M.K. Radha, the toast of theatre and cinema

Well-known stage actor M.K. Radha rose to stardom with his debut film ‘Sathi Leelavathi’

April 07, 2016 04:34 pm | Updated September 08, 2016 08:51 pm IST

Sati Leelavathi Still 1

Sati Leelavathi Still 1

M. K. Radha was one of the leading stars of early Tamil cinema who established a characteristic style of acting. Though he was basically a stage actor, he did not indulge in theatrical histrionics during the two decades he was active in films.

Madras Kandaswami Radhakrishnan was born in 1910 at Madras and his father M. Kandaswami Mudaliar, a schoolmaster , was a well-known theatre person. Even in college (he studied at Madras Christian College), he was involved in theatre. During the period, the famous educationist of Madras, Reverend Dr. Miller was the Principal of the college. It was considered prestigious to be a student of MCC. And to be a ‘Millerian’ had even more value. Mudaliar was Miller’s student and took part in Shakespearean and other English plays staged in the college. He was also an active member of the famous Suguna Vilas Sabha founded by Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, who was responsible for the renaissance of Tamil theatre.

With his wide experience in theatre and knowledge of English drama, he made a mark not only as a playwright but also as a director and producer.

Having lost his wife early, Mudaliar took compete care and control of his son. He initiated Radha into Tamil Theatre when he was a kid by inducting him in a boys’ company with which he was associated. Being a teacher, Mudaliar also tutored Radha at home. The tall and handsome Radha soon made a mark as stage actor and toured not only south India but also neighbouring countries like Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Burma (now Myanmar) and more. His father taught him the nuances of film and stage acting. So when he entered movies in 1936 with ‘Sathi Leelavathi’, he knew how not to let theatre influence his performance.

‘Sathi Leelavathi’ was also the first film of the well-known filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan. Interestingly, the movie introduced many talents such as S.S. Vasan (writer), T.S. Balaiah, N.S. Krishnan and M.G. Ramachandran most of whom blossomed to create film history.

M. K. Radha had the distinct advantage of working in his first movie under a director like Ellis R Dungan, who had trained in Hollywood. Kandaswami Mudaliar, who wrote the screenplay based on Vasan's story, impressed Dungan with his knowledge of cinema and Shakespeare. So much so that Dungan would address him as ‘daddy’. He moulded Radha into a fine actor.

Radha won high praise for his realistic portrayal of the drunken husband (though he was a teetotaller) who tortured his loving wife Leelavathi.

Interestingly no actress wanted to enact the role of Leelavathi. Producer A. N. Maruthachalam Chettiar, Dungan and Mudaliar were in a fix. They finally decided to cast Radha’s real-life wife M. R. Gnanambal, a theatre and film artist, who quit acting after marriage. Though initially reluctant, she later agreed to do the role. The rest, as they say, is history.

(To be continued)

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