People change careers. Sometimes, midway through being enviably successful at one. That doesn’t reduce their contribution to what they leave behind. Though they are rarely remembered, it doesn’t diminish their status. M.S. Subbulakshmi’s story is somewhat similar. Her mother Shanmugavadivu was opposed to the idea of her acting in films. The family had migrated from Madurai to Madras for a better life for their child—the life of a concert vocalist or a recording artiste.
By the mid-1930s, Tamil cinema had some of the most celebrated stars on screen. Several of them made a successful transition from the Tamil stage to the big screen, acting in mythologicals, historicals and musicals. Subbulakshmi, a novice who was not trained in acting, dared to venture into a field she hadn’t dreamt of when they left Madurai.
Her husband-to-be, T. Sadasivam, never held a steady job. As the advertising manager of the magazine Ananda Vikatan, he was a great success. But that only lasted three years. Another six-month stint with a magazine called Hanuman, and he wanted to be a freelancer. However, his stint at Ananda Vikatan led to better prospects. Munshi Premchand’s famous short story Bazaar-e-Husn was translated by Ambujam Ammal and serialized in the magazine. The socially conscious film director, K. Subramanyam, wanted to buy the filming rights for this. Subramanyam was already a pioneer of sorts in the Tamil cinema of that era. He planned a trilogy. Balayogini (1937) dealt with caste and class discrimination and Sevasadanam (1938) with the issues of young brides. The third film, Thyaga Bhoomi (1939), addressed the status of a wife in Hindu society.
Prior to that, when Subbulakshmi fled her house and reached Sadasivam in Madras, now Chennai, both were equally clueless about what the future held. When Subramanyam bought the filming rights for Sevasadanam, Sadasivam said he would bankroll half the production cost if Subbulakshmi could be given a chance to act in it. Subramanyam had known Subbulakshmi when she was a recording artiste as a child; he had arranged a concert for her at the Kumbakonam Mahamaham festival. With this familiarity and conviction, he agreed to cast her.
The film had several unusual elements. The role of the widowed sister-in-law was played by a real-life widow who had a shaved head. Veteran stage actor F.G. Natesa Iyer acted as the older conservative Brahmin husband. The film set a precedent. The conservative Brahmin society of Madras in the 1930s had not expected this level of social activism. Subbulakshmi was again hailed as a singing star on the screen. Sadasivam saw the profits she made with this film. He decided she should act in another film.
Shakuntalai, produced under Sadasivam’s own banner, Chandraprabha Cinetone, in 1940 and starring the charismatic Carnatic singer G.N. Balasubramaniam, was a huge hit. It was directed by the American film-maker Ellis Dungan, who made Tamil films without understanding a word of the language—the songs too became popular.
Dungan’s films are considered some of the finest in Tamil cinema. With both the hero and heroine in Shakuntalai being Carnatic superstars, and a music score set by a Carnatic stalwart composer like Papanasam Sivan, audiences couldn’t get enough of the music.
Sadasivam and Subbulakshmi married in 1940, having first met in June 1936. By 1942, Sadasivam, along with freedom fighter and scholar Kalki Krishnamurthi, was busy with the famous Kalki magazine (as co-founder and a close confidant of Krishnamurthi), which contributed immensely to the renaissance of Tamil literature. Gathering funds for this was another big task. Subbulakshmi stepped in. She played the role of a male sage, Narada, in Y.V. Rao’s film Savithri in 1942, much against Sadasivam’s wishes—he didn’t want her to play a male role on screen. While a known screen star Shanta Apte played the lead role of Savithri in the film, she remains forgotten. What everyone remembers is the melodious songs Subbulakshmi sung as Narada in the film.
Sadasivam’s dreams for Subbulakshmi were larger than life. He wanted her to do a role that was pan-Indian. Dungan, who had directed Shakuntalai, too had bigger plans for her. In Meera, Subbulakshmi played the title role of the Rajasthani princess who turned poet-saint, writing and singing about her devotion to the god Krishna. The film touched a chord in audiences across the country.
Meera, first shot in Tamil in 1945, made Subbulakshmi a national icon. All the songs were sung by the Carnatic singer. Her daughter Radha appeared in the film as a child artiste. The Hindi remake was released in 1947. This time, it was a bigger deal for Subbulakshmi and the entire film unit. It had a screenplay by well-known writer Amritlal Nagar, the lyrics was adapted into Hindi by Narendra Sharma and the music was scored by Dilip Kumar Roy. It was shot in Rajasthan. The maharana of Mewar sent his personal army for the war scenes.
Subbulakshmi almost became a living Meera for people. The film was introduced to audiences in north India by the freedom fighter and poet Sarojini Naidu; she even honoured Subbulakshmi with her own title of “Nightingale of India”.
At the Delhi premiere in 1947, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and Lord and Lady Mountbatten stood at the entrance of Regal cinema, welcoming guests. Never before or after in the history of Indian cinema did a prime minister go out of his way to support a film the way Nehru did for Meera.
Subbulakshmi could have gone ahead with more movies after the huge success of Meera, but it was her swansong on the silver screen.
Once she began to be revered as the high priestess of Carnatic music, it’s possible that no director or producer dared to approach her with acting offers. But in almost the decade and five films she acted in, Subbulakshmi reigned supreme. When she was unable to go to Mumbai to receive the Master Dinanath Mangeshkar Award in 1994, singer Lata Mangeshkar flew in to Chennai to hand it to her personally.
Indian cinema celebrated a century a few years ago. Many of its greatest stars were remembered and honoured. It is unfortunate that Subbulakshmi was not among them.
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Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic based in Delhi.