An unforgettable superhit

Chatting with Randor Guy the other day, we got around to talking about Chinthamani, that 1937 film that ran in many theatres here and abroad right through 1938. In Ceylon, he said, its music still unconsciously influences Sinhala film music.

With music and me being poles apart, that didn’t mean much to me. Neither had the film with its 25 songs and its love story when I saw it 70 years ago, the second film I had been taken to. The first one had been earlier that year. And though I screamed a couple of times and closed my eyes a couple of other times during a re-release of Tarzan, the Ape Man, I became a fan of Tarzan and Johnny Weissmuller for life, not of Chinthamani.

Hundreds of thousands, however, thought differently from me. To them, Chinthamani was the finest film ever and Thyagaraja Bhagavathar a demi-god, particularly when he scored with another hit in the same year, Ambikapathi. Indeed, two hits in the same year were to launch Bhagavathar into superstardom. But it lasted only seven years. Arrested in the Lakshmikantham case in 1944, he was released in 1947 after a successful appeal to the Privy Council. But a decade after Chinthamani and Ambikapathi he was a fallen hero and the half a dozen films he made from 1948 onwards all failed and he died a pauper.

Chinthamani, I have, since those early years, discovered, was directed by Y.V. Rao, who in 1934 directed the first Kannada talkie, Sati Sulochana, and in 1940 made the Telugu Viswamohini, the first film about the film world. He directed Chinthamani for Rayal Talkie, the Madurai film producers and distributors. The story Chinthamani narrated was that of Bilwa Mangal, the Sanskrit poet from Benares who wrote an epic on Lord Krishna, and his love for a devadasi, Chinthamani. K. Aswathamma of the melodious voice played Chinthamani. With two golden voices and many of the songs composed by Papanasam Sivan, the film could not fail in an era where songs made a film a failure or a success. But no one connected with the film ever expected it to be the runaway success it became, least of all Rayal Talkie Distributors who then went on to build a movie theatre named ‘Chinthamani’. Rao too formed a production company he called ‘Chinthamani Pictures’. And Aswathamma’s hairstyle in the film – Randor calls it a bichoda and describes it as a plaited knot with strings of flowers wound around it – became the rage.

I can’t, however, help wondering whether Chinthamani, if screened today or made anew, would be as great a success, no matter that many of its songs, I’m told, still ‘live’.


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