Artist’s brush with celluloid

RESOUNDING SUCCESS: From Seetha Kalyanam.

RESOUNDING SUCCESS: From Seetha Kalyanam.  


Handsome features and melodious voice made S. Rajam filmmakers’ choice.

S. Rajam, veteran classical musician, musical savant, guru and much applauded painter with a style of his own recently turned 90. Rajam, blessed with an agile mind and good health, Rajam has been felicitated by many cultural associations in the city. At ‘Ulagaayudha’ (cinema as weapon of the world), an event organised recently few days ago at the Chennai Trade Centre, filmmaker Jahanathan, Rajam was felicitated as the oldest living Tamil cinema hero and was presented a purse of Rs. 10,000. Interestingly this amount was contributed exclusively by the crew of assistant directors of Jahanathan’s latest offering now on sets.

During the 1930s, Rajam enjoyed a brief but bright innings as a movie hero playing the lead role in three films out of which his first, ‘Seetha Kalyanam’ (1934), was the most successful. Papanasam Sivan had just relocated to Madras in search of greener pastures.

In the metropolis, the capital of the sprawling Madras Presidency, he found a Good Samaritan in a Mylapore lawyer, V. Sundaram Iyer. Sivan taught music to the lawyer’s children, the eldest son, a strikingly handsome artistic teenager, and his sister Jayalakshmi. This handsome lad, hardly fourteen and charismatic was Rajam. He became the first disciple of Papanasam Sivan.

Rajam, who went to P.S. High School, had a flair for drawing and painting and his father had him admitted into the Madras School of Fine Arts. Besides all this And those were not all. Rajam was also an avid moviegoer. Rajam saw many silent films in a tent cinema located in an open space behind the P.S. High School compound. To this day he remembers the name of a movie he saw — ‘Nal Damayanthi’ (Hindi).

V. Shantaram, wrote to a Madras-based movie magazine, ‘Sound and Shadow’ seeking help to make a Tamil film using the sets, props and all of his Hindi film, ‘Sairandhri’ (1933, India’s first film in colour). The film had not done well and the company was trying to cut its losses by launching a Tamil film using the same re-usable materials. The magazine was being run by the talented trio, Muthuswami Iyer (later filmmaker under the name, ‘Murugadasa’), A.K. Sekhar (art director, production designer, and master of all, and later a big name in south Indian cinema), and K. Ramnoth. A rich impresario and fine arts -lover, and talent scout and all, G. K. Seshagiri, financially backed them.

The journey to fame

Soon the trio, Seshagiri, the Mylapore lawyer, his children, Rajam, Jayalakshmi and the youngest son, the seven year old prodigy, S. Balachandar, and members of an amateur drama troupe boarded a train at Madras to Miraj en route to Kolhapur. Accompanying them was Papanasam Sivan, unaware that his journey to fame had just begun.

Rajam faced a movie camera for the first time in ‘Seetha Kalyanam’ (1934). A Prabhat production it was directed by the well known Marati and Hindi filmmaker of his day, Baburao Phendharkar. The success of ‘Seetha Kalyanam’ brought its handsome singing hero Rajam into limelight. That was the period when most Tamil movie heroes came from theatre and not many were as handsome and charismatic as Rajam! His aristocratic bearing, sharp features and slim figure made him a favorite of women of all ages!

One of the interesting — and unexpected — reactions to ‘Seetha Kalyanam’ deserves mention. In the movie Jayalakshmi who was the real life sister of Rajam played Sita. Some prudish prurient sordid-minded folks objected to such pairing. According them it was incest! And a gross insult to the epitome of female decorum and chastity Sita, and to the epic Ramayanam! They took V. Sundaram Iyer, their father (he played Janaka) for permitting such ‘immoral casting!’

