Posts filed under 'Filmalaya'

Jayalalithaa: From Alluring Actress to Powerful Politician

By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

India in general and its Tamil Nadu state in particular have spawned many colourful political personalities. Standing out among these figures is Ms. Jayalalithaa Jayaram the actress-politico of Tamil Nadu.

The Former chief minister and Anna – Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (ADMK) leader turns 60 today (Feb 24th).

Earlier her name was spelled with one A (Jayalalitha) at the end. Later a second A was added (Jayalalithaa) due to reasons of numerology.

Jayalalithaa has become well – known in recent times for her rigid stance against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). Supporters of the LTTE love to hate her.

Looking at her rotund appearance today few would imagine of a time when she was slim and lissom. That she was and a ravishing beauty too.

As an actress Jayalalithaa was the uncrowned queen of Tamil cinema during the mid – sixties to the mid – seventies of the last century.She was the dream – girl of many a teen – ager and the favourite pin – up star of many fans.

[Jayalalithaa & MGR in Kannan en Kadhalan-'Kannan my love']

Among those infatuated by her was the famous actor – politician M.G.Ramachandran (MGR).with whom she paired in more than 25 films. Though unmarried Jayalalithaa was regarded as the love of MGR’s life.

However she has been linked romantically to other people including actors like Shoban Babu, Ravichandran, Jaishanker and Mutturaman.

Jayalalithaa was born on Feb 24th 1948 in Mysore in Karnataka state. Because of this many think she is a Kannadiga and her political rivals often call her that.

The reality is that she is from a Tamil Aiyengar brahmin family hailing from Sreerangam in Trichy. Her grandfather was a physician in the service of the Mysore Maharajah. Hence the family relocated to that state.

Despite her detractors ridiculing her as a “kannadiga” Jayalalithaa has always been proud to assert her Tamil identity.

In 1970 long before she entered politics Jayalalithaa told a Kannada journal that she was a Tamil and not a Kannadiga. This caused a furore in Karnataka.

When Jayalalithaa was shooting for a Tamil film in Bangalore (now Bengalooru) a Kannadiga mob surrounded her and threatened to kill her if she did not retract.

But the courageous Jayalalithaa refused to be intimidated and stood her ground re-iterating that she was Thamizhian”and not a Kannadiga

Jayalalithaa’s father Jayaram was a an irresponsible wastrel who squandered the family fortune. This led to her mother Vedavalli becoming a film actor to support the family.

She took on the name Sandhya. Soon she relocated to Chennai or Madras as it was known then

Jayalalithaa’s given name was Komalavalli. but her pet name is Ammu. She studied at the elite Bishop Cotton High school in Bangalore and later at the Church Park convent in Madras.

In 1964 She passed out second in the state matriculation exam and was given a merit scholarship.She did not pursue higher studies as her destiny was films.

She learnt Bharatha Natyam and carnatic music and had her dance arangetram in 1960. The veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan who presided called her a “thangachilai” or golden statue on account of her fair, glowing skin.

Veteran film director BR Bhanthulu saw her at a film function and got her to act in a Kannada film. The maestro Sreedhar gave her a break in Tamil films. She played the role of a schizophrenic widow in “Vennira Aadai” (White dress) and got rave reviews.

[Ayirathil Oruvan, a re-release poster in Chennai-June 2007]

Her passport to success was her second Tamil film “Aayirathil Oruvan” (one man in a thousand) where she played leading lady to MGR. Despite the 32 year difference in age the duo was a hot pair. They acted together in 28 films.

Among her successes were “Adimai Penn”, Naan, Maatukkaara Velan”Aathiparasakthi” “pattikaadaa Pattanamaa”, Kavalkaran” Engiruntho vanthaal” etc. Her last filom was “Nathiyai Thedi Vantha kadal” in 1978.

Jayalalithaa has acted in more than a hundred films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada , Hindi and even one English movie “The Epistle”. More than 70 of these ran for more than a hundred days in theatres.

[Amma edraal Anbu...written by Vaali]

She has also sung songs in her own voice in some if not all films. She has a creamy, croony voice. Her first film song was “amma Endraal Anbu” written by Vaali and composed by KV Mahadevan.

An accomplished dancer she lit up the screen and stage by her performances. Her dance drama “Kaviri Thantha Kalaichelvi” was a smashing success.

Though she played glamorous roles she was a good actress and made an impression if given challenging roles with scope to display histrionic ability.

“Thirumangalyam” was Jayalalithaa’s 100th film . There was a felicitation cremony where the chief minister of the time Muttuvel Karunanidhi was the guest of honour.He praised her as one who had “devised literature in acting” (nadippukku Ilakkiam vahuthavar)

She exuded chic and elan in her film career and was a favourite among teens of that era. Many of her costumes were designed by her.She was one of the first heroines to don bathing costumes. Jayalalithaa was a bombshell in bikini.

[L to R: Sivaji Ganesan, M. Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran & Jayalalithaa]

Jayalalitha was versatile. She has been a columnist, short story writer, novelist and film producer.

Her house named “Veda Nilaayam” after her mother is in Poes Garden. There is an indoor skating rink built there.

She also has a grape arbour in Andhra Pradesh which she uses to get away from the madding crowd.

It was MGR who brought her into politics. After his death in 1987 the ADMK founded by MGR split with his wife Janaki and paramour Jayalalithaa leading the two factions.

Jayalalithaa triumphed and the party united under her leadership to sweep the polls in 1991. She was elected chief minister.She remains the imperious yet undisputed leader of the ADMK today.

Jayalalithaa became the ADMK’s propaganda and later administrative secretary. She was Rajya Sabha MP in 1984. In 1989 she entered Tamil Nadu legislature as an elected MLA. Jayalalithaa was chief minister from 1991 – 1996.

She was re-elected as CM in 2001 but had to relinquish office for a few years due to a legal wrangle. Jayalalithaa handed over reins to a caretaker CM but controlled events.She then won a by – election and became CM till 2006.

Few in her party dare to call her by name and so she is either “Amma” Or “Madam” or “Thalaivi” . Since MGR was called Puratchi Thalaiver or revolutionary leader, Jayalalithaa is addressed by its feminine equivalent “Puratchi Thalaivi”. Like MGR she too is called “Ithaya Deivam” (Goddess of the heart).

Many in her party treat her as a living Deity and at least one of her former ministers pats his cheeks reverentially when referring to her.

Some ministers have gone on record saying their ambition in life is to be her servant or a watchdog in her kennel

There was a time when in a movie called “Thanipiravi” MGR played Lord Muruga and Jayalalithaa his consort Valli in a dream sequence. A picture of both together as Murugan and Valli was framed and worshipped by many.

Likewise Jayalalithaa has played divine roles in many other films. Pictures of Jayalalithaa in such roles are hung in many dwellings. Some people light camphor and lay flowers before them.

Sycophancy went to the extent of depicting her as the Madonna in posters. Enraged Catholics protested and the posters were removed.

Falling at her feet or touching them as a mark of respect is almost a ritual for many of her followers. Touching or falling at the feet of elders to seek their blessings is customary in India.

But in the case of Jayalalithaa, ADMK sycophants have taken this practice to ridiculous levels. Even party veterans older than Jayalalithaa prostrate themselves publicly.

One amusing scene in the past was when Jayalalithaa visited a remote area by helicopter.Verty (dhoty) clad party men standing in a line fell down like ninepins as she alighted from the aircraft. When they got up the white verties were all red due to the reddish soil. It was a sight!

Once she was questioned by a north Indian journalist about this “falling at feet” practice and asked why she did not put a stop to it. She replied that her supporters were doing so voluntarily due to their affectionate regard for her and that she was unable to prevent it .

This was not correct because it is well – known that she likes it and encourages it.That’s why the sycophants do so. Jayalalithaa also utilises this act to humiliate people.

In one instance a man who had left her party and criticised her returned to its folds again. The media was called in to witness the return of the prodigal. This man KKSR Ramachandran was a big – made man with a very big moustache.

He was required to prostrate himself four times before a smilingly – seated Jayalalithaa under the pretext that the photographers had not got a good shot. The picture was released to all papers.

According to some observers even her mentor and paramour MGR had some kind of a foot fetish for Jayalalithaa.

In many of the films they acted together in , there were scenes of MGR touching Jayalalithaa’s feet like removing a thorn from her sole or massaging a sprained ankle.

Apparently the man who founded the ADMK had a fixation for her feet. Now members of MGR’s party are at Jayalalithaa’s feet metaphorically and literally.

[After presenting a bouquet to greet his leader, Jayalalithaa, on her victory, the outgoing Chief Minister, O. Paneerselvam, seeks her blessings at her Poes Garden residence, Feb 2002]

Like Imelda Marcos , Jayalalithaa herself had a fascination for footwear. There were media teports and pix of her 800 plus shoes, sandals and slippers.

A funny phenomenon are the sycophantic references to her feet by party men when commencing their speeches. In a disgusting spectacle they begin by paying homage to her “Potpaadangal” (golden feet) or “Thamaraithiruvadigal” (Lotus feet).

One point on which she is often criticised about is her arrogance. She is virtually a dominatrix with party people and treating them like her minions and serfs.

There was a time when Jayalalithaa would be the only person sitting on a stage while others would remain standing or seated on the floor. Later she dispensed with this practice but allows only selected people to sit next to her.

When a senior minister Munu Aathi dared to sit next at a function she flared up and publicly ordered him to move back.

On another occasion a Congress cabinet minister from Tamil Nadu tried to sit next to her on a flight to New Delhi. She shouted at him to get lost and referred derisively to his caste.

The man was a Dalit. There was a big outcry and a public apology was demanded. She did not budge.

At inner meetings of the party she remains seated while the rest sit on the floor or remain standing. There have been press conferences where her ministers stand behind her with folded hands while she sits on a sofa.

During election campaigns Jayalalithaa goes around on whirlwind tours in her luxurious trailer – van. Short roadside meetings are held where candidates have to stand on a stool while she talks. Even central cabinet ministers like Mani Shankar Aiyer had to undergo this.

There is no inner party democracy in the ADMK. Jayalalithaa appoints, removes, transfers, promotes, demotes, expels and recruits at her own discretion. Ministers were appointed, fired or shuffled according to her whims. Her wish was the party’s command. None dared to disobey let alone defy.

She is an autocrat who does not tolerate criticism. She looks down upon the media and brooks no dissent. Once she even took on the powerful “Hindu” ordering the arrest of several journalists including the executive editor Malini Parthasarathy. The influential newspaper group had to tug at strings in New Delhi to make her back down

I once witnessed first – hand the utter contempt she had for the media. It was in early 1985 and I was in Tamil Nadu on an assignment. Jayalalithaa was then a Rajya Sabha (upper house) member and propaganda secretary of the ADMK.

An Indian journalist pal took me along for a press conference held by her. Thank God! we were all given chairs to sit. She started off with a bang by asking the “Herald Review” correspondent to stand up. This was a news magazine of the “Deccan Herald” newspaper.

Once the journalist identified himself Jayalalithaa pitched into him.Apparently in an article the scribe had referred to Jayalalithaa as being “hysterical”. She took offence to that launched a tirade about the meaning of hysterical.

If anyone had doubts about hysterical, Jayalalithaa’s performance that day demonstrated what hysteria was all about.

She then ordered him to leave but to the credit of the fourth estate, they protested at the treatment meted out to their colleague. With Jayalalithaa remaining adamant the journos announced that they were walking out en masse. She then relented and conducted the conference with the correspondent in attendance.

This however was at a time when MGR was alive and Jayalalithaa had not become party leader or chief minister. I do not know how the journalists would have reacted to a similiar incident under present circumstances.

While her haughty demeanor and arrogant attitude deserves to be condemned there is perhaps a rationale for such behaviour. The ascendancy of Jayalalithaa in a Tamil Nady milieu can be viewed as an ironic contradiction.

Despite the breeze of cosmopolitanism blowing in through Globalization , the state of Tamil Nadu is basically conservative. It is a patriarchal , male – dominated society with strict notions of a woman’s role and place. Jayalalithaa is a woman.

Tamil Nadu society at large has contempt for women actors in the cine field who do not behave as “good” women should.Woman film stars in spite of their glamour are not respected and regarded with disdain in private. Jayalalithaa was an actress.

