Rangaswami Padmanabhan or R. Padmanabhan, one of the pioneers of Tamil cinema, is sadly forgotten today, remembered only by old-timers and film historians.
This writer was commissioned to write a book on him and his movies and, after much research, had written half the book when for unknown reasons the sponsors withdrew their support and the book regretfully had to be shelved. The writer hopes someone will take it up again sometime in the future.
Padmanabhan was born in the then zamindari town of Sivaganga in 1895 into a middle-class family, his father being a small-town leader with a large family. The future filmmaker somehow made his way to Colombo where he developed an interest in the medium of cinema and arranged exhibitions for an English distributor.
Back home, he moved to Madras where he started a company called Oriental Film Services, offering services to film people to get movies from Bombay or from abroad, sourcing spare parts for projectors, and other such film-related work. The business did well and he promoted a film production company called Associated Films and a studio in Triplicane where later the popular cinema theatre Paragon came up. Today, the theatre has vanished, giving way to a high-rise building, going the way of most single-screen cinemas.
Padmanabhan got funding support from a well-to-do and successful lawyer from Nagapattinam, whose grandson-in-law joined him as screenwriter and director.
This was Krishnaswami Subramaniam, also a lawyer from Papanasam, who later became one of the pioneers of Indian cinema, calling himself ‘Director K. Subramanyam’.
Padmanabhan made many films in the silent era and when films began to talk Tamil in 1931, he made films in Tamil and even Telugu. In 1935, he made Vatsala Kalyanam . The film tells the epic tale of Vatsala, also known as Sasirekha, who is in love with Abhimanyu but is forced to marry Duryodhana’s son. How she escapes forms the rest of the tale.
This story was produced in several Indian languages and as a silent movie as many as 11 times. It was also staged as a popular and successful Telugu play.
Interestingly, this episode is not part of the original text of the Mahabharatham or any other epic. According to critics, the story is pure fiction, created by some enterprising Parsi drama company in Bombay as a play, which proved to be a hit. The many films it inspired had titles like Vatsala Haran , Sashrekha Parinayam and most famously, Maya Bazaar.
The most successful version was in Telugu, made by South Indian movie maestro K.V. Reddi for Vijaya Vauhini productions, who also made it in Tamil. The Telugu version turned out to be a super hit, with superstar N.T. Rama Rao playing Lord Krishna in both versions with the multi-lingual K. Savithri as heroine.
Vatsala Kalyana has M.S. Vijayal, an attractive and popular heroine of the era, playing Vatsala, along with Vidwan Srinivasan and the multi-talented Serukalathur Sama. Sadly, not many details of the film are available today. The film was both produced and directed by Padmanabhan and was fairly successful at the box office.
Vijayal was good in her role, and went on to many other lead roles, graduating slowly to character roles before retiring.
Remembered For: The interesting storyline, a fine on-screen narration by Padmanabhan, and interesting performances by Vijayal, Sama and others.