The prince of celluloid

Updated - November 13, 2021 10:01 am IST

Published - April 14, 2016 04:38 pm IST

M. K. Radha in dual role in Gemini's `Strange Brothers

M. K. Radha in dual role in Gemini's `Strange Brothers

Following his successful debut, M.K. Radha forged ahead to act in movies like ‘Chandramohana’ or 'Samooga Thondu', (in this 1938 film P.U. Chinnappa, later a superstar of Tamil Cinema, appeared in a minor role under his original name Chinnasami, M.G. Ramachandran played a supporting role). In 1940, he appeared in 'Sati Murali' and then came the controversial movie ‘Anadhai Penn', an adaptation of a Hollywood hit film ‘Jungle Queen’, featuring the sarong-wearing glamour girl Dorothy Lamour.

He joined the ranks of Gemini Studios with S.S. Vasan, who began to produce movies under this banner, and M.K. Radha played major roles in his films like 'Dais Aparanji’ and 'Kanamma En Kaathali’, in which M.S. Sundari Bai was the heroine. And then came his greatest triumph, 'Chandralekha', in 1948. He then began to produce movies on his own. He wanted to produce a celluloid extravaganza a la Cecil B. De Mille and asked his story department to come up with a screenplay. Gemini writers, like Kothamangalam Subbu, Ki. Ra. Sangu Subramaniam, Veppathur Kittoo and others saw ‘Mangamma Sabatham’ and ‘Balanagamma’ (his earlier super hits) as heroine-oriented stories and, not surprisingly, looked for another such story to narrate to Vasan.

When they told him the story of a tough, talented woman, who even outwits a bandit by slashing off his nose and filling the bloodied gaping hole with hot, red chilli powder, he thought it too gruesome and vulgar. But when he rejected it, one thing stuck in his mind, the name of the woman, Chandralekha.

He immediately announced his next film as Chandralekha, publicising it with front-page advertisements in all the leading publications. Yet, at the time, Vasan had the title and nothing else.

The frantic search for a story now began. Three months later there was still no story in sight. Vasan began to get impatient. One day, he told the writers he was shelving the project and would concentrate on making Avvaiyyar, another dream of his. Veppathur Kittoo, however, pleaded for one last chance and got a week's time.

Kittoo, who was director T.G. Raghavachari’s (aka Acharya) assistant used to call on him at his home every morning. That lucky day, he saw on TGR's desk, a novel titled Robert McCaire The Male Bandit by G.W.M. Reynolds (of the Mysteries of the Court of London fame). Kittoo began to flip through it and read...

“'s night in rural England and a mail coach convoy trots its way, when, suddenly, Robert McCaire, the bandit, and his henchmen on horses emerge from the surrounding darkness, hold up the convoy and rob it. Hiding under a seat is a young woman fleeing from a harsh home. She is a dancer and when she refuses to dance, the bandit whips her into submission...”

Vasan was fascinated when he heard Veppathur Kittoo narrate a story based on this episode and he decided to go ahead with the film. He named the heroine Chandralekha and was so enthusiastic that he did not bother to wait for the rest of the story.

Over the next five years, from 1943 to 1948, Chandralekha was made, re-made, scrapped and re-shot. With the film finally costing over Rs. 3 million, became the most expensive movie made in India till then.

The script called for two major roles, the two sons of a king, the elder being the good prince, his brother a villainous, amoral person. M.K. Radha was already on Vasan's payroll. He would be a good choice as the younger prince felt Vasan. But M.K. Radha, like most South Indian stars, was worried about his image and was not happy about being asked to play the villain. He, however, found it difficult to tell this to his boss, so he left the unpleasant task to his wife. His wife, a former actress, succeeded in convincing Vasan, who agreed to cast MKR as the good prince.

(To be continued)

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