The dominant political ideology in the state is that of Dravidianism. This is based on archaic concepts of the Aryan – Dravidian divide where the Brahmin community is seen as Aryans and other Tamils as Dravidians.Anti – brahminism is a core element of Dravidian discourse. Jayalalithaa is a brahmin.

Thus one can see that the Jayalalithaa phenomenon goes against the grain of three dominant concepts in Tamil Nadu. She is a woman, a film star and a brahmin. The success of this embodiment in the socio – political realm of Tamil Nadu is a contradiction. Jayalalithaa in a way is an exception or aberration.

In that context the situation can be quite dicey for her. If she were to be democratic and easy – going the people surrounding her would exploit it to their advantage. Instead of appreciating her conduct they would very likely regard it as a weakness to take advantage.

An Indian editor once told me of an incident that happened in 1988. The ADMK had split after MGR’s death and both factions were trying to take control of the party headquarters building. When Jayalalithaa joined demonstrators party supporters mobbed her.

Sadly , she had to be rescued by the Police from her own supporters. Jayalalithaa used to wear pure white sarees with a thin border then. The Indian editor told me that her Saree and blouse were full of grubby finger marks. Apparently her supporters had used the opportunity to try and fondle her or squeeze her.

In later life she had her own set of bodyguards to prevent supporters from getting close to her. There was an urge on the part of some males not merely to simply touch her but also do something else if they could.

When she entered politics many party members were dazzled by her beauty and easy accessibility. They were extra – attentive to her and ever ready to make physical contact. A regional leader called “Pazhakkadai” Pandi went ballistic once on stage. He was reprimanded by MGR.

Thereafter the order went out from MGR that Jayalalithaa should be treated with reverence. This changed the situation. Soon party people showed great subservience to her. Slowly she was promoted as a superior, cult figure.

After MGR’s death Jayalalithaa was quite vulnerable. It was then that she realised she had to assert unquestionable superiority over her party people to remain in control. Superiority and not equality was necessary. The followers had to be put in place as inferiors.

This she began to do. Soon she became an authoritative figure. She grew into her role and her inherent traits of arrogance came to the fore.

She humiliated her followers to show who was boss and trampled them underfoot. Incredible as it may seem they seem to like it with even highly educated professionals paying pooja horizontally to the boss lady.

Her detractors and political rivals continue to attack her on what they think are her weak spots. She is called “anthap Pombiley” (that woman) or “Paapaathy” (Brahmin woman) often.

Once when she was in the opposition a DMK minister Duraimurugan tried to strip her in the Assembly.

When she raised a question the present chief minister Karunanidhi replied “Go and ask Sobhan Babu”. This was a Telugu film star with whom Jayalalithaa was involved romantically at one stage.

Even recently the DMK deputy – leader Anbalaghan retorted to a charge by her derisively asking her about her “past”

This state of affairs may help to understand the reasons for her arrogant conduct but it certainly cannot condone it

Moreover there is a vicious, vindictive streak to her that often manifests itself in controversial ways.

There was a woman administrative officer (IAS) Chandralekha with whom she had a diagreement. Soon acid was thrown u goondas on Chandralekha’s face.

As Chief Minister she abused her authority and incarcerated her rival Karunanidhi. The Police carried the howling man away.

When maverick politico Dr. Subramaniam Swamy fell foul of her Jayalalithaa organized a hostile reception for him in Chennai. Members of the ADMK woman league raised their sareees and in a protest demonstration.

“Subramanian Swamy has met his waterloo” gloated Jayalalithaa publicly. “I will send Jayalalithaa to the loo without water” reorted Swamy.

Due to a dispute with the Kachipuram Holy man Sri Jayendra Swamigal, Jayalalitha went to the extent of getting him arrested on what seemed to be false charges.

Jayalalithaa was corrupt to the core. Together with her “Life friend” (uyirtholi) Sasikala Nadarajah the duo engaged in massive corruption. Sasikala was like a woman Friday to her. Their corruption and amassed wealth has often been publicised in the media.

Jayalalithaa was arrested after her downfall in 1996 on corruption charges. Newspapers were full of stories about her assets and properties. Her corpulence was a sign of her ill – gotten opulence.

Jayalalithaa’s relationship with Saikala is a controversial issue for Tamil Nadu. They are seemingly inseparable. Sasikala who is caled “Sinnamma” by party people wields enormous influence.

Whatever her deficiencies Jayalalithaa remains a towering figure in Tamil Nadu politics.

Jayalalithaa’s arch rival Karunanidhi is an octogenarian. After his demise there will be no one to match Jayalalithaa in stature and popularity.

She will then be the solitary moon among lesser stars in the Tamil Nadu political firmament.

30 comments February 23rd, 2008

Seventieth birthday tribute for Gamini Fonseka

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Gamini Fonseka, if among us still, would have reached the biblical life span of three score and ten on March 21st. This however was not to be as the uncrowned monarch of Sinhala moviedom passed away in 2004. Though Gamini has passed away most of his fans like this writer have not forgotten him. This article coinciding with Gamini’s 70th birthday is a humble tribute to to the memory of a man who lives in the hearts of many.

Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka was born in Dehiwela on March 21st 1936 as the third child of William and Daisy Fonseka; After initial schooling at a Presbyterian institution he went to St. Thomas’s College, Mt.Lavinia. He made his mark there not as a Thespian but as an artist of repute. He was capable of caricaturing school masters mercilessly.

Apart from art young Gamini also excelled in Sinhala language and literature while at college. One of his proudest moments was when he won the Sinhala literature prize when he was in the upper fourth. He received his prize from old Thomian and first prime minister of Independent “Ceylon” DS Senanayake. He was also a good cricketer.

Involved in many a schoolboy skirmish Gamini had to cut short his secondary education early.He then entered the wonderful world of films in a technical capacity. He worked under the legendary David Lean for “Bridge on the river Kwai” and our own Lester James Peiris on “Rekawa”. His association with Lester as an assistant director on Rekawa changed Gamini’s line of destiny forever. Gamini’s first screen appearance was “Rekawa” as part of a crowd. The same man went on to become a crowd puller in later life.

Gamini then acted in an English television series about the antics of an “elephant boy” filmed in Sri Lanka. He was also production assistant.

His first big break in acting came with “Daiwa Yogaya” in 1959 where he played a secondary role. Senadheera Kuruppu and Rukmani Devi were in the lead roles. Then came Lester’s ” Sandesaya” where nominally Gamini played second fiddle to Ananda Jayaratna but stole the show from him with a stellar performance.

It was around this time films like “Adata wediya Heta Hondai” Ranmuthuduwa” “Getawarayo” and “Dheevarayo” exploded on the screen and established Gamini as a box office draw . He proved however that he was not a melodramatic actor singing, dancing and fighting alone by making his mark as a character actor in Lester’s “Gamperaliya” that won the Golden Peacock in New Delhi. Once again Gamini was the “third” to Henry Jayasena and Punya Heendeniya but gave a performance par excellence as Jinadasa.

Titus Totawatte’s “Chandiya” was a milestone. This was perhaps the first anti – hero role of Sinhala cinema. Gamini breathed and lived the part of a tough guy. Titus had a sequel “Chutte”. It was in a way art imitating life because Gamini was in every way a “Chandiya” in real life. Thomians of yesteryear speak volumes about his martial prowess. The benchmark of his fighting prowess was the “historic” encounter with Dehiwela’s “strongman” Karthelis the brother of S de S Jayasinghe.

A major reason for the naturalism in Gamini’s fighting scenes was the man himself. He was a fighter both orthodox and unorthodox. He often got into brawls always or a good cause. One such incident was at Embilipitiya Circuit bungalow when the caretaker and his cronies in an intoxicated state picked a fight with the film crew on location there. Gamini pitched in with flying fists and proved that his macho image was not confined to celluloid alone. He then moved the entire crew at his expense to Tissamaharama.

There was a time when film artistes and technicians were treated rather shabbily by the film makers. Gamini changed all that to a great extent. He fought for their rights and dignity with the film makers, distributors, media , film corporation and government. Yet he was not complacent and remained concerned about their plight.

He was unhappy about the way the various regimes treated and continue to treat the film industry. At his “Rajadakma” Gamini advised artistes to spurn politics and went on to observe “I have worked for both parties but no one has done any good for the film industry or artistes”.

Gamini reached the peak of his popularity in the late sixties and early seventies as romantic action hero. When Sean Connery won over the western world as Ian Fleming’s James Bond in “Dr. No” and “from Russia With Love” Mike Wilson cashed in on the “OO7″craze with a Sri Lankan version. Enter our own man with a license to kill – Jamis Banda. Who else other than Gamini could do justice to the role in “Sorungeth Soru”.

There were other popular roles too with Sri Lankan versions of the famous Tamil “Vallava” film series starring Jaishankar and Manohar produced in Tamil Nadu by Ramasundaram of Modern Studios. Gamini was the mainstay of the “sooraya” film series in Sinhala. ” Soorayangath Sooraya”, “Edath Sooraya Adath Sooraya” “Sooraya Soorayamai” ” Hatharadenaama Sooraya” etc. The action films of old had a simple underlying thread that good triumphs over evil. So Gamini like MGR gave us a happy feeling and inspired all to greater heights.

This success in action movies did not mean that Gamini was playing stereo -typed roles alone. Far from it! He played a variety of roles and proved his thespian skills in many. Two memorable performances were in Lester’s “Nidhanaya” and “Yuganthaya: as Willie Abeynayake and Simon Kabalana. “Nidhanaya” Lester’s masterpiece is the only Sinhala film to be included in the 100 Best Movies of the World list.

There have been several actor – directors who failed when directing themselves. It was a case of underplaying or overacting. One man who performed this dual role creditably was Hindi cinema’s Raj Kapoor (Awaraa, Barsat, Shri 420 etc) In Sinhala cinema Gamini was one man whose acting did not falter when directing.

Starting from “Parasathumal” to others like “Uthumaneni” “Sagarayak Medha” ” Koti Waligaya” “Nomiyena Minissu”etc Gamini played his roles remarkably in those films. At the same time he stamped his arterial mark as director. One cannot place him in the class of an A plus director in Sinhala cinema. But an A minus director he certainly was.

Other noteworthy films where his histrionic skills were strikingly displayed were “Getawarayo” “Hulawali” “Oba Dutu Daa” “Sekaya” “Sanasuma Kothanada” “Weli Kathara” “Sana keliya”, “Deviyane Oba Kohedha?” , “Sekaya” and “Sarungale”. His performances in films directed by him were all fabulous.

“Sekaya” produced by SPM movies and directed by E. Rathinam was a remake of the Tamil classic “Deivapiravi”. Gamini, Rita Ratnayake and Tony Ranasinghe played the roles acted by Sivaji. Padmini and SS Rajendran in the original. I had the chance of seeing both films again in my twenties again. It was then that I marvelled at Gamini’s performance as against that of Sivaji. Sivaji like MGR, SSR etc came to film from the stage. Gamini like Gemini Ganesh came straight to films.

Incidentally both Gamini and Sivaji were greatly influenced by Marlon Brando. Gamini combined shades of Sivaji, Brando, Brynner and Paul Newman. His primary inspiration however was Brando. The Hollywood giant passed away some months ago. Though affected by Brando it must be said to Gamini’ s credit that he evolved his own “fusion” style and distinctive method.

Two English films starring Gamini Fonseka that I have sen are “Sitadevi” and “Rampage”. In Manik Sandrasagara’s “version” of the Ramayana Gamini played a modern Ravana to Bengali actress Mamta Shankar. Rampage was a Moby Dick type of man vs beast saga with an elephant as protagonist. In this Gamini played a planter – hunter opposite Mary Tamm who also acted in Frederick Forsythe’s “The Odessa File”.

Gamini also acted in an Indian Tamil movie “Neelakkadalin Orathiley”. He had two heroines Radha Saluja the Hindi actress and Sri Priya the Tamil – Telugu star. An Indian Tamil magazine review described Gamini as a “Koluk moluk Biscuit Pappa” look alike. What it meant was that Gamini had “babyish” looks alike the child models in advertisements for biscuits. Radha Saluja became a close friend and used to correspond with him for a long time.

