M.S. Subbulakshmi, or M.S. as she is better known, and Hollywood actor James Dean have something in common. They both hit iconic status with barely a handful of films. Her film career only lasted a decade – she was in five films, if you count the Hindi Meera as a separate film. This career, like a multi-staged rocket, launched her into the heavens.
M.S. was a child prodigy, doing gramophone recordings even at the age of ten. Her mother, Shanmugavadivu, had bigger plans. In order to promote her, she asked advocate-turned-filmmaker K. Subrahmanyam to give M.S. an opportunity to sing at the Mahamaham Tank Festival held in Kumbakonam in 1932.
She sang in the afternoon and was immediately recognised as a great talent and voice by the crowd, including the vidwans present. They wanted more, so in an unprecedented move she was asked to sing again at the prime evening slot. M.S. was now a known face and voice to a large audience. Her family shifted to Madras, then the capital of the presidency and a centre for both Carnatic music and, unknowingly, cinema. Her fame as a singer spread as she sang in many sabhas and concerts.
The liftoff – Sevasadanam – May 2, 1938
By 1938, M.S. had become disenchanted with her mother’s plans for her future and sought refuge with T. Sadasivam, a journalist. Subrahmanyam approached her to act as the heroine in a film he was making based on the novel by Munshi Premchand, Bazaar-e-Husn. Sadasivam felt that this would take her fame to a much larger audience and she accepted.
The film was about a young girl forced to marry a man much older than her (played by F.G. Natesa Iyer), her travails and how she overcomes them by turning to social service. It also showed a repentant hero, disgusted with the customs and practices of his community, removing his sacred thread and throwing it away. This was a truly bold statement to make, especially coming from a filmmaker of the same community. Needless to say, he was excommunicated.
This film shot by Shailen Bose was 18,900 feet long. Departing from the usual, K. Subrahmanyam shot sequences in a huge bungalow belonging to U. Lakshminarayana Rao in T. Nagar. Decades later, this house was bought by a businessman named Nahar and many films were shot there, including the Kamal Hassan classic Sigappu Rojakkal (Red Rose). M.S. had now truly taken off.
Breaking into outer space – Shakunthala – December 12, 1940
Encouraged by the success, Sadasivam turned film producer and wanted to make a film of the classic love story by Kalidasa. According to T.J.S. George, Sadasivam had partly financed Subrahmanyam for Sevasadanam. As Subrahmanyam was busy with his own films, he declined to direct it but recommended an American director who was making movies in Madras – Ellis R. Dungan.
Dungan shot Sakuntalai mainly in Newtone Studios, Madras. Dungan brought several innovations to Tamil cinema, including the use of Max Factor make up. In his autobiography, A Guide to Adventure, Dungan refers to an incident while shooting the film. In a scene, M.S. was supposed to speak angrily to her husband, the king, played by G.N. Balasubramaniam, “but being a very soft spoken person she could not. After many trials I resorted to a strategy which Sadasivam agreed to. I shouted at M.S. in front of everyone on how bad an actress she was and stormed out. She had tears in her eyes and was angry at me and at herself. Fortunately all lights and sound were in place and when she turned to King Dushyantha she let him have it in full blast and it was captured on film. This remains one of the best pieces of acting M.S. has ever done”. The photograph of Dungan putting make up on M.S. was taken during the shooting of this scene.
Her songs in this film, especially the romantic duets with Balasubramaniam, became the rage – ‘Premayil yaavum’, ‘Anandam en solvene’ and others like ‘Engum niraindha’ being the most popular.
Speed and course correction – Savithri and Meera
It was during this period that M.S. and Sadasivam were married. In order to help Sadasivam and Kalki Krishnamurthy set up their magazine, Kalki, M.S. agreed to act in Y.V.Rao’s film Savithri. The film was released on September 5, 1941. With the money she made in this film, the magazine was set up. By this time, her popularity peaked. Films had served their purpose. Her image was of a romantic beauty (from her last hit, Shakunthala), which was not one Sadasivam wanted her to have forever. This film was the first stage course correction as M.S. played the sage Narada, a male character, singing songs and giving advice. The songs ‘Maname kanavum maravaadhe’ and ‘Bruhi Mukundehi’ are still sung at concerts.
Sadasivam had two tasks left – to provide a total image makeover and make M.S. a national phenomenon. To that end, the vehicle chosen was the life of the singing saint, Meera. This film was also shot by Dungan. The camera was wielded by Jithen Bannerjee and the music was by S.V. Venkatraman.
The Tamil version was released on November 3, 1945. Krishnamurthy’s song ‘Kaatrinile Varum Geetham’, based on a song by the Bengali singer Joothika Roy, is still one of the most popular film songs. Vamanan, a film music historian, said, “Her songs were all based on classical Carnatic ragas but suited to films. ‘Guru Saravana Bhava’ in Raga Simhendra Madhyamam, ‘Maa Ramanan’ in Hindolam, Thyagaraja’s ‘Marubalga’ (with the lyrics rewritten) in Sriranjini and the Marathi stage song ‘Shayama Sundara Kamala Vadana’ were all instant hits with the audience”.
M.S.’s ethereal beauty was captured lovingly by the camera and her golden voice truly made her live the role of the saint. Dungan had a plaster of Paris statue made of M.S. and used it to experiment with the various lighting patterns that would make her look truly “divine”, with a saintly glow. The image makeover completed.
M.S.’s fame was taken to the national level by Sadasivam carefully re-shooting parts of the film and redoing the songs for the Hindi version of this film, which was released on November 21, 1947. Every national leader, including the prime minister, attended the preview and MS was firmly established as an icon.
She never came back to films; from there on her path was divine. Still, her film career played an important part in the image she achieved. And to the film industry, it is a matter of honour and pride to say – M.S. was one of us.
In 2000, I met her about a function for Subrahmanyam. She kindly pulled out a Meera still from her personal album and autographed it for me. Meera remains a part of me always.
Mohan V. Raman is a Tamil actor.