blast from the past

ahead of its time Vasundhara Devi and Ranjan in Mangamma Sapatham

ahead of its time Vasundhara Devi and Ranjan in Mangamma Sapatham  

Vasundhara Devi, Ranjan, N. S. Krishnan and T. A. Mathuram

Mangamma Sapatham, was the first major Gemini Studios-S. S. Vasan production made on a mammoth scale, which became the hallmark of a Gemini-Vasan product. It was only after this film, critics and crowds used the Hollywood adjective ‘colossal’ for a Madras-made movie.

Written and directed by lawyer-turned-filmmaker T.G. Raghavachari (Acharya), this film created a sensation all over South India. A popular folktale, it was about a sprightly tough village girl, Mangamma, who when insulted by a woman-chasing crown prince vows to take revenge (hence the title Mangamma’s vow) by having a child through him and make the child whip the father in court. The salacious prince too takes a vow to marry her and have her imprisoned in a lonely palace. How she builds an underground tunnel from her gilded cage to her village home, outwits her husband and has a son without his knowing her identity and the son then trapping his father form the rest of the film story.

Acharya worked on the screenplay giving it a modern touch. He made Mangamma look glamourous when she comes disguised as a sultry gypsy to seduce her husband with her song and dance and make him spend the night with her. Vasundhara, the glamour girl of the South Indian art world who made a splash with her first film S. Soundararajan’s Rishyashringar was cast as Mangamma. Raghavachari who brought this regal-looking woman into films, worked hard to bring the best out of her. A tough-talking man he could be a terror on sets. He drove Vasundhara hard and she rose to his expectations heartily and gave an excellent performance in the title role.

‘Acharya’ who was a devotee of American Cinema incorporated the song and dance numbers of Carmen Miranda. A sensation of that day, Carmen, a shapely siren teased moviegoers around the world with sensuous dancing and singing. Acharya and Rajeswara Rao (music) lifted some of Carmen Miranda’s hit numbers such as ‘I…I…I... like you very much’, ‘Mama ye Quero’ and ‘Down Argentine way.’ Those were sung by Vasundhara. She also danced to the songs in the sequence in which she comes in a disguise. ‘Acharya’ invested this song and dance scene with subtle touches of eroticism, which rocked the moviegoers of the 1940s.

Ranjan, in a double role, as the lecherous father and avenging son was more effeminate than ‘macho’. But audiences overlooked such drawbacks and shared his glee when the king played games like ‘leap-frog’, ‘pick-a-back’ and ‘head-knocking’ with a bevy of willing winches of the palace (one of them was the then unknown, B.S. Saroja).

N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Mathuram, working for Gemini for the first time, provided their own brand of comedy. NSK trained hard to learn tightrope walking so that he could do those scenes in the film without a double. He lifted the famous glass window-breaking scene from Charlie Chaplin’s immortal classic The Kid in this film. It was such a great success that the gag has been used in Tamil Cinema over and over by many a comedian after NSK with equal success.

Mangamma Sapatham was a blockbuster and made Vasan a very rich man. It also set him firmly on the ladder of success. Vasundhara and Ranjan became household names. Interestingly, the film also turned out to be Vasundhara’s last hit. Her career declined fast and the few films she did thereafter, did not help.

The halo that surrounded her and her aura, whiffs of which linger even to this day, rest only on two films, Rishyashringar and Mangamma Sapatham. Sadly, she was caught in a web of domestic problems, and court cases, mostly of her own making. She died some years ago, broken in spirit.

Remembered for Ranjan and Vasundhara became stars with this film and the heroine’s exotic dances are still recalled by old –timers. Also one of the early box-office bonanzas of S.S. Vasan.


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