Gamini however never acted in a Sri Lankan Tamil film. When reputed writer Senkai Aaliyaan’s “Vadaikaatru” (North Wind) was filmed Gamini was approached for the “Viruthasalam ” character role. It did not work out. But Gamini gave an astounding performance as a Tamil in Sunil Ariyaratne’s “Sarungale”. He played Nadarajah, the Jaffna Tamil clerk in a story that highlighted both the anti – Tamil communal violence as well as the caste contradictions among Tamils.

Among places that “Sarungale” was filmed in was Karaveddy my mothers ancestral village. Gamini himself was very proud of his role in that movie. Once in a conversation before the film’s release he told me personally “any Sinhala man who sees this film will never lay hands on a Tamil again”. Alas! That was not to be and not many years later came Black July 1983.

But one thing that must be emphasised in the case of Gamini Fonseka that he was a man with absolutely no trace of communalism in him. I have had only about four or five conversations with him including an interview for the “Virakesari” in 1978.This is not enough to gauge a man but two lengthy conversations with him convinced me of his bona fides in this respect. But there have been several people intimately knowledgeable of Gamini like his close friend Sivanandhan (now in Canada) who directed him in “Oba Dutu Daa” who vouch for the greatness of the man in this.

A notable feature of Sri Lankan films both Sinhala and Tamil is the multi -ethnic diversity of the industry. Sinhalese, Tamils both Sri Lankan and Indian. Muslims , Malays and Burghers have all contributed to this. The contribution of Tamils to the Sinhala film industry is massive starting from that pioneer SM Nayagam producing “Kadawana Porunthuwa”.Many leading Producers, directors, cinematographers, technicians, studio owners and even some artistes have been Tamils.

Gamini acknowledged and appreciated this immense contribution by the minority communities to Sinhala cinema. He has not been afraid to state this publicly whenever the occasion arises. He did so in the Golden Jubilee celebration and also in what was perhaps his last interview given to Prasad Gunewardene and Stanley Samarasinghe of “Daily News” .One important reason among many for the decline in Sinhala cinema is related to the escalating ethnic conflict. The single greatest blow to Sinhala cinema was the burning of Vijaya Studios along with the film archives. Many Sinhala films including those of Gamini ’s have been irretrievably lost

In conversations with Gamini I have often heard him refer to many of the Country’s problems including the ethnic crisis as having been caused and exacerbated by “third grade politics” “dirty politics” etc. He has often uttered these words in some films too. The more I read of what transpired in this Country in the Donoughmore era and the post – Independence years the more I am inclined to agree with Gamini. Contemporary politics of which I have enjoyed a ring side view as a journalist has only strengthened that viewpoint. Even now the selfish, irresponsible conduct of our so called leaders demonstrate that we are on accelerating towards doomsday.

He has acted opposite many actresses but the one with whose chemistry Gamini hit it off best was Malini Fonseka. Two others who paired well with Gamini were Jeevaranee Kurukulasooriya and Veena Jayakody. According to Gamini Sandhya Kumari was the most beautiful actress he interacted with while Malini was the best. The best actor according To Gamini was Joe Abeywickrema – not himself. The best director who brought out the best in Gamini as director was Lester and Gamini himself.

This article is to honour the memory of a man whom I loved as an actor, appreciated as a director, admired as a politician and above all respected as a decent human being. Gamini the actor on the Sinhala silver screen became an important part of life in childhood. This is the kind of relationship one has with actors , singers, writers and sportsmen. The impact of films and film stars in the South Asian region is Phenomenal. Childhood impressions in that sense are indelible.

My formative years as a Sinhala film fan were heavily influenced and shaped by Gamini Fonseka. To me and millions of other like minded people Sinhala cinema was personified by Gamini Fonseka for a long, long time. Notwithstanding the brilliant creators of our times who have elevated the standards of Sinhala films one is unable to imagine or visualise Sinhala cinema without thinking of Gamini Fonseka. Sinhala cinema was certainly not Gamini Fonseka but without Gamini Fonseka there was no Sinhala cinema either.

Belonging to a middle class Tamil family living then in Colombo I was drawn into the world of films at an early age. The staple diet of this film fascination was naturally Tamil – MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganeshan, SS Rajendran, Ranjan etc were the Tamil cine heroes who enthralled me then.

But I was indeed fortunate that despite my Tamilness I was equally attracted to Sinhala movies from an early age. This affinity for Tamil and Sinhala films itself was viewed as something unusual at St. Thomas’s Prep or STC Mt. Lavinia where I studied in the sixties. Few Sinhala or Tamil kids saw Sinhala or Tamil films in those schools then. But then I was indeed lucky to savour Tamil, English and Sinhala movies from a very young age.

As children we were enamoured greatly of action movies. “Fighter” actors were relished as opposed to “character” actors. So MGR , Jaishnkar, Anandan, Ravishankar from Tamil movies along with Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Yul Brynner and later Clint Eastwood were my childhood favourites. As far as Sinhala films were concerned there was only one and that of course was Gamini.

Gamini Fonseka entered my life when I was about eight years old. The place he did so was a movie theatre in Maradana bearing his own name Gamini. “Ran Muthu Duwa” was my first Sinhala Movie. The family went to see it for two reasons. One because it was the first Sinhala technicolour film. Secondly to see the famed underwater scenes made possible by Mike Wilson.

Gamini along with Jeevarani, Shane Gooneratne and Joe Abeywickrema starred in it. Gamini’s acting, dancing and fighting captivated me. I was well and truly hooked. I never ever recovered.

The song and dance sequence ” Pipee pipee Renu Natana” remains fresh in memory even now. I still remember the melody and some of the poetic lines like “Apey watte mal pipila meemassen wikvela” and “Rana giraw Kumbura udin mal mal gamanak giya” etc.

My admiration and fondness for Gamini’s films grew over the years. Initially the attraction was mainly the fight scenes. Gamini brought a refreshing naturalness to those scenes as opposed to the artificiality in South Indian ones. It was later that one learned to appreciate the finer points of his acting.

There was hardly a Gamini Fonseka film that I missed in the sixties. This was due to a woman Mary Caroline who was then a domestic helper at our home. She stayed with the family for about seven years. Mary was an avid Gamini fan. So I would accompany her every month to Sinhala films in general and Gamini Fonseka films in particular. This was how I managed to see so many of his films in my childhood. “Chandiya”, “Soora Chowraya” and “Sorungeth Soru” were some of my favourites then This is how Gamini Fonseka became a permanent part of my childhood memories. He remains there forever.

A break with Sinhala movie going came in the early seventies when my family moved to Jaffna. I returned with a vengeance to “Sinhala chitrapati”after we shifted back to Kurunegala and then Colombo. One recalls wistfully the hours of enjoyment at the Jupiter, New, Modern , New Imperial theatres in Kurunegala and Roxy, Saphire, Elphinstone and Gamini in Colombo. Not only did I see new films but also several old ones when re – screened.

I remain to this day a firm Sinhala film aficionado not only of quality films but also of those masala movies. Lester, GDL, Nihalsinha, Siri Gunasinha, KAW, Pathiraja, Sumithra, Tissa, Vasantha , Dharmasiri , Parakrama and Prasanna took Sinhala cinema in a new direction away from shackles of Bombay and Madras. But for sheer entertainment one cannot forget the “popular” films of Cinemas, Ceylon Theatres and people like Yasapalitha, Tampoe, Morais, Dev Anand etc too.

Gamini straddled both these worlds with ease. He was both an “arty” actor of powerful serious movies as well as a ” melodramatic ” star of popular cinema too. He was artistically appreciated and commercially valued. For two decades and more Gamini was the uncrowned king of Sinhala cinema. He made his mark as both actor and director. In the process he helped liberate Sinhala cinema Indian constraints and gave it fresh perspective and dynamic direction.

Gamini also elevated the standards of Sinhala cinema and provided it with integrity and self – respect. He fought for the upliftment of the industry and fellow artistes and technicians. Gamini Fonseka is inextricably intertwined with the evolution and growth of Sinhala cinema.

The film reels have run their course. The projector has ceased humming. The curtain has rolled in. The” Gamini Fonseka show ” ended in 2004.The lights are on again but the light has gone out of Sinhala cinema. All that we have are fond memories of the past and copies of his available movies. The memory of this monarch of Sinhala movieland will never cease. Thank You Gamini for innumerable hours of entertainment, pleasure and satisfaction. Thank You again!

(This is a modified version of an article first written in 2004)

23 comments March 15th, 2006

T.K. Kalaa gets “Kalaimaamani” award

Among those receiving the Tamil Nadu state governments “Kalaimaamani” award this year will be the singer TK Kalaa of “Thayit Sirandha Kovilum Illai” fame.Kalaa who displayed great promise when she burst on the Tamil film scene in the early seventies faded away gradually. It is to the credit of Chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram’s administration that it has thought it fit to give due recognition to a talented singer of vast potential at this juncture.

It is indeed a sign of our times that present day Tamil film song fans are fated to listen to a multiple of voices “murder” the sweet Tamil language in their renditions while many native warblers of high calibre continue to languish for want of opportunities to sing play back.Thiruthani Kabali Kalaa (TK. Kalaa) though honoured by an award is one songstress who despite her rich, uniquely harmonious voice and elegant style of singing never received the chances she fully deserved in the Tamil film song realm.

Kalaa is the daughter of a Kodambakkam based artiste couple Kabali and Shanmugasunthari. The latter was a stage actress who worked in yester year drama troupes like Balamurugan and Jothy nataka sabhas.She later acted in minor roles in many MGR films like Kannan En Kathalan, Neerum Neruppum, Ithayakkani etc. As a child Kalaa accompanied her mother to various studios and was enthralled by Kollywood.

What attracted her most was singing. Kalaa learnt Carnatic music from Ammapettai Krishnamurthy. Kalaa is thrilled that her guru Krishnamurthy too is to receive a “Kalaimaamani” this time along with her at the hands of Jayalalitha. It is reported that Kalaa had met the chief minister some time ago and eagerly asked her whether she had ever listened to her songs. Jayalalitha replied “Kalaa paattai Ketkaamalaa? —– Kettirukken”. (Not heard Kala’s songs?…….. I have heard). Incidently Kalaa’s mother Shanmugasunthari received the same award during M.G. Ramachandran’s time as CM.

With the daughter wanting to sing in films Shanumugasunthari tried hard to fullfil Kala’s dreams. Her first break came through AP Naagarajan. Shanmugasunthari had acted in many dramas scripted by the legendary APN . This helped her in canvassing for Kalaa.APN who made a name through films of devotional fervour and literary flavour was filming the story of sage “Ahathiyar” played by singer Seergali Govindarajan. Violin maestro Kunnakudi Vaithiyanathan was composing music.

One sequence in the film was about a young boy serving his parents diligently.He places his parents above all else and even dares to defy Agathiyar in this respect.. The sequence required a song extolling the virtues of parents sung by a different type of voice. TK Kalaa fitted the bill. She sang the song “Thaayit Sirantha Kovilum Illai, Thanthai Sol Mikka Manthiram Illai” perfectly

. The words of Poovai Senguttuvan set to music by Kunnakudi and sung beautifully by Kalaa came across well. In spite of many hit songs in the film rendered by veterans like Seergali, TMS and TR Mahalingam the song rendered by TKK was a hit and remains an all time favourite yet. In fact Kalaa is vividly remembered for this first film song which is almost like her signature song.

The next big break came when MGRamachandran heard her singing at a wedding reception at Mylapore. This was in the mid – seventies when the “Puratchi Nadigar” split from the DMK and had become “Puratchi Thalaiver” by founding his own party AIADMK. When MGR arrived Kalaa was singing a number from an MGR starrer “Nallavan Vaalvaan”. The song was “Aandavan oruvan Irukkindraan” sung by Seergali for the film. MGR was greatly impressed.

As a result MGR got Kalaa to sing in two of his films. One was “Pallandu Vaalha” in 1975 and the other “Ulaikkum Karangal” in 1976. Latha was the heroine in both. In “pallandu vaalha” Kalaa was paired with KJ Jesudas for the song “Poi Vaa Nathiyalaiye” written by Pulamaipithan and music set by KV Mahadevan. It was a hit song. The other was “Vaaren Vali Paarthiruppen” which she sang along with veteran TM Soundararajan. MS Viswanathan was the composer.

Around this time Kalaa also got a chance to sing for the veteran genius Rajeswara Rao. It was for KS Gopalakrishnan’s “Thasavatharam”. Kalaa voiced two songs for the role of Brahalathan in the film.The songs were “narayana ennum naamam” and “paar sumakum paampanaiyil”.

