M K Thyagaraja Bhagavatar made cinema an integral part of the Tamil culture, which continues to be so till today and laid the foundation for hero-worship, which still persists in the Tamil diaspora across the world.
The 60th anniversary of M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the first superstar of Tamil filmdom, falls on 1 November.
He made cinema an integral part of the Tamil culture, which continues to be so till today and laid the foundation for hero-worship, which still persists in the Tamil diaspora across the world.
The silent movie started talking in Tamil in 1931. This converted film-making into a proper industry and just like any other, the most important cog in the wheel was the capital provider.
However, the technology was new and audience reactions unfathomable. More so, the speaking movie had a geographically limited viewing, unlike the silent movie that could be displayed anywhere with a local narrator.
When Madras financiers shied away, there was one man who made them change their minds.
Entering film making just three years after the silent movies had receded, M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (Bhagavathar being a title bestowed on good classical singers) literally laid the foundation for Tamil cinema.
By giving a stream of hits, he convinced the monied men to loosen their purse strings and ensured that the industry did not shrivel in its initial days due to paucity of funds. He made the producers who trusted him laugh all the way to the bank.
For instance, those who financed his movie Chinthamani built a huge theatre in Madurai of the same name. Another producer built a huge textile mill. These visible signs of their added prosperity propelled more people to invest in the fledgling industry.
But the more important aspect of MKT’s talent was his singing of Carnatic music. Thyagaraja 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 efforts.
He would sing at least 20 songs in every movie of his, which would reach every nook and corner of the presidency by means of gramophones.
When novelist and music critic Kalki attended a concert by Carnatic icon Ariyakudi Ramanujam, he exited the auditorium halfway because — as he later said — he wanted to listen to some good Tamil music.
He also said he went straight to a theatre exhibiting the Tamil movie Chinthamani with some 20-25 songs. Kalki in his review noted that unless hardcore musicians took a cue from Chintamani songs, a great danger awaited Carnatic music.
That prophecy came true. Not because the musicians were unwilling to copy the Chintamani-style of music but because with the descent of MKT into Tamil theatres, the popularity of Carnatic music live concerts shrank to a small circle.
The audience adored MKT. Male fans anxious to be abreast of the fashion in hairdos wore the ‘Bhagavathar crop’ (shoulder-length hair). His songs were hummed by everyone including those of the Tamil diaspora. His movies ran for months in the same theatre with no rival to dislodge them from the projector. All seemed well.
The year was 1944 and MKT’s latest talkies had run for a year and a lot of commercial and artistic hopes were pinned on him. His recent film, Haridas, was in production from 1943. Anticipation and excitement were building up.
To add to the frenzy, full-page advertisements were released by Rayal talkies. It was during the Diwali of 1944 on 16 October that Haridas was released. The flood gates had opened. As many as 10 films were soon planned with MKT in 1944.
Thyagaraja, the son of a goldsmith, who turned out to be the alchemist of Tamil cinema, had millions riding on him.
It was when he was at this pinnacle that fate caught up with him. The Madras Presidency police arrested him for alleged murder. The victim was a notorious blackmailer. The heavens seemed to have fallen down on Thyagaraja.
MKT’s passage in Tamil cinema had been smooth. He was a hero in his first movie and it was a hit. Just three years after sound was introduced in Tamil cinema, ace film director, K Subramaniam, happened to watch a Hindu mythological play called, "Pavalakkodi" (coral vine) in which Bhagavathar played the lead role of Arjuna.
Thoroughly impressed with the performance, he planned to produce a movie with Bhagavathar playing the lead role. The movie was shot under primitive conditions on the banks of the Adyar river. They even had an Anglo-Indian shoot at the crows that disturbed the shooting and gave him a credit in the titles!
The film had 55 songs, 22 of which were sung by MKT. Pavalakodi was a hit. Producers thronged the gates of MKT. Life seemed to move at luxurious ease. For a small-town lad, the attention and the glory were, at the least, overwhelming.
Not all people can handle success well. MKT’s life until then was like a straight flowing stream — purposeful and efficient in its track — until it finally loses itself, at last, in a salty sea.
The talkie field had a host of distractions preventing life from becoming dull. Not all of them were above board, ethical or moral.
The rise of cinema as a major source of entertainment spurred an undue interest in the lives of the men and women who were cogwheels in it. Magazines sprouted and some even went to the extent of making curious readers happy by providing them intimate details of the actors.
The general public was inclined to give credence to these yellow journals as well because such news was scandalous; if leaked to the public, who adored their heroes to the levels of demigods, there was a lot at stake.
