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Links between South Indian films and Sri Lanka
The star trek from Chintamani to Vijay

It was in the late 1940s that I saw it or else I would not remember it. The bioscope, as films were known at the time, was screened at the Plaza Theatre at Wellawatte. I recall waiting in the long queue with my aunts to whom an evening watching the bioscope was a very special occasion. Their interest was keener because film was "Chintamani" – the South Indian block buster of that time, long before the term became common parlance in cinema lingo.

I still recall fragments of the film, which starred M.K. Thyagarajah Bhagavathar, whose songs in the film had become hits over here too, in what was then Ceylon. Chintamani ran for nearly six months or more in Colombo, and it was house full all the while. Businessmen were cashing in on this runaway popularity with the Chintamani name being used for match boxes, candles and joss-sticks. Many children were given the name too, by parents who must have seen the film several times and were singing and humming the songs of Bhagavathar.

Chintamani’s huge success was soon followed by "Ambikapathy" again starring Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, which broke all records of Chintamani, both in South India and Ceylon.

Another memorable South Indian film was "Chandralekha" shown here in the early 1950s that may well have broken the record run of Chintamani. Made on a lavish budget of USD 600,000 (USD 28m plus at today’s rates) it featured an ensemble cast comprising M.K.Radha, Ranjan, T. R. Rajakumari, N. S. Krishnan and Maduram. It remains the most expensive film ever made in the history of Tamil Cinema for decades, and one of the highest grossing films in Indian cinema, and gave its director SS Vasan a quick road to Bombay.

It was a time when the Sri Lankan cinema was struggling to be born. The South Indian film was setting the trend in entertainment and it was no surprise when BAW Jayamanne who had made his name in Sinhala theatrical presentations decided to go to South India, with his Minerva Players to produce what unexpectedly became the first Sinhala talkie.

If local audiences that were not fans of western cinema of the time were completely taken up by South Indian films, to the emerging film makers of Sri Lanka South India was the lodestone of attraction for their work. This is what brought about what can be best described as an umbilical link between South India and the Sinhala cinema.

The first Sinhala movie released in Sri Lanka was "Kadavunu Poronduva" (Broken Promise) produced by South Indian SM Nayagam, and made in Madras (now Chennai), released in January 1947.

But even before that, in 1945, Nayagam had founded a company named Chitrakala Movietone with a studio in Madurai for the express purpose of making a Sinhala film for the Sri Lankan market. Nayagam picked from several competitive scripts, to make a film around the legendary love story between Prince Saliya, son of King Dutugemunu and Asokamala, said to be a girl of the lower Chandala caste. It was the stuff of great romance with the prince losing his succession to the throne because of his love. The successful screen play was by young Sri Lankan artiste Shanti Kumar.

However, disagreements between Nayagam and Shanti Kumar did not see the project go through as planned. Instead Nayagam made a deal with BAW Jayamanne and his Minerva Players to produce Kadavunu Poronduva (Broken Promise).So it was that BAW Jayamanne’s venture into cinema became the first Sinhala talkie to be screened in Sri Lanka, opening at the Mylan Theatre, Colombo on January 21, 1947, barely one year before the island gained independence.

Broken Promise or not in business, Shanthi Kumar did not give up after Nayagam went with Jayamanne. He got Ceylon Theatres Ltd, the major cinema owners in the country, interested in his venture and "Asokamala" was filmed in Coimbatore, and screened in Colombo just three months later in April 1947, at the Elphinstone, Colombo.

SM Nayagam who saw the opportunities for Sinhala cinema, decided to move to Sri Lanka. He purchased land outside of Kandana, not too far from Colombo, and built the Sri Murugan Navakala studios (later known as the S. P. M. studios) which would for a time be the most developed studio in the country. His move was also timely in view of the restrictions that were to come later on travel to and from India, and it was a major cost cutter, too.

In the nine years since the first Sinhala film was released in Colombo, all Sinhala films were made in South India, and BAW Jayamanne was the key name in the industry. Nayagam, continued the South Indian influence with his films made locally, but heavy influenced by the South Indian formula. There was little original work, or contribution to developing a truly Sri Lankan cinema.

A major new entrant to the Sinhala cinema was K. Gunaratnam, who produced "Sujatha" a runaway hit in 1953, launching a series of successful productions. Previously he had dubbed several Indian films into Sinhala.

From the time of "Broken Promise" in 1947, the voice of Rukmani Devi was dominant in Sinhala films. Others could hardly match her singing, and BAW Jayamanne had a guarantee of success with her voice, singing songs set to popular songs of Hindi and South Indian films. Gunaratnam challenged the dominance of Rukmani Devi, with the innovative use of popular background singers of the South Indian cinema, who lent their voices to his local stars. The audiences that saw Sujatha heard Sinhala songs sung by Jamuna Rani, and Jikki. K. Rani also lent her voice to Sinhala stars. As the trend caught on, Lata Mangeshkar too signed for a Sinhala film. The Indian influence was overwhelming.

