T R Mahalingam: The Strange Saga Of Tamil Cinema's Last Actor-Singer Superstar

K Balakumar

Jun 15, 2024, 08:22 PM | Updated 08:22 PM IST

T R Mahalingam
T R Mahalingam
  • T R Mahalingam, whose birth centenary falls on 16 June, had a resonant voice that had few equals, and his life and times were a rollercoaster of fortune and fame.
  • Every film industry in India in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s had actor-singer types. But in Tamil alone, they were superstars.

    It all started with S G Kittappa, the man with the resonant voice, the original superstar of Tamil stage (he died early, much before films became a thing in India.)

    He was followed by the mercurial P U Chinnappa. And there was that flamboyant and high-flying M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.

    All of these singing sensations, who enjoyed rockstar-like popularity, had tragic ends. Kittappa died when he was barely 27 years old, his end hastened by his liking for the spirited stuff.

    Chinnappa passed away at the age of 36; again, he was known to be fond of the smoke and the glass. He died, vomiting blood all over.

    Bhagavathar, of course, became embroiled in the infamous murder case, was incarcerated, and eventually died penniless and in debilitating obscurity.

    Perhaps the actor-singer stardom in Tamil accursed. The last of the singer-actor superstars was undoubtedly T R Mahalingam, and he too died a tad too early at 54, again far removed from the glitz and glory of his halcyon days as a Tamil film celebrity. His life and times, more steeply undulating than a rollercoaster ride, were both fascinating and tragic.

    After Mahalingam, no one really made it as an actor-singer sensation in Kollywood. Even though many actors have sung and continue to do so, the mould that threw up the likes of him was well and truly thrown away.

    Think of Mahalingam, and what comes to mind? That powerful throw of voice, the resonance that never lost key even when it hit remarkably high notes, and the sinuous sangathis that few could conjure.

    His possibly most famous song in mainstream cinema, Isai Tamil Nee Seitha Arum Sathanai (Thiruvilaiyadal, 1965), embodies everything for which he was celebrated. The emotional and musical heft of the song was truly fit for god to come down to earth.

    But minutes before this iconic song arrives in the film, there is a short virutham, and it encapsulates the classical musical depth of Mahalingam. The effervescent Illadhathondrillai can easily belong to any Carnatic music concert stage. The flow of his voice, remarkable breath control, and briga-laden delivery can felicitously match any of the masters of the genre.

    That Mahalingam was this capable when not in his prime in cinema would convey how mercurially brilliant he would have been in his zenith.

    Born With A Penchant For Singing

    Mahalingam, born in Thenkarai village in Sholavandan near Madurai (the initials T R stand for Thenkarai Ramakrishna), was beguiled by singing and stage performances right from his callow days.

    He quit school, much to the consternation of his traditional Brahmin father. But seeing the boy's abiding interest in music, and after consulting an astrologer (who predicted big success for him), the father allowed him to learn Carnatic music.

    But Mahalingam's dad was never keen on his son getting into films. Only his elder brother was supportive. And that proved crucial. How or why he developed a strong penchant for singing when none in the family had any such inclinations is the beauty of life.

    When he was around 13 years old, Mahalingam caught an early and unexpected break, as A V Meiyappa Chettiar (AVM) took a liking to his singing style. Mahalingam, with his fair looks, was also strikingly handsome. The AVM patriarch signed him up for his next production venture.

    Sporting a typical Brahmin-style tuft, Mahalingam travelled to Pune to act as Lord Krishna in AVM's Nandakumar, which was released in 1937. The film reportedly did not do well at the box office, but the young Mahalingam, whose voice had not even lost its early femininity, was well noticed.

    The song Bhakthiye Prapanjamathil, under the baton of S V Venkataraman (who was also making his debut), is probably Mahalingam's first recorded film song. (An interesting, unrelated piece of trivia is that Nandakumar is the first film in India to introduce playback singing. How that came about is a story for another occasion).