Bold blackmailers were on the prowl. A hint or two of the target’s identity, with a promise that more would be revealed thereafter, often had the target rushing to the blackmailers with hush money.
Lakshmikanthan, a law tout ran one such yellow journal called Indunesan. Lakshmikanthan, in a mental makeover to hide his lowly intentions, had started imagining himself as a ‘knight in a shining armour’ out to clean the murky stables of cinema.
His modus operandi was simple. In his initial offerings the tale was told in a rather vague and hazy manner, one would never have gleaned the truth except the targeted party himself, who would often run for a settlement to shut him up.
True, he despised the actors with all his heart; but he was not averse to taking their money — and potential payoffs in lieu of silence were infinite.
Meanwhile, to a superstar like MKT, the art world was one big orchard and tempting fruits lay to be plucked. MKT felt little need for prudence. The drawbridge had already been lowered and the women flooded in.
To a small-town boy who grew up in a drama company where men had to dress up like the female character due to the paucity of heroines, this was indeed a new experience. And MKT just could not handle it.
When someone pointed out his recklessness, he would shrug his shoulders with a laugh. MKT was behaving like a soldier of fortune — rich in vice and poor in virtue; he was sure his fame and position could parry the blows that came his way.
MKT fell in love with a young girl, Rajam, who was aspiring to become an actress. Rajam presented, unquestionably, a most alluring picture of youth and beauty. MKT married her in spite of the fact that he had a full-fledged family back in Mayavaram.
And since he was playing very saintly roles in the cinema, he wanted to keep this second marriage a secret.
In a ‘feeler article’ Lakshmikanthan had written about a pregnant girl whom MKT had a relationship with.
MKT worried that his blemishless image on screen would get mottled, teamed up with a few other affected actors, met the Governor of Madras and had Lakshmikanthan’s paper shut down.
A few days later Lakshmikanthan was travelling in a rickshaw when hired killers slashed open his belly and left him to bleed to death before walking away.
Resilient man that he was, Lakshmikanthan pushed back his overflowing intestines and rushed to a police station to file a complaint and name the people whom he thought had hired the killers.
He died the next day. MKT was arrested halfway through a shooting. The government was trying by every means in its power to have him sent to jail. Pax Britannica was above everyone and they had no better opportunity than this to set an example.
Cinema audiences were stunned too. Were appearances deceptive? Was this saintly persona guilty of murder?
After a jury trial of 26 days, one could sense a shudder run through the court when the jurors overwhelmingly decided that law had to be enforced. A mist swam before MKT’s eyes when he was proclaimed a murderer. He was shocked and shaken for he was expecting an acquittal.
The state was traumatised. Coincidentally, Hitler was dying in his Berlin bunker and the world got to know this via newspaper headlines everywhere except in Madras, where the headlines were about the conviction of MKT in the murder case.
Once convicted, MKT went to jail and the movies that had been scheduled with him were either shelved or shot with other stars including his primary rival, P U Chinnappa.
MKT’s last released talkie, Haridas ran to packed houses at Madras Theatre — a record for the longest incessant run at a single venue. Unfortunately, the hero of the film couldn’t attend a single of the thousands of shows because he was His Majesty’s guest in the central prison.
Many a time the notes of his songs would waft in through the bars and MKT would cry.
MKT meanwhile fought an appeal up to the privy council in London. The privy council in London, noting that India was going to get free soon denied to hear the appeal but ordered the Madras High Court to hold a retrial.
The Madras High Court witnessed a recanting of confessions and proof that approvers were not reliable, and MKT was acquitted after 30 months.
Freed of his legal shackles MKT came out with a lot of hope. He expected to continue his winning run. However, not too many producers were interested in making movies with a jailbird as a hero and a stubborn MKT turned down father roles.
More importantly, the Tamil cinema field was overrun with younger knights who lacked his singing skills but made it up with action or oration. Also, for three years with MKT out of the ring, another change happened rather abruptly.
The genre of movies with which MKT was popular — religious movies with plenty of songs — was put on the backburner.
Loud stars like Shivaji and fiery script-writers like Karunanidhi and Annadurai clambered onto the silver screen in the absence of MKT. Movies with atheistic overtones that questioned religion were being shot for the first time.
MKT started to produce his own movies and made his friends also invest their money. An aching weariness filled MKT when film after film flopped. He and his friends were bankrupted by producing them.
MKT died blind, lonely and impoverished in 1959. But memories of him still abound in Tamil Nadu.
His songs can still be frequently heard on the radio. And his film Haridas still holds the record of having run the longest, sticking onto the screens for three consecutive Diwalis.