Despite her ability and the initial breaks Kalaa was not very lucky. For one thing MGR had given up acting and become Chief Minister. Another reason was the advent of Vaani Jeyaram. MSV, Shanker – Ganesh and Vijayabhaskar who were ruling the roost in the mid – seventies opted for Vaani rather than Kalaa. MSV gave her chances to sing for his troupe on stage but did not use her in films. Then came the Ilayarajah phenomenon. That was the end for Kalaa.The “Isai Gnani” known for his pique and prejudice never used Kalaa in films.

So TKK had to be content with only a few songs in Tamil movies. These opportunities came with long intervals between each. Many of the songs were not up to the mark either in words or melody. Besides some of the movies they were from became colossal flops. Yet a ray of sunlight in all this was AR Rahman. The budding genius used Kalaa first in the hit song “Kulicha Kuthalam” for K Balachander’s “Duet” where she sang along with SP Balasubramaniyam.

Kalaa got some more chances with ARR in Bharathiraja films like ” Karuthamma”, “Taj Mahal”.and also “May Matham” The lullaby “Aararo Aareero” in “Karuthamma” highlighting female infanticide is a classic.

Among her other memorable songs are “murukko kai murukku” (oru oothap poo kan simittugirathu”), “Oru Kathal Samrajyam” (Nanda En Nila), “En Kannin Maniye” (Rajarajeswari) “Mottu Mottu Malligai” (oru Marathup Paravaigal), “Kal thana nee kadavul illaiya” (Pillaiyar), “Aanagi Nigariye” (Utharavodu Ulle Vaa), Aadipparu Mangatha” (May Matham), “Chinna Ponnu Rasathy” (Sandhitha Velai), “Kaathirathu Kaathirathu” ( En Mamanukku Nalla Manasu), “kathadi Koothu” (Poonkaatre), Kulikkap Pogum Sakkil” (Manathil), “rettaikkili, rettaikkili” (Marumalarchi) and “Sengathe” in Taj Mahal. The last one is Ghazal type melancholy solo composed by Rahman.

Though ARR recognized her talents and gave her many chances Kalaa has also sung for several different composers with diverse styles like Rajeswara Rao, Thetchanamoorthy, KV Mahadevan, MS Viswanathan, Kunnakudi Vaithyanathan, Shankar – Ganesh, Jayaraman, Deva, SA Rajkumar, Bharani etc. Kalaa has also sung for the well – known singer Soolamangalam Rajalakshmi when the latter composed music for “Pillaiyar”.

Apart from her solos Kalaa has also sung with several reputed as well as lesser known singers like TM Soundararajan,KJ Jesudhas, SP Balasubramaniyam, Mano,Krishnaraj, Narendran, TK Nadarajan, KG Prakash etc. She has also sung with female singers like Swarnalatha, Sunitha and the veteran actress Manorama. Interestingly Kalaa has also sung with two actors in films. One is YG Mahendra and the other Mansoor Ali Khan.

Though opportunities were scarce in Tamil cinema Kalaa never stopped singing. She has sung innumerable songs in Tamil for the Mumbai sound industry where sound tracks from Hindi songs are re – recorded for regional consumption. She also gives many public performances from Wedding receptions to stage shows. Kalaa has toured Sri Lanka, Canada, South Africa, Switzerland, France, Malaysia, Singapore etc for performances.

Emulating her mother who has acted in many films Kalaa too has commenced acting in recent times. She has played minor roles in “killi” and “kasthuri Maan”. Another film “Veyil” is nearing completion. Her son Mahendrakumar an undergraduate at Loyola College is also keen on entering films after completing studies.

Kalaa is jubilant about getting the Kalaimaamani. In a recent newspaper interview she said ” I feel elated about receiving the award from Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. It would be a proud moment for me. Adding to the joy is the fact that I am receiving the award along with my guru Amma Pettai Krishnamurthy. My mother received the award during MGR’s period”.

In the same interview she was asked to comment about the decline in Tamil film music. This is what she said ” Lyrics are the most important aspect in songs and if it is not understood by the people, the essence of the song is lost. Singers like P Susheela, Yesudas and S P Balasubramanian have rendered songs in Tamil despite them belonging from other States and their words are crystal clear. But nowadays, majority of the words are not understood”.

This then is the unfolding tragedy of Tamil cinema. The beauties from Mumbai and Malayalam cannot speak Tamil. Those who do speak Tamil do so with mutilated pronounciation. The singers are imported from all over. They sing well but many words are mispronounced or inaudible amidst the raucous “sound” overpowering melody.Many rasikas yearn nostalgically for the time when actors and singers pronounced Thamizh clearly and correctly and the crescendo of music did not drown out the words.

In this bleak scenario people like TKKalaa remain “unutilised” with their vast potential untapped. The “Kalaimaamani” in this situation can come only as compensation to this unique singer with a golden voice! – DBSJ

Songs by T.K. Kalaa

Add comment February 23rd, 2006

Leela: Exquisite songbird with a mellifluous voice

Porayathu Leela known to millions of rasikas as P. Leela passed away around midnight on Sunday October 30th in Chennai. The 71 year old South Indian songbird was lying in a hospital bed of Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre for nearly a month . She had fallen in the bathroom at her house in Nandambakkam Defence colony , shared for decades , with her sister and family. Diagnosis after admission revealed a blood clot in her brain.Surgery was performed. Complications set in when she got pneumonia.Being an asthma patient her condition deteriorated. She was in a coma at the time of death and so passed away peacefully and painlessly.

The present generation of Thamizh filmsong fans may have never heard her or heard of her. She was the uncrowned queen of song in the realm of Thamizh films during the fifties. P. Leela has sung about 5000 film songs in languages such as Thamizh, Malayalam, Telungu , Kannadam and even Sinhala.. Her Thamizh renditions may number around thousand. She was a household name in the fifties and early sixties.

My mother was her ardent fan. Her favourite Thamizh filmsong “jodi” was the Ghantasala – Leela duo. She would often say that both voices were made for each other. When I was growing up on a diet of films and filmsongs singers like Ghantasala, Leela, AM Rajah, Jikki, Chidambaram Jeyaraman, ML Vasanthakumari, Tiruchi Loganathan etc were on the decline in Thamizh films. This was not due to any shortcoming on their part. In fact they were at their peak then. Unfortunately they were not given opportunities to sing in Thamizh movies.

This was due to four reasons. One was that film music composers and film directors began avoiding them for various reasons. Another was that the old custom of having a variety of singers render playback was giving way to a practice of having two or three only per film. Thirdly the number of songs in a film too was being progressively reduced .Finally leading actors and actresses began insisting that only TM Soundararajan and P. Susheela should sing for them.

As a result singers like Leela got few chances in Thamizh after the early sixties. So the new Thamizh films that I saw in those years did not have her songs. But there was always Radio Ceylon. Also I became a film afficianado and sought out old Thamizh movies. Leela was featured in many of those.

Though my childhood and early teens was the era of TMS, Susheela, PB Sreenivas,Seergali Govindarajan, S. Janaki and LR Eeswari etc it was etched in my consciousness that Leela was the best of them all.. This was due to a rather funny reason. The early sixties saw the Leela stores cum press owner Sinnathurai bringing out an illustrated Leela calendar in Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then..Radio advertisements were used greatly to market the new product. They used the similarity of the Leela name for that.

Most ads would have a line from a popular song by Leela like “Engume Aanandham” or “Konchum Salangai Oli Kettu”. Thereafter a voice would say that just like Leela’s songs the Leela calendar too was the best or that like a song by Leela the namesake calendar too gave pleasure. This made an indelible impression that Leela was the best singer at that impressionable age. Of course in later years one listened to more and more old songs and realised that all those nightingales of yesteryear were unique in their own way.

As for Leela her voice and singing style to me is inimitable. It was a sweet amalgam of at least five of her contemporaries. ML Vasanthakumari, Jikki, (Radha) Jeyalakshmi, TS Bhagavathy and AP Komala. It was like a veritable “Panchamirtham”. Her resonant voice rang out loud and clear in a solo, duet or chorus singing(Koshti Ganam)

Former filmstar and present Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram summed Leela up aptly in her condolence message.Jayalalitha described Leela as “one of the greatest vocal musicians of India, who made a name for herself by singing exquisite songs in her mellifluous voice in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu both for the film industry, as well as in Carnatic music.”

The Chief minister who sang herself in some films was a Leela fan. Jayalalitha was CM when Leela got the Tamil Nadu Government’s “Kalaimaamani” award in 1992. When Leela went on stage Jayalalitha observed “Ithu eppavo ungalukku kuduthirukkanum. Enga Amma unga rasikai. Naanum unga rasikai”. (This award should have been given you a long time ago. My mother (actress Sandhya) was your fan. I am also your fan) It speaks volumes about the pitiable plight of Tamil Nadu awards that Leela was bestowed “Kalaimaamani” only in 1992 whereas many lightweights were honoured years before.

Porayathu Leela was born in Chithoor near Palghat, Kerala in 1934.. Her early years were in Kochi where her father Kunchan Menon was a school master. He was devoted to Carnatic music even encouraging Leela’s mother Meenakshi Kutti to learn Carnatic after marriage. The father recognized the musical ability and voice range of his daughter at a very early age. He arranged for music lessons with Mani Bhagavathar the uncle of Carnatic vidwan TV Gopalakrishnan and later Vadakkancheri Rama Bhagavathar . Leela as a child was made to practice alone between 4 – 6 am daily.

Chennai or Madras was the South Indian capital during the Madras Presidency days of the British Raj. It was the cultural Mecca for those of Dravidian heritage. Rama Bhagavathar moved to Madras. Realising his daughters potential needed a change of place, Kunchan Menon resigned his job in 1944 and migrated to Madras. Leela continued her music tutelage under Rama Bhagavathar along with Pathamadai Krishna Aiyar and Maruthuvakkudi Rajagopal Aiyer in Madras. The father and daughter were also present for all kacheris by the masters like Ariyakkudi, Semmangudi, GNB, MS, DK Pattammal etc.

Leela made her mark when she came first at the “Ragam – Thalam – Pallavi” competition organized by the Madras Viswath Sabha in 1944.The judges were GN Balasubramaniam and Palghat Mani Aiyer. This gave her a break when the Andhra Mahila Samithi arranged for regular performances. She began making a name as an up and coming carnatic musician. Neither the father nor daughter ever wanted to sing in films. Their focus was the stage.

The forties however saw a new phenomenon known as playback singing in Indian cinema. Instead of actors singing their songs they were merely lip – synching the words on screen. Regular singers were singing the songs. The final sound track was made after combining both through re – recording. Many professional singers were earning money and fame by singing in films.

The music composer Pathmanabha Shastri heard Leela sing and was impressed. An offer was made. Menon and Leela were reluctant first. They were sceptical about the new medium. Finally they agreed. Leela made her entry into playback singing for cinema in 1948. It was the Thamizh film “Kankanam” starring KR Ramasamy and Menaka. Leela sat on the floor and sang into the mike. Four of her songs were recorded for the film. She never looked back after that.

1949 was the turning point year in her career. She sang in “Pilhanan” for which Padmanabha composed music. She also began music lessons under musical prodigy CR Subbaraman who was also scoring music for films. CRS gave chances to his pupil. Leela sang first for CRS in the Kannada film “Bhaktha Kabeer” in 1949. CRS also gave opportunities to Leela in the Thamizh movies “Mohini” and “Velaikkari”. “Aahaa Ivar Yaaradi” sung for “Mohini” with KV Janaki and “Oridanthanile” for “Velaikkari” were hits. Both were featured on dances by the Travancore sisters Lalitha and Padmini. A singing star was born.

1949 proved to be a milestone for Leela’s playback singing career in Telugu Cinema also.Her debut in Telugu was in `Mana Desam’ The second film Mirzapuram Raja’s `Keelu Gurram’ was a super hit and then came the movie which catapulted her to fame, K. V. Reddi’s `Gunasundari Katha,’ in which Leela sang all the songs for the heroine Sriranjani Junior in the company of Ghantashala who composed the music and also sang a few of the songs. Most of the songs rendered by Leela in this film and the Tamil remake “Gunasundhari” (1955) became hits and are remembered to this day. In the 1950s Leela began to sing in all South Indian films.

