It was 1944 and the darkness of dusk hid the assailants.
A middle-aged man was on a rickety rickshaw in Kilpauk, when they accosted him. The stabbed passenger survived till the morning and died in the GH. When the corpse was identified, surprisingly there was a collective sigh of relief.
“Lakshmikanthan was dead”.
The secrets of the rich and famous could be pricey. Lakshmikanthan’s victims were men who preferred no spotlights for their clandestine activities. While there existed a school of thought that the loss would be a lullaby to the sleepless nights of many, the attention of the police turned to those who had been recently harmed by his blackmail rag, Indunesan and those who had just petitioned the Governor to close down the blackmail rag.
In a late night swoop, the men were arrested and the heartbeat of Madras Presidency stopped for a moment. The impossible had happened. A superstar had been arrested.
Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, the reigning superstar of Tamil cinema was a singer, who, while others would strain every nerve in their neck to reach the pinnacle of pitch, could just glide there with the least of effort.
The audience adored him. Male fans anxious to be abreast of the fashion in hairdos wore the Bhagavathar crop. His songs were being hummed across the Tamil diaspora.
His movies ran for months in the same theatre with no rival to dislodge them from the projector.
His latest talkies had run for a year and a lot of commercial and artistic hopes were pinned on him.
The floodgates had opened. As many as 10 films had been planned with MKT in 1944.
Thyagarajan, the son of a goldsmith who turned out to be the alchemist of Tamil cinema had millions riding on him.
But then, MKT had been living as if there was no morrow and did have some secrets. Sudden money did a host of things to those brought up in habits of parsimony. Lakshmikanthan presumably nosed about on the pastimes of MKT of which there was enough seed for acres of scandals. In a ‘feeler article’, Lakshmikanthan had written about a pregnant girl whom MKT had a relationship with. (A young girl, Rajam, had approached MKT for a film chance. But he decided she was too good to be sent to the movies and had offered to take her as his second wife.)
The prosecution argued that rashness momentarily outweighed MKT’s fear of being threatened.
They said that it must have just floated across his mind that if “there ceased to be a blackmailer there ceases the blackmailing”.
After a jury trial of 26 days, one could sense a shudder run through the court when the jurors overwhelmingly decided that pax Britannica had to be enforced. A mist swam before MKT’s eyes when proclaimed a murderer. The cinema audiences were stunned too. Were appearances deceptive? Was this saintly persona guilty of murder?
MKT’s last released talkie Haridass ran in a packed Broadway Theatre, a record for the longest continuous run at a single theatre.
Unfortunately, the hero of the film couldn’t attend a single of the thousands of shows because he was his majesty’s guest in central prison.
Many a time, through the bars wafted in the notes of his songs and MKT would cry. A poignant period in the gaol when the land ironically celebrated him.
Three years later in the case of the emperor versus MKT, the Privy council accepted that the emperor may have been misled by wrong evidences.
MKT had no forebodings of the gathering tragedy. Newer theatrical knights had occupied the space he had left and everyone wondered if MKT was ready for cinema again? Rumours that he had gone bald in prison, and more importantly that he had lost his voice, went around.
The crowds dwindled in his movies. MKT could not believe that his movies that ran for years at a stretch did not elicit even a shadow of interest.
And then the scenery becomes too poignant. Seeking chances hurt his dignity. After all, he had been the superstar once. Without an outlet to direct his energies, MKT started failing. For a decade he watched others occupy the space he had left and died a sad death.
—The writer is a historian and an author