Kappalottiya Thamizhan: Why We Should Revisit This Forgotten Tamil Film From 1961

Kappalottiya Thamizhan: Why We Should Revisit This Forgotten Tamil Film From 1961 The poster of 'Kappalottiya Thamizhan'
  • The birth anniversary of the great patriot, freedom fighter, and entrepreneur, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, is an appropriate occasion to remember, rewatch, and recommend the Tamil film made on his life.

In 1961, a biopic was released in Tamil Nadu with a prominent star cast of the time: Shivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Savitri etc. The director was B.R. Panthulu, who by then had a quarter-of-a-century experience in the Tamil film industry. The movie should have been a hit by all means.

But it was a failure, similar to the tragedy of the hero whose life the movie depicted.

Kappalottiya Thamizhan depicted the life of V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (VOC 1872-1936) – a sought after leader from an affluent Saivaite family who, as part of freedom struggle, tried to create a Swadesi steamer enterprise. He ended up in the Coimbatore jail and after his release, was reduced to penury and sidelined by the Gandhian politics that was taking over the freedom struggle.

Real VOC and Reel VOC
Real VOC and Reel VOC

The movie was based on the biography of Chidambaram Pillai written by Ma.Po. Sivagnana Gramaniyar. The movie, as much as possible, followed the real life of Pillai as revealed in the biography. Even minute details, which would have otherwise gone unrecorded, became immortal through the movie.

For example, the movie shows an incident where a barber stops tonsuring the head of a pro-British Indian officer. The barber says 'Vande Mataram' as he goes about his work. The pro-British Indian gets angry and tells him to stop. The barber stops in the middle and says he cannot do the tonsuring of the head. The angry Indian official goes to other barbers in the town and they all refuse to do the remainder of the work. Most people would take this as a scripted scene intended for comical purposes.

[the incident starts at the time-stamp, 9:38 onward]

But this incident actually happened and was reported by The Hindu, dated 05-03-1908 under the title ‘A Barber refuses to shave.’

A very pro-British Rangaswamy Iyengar had sat before a barber who was very much a Swadesi supporter. The barber asked Iyengar if it was true that the latter had supported the British collector’s order to bring in battalion from outside to suppress the Swadesi agitation that was being spearheaded by VOC and his compatriot Subramanya Siva. Iyengar answered that it was not his business. The barber promptly replied then it was not his business to touch the head of such a person.

Later, Iyengar went to various barbers in the town who all refused to oblige him. Soon, the hoteliers in the town refused to give him tiffin and cart drivers refused to take in him in their carts.

Similarly, the movie shows the agitating crowds of Tuticorin raising the ‘Vande Mataram’ cry. This too has been corroborated by Times of India report dated 07-03-1908.

[Vande Mataram chanting from 13:10 onward]

Despite the melodramatic presentation and also the hyper-emotional acting done by veteran Shivaji Ganesan, who, according to a few critics, seemed to have subsumed the identity of the real-life VOC, in hindsight the movie comes across as one of the best biopics on freedom fighters.

[left] Swadesi Steamer company bond [right] Bharati's India magazine celebrating the Swadesi steamer launch
[left] Swadesi Steamer company bond [right] Bharati's India magazine celebrating the Swadesi steamer launch

It showed the pain of a great revolutionary who was far ahead of his times in fighting colonial imperialism. He tried to create a Swadesi enterprise to counter the British at one level and organised the workers and fought for their rights at another level.

In VOC, Indian nationalism harmonised entrepreneurship with labour rights. It was a model seldom talked about. Fierce nationalist leaders VOC, Subrahmanya Siva and Padmanabha took up the cause of Indian workers, suffering like indentured labourers with no week-end leave and work hours that consumed almost all day.

In the early years of the twentieth century, these leaders organised the workers and aroused the masses and also talked with both the factory and district administration. With no proper laws to support the workers, any strike was threatened by the fact that the striking workers would have no means to food.

A lawyer Venkatarama Iyer, an associate of VOC, collected funds and made sure that the workers would be fed for a week. The Russian ambassador, who was then in Bombay, observed this aspect of the strike in his report sent to the Czar.

The Hindu dated 09-03-1908 reported that the Coral mill administration finally agreed to the workers’ demand of reducing their working hours and making Sundays holidays for workers.