    After NandakumarBhakta Prahalada happened in 1939, in which Mahalingam played the eponymous role, and his name in the title card appeared as 'Master Mahalingam'. (The film also featured M G Ramachandran in one of his very few outings in such films.)

    Anyway, Mahalingam's career, despite a steady stream of films like Bhooloka Rambai (1940), Parasuramar (1940), Sathi Sukanya (1942), Manonmani (1942), and Baktha Hanuman (1944), did not create much splash till Sri Valli arrived in 1945.

    Hero In A Film, Side Actor In Its Reprise

    The lead Murugan role was apparently earmarked for Bhagvathar. But that did not transpire for various reasons, and AVM, who co-directed and produced the film, decided to go back to his Nandakumar hero, Mahalingam. It proved to be an inspired choice, as the film and its songs became a state-wide success.

    Mahalingam, who by then had acquired a well-formed, high-pitched voice (a dash of feminine voice always remained in his voice), decided to embrace the style and verve of his assumed guru, Kittappa, and it immediately struck a chord with the public.

    The pairing of Mahalingam and Rukmini (actress Lakshmi’s mother) worked wonders for the film. The song Kayatha Kanagathe is a great example of how good was Mahalingam's reprise of Kittappa's gusto-filled singing.

    The song Sambho Mahadeva is another gem from that musical treasure that was Sri Valli.

    Sri Valli would prove to be a bookmark in the pages of Mahalingam's life much later, too. In 1961, the film was remade in Tamil under the same title, with Sivaji Ganesan playing the lead role of Lord Muruga.

    As it happened, Mahalingam was featured in this film in the role of Sage Narada. Probably, he is the only actor who featured as a hero in a film and as a supporting actor in its reprise much later. But this swing between sublime to something less is a metaphor for Mahalingam's chequered life.

    The second Sri Valli also featured the songs of Mahalingam. This ragamalika and kavadi sindhu Karpagachcholaiyile, tuned by the genius of this genre, G Ramanathan, is elevated to great heights by the typical sprightly singing from Mahalingam.

    Mahalingam would also go on to re-play the Narada role in the 1972 film Agathiyar along with another singer, Sirkaszhi Govindarajan, who idolised him.

    After the first Sri Valli, Mahalingam hit the high notes again in AVM's Naam Iruvar (1947), again a musical hit with many memorable songs tuned by R Sudarsanam. But this Vallalar Ramalinga Adigalar's arutpa Kodaiyile Ilaipaatrikolla is an underrated jewel, as Mahalingam belts out the line with his usual fervour.

    Naam Iruvar was such an emotional success for Mahalingam that he named his son, born a few months later, after the character he played in the film, Sukumar.

    And when Mahalingam floated his own production house, it was inevitably named Sukumar Productions. (For the record, Mahalingam had a son and two daughters, none of whom he wished to enter the film industry.)

    Singer Loses His All

    After Naam Iruvar, Mahalingam mostly did films with AVM (he had a binding contract with them) and T R Sundaram (founder of the legendary Modern Theaters). Though he had relative success with films like Gnana Soundari (1948) and Vedhala Ulagam (1948), Mahalaingam was unhappy, feeling tied down by the producers.

    But by this time, his stardom had become large, and he had a house in Royapettah, Madras, which was almost a tourist attraction. Mahalingam also had a fetish for new cars. At one point, he had 17 of them in his sprawling garage — all of them latest and spanking new.

    At the height of his popularity, in 1950, he set up his own production house and decided to make films. The first was named Macha Regai, which ironically means fortuitous line. The film had S Varalakshmi as the female lead (she replaced Anajali Devi at the last moment).

    The film and his association with Varalakshmi would go on to cause havoc in his life. Aside from Macha Regai, he announced a few films simultaneously with Varalakshmi. They included Vilaiyattu Bommai, Mogana Sundaram (this film had a famous duet with Varalakshmi), Theru Padagan, Velaikaran, and Chinna Durai.

    Some of them did not even release, as they had to be stalled midway. All the released films bombed, and the high-flying Mahalingam was reduced overnight to a life of penury and obscurity.