Rukmani Devi often acclaimed as "The Nightingale of Sri Lanka", came to the silver screen via the stage, in the many plays presented by BAW Jayamanne through his Minerva Dramatic Club of Negombo. Having a passion for singing, combined with a melodious voice, she was Sri Lanka’s foremost female singer in the gramophone era, and later in Sinhala films. Her singing in films was heavily influenced by the styles of the Indian cinema both South Indian and Hindi. Interestingly she was born as Daisy Rasammah Daniels to a Colombo Chetty Christian family at Ramboda in Nuwara Eliya, where her father John Daniel worked on a plantation and her mother, Helen Rose was a teacher. Her acting and singing were equally popular among the Tamil plantation workers of South India origin in the hill country, as well as with the all other Sri Lankans – whether Sinhala, Tamil, Moor, Malay or Burgher.

Another important influence of South Indian films on Sinhala productions was the well known couple N. S. Krishnan and T.A. Mathuram, known as the greatest comedy pair of Indian Cinema, who came to prominence with "Ambikapathy". The Krishnan - Mathuram combination in film humour led to the Sri Lankan comedy duo – Eddie Jayamanne and Gemini Kantha, who were star attractions in all of the early Sinhala films by Jayamanne’s Minerva Players. Unlike Krishnan and Mathuram they were not husband and wife, with Eddie, a great humourist and the brother of BAW, being married to singer Rukmani Devi.

It was the production of "Rekawa" in 1956 by pioneer director Lester James Peries that saw the first Sinhala film to be shot completely out of studio and contain a truly Sinhalese storyline. That was the beginning of the end of the tremendous influence that South India had over the Sinhala cinema.

But even after, there were many productions that were based on South Indian films or were carbon copies of them, with the most striking example being "Allapu Gedera" (Next Door) considered by many as a frame to frame copy of the South Indian Tamil hit "Adutha Veettu Penn" (The Girl Next Door), the Tamil remake of a successful Bengali comedy, which was a hit starring Anjali Devi, T. R. Ramachandran and many other popular stars of the time.

The celluloid links between Sri Lanka and South India are not confined to the influence of South India on the early Sinhala cinema. Sri Lanka has given South India, one of its foremost stars in M. G. Ramachandran (MGR) who was born at Nawalapitiya in the central Kandy District. He left this country at a very early age, before he took to acting at the tender age of seven years, being brought up by his mother who had returned to India.

MGR’s entry to cinema was through the Boys’ Company Movement which was very active in theatre in South India, where children below 10 dominated the theatre scene in Tamil. Indeed most of the male film stars of South Indian Tamil Cinema of the period 1940s-1950s came from this background. Among them were MGR, Sivaji Ganeshan, T. K. Shanmugham, T. R. Mahalingam, T. R. Ramachandran, M. K. Radha, M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, P.S. Govindan, and others who were child stars of theatre before achieving the wider popularity of the movies.

Making his film debut in 1935, in the film Sati Leelavati, directed by Ellis Dungan, an American born film director who was a large presence in the South Indian cinema, , MGR dominated Tamil cinema during the Fifties and Sixties with multiple blockbusters. Starring mainly in romance or action films, his big breakthrough came in the 1947 film Rajakumaari, written by M. Karunanidhi and rose to super-stardom in 1954 after Malai Kallan, a film considered the model for many of his other films that portrayed him as the saviour of the poor and the oppressed.

MGR had a string of all-time blockbusters to his credit that included Nadodi Mannan, Enga Veetu Pillai and Adimai Pen. He won the National Film Award for Best Actor for the film Rickshakaran. Nadodi Mannan, produced and directed by himself was an all-time success re-released His contribution to Indian cinema earned him the Bharata Ratna. All of his films were huge successes among Sri Lankan audiences, with producers here looking to his style as the formula for success in Sinhala films, having new emphasis on the struggles of the poor.

Closely involved in politics MGR was a member of the Congress Party till 1953, when he joined the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with the help of M. Karunanidhi. He was soon a vocal Tamil and Dravidian nationalist and prominent member of the DMK, adding glamour to the Dravidian movement then sweeping Tamil Nadu. After the death of his mentor, Annadurai, MGR became the treasurer of DMK in 1969 after Karunanidhi became the chief minister.

If MGR was popular among Sri Lankan audiences for his roles that reflected the radicalism that was taking place in South Indian society at the time, there was another South Indian actor NT Rama Rao of the Telugu cinema who vied for popularity with him. The specialty of NTR was films that depicted the Hindu deities, which found an instant attraction to the Hindus here, as well as to the Sinhala Buddhists, most of whom also had faith in several of the Hindu deities. Both MGR and NTR had a great following among the plantation workers of Sri Lanka, too.

