EVERY community in Madras Presidency has its own Tamil dialect. Among them, Brahmanical storylines and the agraharam slang were common in 20th century Tamil literature. The reason was most writers and readers related to it better.
Invariably, the films of the 40s also had Hindu Gods, kings and queens and even Mother Mary speaking in Mylapore slang!
The emergence of Kalki Krishnamurthy writing about other communities created a backlash on those writing and publishing Brahmanical stories.
The box office crash of Gemini’s misadventure Gnanasoundari where Jesus and Mary spoke in Tambaram accent showed that the variegated audiences of Tamil Nadu could no longer be taken for granted.
This accelerated the trend for stories about different sects of the population. SS Vasan, founder of Ananda Vikatan, realised this trend and transferred Kothamangalam Subbu from sister concern Gemini Studio with a specific task. They brainstormed and decided that Subbu would write a masterpiece novel to be serialised.
Subbu was a multifaceted genius and had created box office hits like Avvaiyar and streamlined scripts for every Gemini movie till then. Subbu, however, didn’t risk his reputation and used a pseudonym of Tamilmani (he kept it a secret even from his family). The story was about performing artists and the social problems they faced.
A Bharatanatyam dancer, Mohana and a nadaswaram artist Sikkal Shanmughasundaram fall in love and the story meanders along Mohana’s escapes from different men (ranging from kings to rowdies).
Subbu created one Brahmin character called Vaithi, the villain of the story. There were many similarities between Vaithi and Sampath (a character created by RK Narayan), a role that Subbu had played in the film Miss Malini. Subbu made a mental note to play Vaithi on screen if the story was ever filmed. But it wasn’t destined to be.
With Gopulu’s beautiful illustrations, Thillana Mohanambal was serialised in Ananda Vikatan. Just as Vasan had gauged, the novel captured the imagination of the reading public. For two years, people queued in railway stations to get that week’s copy of the magazine.
A novel written by a screenplay writer was so easy to visualise for the public and the story was just waiting to be filmed. AP Nagarajan, a director who specialised in mythologies, wanted to make this movie soon after his megahit Karnan.
But SS Vasan held the copyright and was a hard nut to crack. Nagarajan approached Vasan twice, who insisted his Gemini pictures would co-produce. But the third time he was lucky and Vasan sold him the story (an honest Vasan sent half the fee to Kothamangalam Subbu, who had left him by then).
AP Nagarajan had decided on Sivaji and Padmini to play the leading roles though they were much older than the characters in the book (the actual Mohana was 16 and Padmini was 36 years old). And he also decided to end the film on a happy note, unlike in the novel.
The star cast was phenomenal and intricate details were worked out for most of the characters. For example, the heroine’s mother was named after a real-life character — the mother of MS Subbulakshmi — Vadivu. Many actors who had played heroes on their own merit or would do so in the future acted in very small roles understanding that this would be a cult film.
Nagarajan decided that nadaswaram artistes Madurai MPN Sethuraman and Ponnuswamy would be the playback musicians for Sivaji’s nadaswaram renditions on the screen. Sivaji watched them play for hours just to observe their style and body language.
Much later, Ponnuswamy said that in his stage performances the audience expected him to make Sivaji’s gestures and many expressed disappointment. The film had portrayed the human side of the artistes; something that’s never done before in Tamil cinema and was an instantaneous hit. Chief Minister Annadurai insisted on seeing the film in a theatre with a live audience to gauge their reactions.
Nagesh, as the villain Vaithi, almost stole the show from the leading pair in many scenes. Perhaps, that was the reason the author Kothamangalam Subbu refused to go to the theatre to witness Thillana Mohanambal just because he had written Vaithi’s character for himself.
— The writer is a historian and an author