Understanding the Making of Nalla Thambi (1949) and the Production Conventions of Tamil Cinema During 1940s I
I have been planning to document the experiences and encounters of Tamil film artists who worked during 1940s-1960s, but with limited success as many old living artists are difficult to trace to begin with and meet their natural ends of their lives by the time we are able to locate them. I was lucky to meet two important living sources recently, Mr S S Rajendran and Mr Subbu Arumugam and succeeded in documenting their experiences and encounters in Tamil cinema and politics during 1940s-1960s. I hope to post the audio files of the sessions with the two in the days to come. But here is what transpired after the meeting with Thiru Subbu Arumugam, one of the close associates of NSK and probably the only one who watched NSK and Anna during their discussions of Nallathambi. I am sure that this post will initiate a pleasant break with the past in constructing a history of the period devoid of hagiographic modes.
In the long history of Tamil cinema since Nataraja Mudaliar’s Keechakavadam (1917), there have been many bad and ugly productions and only a minority of good films. Among the good ones, Nallathambi needs to be placed at the top five. However. it is not to be counted as another good Tamil film, not another NSK film and certainly not another film attributed to the script writing prowess of C N Annadurai. The film represents in one beautiful plane, the seminal contributions of CNA, NSK and Udumalai Narayana Kavi . Their contributions through Nallathambi were influential for the birth of a new breed of Tamil films during late 1940s and early 1950s. During 1930s-40s, Tamil film productions were unable to come out of their mythological moorings and their attendant implications in the high number of songs, shoddy narratives, singer as a hero, and a sanskritised language use that did not do justice to Tamil.
Unfortunately, there are not many reliable sources to relate to the films and the contexts of their production during the first phase of the post-silent era i.e 1930s-1940s. Tamil cinema history has been made a problematic plane for academic researchers for several reasons. Among the notable ones, the lack of native academic studies seems to be as much a problem as the mounting number of hagiographies and badly done chronological historiographies. They together seek to make Tamil film history the unfortunate victim. While many like Randor Guy and Aranthai Narayanan seem to be filling a much needed gap at the surface level, they fall into the category of the later and sound either alarmingly essentialist or prejudiced.
A case in point is the prejudiced and diversionary pointer by Randor Guy when he sees Nallathambi as nothing better than a blatant copy of Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), a Frank Capra starrer even as he is yet to go beyond the first sentence of his version of the story on Nallathambi. No doubt, Nallathambi and Mr Deeds Goes to Town (MDGT) have similar story lines, but the similarity is made irrelevant by the burgeoning dissimilarities made possible by CNA and NSK. The skeletal story line of MDGT is made to wear a culturally and socially rich fare, thanks to the ingenuity of CNA and NSK. The focus of MDGT is neither political nor social, it sounds as yet another Frank Capra film or a typical 1930s Hollywood fare. While the glaring dissimilarity points to Nallathambi as an exceptional film in the social campaign mode, the same can not be said about MDGT. You have several minor social and cultural narratives in the form of songs, skits and discourses doing their campaigns against the evils of drinking, casteism, feudalism, irrationality etc., in Nallathambi that make it vastly different from MDGT, proving that the similarity in the story line was more incidental than borrowed.
As with any good Tamil film, Nallathambi too has its downsides. It is cast in the mold of a typical Tamil theatre fare of a bygone era and wants to convey its serious social messages in a comical and unrealistic manner. The lead character in NSK is deliberately made pliable as it is forced to wear different social hats as a multiple message bearer. But such a downside seems inevitable if one comes to terms with the fact that Nallathambi was NSK and NSK was Nallathambi and that they had to masquerade beautifully as each other in the social campaigns Anna visualised. NSK and his wife TA Maduram look ambitious in their version in Nallathambi as the film was a different kind fare in their careers. Known for their astounding ability to provide a turnaround for badly made films with their perfectly made comedy tracks, which were post-productions in the true sense of the term, Nallathambi represented a rare opportunity to NSK and Maduram to enact a feature film length comedy track to drive home the social and rational messages dear to the hearts of NSK and his friend-philosopher-guide, CNA.
According to Mr Subbu Arumugam, probably the only living source today to relate to the contributions of NSK, Udumalai Narayana Kavi and CNA to Tamil Cinema through Nallathambi, the production days of Nallathambi were intensely guided by the spirit of the discussions between CNA and NSK on the need to push as many social reform messages as possible in the film. According to Mr Subbu Arumugam, the social reformer in NSK was not only alive to the many possibilities of the social content suggested by CNA, but was consumed by a sense of missionary zeal to implement whatever CNA suggested to him.
As the conventions of a finished script was not in vogue in the case of Nallathambi, if one goes by what Mr Subbu Arumugam has to say about how Nallathambi’s innards were taking shape, we find only CNA’s and NSK’s visions blending and fusing with each other and trying to create new inner narratives for Nallathambi, taking it in the process as far away as possible from its alleged source of inspiration, MDGT. NSK vision as a rationalist and non-card carrying marxist put him at ease with the rationalist and socialist vision of CNA. It is a wonder that NSK took to the big league ideologies of Periyar and Marx even as a school drop out. It is wonder that even Periyar held him in high esteem for propagating the rationalist thoughts through his dramas and films while Periyar found the going tough through his speeches and writings. It is not a wonder for such a self-honed rationalist and marxist to come into close contact with CNA, a person with similar profiles but higher academic credentials and political background. But both were lapping up each other’s vision of Nallathambi with emotional fervour in constructing the innards of Nallathambi. The innards of Nallathambi took shape in the frequent discussions CNA had with Nallathambi whenever he had a spark about what NSK should be doing in the film. For instance, the famous Kindanar kathakalatchepam episode was meant to campaign against casteism, while showcasing the life of Dr Ambedkar. Among the several planes of social reformist content in Nallathambi, the Kindanar kathakalatchepam and the futuristic science fiction song “Vignatha Valarka Porandi” require closer examination to understand the foresight of pioneers like CNA, NSK and Udumalai Narayana Kavi.