Sri Aurobindo kept a close and ecstatic watch over the Tuticorin movement. In his magazine Bande Matram he observed even as the workers’ struggle continued:

Madras has taken up the herol out of our hands, and today it is over Tuticorin that the gods of the Mahabharata hover in their aerial cars watching the chances of the fight which is to bring back the glorious days of old. Gallant Chidambaram, brave Padmanabha, intrepid Shiva defying the threats of exile and imprisonment, fighting for the masses, for the nation, for the preparation of Swaraj, these are now in the forefront, the men of the future, the bearers of the standard. The spirit of active heroism and self-immolation has travelled southward.
'Bande Mataram', March-11-1908

On 13 March 1908, an entire article was written in Bande Mataram to celebrate the victory of the workers of Tuticorin:

The Tuticorin leaders must be given the whole credit for the unequalled skill and courage with which the fight was conducted and still more for the complete realization of the true inwardness of the Nationalist gospel which made them identify the interests of the whole Indian nation with the wrongs and grievances of the labourers in the Coral Mill.

On 27 March 1908, Sri Aurobindo wrote a scintillating eulogy praising Chidambaram as the personification of 'Aryan reborn'!

Srijut Chidambaram Pillai has shown throughout the Tuticorin affair a loftiness of character, a practical energy united with high moral idealism which show that he is a true Nationalist. His refusal to accept release on bail if his fellow-workers were left behind, is one more count in the reckoning. … The qualities of courage, frankness, love and justice are the stuff of which a Nationalist should be made. All honour to Chidambaram Pillai for having shown us the first complete example of an Aryan reborn, and all honour to Madras which has produced such a man.

Soon, the empire would strike back. VOC was given double-imprisonment of ten years each. Though later the sentences were reduced, the rigorous imprisonment was filled with humiliation and torture for VOC. He was yoked to the oil mill and was beaten at every opportunity. The movie, Kappalottiya Thamizhan, brought to people the kind of suffering our real freedom fighters had.

As Gandhi took over the Congress and the nationalist narrative, VOC fought tooth and nail against the principles of Ahimsa and non-cooperation. He was a devotee of Lokmanya Bala Gangadhara Tilak whom he called with devotion, 'Tilak Maharishi'. Tilak too valued VOC, so much so that he made him stay in his house with instructions to those in the house that VOC should be treated the same way as the master of the house as Tilak himself was.

The movie depicts the last days of VOC movingly. Bed-ridden, when VOC felt his end was nearing, he was taken to the Congress office nearby according to his wishes, where he wanted to hear the songs of Bharathi in the end.

The Dinamani newspaper dated 17-11-1936, reported that VOC could not even drink a drop of water and as his condition deteriorated, all he wanted to hear were the patriotic songs of Mahakavi Bharathi. In his weakened, trembling voice, VOC stated that the only painful thing was his departure from this world before he could see Indian independence.

Some grateful people of Tuticorin lawyers association under the leadership of Sri Paal Nadar collected an amount of Rs 75/- as a Deepavali gift and handed it to VOC; who heartfully accepted it.

The next day VOC died.

The movie also had another speciality. All the songs in the movie were taken from the works of Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathi.

Despite all of this, the movie was a failure. Perhaps the defeat of the movie in the box office also reflected the setbacks in the life of VOC. Perhaps the current governments can do more than just tweets for VOC. They can bring out a better digital version of the movie and dub the movie in Indian languages and screen them across the nation or at least in Tamil Nadu.

The life and deeds of VOC are greater than what the movie depicts. In 1936, in his last year, even as he was battling poverty and ill-health along with the guilt of leaving his family desolate, VOC predicted that soon the World War would come and that using the situation, India should become free.

Another important aspect of VOC's life that often goes unnoticed was his association with Swami Sahajananda. Swami Sahajananda, born in his purvashrama in a Scheduled Community, was a warrior for social equality and battled caste prejudices and untouchability. VOC considered him as the genuine Brahmin and when the Swami wanted to learn Tamil, being a scholar of the language, VOC made Swami Sahajananda stay in his house and taught him the language in all its glory. In his gratitude, Swami Sahajananda a great Advaitin, wrote three poems which depict VOC as Swami’s father, Guru and Deity.

Committed to social justice in true Saivaite spirit, he helped a Devendrakula Vellalar woodcutter who was arrested for 'stealing' wood from a plantation belonging to a local landlord. He shamed the landlord to cancel the case against the woodcutter.

VOC died a defeated man for this world. Belonging to a rich family and having a successful legal practice, he gave it all up for the nation. He thought and toiled for the nation which promptly forgot him after independence. Even during his life, as he walked toward its evening, he saw the company he created surrender to the British because of the selfishness and treachery of its share-holders. But as long as a single honest straightforward patriot, who holds the nation and its interests above everything else lives, VOC will live and continue to inspire.

And as Sri Aurobindo prophetically declared, Chidambaram Pillai shall always be to every Indian heart, where patriotism burns to dust all selfishness and impurities, 'Aryan reborn'!

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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