Blast from the past: Desa Munnetram (1938)

Desa Munnetram. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Cast: Mathrimangalam Natesa Iyer, K. R. Chellam, ‘Baby' Rukmini, S. R. Padma, Sripatha Shankar, Govindarajulu Naidu, Seetha Devi, M. Lakshmanan, K. S. Gopalakrishnan and Kokilam

After movies began to talk Tamil in 1931 with Kalidas, some socially-conscious filmmakers began to make movies, highlighting the Freedom Movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others. One of them was K. Subramanyam, who made films such as Bhaktha Chetha and Thyaga Bhoomi.

One such film highlighting the issue of untouchability was Desa Munnetram. Produced for Sagar Movietone, a Bombay-based company, by noted multilingual filmmaker Sarvotham Badhami and directed by Mahindra, this film had Carnatic musician Mathirimangalam Natesa Iyer in the lead. The story and screenplay were by N. R. Desai, while A. N. Kalyanasundaram wrote the dialogue. The lyrics and the music were by Papanasam Sivan and Kalyanasundaram who also assisted director Mahindra.

In a small kingdom, Murugan (Natesa Iyer), who comes from a downtrodden community, fights for the eradication of untouchability. His eight-year-old daughter Madhavi (‘Baby' Rukmini, later ‘Kumari' Rukmini of Sri Vali fame. The multilingual actress Lakshmi is her daughter) also joins him in his fight. During a village festival, the little girl goes near the deity and is penalised for her behaviour — she and her friend, a hunchback, are beaten up.

A prince of the kingdom is involved in an accident and Murugan saves him and is duly rewarded with money. The unexpected boon helps him send his daughter to college and she acquires an M.A. Degree. In college, she falls in love with a young man who has no idea about her origins. More complications arise like entry into the local temple by the downtrodden becoming an issue. Finally they march into the temple in a peaceful procession and the lovers marry….

Interestingly, the protagonist and even the minor roles of women were played by noted actors of the day — all Brahmins. The casting was deliberately done by the producers — a masterstroke of communal equality!

Baby Rukmini gave an impressive performance. She grew up to be a successful heroine in movies such as Sri Valli and Bhaktha Naradar.

Gopalakrishnan, a Congress worker and patriot, acted in quite a few films and worked in Gemini Studios for some years, and directed their hit Chakradhari.

Sripatha Shankar, another noted social worker and theatre person, played a supportive role. He was active in films for some time and produced, along with A. C. Pillai, the successful film Mangayar Thilakam. Expectedly there were quite a few songs rendered by Natesa Iyer highlighting the causes dear to Mahatma Gandhi and the last song ‘Jaya Jaya Vandhe Matharam became popular for its patriotic content.

Much appreciated by the press and critics, Desa Munnetram was a fairly reasonable success at the box office. Sadly, like many other films of that era, no print of Desa Munnetram exists today.

Remembered for its thematic content, patriotic songs and the performances by Baby Rukmini and Natesa Iyer.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 5:52:33 AM |

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