Friday Review

Musical that caught everyone's fancy

A still from Sakunthalai

A still from Sakunthalai  

Ellis.R.Dungan’s 'Sakunthalai' was a film that was ahead of its time.

Sakunthalai’ (1940) was the second film to be produced on the legendary Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa’s ‘Abhignana Shakunthalam.’ The first version was made in the 1930s, of which there is no information available now.

Prior to the 1940 version, A.V.Meiyappa Chettiar and A. Narayana Iyengar had both independently planned to make a film on the subject with MS playing the lead. However, MS’s husband T. Sadasivam would not permit it.

In 1938, Sadasivam formed Chandraprabha Cinetone and decided to produce ‘Sakunthalai’ under this banner. This was the finest version of ‘Sakunthalai’ with Ellis.R.Dungan as director. Produced by Chandraprabha Cinetone, the film had M. S. Subbulakshmi, who was by now a legend, in the lead role. Perhaps she was no great actor but her beauty and fascinatingly melodious voice spun webs of charm. The hero, king Dushyantha of Hastinapura was played by G. N. Balasubramaniam, another legend in the Carnatic world. Not surprisingly then, ‘Sakunthalai’ was musically rich.

The film had many songs, mostly sung by MS and almost all of them were hits. Notable among them being ‘Aanandamen solvanen…’and ‘Sukumaara…’ Interestingly a comical song by N. S. Krishnan, T. S. Durairaj and others ‘Innikki kalayiley’ was very popular.

NSK and Durairaj played the role of fishermen who find the king’s ring that was given to Sakunthalai. The fishermen fight over the find. A part of the dialogue spoken by Durairaj, “Adippayo… ungappan mavaney? Singandaa…!” caught the fancy of filmgoers and entered the colloquial idiom spoken by the common man.

In the film, before the story begins, there is a scene in which Menaka dances in an erotic manner before Vishwamitra and succeeds in disturbing his penance. The sequence was considered daring in those days and was done by K. Thavamani Devi, a Sri Lankan. An assistant director of Dungan’s unit played the sage.

Serukalathur Sama, a famous actor of that time, played sage Kanwa, the adopted father of the heroine, and sang a couple of melodious songs. One of them, ‘Mannannukkey…’ became popular.

Dungan’s directorial touch and passion for detail are evident in a scene between Sakunthalai and her adopted father. Dushyanth and Sakunthala make love in the forest and Sakunthala ends up pregnant. Kanwa, away on pilgrimage, returns and sees Sakuntha in bed sick. When he holds her wrist, he realises from the beat of her pulse that his beloved daughter is about to become a mother. Ancient Indian medicine believes that there is something called ‘Garbha Naadi.’ That Dungan, an American in Madras, a stranger to our culture and ignorant of the language took such pains to incorporate these tiny details into his films evoked the admiration of all. Indeed Ellis R. Dungan’s career in south Indian cinema, his films and his contribution to Tamil Cinema deserve a deep study.

Dungan was a dedicated filmmaker. He was then single and lived in a comfortable cottage in Hotel Ambassador on Mount Road.

He had a two-seater Dodge car and on its roof he had mounted a platform like contraption, which enabled him to use his automobile like a trolley for taking moving shots. He was the first filmmaker to be permitted to shoot inside the Guindy forest, which was then partly the residence of the British Governor of Madras- out of bounds for the dark skinned Indian. The forest scenes of ‘Sakunthalai’ were filmed in this sprawling area and one day, during a break, Dinshaw K. Tehrani, the sound engineer, mounted a free-wheeling horse, perhaps inspired by the Sherwood Forest atmosphere. The sturdy animal owned by the Governor’s bodyguards, took off like a Pegasus with the bewildered rider and finally threw the by-now-trembling man somewhere in the thorny bushes. Poor Dinshaw suffered quite a few fractures and spent many months in pain and treatment.

Dungan realised that ‘Sakunthalai’, being a musical needed effective background musical score. At that time, at Newtone Studios or anywhere in Madras, there were no facilities for multi-channel recording. So, he took the entire film under the backers’ request to Calcutta where such facilities were available. Rayal Talkie, the financiers of the film were already there producing ‘Savithri’ directed by Y. V. Rao, with the famed Marathi star Shantha Apte in the main role. MS played a male role as sage Narada.

One of the other interesting scenes in this film is that of ‘Sakunthalai’ losing the king’s ring while bathing in a river. It slips off her finger and is swallowed by a fish. Dungan took this ‘trick’ shot in a clever manner with his camera. A long shot of MS bathing in a river was taken first. Next, a closer shot of MS patting her wet hair with her ringed hand. Later at Newtone, a close-up of her face, then of the ring on her finger and finally, the ring at the edge of the finger was added. Then, a glass tank was brought and filled with water, into which a whitish substance was added making the water viscous. The ring was dropped into the tank and shot at close range. Because of the viscosity, the ring travelled slower, enabling the moving of the ring to be seen clearly by the audience.

This sequence won applause at every screening of ‘Sakunthalai’, even in non-Tamil speaking areas!

The dance of the angels, who come to gift Sakunthalai jewels and clothes when she leaves for the court of Dushyanta, featured cabaret artistes from the Connemara Hotel. They were girls of Anglo-Indian origin.

The picturisation of the angels emerging from the lake was actually shot in reverse, i.e. making them gracefully enter the waters and then reversing it so that it looked as though they were emerging from the water. This was a complete innovation for its times.

‘Sakunthalai’ was very well received by filmgoers everywhere and is remembered even today for its soulful music and the presence of MS. Fortunately, the National Film Archive, Pune, has a good print available for study. Besides, this film is now also available on the video format as disks.

Janaki as dancer

There is a dance sequence in Dushyanta’s court and the main dancer is a slim, handsome maiden, whose name finds no place in the credits. From such modest beginnings, this young dancer rose to become a heroine and later, after the demise of her husband, took over the running of the State as the Chief Minister for a brief while. Her name was V. N. Janaki, or Janaki MGR, as she called herself.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:00:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/flashback-column-sakunthalai/article6704403.ece

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