    His famed house in Royapettah also submerged under his debts. Varalakshmi, who had reportedly moved into his house at one point, had to leave him. An embittered Mahalingam, along with his family, went back to his village, almost making up his mind never to return to Madras or films.

    Lady Luck Smiles Again

    Fate famously intervened in the form of Kannadasan. The late lyricist, who was a big fan of Mahalingam, went to his place and convinced him to come back four years later for Maalaiyitta Mangai in 1958.

    Thanks to Kannadasan's persistence, Mahalingam returned, and the film that was predicted to fail (Kannadasan was in the DMK at the time and the film was led by a Brahmin) became a runaway success, not the least because of the songs composed by the musical twins Vishwanathan and Ramamoorthy.

    The chartbuster was, of course, the staccato-rhythmed Senthamil Then Mozhiyaal, which remains popular to this day.

    But music buffs are still equally mesmerised by Naan Andri Yaar Vaaruvaar, where Mahalingam, in a break from his usual style, sang in a softer and lower pitch. This Abhogi (and Valanji)-raga-based song (with Komala) showcases the brilliance of the Tamil film music industry in general. (A separate story can be written on this song alone.)

    Anyway, the fact that Maalaiyitta Mangai proved to be a big winner provided a second wind to Mahalinganm's career. But his kind of singing and the roles that he was famous for did not have much space in the new Dravidian ethos spreading in the film industry.

    Mahalingam also did not help his cause any better by refusing to sing for others. He remained steadfast in this decision.

    So, even after Malaiyitta Mangai brought some financial stability and put his career on an even keel, Mahalingam never regained past glory. Films like Abalai Anjugam (1959) and folk-type songs like Iruntha Navabsha Illavittal Pakkirisha showed that Mahalingam was still up to any type of challenge.

    Singing Till The End

    In his second coming, Mahalingam remained stoic and did not push himself for success or offers. He did films that came his way and did them on his terms.

    By the '60s, the films were far and few between. But in the chances he got, he always left his inimitable imprimatur, like he did in Thiruvilaiyadal.

    In the '70s, all his outings came in Hindu epic-based stories, which had found some revival, or historicals. His films that decade were Ilangeswaran (1971), Kannan Karunai (1971), Agathiyar (1972), Thiruneelakandar (1972), Raja Raja Cholan (1973), Thirumalai Deivam (1973), and Sri Krishna Leela (1977), which was his last film outing.

    The song Kadalil Vizhunda from Thiruneelakandar made it clear that Mahalingam could still fit in even if the musical ethos in films was changing.

    His most famous songs in the last decade of his career would remain in Raja Raja Cholan. In Thendralodu, which Mahalingam sang with Sivaji Ganesan, who had delivered a few lines in between, Mahalingam's voice flows like a well-honeyed machine, as it were, in this intriguing number.

    The grand Thanjai Periya Kovil song with Mahalingam, Sirkazhi Govindarajan, and Varalakshmi acting and singing would prove to be the cherry on top of a great career, which, with a more kind destiny, would have been even greater.

    In the last few years of his life, Mahalingam chose to focus on stage singing and was reportedly doing extremely well. But, just as it seemed that he was somewhat ordained to take up films and singing, there also appeared to be some uncanny connection between what happened in some of his films or their titles and his life.

    He was picked out of nowhere and sent to stardom quite young, with the appropriate title, Nandakumar. His personal fortune crashed to the streets when he was making Theru Padagan (Street Singer).

    Lady Luck garlanded him again with Maalaiyitta Mangai (The Girl Who Garlanded). And in one of his last films, he is shown to die a day before Chitra Pournami. As it happened, his real-life end came on one such day prior to Chitra Pournami.

    His death in 1978 came when he was in the middle of a concert tour in Coimbatore. He died of an enlarged heart, said to have been aggravated by his high-pitched singing style.

    It is ironic that a man whose singing was all heart lost his heart because of singing. As they say, what gods giveth, gods taketh away. As he sang, "Isai Thamizh nee seitha arum sathanai, nee irukkayile enakke perum sodhanai." 

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