It was also Subbaraman who enabled Leela to impress connoisseur and commoner alike with a classic number. It was for the film “Manamagal” and again a duet for a dance by Lalitha and Padmini. CRS wanted Leela to sing with the legendary ML Vasanthakumari.. Leela was nervous to sing along but was persuaded by her mentor. It was the ragamalika “Ellam Inba Mayam”.MLV and Leela moved effortlessly from raga to raga off – screen even as Lalitha and Padmini danced in rhythmic movement on – screen. Leela held her own with MLV and established her name as a singer par excellence of classical melody. Incidently MLV and Leela were the only two singers of that generation with formal training in carnatic music.

As far as Thamizh was concerned Leela’s voice harmonised perfectly with Ghantasala’s bass voice as well as AM Raja’s tenor. She also sang with TMS, Seergali, Chidambaram, Tiruchi and VS Sundaram. The film and music critic Ranga Rao observed that Ghantasala always held a torch out for her. The duo hit it off perfectly in films like “Bhathala Bhairavi” “Maya bhajaar” and “Prema Pasam” with evergreen numbers like ” Amaithi Illathen Maname” , “Ennathan un Premaiyo” , “Kathale Deiveega”, “Neethanaa Ennai”, “Aahaa Inba Nilavinile” and “Veesum Thendralile” etc.

Among her many duets with AM Raja were ” Vaarayo Vennilaave ” in ” Missiamma”, “odameethirunthe” in “Assai Magan” and “Naan seitha Poojapalam” in “Gunasundari”. Some of her memorable numbers with Soundararajan were “Mugathinil Mugam Parkalam ” (Thangappadumai), ” Nenjil kudiyirukkum” (Irumbuthirai), “Thendral urangidakkoodumadi” (Sangili Thevan), “Thalaiyam Poomudichu” (Bhagapirivinai) , “Sundari Soundari” (Thookku thookki), “Igalogame” (Thangamalai Rahasyam) “Poovindri Manamethu” )Thangappathumai) and “Nilave Nee Intha ” (Pattinathar).

Seergali and Leela also hit it off well with items like “ellaiyillatha Inbathile” (Chakkaravarthi Thirumagal) , “Kuttrala Aruviyile” (Nallavan Valvan) and “Kalathai Matrinan” (Manithan Maravillai). It was also with Seergali that Leela sang in a Thamizh film after a gap of many years. It was “Engirundho Vanthal” in 1970 where a skit on Sakunthalai was performed on screen. The song by Seergali and Leela begins as “Kalithasa Maha Kavi Kaviyam, Kanni Sakunthalai Endroru Oviyam”. It was poignantly appropriate that Leela voiced for Sakunthala. Like Dushyanthan in Kalidas’s epic forgetting Sakunthalai the Tamil film world too had forgotten Leela.

Then there are her innumerable film solos. The one that I like most is the song “Then Suvai Mevum Senthamil Geetham” in “Dr. Savithri. The musical score is by maestro G. Ramanathan who usually gave ample scope to Leela in the movies he worked in. The song is based on eastern and western classical. Leela sings in sopranic tones to piano accompaniment. The piano interludes are variations of a Beethoven symphony. Leela begins with an “Aaahaara bhirugha” of incredible sweetness and follows up with similiar interspersals. The words too extol the virtues of music and song. “Aanandha Geetham ” (A song of happiness) is an “Amudha Saagaram (Ocean of Ambrosia ) How true! The song is almost like a mission statement signed by Leela.

Among other popular and well – appreciated solos are “Kathiruppan Kamalakkannan” in “Uthama Puthiran” where Leela sings a ragamalika set by Ramanathan for a Bharatham sequence by Padmini and her younger sibling Ragini. Leela moves from one raga to another smoothly. So remarkable is the singing that many mistake the singer for MLV. Another of Leelas clasical gems is “Neeye Kathi Eeswari”set to Sarukesi raga in “Annayin Aanai”. The composer is SM Subbaia Naidu who also appreciated Leela’s work greatly.

It was Subbia who composed music for “Konchum Salangai” for which Leela sings the theme song “konchum Salangai Oli Kettu, Nenjil Ponguthamma Puthiya Paattu”. The hit song of the film however was “Singara Velane Deva”. It was this song – accompanied by Karukurichi Arunasalams nathaswaram – that launched S. Janaki’s career. What is interesting is that Subbiah Naidu wanted Leela to sing it initially.

Leela however declined saying she could not do full justice to the song and recommended the relatively unknown Janaki as most suitable to sing it. A rare act of frankness and magnanimity!. When Janaki performed in Toronto last month she recollected this incident and expressed her gratitude to” Leelaamma.”

A Leela solo lingering in memory is the lilting “Kaanagame Engal Thayagame” in “Merriland” Subramaniam’s “Yaanai Valartha Vaanambadi”. It was a story about a feminine “tarzan” reared by animals in the forest. The song was played on the not so well – known Kumari as she rode on the back of an elephant.

Another Leela solo etched in memory is the song in “Kappalottiya Thamizhan” about Indian freedom fighter V. O. Chithamparapillai. The title role is played by Sivaji Ganesan. He is on his deathbed and wants wife Kumari Rukmani (Mother of Lakshmi and grandmother of Aishwarya) to sing Subramania Bharats immortal “Endru Thaniyum Engal Suthanthira Thagam?” (When will our thirst for freedom be quenched?). Leela sings it just as an old woman about to lose her husband would have sung it by his death bed. At the same time her song expresses the yearning for freedom in the dying man.The full import of the song’s meaning and emotion comes out clearly.

There are other notable songs like “Engume Aanantham”, “Kannaalan Varuvara”, “Paartheera Ivar sarasam”, “bhagyavathi Naan” “Nithirai Illaiady” etc . In my opinion the finest four of her best solos were in “Missiamma” , “Vanchikottai Vaaliban and “Thangappathumai”. Missiamma starred Gemini Ganesh and real life wife Savithri. The two remarkable Leela solos were “Mayame Naan Ariven” and “Enaiyalum Mary Matha”. The latter an appeal to the Virgin Mary was sung on an emotional high though Leela is a hindu. It is on par with the Jikki – Periyanayaki number on Mary in” Gnanasoundari” – “Arul Tharum Theva Mathave”.

The solo from “Vanchikottai Valiban “is “Vennilave thanmathiye ennudane Va Va”. It is a soothing melody set on screen for Padmini in a nocturnal boat scene. The melody is evocative of the gentle breeze, moonlight glow, ripples in the water and above all the slow , rhythmic movement of the boat. It transports one to an ethereal atmosphere.

The fourth solo is the tragic number “sollamma Vai thiranthu” in “Thangappathumai”. It is played out on Padmini on screen. The music is by Viswanathan – Ramamoorthy. Leela has gone on record saying that it was the most difficult song she has ever sung for Thamizh films. The recording took place from 9am to 9 pm at a 12 hour stretch. Since it was full of pathos Leela was emotionally high – strung. Viswanathan was not easily satisfied and made Leela labour ceaselessly. At the end of it all Leela wept uncontrollably. Leela’s singing plus Padminis acting made the song sequence a great success.

Leela has also sung several duets with singers of her own sex. The songstress combinations have been successes very often. It was the “inbamayam” duet with MLV in “Manamagal” that made Leela’s name. There have been other duets with others too like “vetkamaga irukkuthadi” – Soolamangalam Rajalakshmi in “Paar Magakey Paar” and “Vaaliya Needooli” – (Radha) Jayalakshmi in “Arivaali”. Both were bharatanatyam numbers. Leela however clicked marvellously with Jikki and P. Susheela.

The crowning achievement with Jikki was in “Vanchikottai Vaaliban” by Gemini Studios. Music was by C. Ramachandra of “Anarkali” fame. Two great danseuse actresses Padmini and Vyjayanthimala were the heroines vying for hero Gemini Ganesans affection. There is this magnificient dance competition between both in the presence of the hero and villain Veerappa. Jikki sings for Vyjayanthi and Leela for Padmini in the classic number “Kannum Kannum Kalanthu”. The song written by Kothamangalam Subbu is a verbal duel. The words, melody, dancing and singing prove to be an excellent combination. At one point Veerappa exclaims “Sabash! Sariyana Potti” (wow! Great competition). It was not only apt for the on screen dancing but also applicable for the off – screen singing by Jikki and Leela.

Leela’s much praised duet with Susheela was in “Lavakusha” starring NT Rama Rao and Anjali Devi. The duet was a marathon 12 minute number “Jegam Pugalum Punniya Kathai Ramanin Kasthaiye, Athai Sevi kulira Padiduvom Kelungal Ithaiye”. The words of Maruthakasi encapsule the story of Ramayana in that song. The music is by Ghantasala. Leela and Susheela sing it in Telungu also in the Telugu version of the film.. Sri Sathya Sai Baba was greatly enamoured of that song. He referred to Leela and Susheela as Lava and Kusha because it was Lava and Kusa who sing it on screen.

Leela has sung for many actresses like Padmini, Savithri, Jamuna, Anjali Devi, TR Rajakumari, Rajasulosana, Vijayakumari and even Saroja Devi. It is felt that her voice suited Padmini and Savithri best. She has also sung for composers like CR Subbaraman, Ghantasala, KV Mahadevan, SM Subbiah Naidu, Rajeswara Rao, C, Ramachandra , G. Ramanathan and Viswanathan -Ramamoorthy. Almost every composer elicited the best from her though CRS, Ghantasala, KVM and G Ramanathan excelled in utilising her talent. Leela was a simple and humble person without any airs or tantrums. She cooperated with all her music diectors and co – singers well.

In spite of her ability and popularity Leela was unassuming. She also had strong principles. Once she lost a great opportunity to sing with MK Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar for one of his films because she had a prior commitment for a Kacheri. She refused to cancel it in order to sing with Bhagavather. Incidently Leela is one of the few songstresses to sing with music composer KV Mahadevan. It happened accidently because the male playback singer did not turn up and KVM had to finish the recording on that day itself. The film was “Mathanamohini”. The KVM – Leela song “Kannalanai” was a hit.

Leela was a singer who could sing almost any type of song at any pace. Classical, semi. classical, light and folk songs were all her forte. Devotional, dancing, gypsy, folk, romantic songs were all part of her repertoire. She could grasp the melody easily and sing with all intonations. She kept the “shruthi” low and sang out lustily giving full range to her mellifluous voice.

It is indeed a pity that a songstress of Leela’s calibre was slowly sent into oblivion by Tamil cinema. After “Engiruntho Vandhal” in 1970 there was a long lull till Ilaiyarajah got her to sing in “Katpoora Mullai” in 1984. It was for a classical song by Sri Vidya on screen. The actress was the daughter of ML Vasanthakumari with whom Leela has sung together in many films.Leela was not one to canvass for songs and allowed herself to fade away gracefully.

Though Thamizh cinema spurned her Leela was not a spent force. Thelungu and Malayalam cinema embraced her. She was not top of the pops but retained a respected place till her sixties. The Malayalam classic “Chemmeen” for which Saleel Chaudhary composed music has Leela singing for Sheela. She also composed music for the Telungu film” Chinnari Papulu”.

Apart from Thamizh cinema even the orthodox music societies of Tamil Nadu ignored Leela. She was a formally trained carnatic singer but the “Sabhas” of Chennai did not give her many assignments treating her as a second class playback singer. Kerala and Andhra gave her many stage programs. She was however given continuous prominence by Malayalam radio and television .

Her marriage to a lawyer was a failure. She lived with her sister and family in a Chennai suburb. Her solace in life was her sangeetham and bhakthi. Leela turned more and more to devotional songs in later years. Her songs on her family deity Kuruvayoorappan and others on Mookambiga and the recital of Narayaneeyam were well received. The LP records and audio cassettes on Kuruvayoor and Narayaneeyam recitals were best sellers for decades.The devotional hymn, Vakacharthu as recited by Leela, is played every morning in Kuruvayur temple, coinciding with the Nirmalya darshan at dawn.

The Thamizh tinsel world and snobbish sabhas may have rejected Leela but thousands of her fans never forgot her. Whenever a program featuring her was staged in Tamil Nadu or abroad many flocked to see and hear her. Unfortunately such occasions were few.
Technology however enables her fans to listen again and again to the melodious voice at a mere click. Her memory will remain evergreen for ever and ever . The name P. Leela can never be erased from the sphere of Thamizh film songs. “Then Suvai Mevum Senthamizh Geetham Endrum Eluvathu Leelavin Kuralale”.

