For a film narrating the turn of events that happened one dusk to dawn, the title was quite apt: Or Iravu. It, however, was more fitting for the remarkable effort of the scriptwriter who penned the screenplay and dialogues – spread over 300 pages – in just a night. The film was not a success, but many who were part of it became stars and legends over the years.
As was the trend in the initial days of the industry, AV Meiyappan, who set up AVM Productions, had produced a fantasy film, Vedala Ulagam (the world of demons). Perhaps bored with the angels and demons story, or perhaps the visionary in had seen the writing on the way, Meiyappan was interested in making a film with a message as his next.
The late 1940s was the time when mythological and historical films were giving way to those laden with social messages. The euphoria of freedom was giving way to reality and realisation of the differences between the haves and have-nots in independent India. The Dravidian politicians were making most of it, so were the scriptwriters.
Around the same time, a stage play written by DMK founder CN Annadurai for KR Ramasamy was being staged by Krishnan Memorial Drama Company. It narrated the story of the illegitimate son of a rich zamindar who was forced by circumstances to become a petty thief. One night, he providentially breaks into his father’s house when his stepsister is just about to commit suicide.
AVM had already watched the very socialistic play, and mutual friends recommended that it would make a good film. He thus went to Thanjavur to meet the writer. Around this time, Annadurai was in political wilderness, having been forced to walk out of his parent organisation by his mentor Periyar EV Ramasamy.
By the time Meiyappan reached there, Annadurai had left for Tiruchy to attend actor SS Rajendran’s wedding. So keen was AVM that he followed Annadurai and met him. Annadurai agreed to give the story and also to write the screenplay for a handsome remuneration of Rs 10,000, which AVM agreed.
On evening, Annadurai came to AVM studio and had a discussion with the team. After a light dinner, he retired to cottage number 10, a thatched roof structure which AVM used as an office after refurbishing. He asked for a pot of water, a tumbler, betel leaves, areca nut and tobacco. The studio men also left sheaves of paper on the desk.
Anna commenced writing at 10 pm and completed the script and dialogue in long hand, running roughly to 300 pages, by the dawn and went to sleep. When the people at the studio examined the finished work, there was not a single correction to be made.
Though two of his earlier novels had already been filmed, Anna had no hesitation in giving a freehand to the production company to make any modifications that they fancied to suit the screenplay.
AVM handed over the agreed fee without a grudge; it was the highest he had paid for one night’s work. Though the timespan during which the story was happening was short, AVM was already prepared to lavish Or Iravu with songs and dance. There was a song from Bharathi and Bharathidasan – perhaps the only film that has songs from the two great poets.
Carnatic maestro ML Vasanthakumari sang a gypsy jingle, Ayya Sami... avoji sami, a song seemingly lifted from a Hindi hit song Gore Gore. But both had derived their tunes from a 1945 Spanish rumba song, Chico chico. Soon, the song became one to symbolise the Nari Kuravan community of Tamil Nadu. For decades, college cultural events and school fancy dress shows had girls miming it.
The role of the zamindar’s daughter was played by Lalitha the eldest of the Travancore Sisters, in whose pioneering footsteps Padmini and Ragini followed. Akkineni Nageswara Rao acted as her lover. KR Ramasamy played the role of the thief that he had essayed on stage. The hero wore only one costume right through the film.
However, the film bombed at the box office, making AVM wonder whether the changes that they made led to it. Because the stage play with the original dialogues by Anna was still running in theatres successfully. The director was also a debutant, Pa Neelakandan, who would later go on to direct 17 movies of MGR and build the superstar’s image.
Anna established himself as a master storyteller. He was the first politician from the Dravidian parties to use film as a medium for political propaganda. The fledgling DMK’s presence was initially restricted to urban centres and its suburbs.
But using cinema by appealing to the urban lower, lower middle and working classes, students, and the rural folk, Annadurai was able to accelerate the party’s growth and spread, and DMK gained popular support rapidly. If we track the path the DMK took to come to power in 1967, Or Iravu will stand out as an important milestone.
—The author is a historian