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‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’ turns 60: the rebel who won many hearts

A still from ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’

A still from ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

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A throwback to Veerapandiya Kattabomman,which turns 60 today, and the events that led to Sivaji Ganesan’s memorable performance in the titular role

How does one celebrate the 60th birth anniversary of a 259-year-old legend? The best way is to consider the film that truly made him a household name in Tamil Nadu. We are talking about Veerapandiya Kattabomman, who was believed to have rebelled against the East India Company for levying tax on the locals.

The film, directed by BR Panthulu, was based on his war against the British and titled Veerapandiya Kattabomman and released on this day 60 years back. It turned out to be a landmark film in Tamil cinema, despite a few historical inaccuracies. Sivaji, in his authorised biography, said that he was prompted to seek a career in acting only after watching Kambalaththaar Koothu (street play) on Kattabomman’s life. Even after achieving success in filmdom, Sivaji was still involved in his own drama company Sivaji Nadaga Mandram. Once, while passing by Kayaththaaru (where Kattabomman was hanged by the British) with noted playwright Sakthi Krishnaswamy, Sivaji mentioned that he had always desired to play Kattabomman’s character. The writer obliged his proposal. With the added help of Tamil scholar Ma Po Sivagnanam and other writers, he began fleshing out the play. Sakthi Krishnaswamy was the owner of Sakthi Nadaga Sabha and was known for his bombastic dialogues. The play was first staged in 1957 and was soon made into a film.

A Rich Legacy
  • Kattabomman was the first stage play enacted by Sivaji Nadaka Mandram in 1957. It continued to be staged across the country and made a profit of ₹32 lakhs. Sivaji Ganesan donated the entire amount for school children.
  • The film was also the first biopic in Tamil cinema. Sivaji became the first South Indian actor to win an international award for Veerapandiya Kattabomman, which was selected at Afro-Asian Film Festival held at Cairo, Egypt, where it won the best film as well.
  • The film set cash registers ringing and became a huge success at the box office, completing a 100-day run across theatres in Tamil Nadu.

This was the time when Sivaji quit DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). Lyricist Kannadasan, who was also with the DMK, had a verbal spat with Sivaji over Kattabomman’s contribution for the freedom struggle. The true patriots, according to Kannadasan, were the Marudhu Brothers and he launched a film on them titled Sivagangai Seemai. Actor SS Rajendran was offered the role of Vellaya Thevan in Veerapandiya Kattabomman and the lead role in Sivagangai Seemai at the same time. Eventually, he went on to star in the latter.

Sivaji, meanwhile, approached Savitri to somehow persuade Gemini Ganesan to act in the film. Gemini obliged and the role that he played fetched him great popularity, and the film became a blockbuster. In contrast, Sivagangai Seemai was a dud at the box office. As a matter of fact, the term Ettappan, a slang word meaning traitor, became part of Tamil vocabulary, thanks to the iconic scene where Kattabomman accuses the Rajah of Ettayapuram of treachery. Kattabomman’s fiery monologues floored the audience and rightly so. A scene that comes to mind is one where Kattabomman confronts Major Bannermann (Javar Seetharaman) and Jackson Durai (Parthiban) and gives them an earful.

Role play
  • This was the first Tamil movie made in technicolour and was processed in London. A special screening was hosted for Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who was the then Indian High Commissioner to Britain.
  • Sivaji was so impressed with Veerapandiya Kattabomman that he bought the land at Kayathaaru, where Kattabomman was hanged. The actor built a statue in his name, which was unveiled by Kamaraj and Sanjeeva Reddy in 1970.
  • He was taking care of the statue till 1999, when he gifted the land to the Tamil Nadu Government.

Even today, the dialogues of Veerapandiya Kattabomman are popular among school children and aspiring actors. This was possible only because of Sivaji’s exemplary performance, be it his pitch or body language — though one is doubtful if Kattabomman himself had spoken in pure Tamil since he was of Telugu descent.

In the 90s, political leader Vaiko once asked Sivaji whether he or the writer had done some research on Kattabomman, with respect to the character’s style of walking. Admitting that they hadn’t done any, Sivaji said, “In my mind, that’s how I imagined the character. That was the walk of the hero.” Such was the actor’s mastery. Though the film had many talented actors like Gemini, Padmini, S Varalakshmi, VK Ramasamy and Javar Seetharaman to name a few, it was Sivaji’s larger-than-life character that remains etched in everyone’s minds.

The writer is an actor and a film historian

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 12:54:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/veerapandiya-kattabomman-turns-60-years/article27146036.ece

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