Songs by P.Leela

Add comment November 5th, 2005

Illaiyarajah’s son Yuvan Weds Grand Daughter of Jaffna


March 21st was an auspicious day for marriages. In Sri Lanka the media hype was about Cricketing spin wizard Muthia Muralitharans marriage to Madhimalar Ramamurthy of Adayar in Chennai.

Even as the Murali – Madhi wedding was on at the Rajeswary Meiyammai Wedding hall another VIP wedding was taking place at the Mayor Ramanathan Chettiar wedding hall. If one “Kalyanam” was of interest to cricket lovers the other “thirumanam” captured the interest of many Tamil film music fans.

Yuvan Shankar Rajah , son of maestro Illaiyarajah and a composer in his own right got married to Sujaya Chandran of London . She is the daughter of medical doctor parents Velayutham and Sarojini Chandran living in Britain.

While Indian media gave much prominence to the “London” connection there was practically no mention about the Jaffna connection of the Bride. Sujayas mother Dr. Sarojini known generally as Saroja is a daughter of Jaffna hailing from Myliddy. An old student of Mahajana College, Thellippalai Sarojini had her higher education in India where she met and married Sujayas father a native of Kerala.

Sujaya based in London is a devotee and student of music. She met Yuvan Shankar Raja as a “fan” in London. Sujaya kept in touch with Yuvan during his many trips to London. There were reverse trips to Chennai too. Gradually rhapsodic love bloomed and the couple with the blessings of their parents embarked on a matrimonial symphony.

With hits like “Kadal Konden” “Manmathan” and now “Ram” Yuvan Shankar Rajah is now firmly established as a little maestro. He is no longer Illaiyarajahs son but a composer in his own right. Music however runs in the family what with Appa and Chithappahs Bhaskar, Gangai Amaran, Annan Karthik Rajah and thangai Bhavatharini making their individual indelible marks on the Tamil film scene.

The wedding ceremony was conducted according to Vedic rituals in accordance with the wishes of the mystical Illaiyaraja. A large number of Brahmin priests were present chanting the “manthras” with gusto.Yuvan tied the “thali” knot at the auspicious time of 10. 05 am.

The attendees and well – wishers were virtually a who’s who of the Kodambakkam movie crowd. The bride Sujaya seemed thrilled at the sight of this galaxy assembled at her wedding.Illaiyarajah personally introduced most of the guests to his daughter in law.

A proud father Illaiyarajah was visibly happy and greeted each and every guest. The fraternal trio Rajah, Bhaskar and Amaran seemed to have patched up their differences and presented an amiable and amicable front to the guests.The family members of the clan too were seen wrapped in bonhomie.

Pride of place was given “Panchu” Arunasalam, Illaiyarajahs mentor who gave the maestro his big break in “Annakkili”. Directors Bharathirajah and SP muthuraman with their wives were present on the stage attending to the couple and guests. Bharathirajah tied a bracelet around Yuvans wrist.

Directors Maniratnam, Shankar, Selvaraghavan, Sa Chandrasekhar and the doyen of them all K. Balachandar were all present.

The guest of honour was former chief minister and DMK Chief Muttuvel Karunanidhi alias Kalainjar. He came in with his customary yellow shawl flanked by deputies Arcot Veerasamy and Thuraimurugan. When Illaiyarajahs wife queried “Amma varaleengala? ” referring to Kalainjars wife Thayalu being absent Karunanidhi retorted “why If Amma had come then how could I have come”.

There was a lot of laughter as everyone present understood the implicit reference to Kalainjars nemesis Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram also called “Amma”. Quipping further Kalainjar inquired “Did you invite “Amma”?. He then remarked ” I was referring to my Veetukkara Amma” amid ripples of laughter.

The couple came down from the dais to receive Kalainjars blessings. The chief minister Jayalalitha though not present had reportedly sent her greetings and gift earlier.When Kalainjar was leaving RM veerappan was entering.

Kamalahasan and Rajanikanth were expected but only the “Mumbai express” showed up. But the super star made amends by sending his daughters Aishwarya and Soundarya with new son in law Dhanush.

When Prabhu and Ramkumar came the talk moved to “Chandramukhi”.Sarathkumar and Radhika also made their presence felt.

Another notable attendee was the writer Jayakanthan who had recently won the Gnanapeeth award. “aachi” Manorama was seen walking up to the one time “enfant terrible” of Tamil letters and congratulating him.

The lyricist Vaali was present for a long time. Taking a front row seat he was seen observing keenly the wedding rituals. Singers P. Susheela, LR Eeswari, Unikrishnan and Hariharan were there too. The rendering of Ghazals by Hariharan was the highlight of the evening.

Music marvel AR Rahman came too and presented Yuvan a diamond ring. nstead of putting it on Yuvans finger the “Musical storm” dropped it neatly into the bridegrooms pocket.MS Visvanathan was there with wife for an hour.

Illaiyarajah seemed radiantly happy at the Tamil film personalities ranging from character actor Sangili murugan to the divine ms. Meena converging to wish the couple.Director Selvaraghavan a close pal of the groom was seen engrossed in conversation with Yuvan

Several actresses like Kushbu. Radhika, Suhasini. Sneha, Revathy, Suhanya, Rohini, Sangeetha etc were engaged in deep conversation with Ms. Jeeva Illaiyarajah. They also exchanged pleasantries with the bride Sujaya who seemed enthralled by the shining stars.

The grooms brother Karthik went around greeting all guests while carrying his cute kid Yatheeswar.The grooms sister Bhavatharini was wearing a dazzling silk saree and bedecked in traditional jeweelery was the cynosure of most eyes as she busily enacted her duties as a virtual mistress of ceremonies.

The unspoken question on most lips was “Eppo Kalyanam Bhavatharini?

After honeymooning in a far eastern country the couple is set to take up permanent residence in Chennai. With a number of films up his sleeve the new bridegroom is expected to roll out an impressive list of melodies combining a Madras beat with Jaffna rhythms even as he settles down to married life with Sujaya Chandran the grand daughter of Jaffna.

Add comment October 3rd, 2005

Gemini Ganesan – Romance King of Tamil Films

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Gemini Ganesan one time heart throb of Tamil cinema passed away peacefully in his sleep at 1.30 am on March 22nd at his residence in Nungambakkam, Chennai. In a career spanning five decades the octogenarian made his mark in Tamil films as the romantic hero par excellence and was known as “kaadhal Mannan” (King of Romance). His on screen and off screen persona were intertwined and the evergreen Gemini with four wives had several liaisons with attractive women. As Tamil Nadu chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram remarked his death is truly “an end of an era in Tamil cinema”.

His real name was Ramasamy Ganesan. The prefix “Gemini” stuck to him because prior to acting Ganesan had worked as casting director at the prestigious “Gemini” studios in Tamil Nadu. By a coincidence his contemporary and namesake Sivaji Ganesan too got the prefix “Sivaji” due to his acting as the Mahratta King in a drama written by former DMK chief Minister CN Annadurai. Sivaji, Gemini and MGR (Ramachandran) comprised the triumvirate that dominated Tamil movies from the fifties to the seventies. Another Thespian SS Rajendran strove valiantly to make this a quartet but failed.

Gemini however was the odd man out among the three musketeers.Unlike MGR and Sivaji he had no professional experience as a stage actor. Both MGR and Sivaji had learnt the ropes as part of the Madurai Boys Company drama group. Unlike them Gemini had tertiary qualifications. He was a B Sc graduate from Madras University whereas the others having taken to the stage in childhood were schooled by life.

MGR and Sivaji encouraged fans associations and participated in politics Gemini remained aloof from politics. He even declined a Rajya Sabha MP nomination proposal by Rajiv Gandhi. While he was always cordial towards fans and friends he never promoted “Rasikar Mandrangal”. This phenomenon continues to this day in Tamil Nadu and other South Indian states with proliferating fans associations dedicated to various film stars.

While MGR’s on screen hallmark was swashbuckling action sequences and Sivaji that of powerful dialogue delivery Gemini cooed and wooed his way into many a heart. All the world loves a lover! Gemini was the greatest lover on Tamil silver screen making hearts flutter. His handsome features, dashing personality, cavalier attitude, soft speech, twinkling eyes and impish humour proved an irresisistible combination.

Though he proved his mettle in many movies with fight scenes and heavy duty dialogue Gemini was not classed as a fighter or actor in the MGR – Sivaji mould. This softie image led to a nickname “Sambar” or vegetable broth. Gemini was also called Ganesh, Gemini Mama and RG. His real name was Ramaswamy Ganesan.

He was born into a well – educated middle class Brahmin family in Puthukottai on November 17th 1920. After rceiving secondary education at Rajahs College he moved to Chennai for higher studies. GGGanesan studied at Madras Christian College and graduated in Science. He worked as a demonstrator in cHemistry for a while at his Alma Mater. Utterly bored with academia he obtained employment at Gemini Studios run by the mercurial SS Vasan. Vasans father in law Ramachandran was Geminis grand uncle.

He worked as casting director at Gemini. One of his duties was to interview prospective actors and actresses. Among his finds was Chandrababu, Ranga Rao, Savithri and Balaji. It was this stint at Gemini that bestowed Ganesan his name Gemini. His first film role was in “Miss Malini” a film based on a short story by RK Narayan. His name in the credits was RG. Later he played Lord Krishna in “Chakradhari”. He came to be noticed as an actor by playing the villain opposite RS Manohar in “Thai Ullam”. His turning point was as the hero playing dual roles in “Manampol Mankalyam” in 1952.

From then onwards there was no looking back. He has acted in more than 200 films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi. Most films however were in Tamil his mother tongue. Among successful movies that Gemini acted as hero were Kanavane Kan Kanda Theivam, Vanjikottai Valiban, Kalyanap Parisu, Missiyamma , Then Nilavu, Meenda Sorgam, Sumai Thangi, Patha Kanikkai, Parthiban Kanavu, Kairasi, Kalathoor KannammaKonchum Salangai Katpaham, Ramu, Valkai Padagu, Shanthi Nilaiyam, Thamarai Nenjam, Vellivila , Punnagai and Naan Avanillai.

He also acted in several blockbusters with Sivaji Ganesan playing second lead. Notable among these were Pennin Perumai, Veera Pandiya Kattabhomman, Kappalottiya Thamilan, Pathi bhakthi, Pavamannippu, Parthal Pasi theerum, Kandan Karunai, Saraswathie Sabatham and Unakkaha Naan. His only film with MGR was Muharasi where he played elder brother. Gemini also starred with SS Rajendran in “Vairakkiyam.In Kalathoor Kannamma Kamalahasan as a child artiste acted as Geminis son. Decades later in Avvai Sanmugi the aged Gemini played father in law to Kamal.

Gemini has acted opposite several leading actresses like Anjali Devi, Pushpavalli, Padmini, Vaijayanthimala, Savithri, Devika, Vijayakumari, Saroja Devi, Vanishree, Rajashree, Kanchana, Bharathi, Jeyanthi, KR Vijaya and Jayalalitha. His screen chemistry with almost all his heroines was superb. Some of the love songs Gemini crooned on screen are evergreen numbers. Several playback singers have sung for Gemini but it was AM Rajah, PB Sreenivas and SP Balasubramaniam whose voices blended most harmoniously on screen. The directors who brought out his acting abilities out best were Ragavaiah, Bhimsingh. Bhanthulu, Sridhar, Shankar, Gopalakrishnan, Balachandar, Nagarajan etc.

Some of his roles are unforgettable. The ugly dwarf in Kanavane Kankanda theivam; the valiant military commander Velliathevan in Veera Pandiya Kattabhomman; the freedom fighter Madasamypillai in Kappalottiya Thamilan; the burdened family man seeking solace as a Catholic priest in Sumai Thangi. The widower with child caught up in a triangular relationship in films like Katpaham, Ramu etc. The Nathaswaram playerlip synching to perfection on screen the music of maestro Karukurichi Arunasalam in Konchum Salangai, Vikkarama Cholan in Parthiban Kanavu, the warrior Verramallan in Saraswathy Sabatham. Lakshmana in Lava kusa; Lord Siva in Kandan Karunai; Lord Krishna in Veera Abhimanyu; the devotee to truth in Punnagai are someperformances lingering in memory.

