Rajam's romance with cinema

Into limelight:Rajam as Muruga in ‘Sivakavi' and (right) as Rama in ‘Seetha Kalyanam.' Photos   | Photo Credit: PHOTOS: HINDU ARCHIVES


Celluloid Handsome and charismatic the artist found a new dimension here.

During the dawn of the 1930's Papanasam Sivan, then virtually unknown, relocated to Madras in search of greener pastures. Here in the metropolis, capital of the sprawling Madras Presidency, he found a Good Samaritan in a Mylapore lawyer, V. Sundaram Iyer. Mylapore was then the stronghold of successful lawyers. Sundaram Iyer became his friend, guide and patron. Sivan taught music to the lawyer's children, the eldest son, the strikingly handsome artistic teenager, and his sister Jayalakshmi.

This handsome lad, hardly sixteen and stunningly charismatic with a wide array of inborn talents and acquired skills was Sundaram Rajam. He became the first disciple of Papanasam Sivan in Madras and the guru boarded with the affluent amiable lawyer during the early days. Rajam learnt Carnatic music from the soon to be famous teacher and quickly acquired high degree of proficiency and professional skills. Being a lawyer's son his education was not neglected. He studied at the famous P.S. High School then on North Mada Street in Mylapore.

He had flair for drawing and painting. And those were not all. Rajam was also an avid moviegoer. Not many are aware that in the 1920s-early 1930's Mylapore had its share of ‘tent cinemas' where silent films were regularly screened. The tickets were cheap with the ‘floor' going for one 'kalana' or 3 'dambidis!' Rajam saw many silent films in a tent cinema located in an open space behind the P.S. High School compound.

Meanwhile far away in Kolhapur, V. Shantaram, one of the greatest filmmakers of India then feeling his way in cinema with the celebrated Prabhat Pictures 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 material. 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 (brilliant technician and genius of south Indian cinema, sadly neglected today). A rich impresario and fine arts - lover, and talent -scout and all, G. K. Seshagiri, financially backed them.

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 as music composer blissfully unaware that he was on his way to fame and fortune…

Rajam as an actor

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' (1933) brought its handsome singing hero, S. Rajam into limelight. That was the period when most Tamil movie heroes came from theatre and were not as handsome and charismatic as Rajam!

His aristocratic bearing, sharp features and slim figure made him a favourite among women of all ages! Jayalakshmi, his sister played Sita. (That some prudes raised an objection to this pairing is a different issue).

Some of the songs that Rajam sang in ‘Seetha Kalyanam' became popular. ‘Nal Vidai Thaarum…' (Raga Kalyani, based on Tyagaraja's ‘Amma Raavamaa…')…. ‘Kaananam Ethu Swami…' (raga Kaanada based on the Purandaradasa composition, ‘Sevaka Kana Ruchirey…') The music composer was Papanasam Sivan making his debut in movies.

Rajam's next movie was ‘Radha Kalyanam' (1935). It was produced by Meenakshi Movies and directed by C. K. Sathasivan better known as ‘Saachi.' (Remembered as the mentor of now sadly forgotten musician, N. C. Vasanthakokilam).

C. K. Saachi hailed from a family of noted and successful lawyers of Coimbatore. He was drawn to the new medium of cinema and he sailed into it with glee and gusto. He gave up law and learnt the rudiments of filmmaking and also underwent limited training in London.

A man of wide contacts in Madras in its social and cultural circles he worked as associate director with the noted American Tamil filmmaker, Ellis R. Dungan in his historic maiden movie ‘Sathi Leelavathi' (1936).

Rajam played Lord Krishna while Radha was the noted star of yesteryear, M.R. Santhanalakshmi. Hailing from the temple town of 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 while doing the romantic sequences! The film did not do well and few remember this movie today…

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… Rajam played a supporting role in the Thyagaraja Bhagavathar hit movie ‘Sivakavi' (1943). He played the role of Lord Muruga who comes in disguise to test the 'bhakti' of the hero (MKT). In fact he and his father had gone to Coimbatore, escorting Jayalakshmi (who was by then married) who played the heroine. Sundaram Iyer plays the role of a patasala guru in sequences with N. S. Krishnan and others.

By now Rajam married and as his wife was not in favour of his acting in movies, it was goodbye to cinema, romantic scenes with elderly heroines and all that…! But 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.'

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‘Stilted, artificial'

( Randor Guy 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. Extracts translated from the Tamil original.)

Kalki: Can you tell us something about how to improve Tamil cinema?

S. Rajam: Beshaaa! 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?

K: That Dialogue is not vital for a film!

SR: You are right! Dialogue writers should know something about cinema but 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 stilted…. Artificial! They don't pay attention to minor roles… in a film all roles are important…

K: Were all these things followed in your films?

SR: I don't think so! Otherwise they would have been better!

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

SR: 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!