The birth centenary of an auteur, who made evergreen classics in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada – has gone by with almost none in the Tamil industry taking cognisance of it! Was it sheer oversight or the fact that caught in the quagmire of selfishness, politics and its machinations we have allowed a memorable occasion go unnoticed? However, connoisseurs of worthy cinema will forever feel indebted to actor, director, producer B.R. Panthulu (1911-2011), who did Tamil film industry proud with immortal films such as ‘Veera Pandiya Katta Bomman,' ‘Karnan' and ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan.'
Panthulu's oeuvre is remarkable! He directed two giants, Sivaji Ganesan and M.G. Ramachandran, introduced the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu to the silver screen with the Kannada film, ‘Chinnadha Gombe,' after which Sridhar brought her to Tamil, with ‘Vennira Aadai,' and breathed cinema all his life till his sudden death at age 64.
“Massive cardiac arrest caused his end,” recalls Panthulu's son B.R. Ravishankar, when I meet him at his home, in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai. “He lived a high-tension life and the huge risks involved in making films he believed in took their toll,” says Ravishankar. “For instance, the 1959 film ‘Veera Pandiya Katta Bomman,' on one of the first chieftains to revolt against the British and a memorable film in Ganesan's repertoire was made in Technicolour, and could be printed only in London. Dad had pumped all his resources into the project. If he had to avert financial disaster, the film had to win. ‘Oomaithurai,' on the brother of Kattabomman, was also coming out at the same time. And compounding to the problems was the unexpected delay in the prints reaching Madras in time. Weighing the consequences dad chartered a flight at a mind-boggling cost and had the prints flown down. Just imagine the anxiety.”
Panthulu's Padmini Pictures produced 55 films, and but for a couple, all of them were also directed by him.
No amount of dissuasion by the family could make Panthulu give up his relentless pursuit for a place in cinema. He began as an actor with Gubbi Veeranna's stage troupe. Trials and tribulations were many, before his perseverance paid off. Settling down in Chennai with his brother, everyday Panthulu would walk all the way from Villivakkam, where they lived, to T. Nagar, to try and meet actor Nagaiah for a break in films, but nothing fructified. “‘On several days, the betel leaf was my food, how can I give it up,' he would ask me, whenever I suggested he kick the habit,” remembers Ravishankar. Later, ironically when Nagaiah was in dire straits, Panthulu gave him a significant role in ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan.'
As a small time stage actor touring the State, whenever the troupe halted in Hospet, Panthulu would cycle down to the historical site of Hampi in the wee hours of the morning and sit amidst the ruins, visualising the grandeur of the royalty that once lived there. “I would give it a celluloid form one day,” he would tell himself. A pipedream of an actor in penury then! But four decades later the visionary realised it with the magnum opus, the first colour film in Kannada, ‘Krishnadevaraya,' which ran for a whole year. “As big a film as ‘Karnan' in Tamil, it is among icon Rajkumar's major hits,” informs Ravishankar. “Dad also won the State Best Actor Award for his performance as Thimmarasu, the famous minister, in the film. Coincidentally, the past year was also the 1000 anniversary of the king!”
True to the name
‘School Master,' a stupendous hit that had Panthulu in the role of a teacher was a landmark film in Kannada. A poignant tale of sentiment and sorrow, it initially opened to empty houses, because AVM's grand multi-starrer, ‘Bhoo Kailasa,' was released on the same day. But slowly the tide turned in Panthulu's favour and ‘School Master' became the first Kannada film to complete a 25-week run! ‘Panthulu' means ‘teacher' and very rightly B. Ramakrishnaiah was called so.
That Karnataka dedicated the entire year to the celebration of the centenary of Boodgur Ramakrishnaiah Panthulu is heartening. Two films of his were screened in each district every week, his biography was documented and Panthulu's daughter B.R. Vijayalakshmi and Saregama's general manager (South), brought out an audio of the 27 films he had made in Kannada. “The audio launch was in Bangalore. Actors Saroja Devi, Puneet Rajkumar and Bharathi were present. It was appa who had introduced Bharathi to cinema. Ramachandra Acharya, from Davengere, an ardent fan who's written a book on dad, came down with a group of singers to present a composition that had the names of all the films he had made,” says Vijayalakshmi.
Films on patriotism are many. But Panthulu's ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan' stands apart for the natural portrayal of Sivaji Ganesan as VOC, and S.V. Subbiah who came up with a brilliant performance as Bharatiar. The film remains a perfect showcase of the Independence Movement in the South! “But it also stands apart as a classic which despite accolades, including the President's Silver Medal, came a cropper,” Ravishankar grins sardonically. “Even today, the song sequences melt your heart.”
Musically, ‘Karnan' is of a calibre that few have surpassed. “When MSV wished to have sarangi, santoor, shehnai, dilruba and other such instruments rarely used in Tamil films, appa was all for it,” remembers Ravishankar. And not just ‘Karnan,' the Panthulu-Mellisai Mannar combo resulted in songs that will live on forever. ‘Bale Pandiya' is an example. “The film was completed in 15 days, with shooting going on simultaneously at three different places,” Ravishankar notes. Be it a humorous take, such as ‘Sabash Meena,' or a serious historical, it was Sivaji Ganesan that Panthulu went with.
Their last outing together was ‘Muradan Muthu,' after which the filmmaker opened a new innings with MGR. ‘Aayirathil Oruvan' was their first. “Appa felt MGR could have a fresh pair for ‘Aayirathil …' and the rest is history,” smiles Ravishankar. Jayalalithaa came on board as MGR's heroine for the first time and the pairing worked magic at the turnstiles. Then came ‘Nadodi,' another musical bonanza from MSV and TKR.
“MGR addressed him as ‘Anna,' while Sivaji called him ‘Brother,'” Ravishankar smiles. After the gunshot in which MGR's voice was damaged, it was with Panthulu's ‘Ragasiya Police 115' that he resumed work. “Nearly 60 per cent of the film had been completed when the incident took place, and appa was all admiration for the grit and determination of his hero who was sure he could dub for the film in his own voice,” says Ravishankar.
Panthulu was working on ‘Maduraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandiyan,' when he died. “I was 18. ‘Don't worry. I'm there, and the film will be completed successfully,” MGR told me, and he kept up his promise,” Ravishankar turns nostalgic.
Is forgetting the centenary of an achiever of Panthulu's stature pardonable? The question remains!
Memories of Karnan
“Appa considered ‘Karnan' his best, technically,” says Ravishankar. The film brought together two formidable heroes of the South -- Sivaji and N.T. Rama Rao. “The money involved was on a mind-boggling scale. For the first time, a story from an epic was shot in opulent locations such as the palaces of Jaipur. Huge moving chariots were made in Chennai and transported to Kurukshetra, where the war sequences were filmed.Government permission was sought, and cavalry and infantry from the Indian Army were brought to the locations at Kurukshetra and the first rows of the charging armies on horses and elephants had soldiers from the Indian Army,” as Ravishankar goes on I listen entranced! The stupendous efforts of the man who went to unimaginable lengths to provide genuine treat for Tamil filmgoers are truly incredible!