His magnum opus however was in his own production “Naan Avanillai” (I am not he) directed by S. Balachandar. Gemini played nine roles. The story was about a bigamist posing off as different men in different disguises to different women. It was a case of art imitating life and Gemini was in his element playing all roles. It was a sign of Gemini’s remarkable sense of humour that he chose to film such a story as the only film he has ever produced. Unfortunately it did not click at the box office.

Geminis first and only legal wife was Alamelu called fondly as “Bopji”. Gemini married at 19 and had his first child when 22. This did not prevent further marriages done according to religious rites. One such wife was Pushpavalli with whom he acted in his first film . Another was the illustrious actress Savithri with whom he has acted in many films. She was known as Savithri Ganesh. Gemini made headlines a few years ago by his marriage to a woman more than fifty years his junior Julianna. He also had a live in relationship with the actress Rajashree.

Ganesans other extra- marital liaisons were numerous and added grist to the gossip mills of Kodambakam. Gemini was no gigolo but a casanova.. He was not a hypocrite and candidly admitted to these saying his life was an open book. Some writers have compared him to Gary Cooper in this respect. His wife Bopji stood by her philandering husband throughout like the typical Indian loyal wife.

She and Gemini have four daughters. Three of them Revathy, Kamala and Jeya are medical doctors. A fourth Narayani is a journalist on Times of India. Gemini has two daughters by Pushpavalli. The elder is Rekha the well – known Hindi actress. The younger Radha also acted in a few Tamil films but then opted for marriage and migration to the USA. Savithri and Gemini have two children. The daughter Vijayasamundeeswari is a Physiotherapist. She acted in films as a child artiste “Baby Savithri”. Gemini’s only son Satheesh Kumar is also living abroad.

Despite the fickle love life Gemini was a shrewd businessman and invested heavily in real estate and property development. He was a good sportsman having captained the College Cricket team. He also played Tennis, Golf, Badminton . His other interests were swimming, riding horses, ball room dancing and reading. He has visited Sri Lanka several times and had many good friends.

The MGR – Sivaji – Gemini Period at its best was the golden age of Tamil cinema. The last of that trio has breathed his last. Many actors have romanced their heroines in the past and no doubt will do so in the future. The “romantic king” crown however belonged to Gemini Ganesan and all other aspirants only pretenders to the throne.He was and will be forever the “Kaadhal Mannan” of Tamil cinema just as MGR was the “Puratchi Nadigar” (revolutionary Actor) and Sivaji its “Nadigar Thilakam”.

Add comment October 2nd, 2005

Symposium: Sri Lanka’s cultural experience – For a distinct identity

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Sri Lankan Tamil films have made little progress in quantitative or qualitative terms, but they constitute a key index of the cultural development of Tamils in the island in the post-Independence period.

TAMIL cinema in Sri Lanka, it may be argued, is yet to grow beyond its nascent stage. While thousands of Tamil films have been made in India and hundreds of Sinhala movies have been produced in Sri Lanka, the number of Sri Lankan Tamil films produced so far has not touched the three-digit mark. In qualitative terms also the genre is yet to make its mark. Nevertheless, the attempts made against the odds, by individuals concerned to forge a distinctive cinematic form and assert a separate cultural identity in the post-Independence years are quite interesting. In the context of cinema, Sri Lankan Tamils comprise indigenous Tamils, Tamils of recent Indian origin and Tamil-speaking Muslims. Some preliminary observations are relevant here.

First, the visual media – the big screen and the small screen – constitute the most popular form of cultural entertainment for Sri Lankan Tamils. Cinema, however, has not had an effect that transcended the barriers of popular culture. Tamil films have not been a vehicle of social and political change in Sri Lanka unlike in Tamil Nadu, where all Chief Ministers from C.N. Annadurai, who came to power in 1967, have been involved in cinema at some time or the other.

Secondly, it must be noted that Indian Tamil cinema has had a limited Sri Lankan Tamil connection. Thavamani Devi, a Jaffna Tamil woman, defied convention and acted as a “female Tarzan” in Vanamohini which was produced in India in the 1940s. She set off a series of controversies by acting in what were considered immodest roles. However, there has been a long line of Sri Lankan Tamils involved in Indian cinema in various capacities. Two prominent persons among them, who are active at present, are award-winning director-cum-cinematographer Balu Mahendra and producer-director V.C. Kuganathan.

Thirdly, several well-known personalities of Indian Tamil cinema have had some kind of connection with Sri Lanka: M.G. Ramachandran was born at Madulkelle in Kandy; comedian Chandra Babu spent his early years in Colombo as a student of St. Joseph’s College, Maradana; actress Sujatha, whose father taught in Sri Lanka, spent her childhood in Galle; Radhika, daughter of M.R. Radha, also grew up in Wennappuwa from where her mother hails.

Fourthly, Sri Lankan Tamils have been a constructive component of Sinhala cinema right from its inception. The first Sinhala film, Kadawuna Poronduva, was produced by a Tamil, S.M. Nayagam. The pre-1983 period saw a large number of Tamils become part and parcel of the Sinhala film industry as producers, directors, cinematographers, music directors, sound directors, technicians and musicians. In fact, the owners of some of the major studios and theatres were Tamils. But with the post-1983 developments in the island, the Tamil presence in Sinhala cinema has become virtually non-existent

Despite their contribution to Sinhala cinema, very few Tamils made any worthwhile attempt to pioneer the production of Tamil films in Sri Lanka, the chief reason for this being doubts about the commercial viability of such films. Competition from imported South Indian films and the films produced by flourishing Sinhala film industry made the production of Tamil films in Sri Lanka a risky venture. Besides, the distribution of Tamil films posed a problem. The distributors were accused by Sri Lankan Tamil film-makers of discouraging local production of Tamil films.

Under these circumstances, the task of making Tamil films in Sri Lanka was left to maverick producers, who did not have adequate financial or institutional resources. The successful development of Tamil cinema in India was owing to the entrepreneurship of major studios such as Modern, Gemini, AVM, ALS, Vijaya, Jupiter, Narasus and Pakshirajah. In Sri Lanka there was no such development; there it was left to independent film-makers, who were fired by desire and determination, to try their hand at cinema. Many of them lacked an understanding of what good cinema was all about. Their purpose was to emulate within the Sri Lankan milieu films made in Tamil Nadu.

THE first Sri Lankan film in Tamil – as opposed to a Sri Lankan Tamil film – was named Kusumalatha, which was screened on December 29, 1951. It was not a film made originally in Tamil; it was a Sinhala film, Sangavunu Pilithura starring Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi, dubbed into Tamil. The voice-overs were supplied by Indian Tamil artists. So, this movie cannot be considered to be an authentic Sri Lankan Tamil film.

In that respect, the first Sri Lankan Tamil film was Samuthayam (Society), an adaptation of C.N. Annadurai’s Velaikkari. This film, however, was in 16 mm and in technicolor. While the producer of the first Sinhala film was a Tamil, the producer of the first Sri Lankan Tamil film was a Sinhalese, Henry Chandrawansa. He was its director too. Samuthayam was initially planned as a 35-mm film but later the producer reverted to 16 mm because of financial difficulties.

The film was essentially a labour of love. At one stage the producer was in dire straits, and the artists were forced to raise money by soliciting donations from the public. Already in trouble, the producer faced a further shock when he was unable to find theatres to screen the film. The film was screened in 1962 at the Borella YMBA hall by special arrangement. Thereafter it toured the country and was exhibited in schools and halls of religious bodies. Finally, with the aid of Ceylon Theatres, it was exhibited in 1963 at Manel Theatre in Dematagoda. The chief guest on the occasion was Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam.

The first Sri Lankan Tamil film in the standard 35 mm was Thottakkari (Plantation Woman). Its makers were persons who had started out on Samuthayam but broke away from the group because of professional differences. The film was plantation-oriented and included speeches by trade unionists S. Thondaman and Azeez. It was directed by Krishnakumar who also played the male lead role. Thottakkari was released on March 28, 1962 at nine theatres. The film did not exceed two weeks at the first run. It had several technical defects.

If Samuthayam and Thottakkari were the first Sri Lankan Tamil films in 16 mm and 35 mm respectively, the last Tamil film produced in Sri Lanka was Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam (Sharmila’s Melody of the Heart). Its producer-cum-associate director is a Muslim, Peradeniya Junaideen, and the director a Sinhalese, Sunil Sopma Peiris. Junaideen also wrote the screenplay, the dialogue and the songs. The film was completed in 1989 but could be screened only in 1993 because of the non-availability of theatres.

Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam was based on a novel serialised in the Tamil weekly Chinthamani for 32 weeks. The novel was very popular and met with success in the book form too. It was written by Junaideen’s wife. Junaideen had dabbled in several cinematic enterprises; he was an assistant director of the English movie Mountain in the Jungle starring Ursula Andress, which was shot in Sri Lanka. At a ceremony held in Colombo one month after the screening, Junaideen related the severe financial problems he faced (he even sold his house in Kandy) while producing the film. He broke down when he said that he was struggling to raise Rs.50,000 to dub the film in Sinhala.

Although there have been some attempts to produce Tamil movies in Sri Lanka after Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam, they have not borne fruit; however, some telefilms have been made. So, technically, the unfinished saga of Tamil movies in Sri Lanka, which began with Samuthayam in 1962 and Thottakkari in 1963, has not proceeded beyond Sharmilavin Ithaya Ragam released in 1993. Nearly 50 Tamil films have been produced in Sri Lanka during the post-Independence period. While the quantity and quality of these films leave much to be desired, they do constitute an important index of the cultural development of Tamils in Sri Lanka during this period. Thambyayah Thevathas in his descriptive work Ilankai Thamil Cinemavin Kathai provides an exhaustive account of the birth and growth of films in Tamil. He categorises the films into four. One is the 16-mm category (Samuthayam, Pasa Nila). The second is films dubbed from Sinhala into Tamil, such as Kaliyugakaalam and Naanku Latcham. The third is Indo-Sri Lankan joint productions such as Nankooram, Pilot Premnath. The fourth is the larger and authentic category of Tamil movies, such as Thottakkari, Kadamaiyin Ellai and Vensangu produced originally in Sri Lanka.

It is the considered opinion of this writer, after having viewed almost all of the Sri Lanka-made Tamil films, that none is worthy of mention as a masterpiece either as a serious art film or as a commercial masala film. Sadly, very few of them made profit. But equally sad is the fact that none of them made an impact as an instance of good cinema. Still some films are worthy of mention as relative mileposts within the specific and limited context of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema.

Pasa Nila, made by two schoolmasters at Jaffna College in Vaddukkoddai, has been a singular achievement, with students and staff members of the institution acting in most of the roles. One of the two pedagogues, Joe Dev Anand, went on to become a successful Sinhala film-maker. Then there was Kadamayin Ellai, a film made by an English lecturer, Vedanayagam, a devotee of Shakespeare. The film was a Tamil version of Hamlet.

Nirmala was the first film to create a name for its own brand of original music and songs. Sillaikur Selvarajan wrote the lyrics and a youngster from Trincomalee, Pathmanathan, composed the music. The song “Kanmani Aada Vaa”, sung by Ferdinand Lopez, was a hit, and for the first time Sri Lankan Tamils were humming a local Tamil film song. Vensangu, made by the Tampoes who had experience in the making of South Indian and Sinhala movies, was a reasonable success.

Another novelty was the advent of a trade unionist-cum-politician on the Tamil silver screen. V.P. Ganeshan of the Democratic Workers Congress was the Sri Lankan equivalent of M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu. Ganeshan produced and acted in the lead roles in Pudhiya Kattru, Naan Ungal Thozhan and Naadu Pottra Vaazhgha. He is also the only film-maker to produce three films, all of them reasonable successes.

In terms of commercial success, Rathathin Rathame stands out. But again being registered as an Indian movie and with an Indian cast – Jaishanker, Radhika, Nagesh, Asokan – it cannot be called a Sri Lankan film. However, the film was shot in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans were involved in its production. In fact, its producer and director were Sri Lankans.

