In his birth centenary year, tracing T.R. Mahalingam’s rise to stardom in Tamil cinema

A singing sensation and an actor with many box office hits, Mahalingam carved a niche for himself in cinema.

Updated - June 10, 2024 06:04 pm IST

Published - June 10, 2024 04:32 pm IST

T.R. Mahalingam

T.R. Mahalingam | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Thenkarai Ramakrishna Mahalingam (TRM) was already a singing sensation on stage, when A.V. Meyyappa Chettiar cast him in the role of Krishna in the film Nandakumar, released in 1938, when TRM was only 14.

TRM’s first box office hit was Meyyappa Chettiar’s Sri Valli, released in 1945. S.G. Kittappa, whom TRM admired, had popularised Kavi Kunjara Bharati’s Ellorayum polave (raga Suddha Saveri) TRM sang it in Sri Valli. Like Kittappa, TRM sang at a sruti of anju kattai (G scale).

TRM’s next hit in 1947 was Naam Iruvar, also produced by Meiyyappa Chettiar. TRM played the role of Sukumar, the hero. His son was born while the film was being shot, and was named Sukumar. In 1948, TRM and AVM teamed up again for Vedala Ulagam, translated faithfully as ‘Demon land’, even in the 78 rpm record labels. It was a fantasy film that drew both children and adults in droves. Comedian Sarangapani’s line “Idliyaare vaanga, vayathukkulla ponga”, became a kind of refrain in many homes, when idli was served.

From Naam Iruvar.

From Naam Iruvar. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

TRM sang Bharati’s ‘Senthamizh nadenum podinile’ as the title song. In the TRM song ‘Maha sugitha roopa sundari’, the hero serenades the heroine Rajeevi (actress Mangalam). Interestingly, this tune was used in the Ilaiyaraja song ‘Madana moha roopa sundari’ sung by Malaysia Vasudevan in the film Indru Poi Naalai Vaa. In the same year in Modern theatres’ Adithan Kanavu, TRM sang ‘Maduramaana ruchi ulladhe’, which was popularly known as the ‘palgova’ song.

TRM soon became wealthy, and built a huge house in Royapettah High Road, which he named Sukumar Bhavanam. TRM owned 17 cars! Every time a new car arrived in India, he would buy it from TVS, who were dealers for imported vehicles then. Along with the car would come a scale model car for his son Sukumar to play with. Unfortunately, when things were going well for TRM, he ventured into film production, and incurred debts. But his luck turned for the better, when Kannadasan offered him the hero’s role in his film Malaiyitta Mangai, in 1958. Kannadasan’s son Gandhi says, “My father’s script was based on a story by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. He wrote 17 songs for the film. Father ignored warnings that the film wouldn’t do well because Mahalingam was no longer in the limelight. Father paid him liberally, helping him settle his debts.”

“Kannadasan gifted thatha one of his imported cars,” says Prabha, TRM’s granddaughter.

Kannadasan was so impressed with the Rafi song ‘Muhabbat choome jinke haath’ (film Aan; music Naushad), that he wrote a song in the same metre. MSV and TKR gave the first line a tune similar to the first line of the original. That song is the famous ‘Sentamizh thenmozhiyaal’ in Malaiyitta Mangai. The film was shot in just 39 days. It was released in Paragon theatre, and ran for 91 days.

When Kannadasan’s friends suggested that he should keep it going for another nine days to reach the prestigious 100-day mark, he refused, and said that a film should run on its own steam, and should not be pushed towards pre-set goals. The film helped TRM bounce back and regain prosperity.

Mahalingam with P. U. Chinnappa

Mahalingam with P. U. Chinnappa | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

TRM never forgot Kannadasan’s timely help. “When I visited TRM’s house in Thenkarai, I found two portraits — one of TRM, and one of my father,” says Gandhi.

There was variety in TRM’s songs. “He sang a gana song — ‘Irundhaa nawabsa’ in the 1959 (film Abhalai Anjugam). Once when Meyyappa Chettiar was leaving after attending T.K.S. Kalaivanan’s wedding reception, TRM began to sing ‘Kodi kodi inbam tharavey’ from the 1960 film Aada vanda deivam, and Chettiar who was about to get into his car, came back to listen to the song,” says Prabha.

T.R.Mahalingam in a recording studio.

T.R.Mahalingam in a recording studio. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

TRM was a good host, and had many friends in the industry and across the political spectrum. Both MGR and Karunanidhi visited him in Thenkarai. When Pattikada Pattanama was shot in Sholavandan, Sivaji and Jayalalithaa stayed in TRM’s house, and many scenes were shot in his fields. His help is acknowledged in the opening credits.

Perhaps he could have continued in films, if he had agreed to be a playback singer. But he was willing to sing only if he was acting the role. TRM went back to his village, where he continued to sing in concerts and plays. “Before leaving for a concert, he would call out to his brother Lakshmanan, who lived three houses away. If Lakshmanan was able to hear him, then thatha concluded his voice was fine,” says Prabha.

Mahalingam with M.V. Rajamma in Gnanasoundari.

Mahalingam with M.V. Rajamma in Gnanasoundari. | Photo Credit: - The Hindu Archives

TRM died of a heart attack when he was 53. “My cousin Rajesh (Sukumar’s son) has organised a two-day celebration in Thenkarai, for grandfather’s centenary, which falls on June 16,” says Prabha.

TRM’s life had swung between extremes — Vedic background to Dravidian ideology, village life to the dazzle of cinema, and then back again to rural tranquility. But through all this, one thing remained with him — music.

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