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Every Age Gets the Cinema It Deserves: The Rise of MKT

Every age gets the cinema it deserves. In the case of Tamil Nadu, as elsewhere in India, the films produced before 1950s were distinguished by their mythological content and countless number of songs. During this period, the ability to sing was the first talent recognised in an actor. The doyen of Tamil cinema during this period was also the first super star of Tamil cinema – M K Thyagarja Bhagavathar, popularly known as MKT. He had a golden voice and his fans adored him not for his films, but for the songs sung by him. The record set by his film Haridoss (1944) for the longest running in a single theatre is yet to be broken. The film ran for three years at Broadway theatre, Chennai, and saw three Deepavalis!
MKT entered Tamil cinema with the film Pavalakodi (1934) and rode like a colossus until the late 1940s. During this period, Tamil cinema was seeking to appeal to its constituency by retooling the ragas of classical carnatic music. Retooling meant simplifying the presentation of ragas and taking the charms of carnatic music to the unlettered man on the street. Here is a classical case of a low brow art poaching high art to win the hearts of the mass audience members. Even though, scores of carnatic musicians tasted acting, many gave up. Only MKT succeeded and emerged as the first super star of Tamil cinema, solely on the strength of his haunting, high pitched and overwhelming golden voice. His end came in Tamil cinema when he was arrested in 1944 on suspicion, along with another leading star of Tamil cinema, N S Krishnan, in a case of murder of a journalist, Lakshmi Kanthan, alleged to be a yellow journalist. He was released in 1947, resumed acting, but could not regain his earlier exalted place. At the height of his career, he was endowed with enormous wealth and it was said that he used golden cutlery. He died in 1959. MKT could not stage a successful comeback because of the ascendency of a cinema wedded to atheistic Dravidian movement during the late 1940s. MKT’s brand of mythological cinema had no place in the politically surcharged frames of Dravidian cinema. MKT’s exit saw the entry of the party actors promoted by DMK. They include Sivaji Ganesan and later MGR.

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