The greatest commercial success after Rathathin Rathame, in Tamil films was Komaligal (Clowns). This was a remake of a popular radio drama, “Komaligalin Kummalam”. The film, produced by M. Mohammed, a businessman, was directed by Ramanathan, an experienced person in the Sinhala film world. The highlight of the film was the performances of Ramadas, a Brahmin in real life, who played the role of a Muslim, and Abdul Hameed, a Muslim, who played a Brahmin role. A sequel to it, Emaligal, also met with reasonable success.

Three Tamil movies, however, stand out as having reflected Sri Lankan Tamil life in a realistic manner. They are Kuthuvilakku, Ponmani and Vadakkattru (North Wind). The first two are set in the peninsula, while Vadakkattru is set against the backdrop of the Neduntheevu island. Both Kuthuvilakku and Ponmani have the burning problem of dowry as the central theme. The heroines meet with death in both films. Vadakkattru, based on a novel by Senkai Aaliyan, deals with the tensions between migratory and indigenous fishermen. This is perhaps the best Tamil film made so far. It is produced by Sivathasan of Kamalaalayam Movies and is directed by Premnath Moraes. The screenplay and dialogue are written by Sempiyanselvan. The music is composed by Latiff. In the cast are S. Yesuratnam, K.S. Balachandran, K.A. Javahar, Vasantha Appadurai, Chandrakala, Lathis Veeramani, A.E. Manoharan, Anantharanee Rajaratnam, S.S. Ganeshapillai and Inthirakumar.

THIS then is the brief tale of Sri Lankan Tamil cinema. It is a story of a cultural industry that struggles to assert itself against overwhelming odds: on the one hand there are the Tamil films from India, and on the other there are Sinhala films. While there has been no help forthcoming from the Sri Lankan Government to promote and foster indigenous Tamil cinema, India too did not allow any access to the vast Tamil Nadu market. Thus it was left to individuals who were fired by the desire to make achievements in Tamil cinema to try their hands at it, amidst great hardship.

One of the positive aspects of the Sri Lankan Tamil film scene has been its ethnic diversity. The cruel ethnic divide was not reflected here. Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamils of Indian origin, Muslims – they have all been involved in its development. Almost every film has reflected the ethnic diversity of the country – in the form of the cast, technicians and musicians.

Although some of the early ventures were disasters, Sri Lankan Tamil movies have struggled to evolve their own individuality. The period between 1970 and 1977 in particular saw a cultural renaissance in the Sri Lankan Tamil literary field. The implications of this were felt in films too. Tamil film-makers realised that mere imitation of Indian Tamil cinema would not pay commercially or artistically. So they began experimenting with a new genre based on realistic portrayals of indigenous issues and themes. A more committed form of film-making aimed at striking out an independent course was emerging.

Even as this process was in progress, three calamities struck. The first was the opening up of the economy, paving the way for joint Indo-Sri Lankan productions. When prominent Indian stars came to Sri Lanka and began shooting in familiar spots, the novelty of offering to filmgoers Sri Lankan locations on screen was appropriated by these films. So, indigenous films lost a primary attraction.

The second was the arrival of television and the video cassette. Indian Tamil movies could be now viewed sitting in one’s drawing room. The state, on the other hand, did not encourage the local industry by offering incentives. The adverse impact felt by Tamil films from Tamil Nadu and Sinhala films as a result of television and the video cassette was felt even more acutely by Sri Lankan Tamil cinema.

The third and most important factor that affected Sri Lankan Tamil cinema was the ethnic violence of 1983 and the continuing escalation of the conflict. Sri Lankan Tamil society itself was torn asunder and uprooted by the ongoing conflict. This led to a moratorium on all meaningful cultural activity. Internal displacement and migration to other places became the reality of life for Sri Lankan Tamils. Performers, producers and patrons of culture were all affected. In this situation, Tamil cinema faces extinction. It would require a political change to create a climate that is conducive to the resurgence of Tamil cultural forms. Sri Lankan Tamil cinema, characterised by a widespread expression of popular culture, can emerge with strength only in such a context. With cinema in Sri Lanka facing a crisis with regard to screening, there appears to be no prospect for Tamil cinema to emerge, let alone flourish.

October 1st, 2005

A doyen among actors

Sivaji Ganesan, 1928-2001.

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

SIVAJI GANESAN, 72, one of the brightest stars on the Tamil film firmament for nearly five decades, passed away at a Chennai hospital on July 21. With more than 300 film roles to his credit, he inspired a whole generation of artists, virtually creating a new school of acting.

His acting career, which began at the age of eight, could be divided into three phases – 1936 to 1952, when he acted only on stage; 1952 to 1974, when he acted for the big screen and also gave stage performances; and 1974 to 1999, when he acted only in films. (His last film was Pooparikka Varigirom.)

Villupuram Chinniah Ganesan, or V.C. Ganesan, was born on October 1, 1928, in Villupuram, which was then in Tamil Nadu’s South Arcot district, to Chinnaiapillai, a railway employee and freedom fighter, and Rajamani, in whose name he was to launch later a successful film company, Rajamani Pictures.

Smitten by a street drama about Kattabomman, the feudal Polagar of Panchalan-kurichi who defied the British, young Ganesan became enamoured of acting and abandoned school when he was in Class Two. Forsaking home, he joined the Madurai-based Bala Gana Sabha drama troupe first, and later the troupe run by Ethaartham Ponnusamipillai. From child roles he graduated to female roles and then on to the “raja part”, the role of the hero, as it was known then. The first landmark in his career was his portrayal of the Maratha warrior Sivaji in the drama ”Sivaji Kanda Samrajyam” written by Dravida Munnetra Kazha-gam leader C.N. Annadurai, who went on to become the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. E.V. Ramaswamy, the patriarch of the Dravidian movement, acclaimed his stellar performance and referred to Ganesan as ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan. This was in 1946. The sobriquet stuck.

The big break in Sivaji’s career came in 1952, when he acted as the hero in Parasakthi, a film directed by Krishnan-Panju. The dialogue, written by DMK leader and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in fiery and flowery prose with a surfeit of alliterations, the hallmark of Karunanidhi’s style, came powerfully alive in a stunning performance by Sivaji, unparalleled in Tamil cinema. The monologue uttered as an address to Tamil Nadu in the earlier scenes and the courthouse speech in the closing stages of the film were classic instances of delightful oratory. A star had arrived in Tamil cinema.

The Karunanidhi-Sivaji combination made an explosive impact. The writer’s rich prose, brimming with vitality, was given emotive and impressive expression by the actor. Every film in which they collaborated was a success. Notable among them were Thirumbi Paar, Manohara, Kuravanji and Iruvar Ullam.

Sivaji had an extraordinary flair for dialogue delivery. He pioneered an exquisite style, diction, tone and tenor. (Later other scriptwriters, such as Solaimalai, Sakthi Krishnaswamy, Aroor Das, and ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram, were to provide dialogue that tapped his diction, which rendered the Tamil language euphonious.)

A generation of actors and aspirants modelled themselves on his style. Despite this mass attempt to imitate and emulate him there was no replicating or duplicating the veteran. This stylish, dramatic presentation was essentially considered to be a feature suitable for the stage rather than the screen. A device used frequently in his earlier films to give an outlet to his histrionic talents was the inclusion of short historical dramas – on the Chera King Senkuttuvan, Akbar’s son Salim or Jahangir, Socrates, Emperor Asoka among others – within the main plot, often dealing with a social theme.

His acting ability received maximum exposure in the bantering arguments Veerapandiya Kattabomman has with his British adversaries in the eponymous film. Sivaji received the best actor award for this role at the Afro-Asian film festival held in Cairo in 1960.

Sivaji’s talents were by no means restricted to his oratorical prowess and powerful dialogue delivery. He could emote all the nine moods (navarasas) realistically. This skill found scope in all his films and came out into full play in his 100th film Navarathri in 1964, in which he played nine different characters signifying wonder, fear, compassion, anger, gentleness, revulsion, romantic passion, courage and happiness.

His other commendable multi-role performances were in Uthama Puthiran in a dual role, and Deiva Magan and Bale Pandiya in which he did three roles each.

Sivaji Ganesan played a wide range of characters, from god and king to commoner. Whether it was the mercurial Chola emperor Raja Raja Cholan, Lord Siva, Lord Muruga, Saivite saint Appar, Vaishnavite saint Periyaalvar or Tamil poet Ambigapathy, Sivaji was always at his scintillating best. He was equally splendid in contemporary roles and stereotypes making every performance a memorable one.

Superb among them are his roles as Bharatha in Sampoorna Ramayanam, the patriotic lawyer Chidambaram Pillai in Kappalottiya Thamizhan, the nagaswaram player Sikkal Shanmugasundaram in Thillana Mohanambal, Prestige Padma-nadha Aiyer in Vietnam Veedu, Barrister Rajanikanth in Gauravam and Police Superintendent Chaudhury in Thangapadhakkam.

Despite achieving stupendous success on the screen, Sivaji remained faithful to his first love, the stage, and acted in plays for decades. Scenes from some of his films remain etched in memory: the ‘Yaaradi Nee Mohini’ song sequence in Uttama Puthiran, where Sivaji’s mannerisms would remind present day movie-goers of Rajnikanth’s style; the physically challenged Ponniah in Bhagapirivinai, the inimitable gait as the fisherman in Thiruvilayadal and the clash with Tamil scholar Nakkeeran in the same film; his duel over artistic superiority with Padmini in Thillana Mohanambal; particularly during the ‘Nalanthaana?’ song sequence; and the Othello drama sequence in English with Savithri as Desdemona in Iratha Thilakam.

Sivaji had an astounding capacity to synchronise lip and body movements to playback renditions making it appear as if he was actually rendering these songs. Singers Chidambaram Jeyaraman, Tiruchi Loganathan, Seerkazhi Govindarajan and A.M. Raja in the earlier days and T.M. Soundararajan later gave voice to his songs, making the singing and speaking voices blend as an indivisible entity.

Several directors, among them Krishnan-Panju, T.R. Sundaram, L.V. Prasad, B.R. Panthulu, T. Prakash Rao, A. Bhim Singh, K. Shankar, A.P. Nagarajan, A.C. Tirulokchandar, Sridhar, P. Madh-avan, K.S. Gopalakrishnan and K. Vijayan, directed Sivaji in vastly different roles, bringing out his versatility.

It was Sivaji’s tragedy that as the years progressed, opportunities for him to display his acting talent became scarce. But he did act in cameo roles, often stealing the scenes, as in Thevar Magan, which won him the National Awards Jury’s Special Jury award in 1993. (Sivaji, incidentally, declined the award.)

Ironically, the man hailed as a great thespian never won a national award for best actor. He was conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke lifetime achievement award for meritorious service to Indian cinema in 1997.

THE film journal Pesum Padam gave him the honorific ‘Nadigar Thilagam’ (doyen of actors). Sivaji was honoured with the titles Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan and the Tamil Nadu government conferred on him the Kalaimamani award. The French government honoured him with Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Literature.

Sivaji served as a member of the Rajya Sabha. But despite his vast popularity as a film actor he was not successful in politics. Starting out as a Dravida Kazhagam and later DMK activist, he crossed over to the Congress in the late 1950s. When the Congress split in 1969 he stayed with the ‘old’ Congress of Kamaraj. After Kamaraj’s death he joined the Congress led by Indira Gandhi. In 1989, he formed his own Tamizhaga Munnetra Munnani and struck out alone only to suffer a humiliating defeat in the elections. Later he functioned as leader of the Tamil Nadu Janata Dal for a while, but soon ceased to be active in politics.

Essentially a creature of the stage when he entered films, Sivaji Ganesan brought that baggage with him and superimposed it effectively on the film medium. Yet his brilliant acting made this so-called violation of screen norms the accepted norm of film acting. Generations of Tamils learnt to appreciate the beauty and power of the Tamil language because Sivaji Ganesan breathed new life into it.

Sivaji was no stranger to Sri Lanka. His movies ran to packed houses in the island. Several of his films were adapted and remade in Sinhala. Substantial portions of Pilot Premnath and Mohanapunnagai were shot in Sri Lankan locales with Sri Lankan artists Malini Fonseka and Geetha Kumarasinghe in the lead female roles.

[This article was first published in The Frontline, Aug 04-17, 2001]

transCurrents feedback : editor@transcurrents.com

Contact DBS Jeyaraj : djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

August 18th, 2001


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