagavathar shot into the limelight and began his amazingly successful - but sadly short - innings as superstar. Remembered for: The immortal songs of Bhagavathar and Aswathamma.