Some of the songs that Rajam sang in ‘Sita Kalyanam’ became popular. ‘Nal vidai thaarum…’ (raga Kalyani, based on ‘Amma Raavamaa…’)…. ‘Kaaranam ethu swami….’ (Raga Kaanada based on the Purandaradasa composition, ‘Sevaka kana ruchirey...) With that Papanasam Sivan had made his debut in cinema.

Rajam’s next movie was ‘Radha Kalyanam’ (1935). It was produced by Meenakshi Movies and directed by C. K. Sathasivan better known as ‘Saachi.’ Rajam played Lord Krishna while Radha was the noted star of yesteryear, M.R. Santhanalakshmi. A married Brahmin woman from the temple town, Kumbakonam, she entered Tamil theatre and made a mark with her good looks, buxom figure and singing talents and skills. Saachi, a keen talent scout brought her into movies with this film. Santhanalakshmi was much older to Rajam and not surprisingly he felt embarrassed in doing the romantic sequences!

Then came ‘Rukmini Kalyanam’ (1936) and Rajam played Lord Krishna again. The famous Marati filmmaker, actor, and Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner, Balji Phendharkar directed it. He was Baburao’s brother (who directed ‘Seetha Kalyanam’). He was very fond of ice-cream and according to Rajam he took chunks of it for breakfast! This film too did not do well. By now Rajam was married and as his wife was not in favour of his acting in movies, it was goodbye to cinema. During 1942, Rajam appeared in three roles in the Tyagaraja Bhagavathar hit movie ‘Sivakavi’ as three forms of Lord Muruga, Viruthan, boy Muruga and hunter Muruga. Indeed his acting in this film has an interesting back story which is not known to many. His sister Jayalakshmi was cast as the heroine. By then she was married and in line with the conservative attitudes in Brahmin society, the family insisted that her brother Rajam and even the father V. Sundaram Iyer should accompany her to the shooting in Coimbatore. Accordingly Rajam was cast in a minor triple role while Sundaram Iyer who had acted in ‘Seetha Kalyanam,’ played guruji the teacher of young Sivakavi.

Later in 1948 Rajam worked as music composer (with no credit) and also sang a song off-screen, ‘Kaathal puyalthaniley thurumbupol…’ in V. Shantaram’s ‘Nam Nadu.’ The celebrated Indian filmmaker made a Hindi film ‘Apna Desh.’ He dubbed it in Tamil and released a Hindi version in Andhra with songs in Telugu! M.L. Vasathakumari sang off-screen for the heroine, (Pushpa Hans).

Rajam is looking forward to an interesting decade and to repeat Churchill’s joke, perhaps this writer will be alive to write his birth centenary article and of course Rajam will still be around!

When Kalki interviewed Rajam

This writer found in his modest ‘archives’, a magazine interview with Rajam by the icon of Tamil Literature, Kalki (Ra. Krishnamurthy). It appeared in ‘Ananda Vikatan’ of 1930s when Kalki was its Associate Editor. Here follow extracts translated from the Tamil original…

KALKI: Can you tell us something about how to improve Tamil Cinema?

S. RAJAM: Certainly! Acting is important and equally important is the delivery of dialogue. But in Tamil cinema nobody really bothers about it! Much of it is written only a few days before the shooting and what does it prove?

Dialogue is not that important for a film!

More or less you are right! Dialogue writers should know something about cinema and acting. But here it is not so! They write long sentences in high-flown language and nobody talks like that! So you cannot act in a realistic manner… It’s all stagy and stilted…. Artificial! They don’t take any care about minor roles… in a film all roles big and small are important…

Were all these things followed in your films?

I don’t think so! Otherwise they would have been better!

What do you think of directors not knowing Tamil directing such films?

Let’s take my recent film, ‘Rukmini Kalyanam.’ The director did not know Tamil but in a way it helped us! He (Balji Phendharkar) was also the writer. His dialogue was translated and we spoke them. If we made any mistakes he would spot them at once! He was also a fine actor… And he was very brilliant... Of course all are not so!

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