Avvaiyar 1953

One of the classics the Indian movie mogul S. S. Vasan produced was Avvaiyar (1953). Only a fistful of folks are aware Vasan had this project on his mind even when he established the Gemini Studios way back in 1941...

Even during the early 1940s, Vasan had given instructions to his story department to conduct research on the life and times of the famed poet Avvai and work on a draft script. More than two years were invested in the research. Vasan entrusted this job to Tamil scholar Kothamangalam Subbu. The result was a mass of information — some incredible, some highly controversial and some even objectionable! Some scholars even told Subbu that “there was no such person called Avvaiyar! All kinds of people wrote philosophical poems and songs and passed them off as written by Avvai!” However, Vasan and Subbu never gave up and after much effort, a workable script was ready.

Vasan decided that the only actor who could portray the role of Avvaiyar with conviction would be the celebrated stage and film actor, Carnatic musician K. B. Sundarambal. It is interesting to note that Sundarambal more or less matched the image of what was in the public eye about the poet! This masterstroke of casting by Vasan helped him and the movie in great measure.

Vasan asked Subbu to helm the project and shooting began on Vinayaka Chathurthi in 1948.

In keeping with his style of production, Vasan screened the rough cut of Avvaiyar. His friends, staff members and their families were invited and asked to give their opinion in writing. Vasan would study all the material carefully. One submission made by one of the staff writers of Ananda Vikatan stunned everybody. He was a well-known journalist who wrote under the pen name, ‘Kadhir’. He commented that the movie was absolutely boring and should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal, which was not far away from Gemini Studios!

Vasan sent for this writer for a personal meeting at his office the following morning. Kothamangalam Subbu and others present at the meeting advised Vasan against taking Kadhir’s opinion seriously and even pooh-poohed it. But Vasan was eager to know what prompted Kadhir to come up with such condemning opinion. The writer was somewhat tense as he came to meet the boss. Vasan put him at ease immediately, offering him a cup of coffee and asked him in the presence of Subbu and others what provoked him to write in such a manner. Kadhir explained that the film was slow, crawling on leaden feet with practically nothing much happening at all! It had Sundarambal walking slowly most of the time. It looked more like a documentary and not at all like a feature film. Vasan stared at him for a while and then smiled. He told his team that Kadhir was absolutely correct! He too had the same opinion and wanted to have a second opinion. He told Subbu and others that the film lacked entertainment. Immediately, he ordered the screenplay to be rewritten incorporating sequences of entertainment to elevate the box-office potential and audience appeal of the movie. That’s when the sequence of the grand reception by the ancient Tamil king Paari to Avvaiyar was written to be woven into the script.

Subbu wrote it, making it an entertainment extravaganza on its own and the sequence was shot at considerable expense. An entire street set was built at a cost of Rs. 1.5 lakh, which was big money in the 1950s. Over 10,000 junior artistes took part in the spectacular sequence into which traditional folk dances were incorporated, creating a majestic visual impact on moviegoers. The sequence proved to be one of the highlights of the film. That was Vasan.

(To be continued)

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 10:55:41 PM |

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