Monday, 6 August 2012

Singing stars of Tamil cinema

By V Ramnarayan

Singing stars! Doesn’t the epithet take us back a long way, when music was king and queen in Indian cinema? Those were the times when the success of a play or film was measured by the number of songs it featured, when encores prolonged them forever—even in silent films with music performed live in front of the screen by an assembled band.

Before playback singing—India’s brilliant contribution to cinema—came into being, the stars of the day had to do their own singing, but not all of them were musical, while those cast for their singing ability often could not act to save their lives.

The resultant classic was frequently unintentionally funny, but fans were undeterred by such incidental shortcomings, for listening to their heroes and heroines was reward enough.

Mayavaram Krishnamurthy Tyagaraja Bhagavatar was perhaps the biggest draw among the singing stars of yesteryear, i.e., on a long term basis, excluding the sensational screen appearances of musical talents such as M. S. Subbulakshmi or GNB from another world.

A classically trained musician, Bhagavatar had a powerful yet pliant and mellifluous voice that traversed a great range and negotiated curves and glissandos seemingly effortlessly to the utter delight of millions of fans. Among these ardent enthusiasts were the cognoscenti as much as the man on the street. For MKT’s music was classical, pure and unalloyed, but with an appeal that transcended that of proscenium concerts. His greatest hit, Haridas, ran for 114 weeks at the Broadway theatre, Chennai, a record that remains unbeaten to date.

Bhagavatar was paired famously with S. D. Subbulakshmi. The duo extemporised on stage to the delight of fans, their electric exchanges leading to their huge success in films like Pavalakkodi and Naveena Sarangadhara. Their songs Siva peruman kripai vendum and Chanchalam teerndinbamura in the latter film became chartbusters.

S. D. Subbulakshmi, a discovery of director (and later, husband) K. Subramaniam, was to achieve critical acclaim in his ambitious Tyaga Bhumi (1939), a distinctly feminist film based on a novel by Kalki Krishnamurti that ran into censor trouble because of its “seditious” content. The song Desa sevai seyya vareer by D. K. Pattammal, which backgrounded a procession of freedom fighters, giving musical expression to patriotic sentiment, led to the banning of the film by the British government.

The other Subbulakshmi, M. S., was to lift the medium of cinema to a higher plane when worshipping crowds fell at her feet during the filming of Meera, directed by Ellis R. Dungan and masterminded by husband Sadasivam. For all the huge popularity of Kalki Krishnamurti’s Katrinile varum geetam and Anda nalum vandidado from this tale of a young female Rajasthani saint, their impact could not exceed by too much that of Ma Ramanan (Papanasam Sivan) from her debut film Seva Sadanam, based on Premchand’s reformist novel (made by that man K. Subramaniam, who else?). The song served to redefine film music with its unadulterated classicism; it has in fact passed into the mainstream of the Carnatic concert oeuvre.

Sakuntalai, a musical based on Kalidasa’s classic, had earlier starred that matinee idol among Carnatic musicians, G. N. Balasubramaniam, opposite M.S. The pair was a huge draw and the box office was kept busy by this extravaganza by Dungan. The duets Premaiyil yavum and Manamohananga anangey were responsible for that success.

Arguably the greatest all round star among the singer-actors of Tamil cinema was P. U. Chinnappa, who came to films via the same route that Tyagaraja Bhagavatar took: stage plays. Chinnappa could act and that is where he was different from some of the other heroes like Bhagavatar and G. N. Balasubramaniam, essentially singers who strayed into films. Following in his father’s footsteps, Pudukkottai Ulaganatha Pillai Chinnasami became a stage actor at age five, in 1922. The play Sadaram, the story of a thief, catapulted Chinnappa to fame. His films Aryamala, Kannagi, Jagadalapratapan and Harishchandra established him as a leading actor, who besides singing his own songs, fought his own fights, with mastery over a number of martial arts.

An unusual singing star was K. B. Sundarambal, a box office draw for her golden voice and the devotional fervour of her singing. Both on stage and in films, she captured the hearts of her adoring audiences, playing both male and female roles with consummate ease. Her stage and life partner S. G. Kittappa was perhaps the most talented singer the Tamil stage had seen, and together, they made history. Sundarambal sang songs that were to become evergreen melodies in such films as Nandanar, Manimekhalal, Avvaiyar, Tiruvilaiyadal and Poompuhar. Her performance as Avvai, the Tamil poet-saint, was so convincing that a whole generation of children believed her to be the original Avvai Patti. Another singing role she played was male, that of Nandan in Nandanar, which also had the classical vocalist Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer in it! In Manimekhalai, which followed, Sundarambal was paired with Kottamangalam Cheenu, a fine singer who was later consigned to oblivion. A later version of Nandanar Charitram, had the peerless Dandapani Desigar, playing the role of the untouchable, and singing movingly in his ringing baritone.

Chittoor V. Nagiah was another famous actor capable of singing his own songs most capably, for he was a fully trained Carnatic vocalist, a conscientious one at that. For his role as Tyagaraja in the film on the celebrated composer’s life, he reportedly took lessons from GNB and Musiri Subramania Iyer, himself a singing star in and as Tukaram.

Carnatic vocalist S. Rajam and his younger brother S. Balachandar were both to sing songs in films in which they acted. In fact, Balachandar, a child prodigy who became famous as a veena player, was a versatile all rounder, who acted in and directed films, besides playing many instruments.

Of South India’s singing stars of a more recent vintage, P Bhanumati and Rajkumar achieved greater fame than most. Bhanumati who later became the principal of the Government Music College, Madras, was a classically trained vocalist who had early success singing her own songs in Tamil and Telugu, but the Kannada star was a late bloomer, who yet became an enduring icon in his dual role. Like Bhanumati, S. Varalakshmi was another actress from Andhra who had a nice singing voice and used it to effect in films. TN Seshagopalan made one brief appearance in Todi Ragam, a film of the 1980s on the life of a musician.

Chandrababu, the comedian, sang his own songs, but often of a comic variety. (Example: Nan oru muttalunga). He knew his western music enough though to compose for films. Manorama, the comedienne, was an accomplished singer too, with a stage background like many before her.

Besides well known playback singers T. M. Soundararajan and Sirkazhi Govindarajan—who could not resist the pull of greasepaint—one man who has sung well enough in films to merit serious consideration as a full-time practitioner has been actor Kamal Hasan, who has sung quite a few numbers with great enthusiasm. Music director Ilayaraja—like M. S. Viswanathan—is another who has dabbled in singing for films, besides his more serious pursuit of composing and singing classical songs.

Kamal Hasan may be the last of the singing stars, albeit an occasional one, given the increasing specialisation in Tamil cinema. So many actors have their lines dubbed by others that soon we may have an elite class of actors known as speaking stars!


  1. Hindi Cinema also had its share of singing stars like K.L Saigal, Kishore Kumar, Suraiyya, Shamshad Begum, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Tuntun alias Uma Devi and Madam Noorjehan. ....Also was Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishan missed out in this list? He acted and sang his songs in many Telugu films like 'Bhakta Prahalada' and so on.

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