According to Mr Subbu Arumugam, one day Anna called NSK and told about the need to have an episode on the life of Ambedkar that could carry the message against casteism even while stressing the importance of education. Upon his return to the company office from his meeting with Anna, NSK convened a meeting of his important associates and initiated a lengthy discussions on the possibilities to implement CNA’s suggestion. In one of the discussions, he revealed his game plan woven around Kindan, a poor boy from the socially oppressed community who wishes to study at any cost and boards a train to the big city and overcomes all the obstacles and eventually becomes an education dept. official. The story of Kindan is an innovative takeoff on Nandan, a dalit boy, who gets blessed by the Lord Shiva despite the obstacles he encounters because of entrenched casteism against dailts inside temples. Nandan Charithram was authored by eminent Tamil savant Gopalakrishna Bharathi as a kathakaletchapam work during 19th century and was made into five film versions between 1923-1942. The 1933 and 1935 versions were enacted by Dhandapani Desikar and KB Sundaramambal. Undoubtedly, it was a well understood cultural narrative for the average Tamil film viewer in 1949 when Nandan charithram got transformed at the hands of NSK into Kindan charithram.
Taking advantage of the familiar cultural milieu of Nandanar’s story to the maximum advantage, NSK did a volte face with the popular Nandanar story while constructing the story of Kindan. The alter ego of Kindan was none other than Dr Ambedkar and all the major incidents in Kindan’s episode are drawn from Dr Ambedkar’s life. We have had several documentaries on Dr Ambedkar so far, but in my opinion the attempt by NSK remains unrivalled for his generic innovation. Kindan kathakalatechapam in Nallathambi was a intra-diegetic satire masquerading as a docudrama in a fictional feature film!
The production of Nallathambi started close on the heels of the release of NSK from prison. The imprisonment of NSK and MKT in the infamous Lakshimikanthan murder case not only altered the career trajectories of these two leading talents of Tamil cinema, but deprived Tamil cinema the benefits that could have accrued from these talents when they were in their prime. Till now no one knows for sure why and how these two were implicated in the case which eventually saw a judgment in their favour, but after an unwarranted legal ordeal and a drain of a fortune towards legal expenses, besides the vanishing of the producers who booked them.
According to Mr Subbu Arumugam, before the production of Nallathambi could commence, NSK was asked by CNA to make a statement about the case and his detractors through one of the pending productions, Paithyakaran (Madman). As suggested by CNA, NSK made the statement through a well meaning song explaining his innocent position vis a vis his imprisonment and the release. When Nallathambi was started, NSK’s production company had 60 members. They represented different areas of film and theatre production. There were script writers, song writers, actors, actresses, costume/makeup/lighting assistants in the company. Mr Subbu Arumugam was one of the three writers in the song dept. While Mr Subbu Arugmugam wrote social songs, Udumalai Narayana Kavi wrote songs in the classical mode and K P Kamatchisundaram wrote songs to suit Hindi film tunes. Each one of these writers were outstanding in their own fields, but shone because of the genius of NSK to appreciate their native talents even while coming to their rescue in completing their pending projects.
Udumalai Narayana Kavi had a long standing hiccup with the “Vignatha Valarka Porandi” song when he almost completed it, but was stuck for apt words after the stanza “Mattu Vandiyil Suchathai Vaithu En Mamiyarauku Otti Otti Katta Porandi.” It seems he was brimming with eccentricities as well as grey matter befitting his strokes of genius. He was going mad about this hiccup and was always muttering “thanthana, thana, thanthana thana…” in his efforts to hit upon the right words. Days passed, weeks passed, without any success. Udumalai Narayana Kavi was visibly disturbed and was attracting everyone’s attention too by his disturbed state. NSK too noticed this and called his other assistants to enquire about the disturbed state of Narayana Kavi. When told about the roadblock hit by Narayana Kavi, NSK laughed and called Narayana Kavi. What’s your last stanza? Narayana Kavi said:”Mattu Vandiyil Suchathai Vaithu En Mamiyarauku Otti Otti Katta Porandi.” NSK said: “the problem is not only with the missing words, but also about a hidden cultural threat in the last stanza, both have to be addressed.” The genius in NSK provided the culturally right words in no time when he said: “adhil onnayum (Maduram) setthu.” NSK told Udumalai Narayana Kavi and other assistants that it was culturally unbecoming for a son-in-law to take the mother-in-law for a merry ride in the bullock cart solo and hence it ought to address that immediately in the form of “adhil onnayum (Maduram) setthu”. Thanks to NSK, the cultural threat vanished and Mathuram could go on board the bullock cart with her hubby, NSK.