If MGR’s radicalism and later association with the DMK as well as his known championing of the poor was a major attraction for Sri Lankan audiences, there was also the attraction of Sivaji Ganeshan whose roles took social radicalism even further, and found a special place among Sri Lankan viewers. While the Sinhala film was limited in scope due to most producers moving with the older formula of South Indian cinema, the Tamil films that came from South India found very large audiences over here, with their strong themes of social criticism and the demands for a place in the sun for the poor.

Sivaji Ganeshan who was to dominate the Tamil cinema for many years made his debut in Parasakthi in 1952, an instant hit in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. It co-starred actress Pandari Bai, and was scripted and directed by the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi. In a career spanning 6 decades, Sivaji Ganeshan has donned innumerable characters. Right from Parasakthi, he has covered almost all characters of society as well as puranic, historic and the like, with fame coming from his versatility and expressive prowess in cinema.

From puranic epic stories, such as his outstanding performance as Bharatha in Sampoorna Ramayanam to Karnan, based on Mahabharatha, where he played the memorable role of Karna, and historic roles as Raja Raja Sozhan, Samrat Asokan, won him laurels from Tamil audiences worldwide.. His performance as Lord Shiva in Thiruvilayaadal remains a classic to date. In Navarathiri (1964), Shivaji Ganesan donned nine different roles that represented the nine emotional states of a person. His role in the film Veerapaandiya Kattabomman won him the Best Actor Award at the Afro-Asian Film Festival held in March 1960 at Cairo making him the first Indian actor to get an award for Best Actor abroad. His roles ranged from deities to puranic characters and freedom fighters, right into mingling with the people as a leper, doctor, judge, advocate, rickshaw puller and many more real life characters. Not surprisingly, in 1959 he was the first Indian actor to be made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

The influence of stars of the calibre of MGR and Shivaji Ganeshan and their own association with Dravidian activists such as C. N. Annadurai, the fist Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and considered a powerful voice of the Dravidian movement, and a forerunner in introducing Dravidian ideology into movie scripts; as well as with M. Karunanidhi, the present CM of Tamil Nadu, who scripted the screenplay for Parasakthi, bringing it box office success with radical comments against the social hierarchy of the caste system and glorifying the Dravidian movement, made Tamil cinema play a vital role in Dravidian politics.

Interestingly, five out of seven chief ministers from Dravidian parties were actively involved in Tamil cinema either as writers or as actors. MGR was the most successful, having launched his own Dravidian party after personal differences with the leaders of DMK, and rising to power as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu mostly with the help of his movie fans and low level cadres. Analysts believe the legacy of politics in Tamil filmdom still continues, though less prominently than in the 1950s to 1970s. It is also a subject deserving of serious study by sociologists as to how much the radicalism of the Dravidian movement expressed through its screen heroes such as MGR, Shivaji and many others, and their script writers and lyricists, contributed to the Tamil militancy that emerged in Sri Lanka in later years, with the vast popularity that South Indian cinema had here.

To give more of the links between South Indian Cinema and Sri Lanka, one recalls that Malani Fonseka, acknowledged as the Queen of Sinhala Cinema today, who has been named this year by CNN among Asia’s greatest film actors of all time, and who is now a Member of Parliament, in 1978 played a role opposite Sivaji Ganeshan in the South Indian film "Pilot Premnath" that starred popular actress Sridevi, too.

From M.K. Thyagarajah Bhagavathar to MK Radha, Ranjan, MGR and Sivaji and Gemini Ganeshan as well as Aswathamma, T. R Rajakumari, Padmini, Vyjayanthimala to Pandari Bai and Ranjini and the many other heroes and heroines of the South Indian cinema have all been idolized by Sri Lankan audiences. And today, fast capturing popularity among audiences both in South India and Sri Lanka is Vijay (Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar), the Tamil actor and playback singer. Just as the great stars of the past he too began as a child actor. Vijay made his debut playing the lead role in Naalaya Theerpu (1992). Since then he has gone places in films of action and romance, winning the Tamil Nadu State Film Awards (1998) and appointed Ambassador for the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL series.

Little is known of Vijay’s strong links with Sri Lanka, which come with his marriage to Sangeetha Sornalingam of Sri Lankan Tamil decent in August 1999, continuing Sri Lanka’s links with the South Indian cinema/

From the days of the bioscope and films shown in tents to rural communities, to the plush modern cinemas in Colombo and an ever expanding audience, the South Indian cinema retains its links with Sri Lanka, netting in good profits for distributors here and for the producers in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. It seems time for a special celebration of this great tradition of cinematic friendship that has grown through the past eight decades and more.

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