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The moving pictures: Tamil film and the freedom movement

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes

The moving pictures: Tamil film and the freedom movement
(Left- Right): Premchand?s Sevasadhan; TP Rajalakshmi

CHENNAI: How did the Tamil talkie, which began speaking in 1931, engage in the liberation fight over a 16-year period characterised by rigorous censorship and wartime scarcity?

Madras was traditionally regarded as a benighted province by mainstream freedom fighters because of its continued adherence to the British. However, even silent films began to depict characteristics of nationalism. Baktha Vidura (1921), despite being produced in the Bombay region, was initially prohibited by the Madras presidency. When the Mahabharata character was seen wearing a Gandhi cap and khadar shirt, the cinematograph enquiry committee looking for seditious content was not pleased.

Nationalist spirit was surely prevailing in the travelling theatre which until then held the imagination of the common man. Many of these principled actors even did a separate Salt Satyagraha in Santhome. Theatrical productions that had previously avoided silent films intermingled freely with talkies. Actors, songs, scripts and directors moved to and fro. The spirit of independence and social reform too crept into the talkies.

The British who had to watch cinemas for seditious lines made full use of the Indian Cinematographic Act of 1918. Not only Indian but many American movies with a revolutionary theme were at the receiving end of this act.

Even the first Tamil talkie, Kalidas (1931), talks of Gandhi. Kalidas is a lost film with no traces remaining. However, its songbook was tracked down in 1986. A Kurathi (gypsy) dance starts with “Raattiname gandhiyin kai baanam” (the spinning wheel is the handheld weapon of Gandhi) which TP Rajalakshmi sang under the name of Miss Jhansi.

The brand image of the Independence Movement had become linked with the Charkha and soon most films, to the roaring applause of the audience showed a scene of women spinning. Even American director Ellis Dungan bowing to popular sentiment had such a scene in his famous Sathi Leelavathi (also MGR’s first film).

The film industry supported the Independence Movement in many ways. Full-day collections of Iru Sahodarkal film were donated to the Patel Purse fund to Rajaji. Sathyamurthy, who himself had acted in Pammal’s dramas, knew the power of cinema as a political tool. He encouraged actors to campaign for Congress in the elections allowed by the British.

Getting in a song subtly was the easiest way to bypass the censor board. In 1935 braving a decade-old ban on Bharathi songs, Maneka had a seemingly harmless school prayer song scene in which a Bharathi song was sung by the students.

In Valli Thirumanam, where Muruga’s lover Valli is guarding the agricultural field and Rajalakshmi would sing a song about driving away the white cranes and the audience listened to it with knowing smiles.

In 1936 the entire crew of Bhama Vijayam would stand in a semi-circle at the end of the movie and sing the anthem for the first time in film history; 11 years before it even became the national anthem.

Filmmakers always found a way around censorship with creativity. None of them asked for liberty bluntly. They had Gandhi caps for actors, some women spinning the Charkha or DK Pattammal singing a song like Thesa Sevai Seyya Vaarir (come and perform patriotic work).

Mathru Bhoomi was an allegorical film set in historical times. A Caucasian ruler rules India 2000 years back and an Indian prince fights him. Alexander and Chandragupta Maurya were clearly metaphors for the colonial British and patriot Gandhi in the film.

There was a small window of freedom a decade before it actually happened. When Rajaji formed his 1937 ministry, censor rules were relaxed. The censor board once stocked by police personnel, now had representatives from cinema, education and journalism. Taking advantage of the new breath of freedom, Munshi Premchand’s Sevasadan was filmed by Subramaniam launching MS Subbulakshmi as an actress.

Thyaga Bhoomi written by Kalki was perhaps the most popular patriotic film mentioning Gandhian ideals. There are two primary characters- a Brahmin from the Agraharam and Nallan a Dalit from the Cheri. The director cast real-life brothers in the roles. The film also boldly showed Gandhi’s photos in the background. Thyaga Bhoomi was running successfully for over 12 weeks when Rajaji resigned protesting against India’s unwilling involvement in the World War. News reached the producers that a ban on the film running in Gaiety Theatre was imminent. They opened up the doors of the theatre and ran the movie continuously for free till they received the ban orders in hand. The film was finally removed when the police led a lathi charge.

Looking back, brave actors, producers, and theatre owners have put their entire careers on the line, jeopardising everything they had worked for up to that point while expressing nationalist sentiments.

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Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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