Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXIII No. 12, October 1-15, 2023
Readers may kindly note that the first part of this series on Kalidas by Sa Muthuvel – originally penned in Tamil – contained two errors in translation. The film Alam Ara was screened in Chennai, not shot in the city; and the film Kalidas fell short of standard in the quality of its sound, not cinematography. Kalidas had been produced at a time when sound recording technology was still in development.
– Associate Editor
This deserves to be specified upfront. Even those who are quite well-informed ask, ‘Have you seen the film Kalidas?’ The primary difficulty in the study of old films is that they are largely lost to us, having not been preserved. Of the roughly 250 Tamil talkies that were released until 1940,a mere 13 remain. Only a few clips of Pattinathar produced by Vel Pictures can be found. Among the films that remain, the oldest are Sathi Sulochana (1934) directed by Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar and Pavalakkodi (1934) directed by K. Subramanyam. Both are trapped at Pune in the gilded cages of the National Film Archives of India, which carefully preserves the films. There is reliable information too that a couple more early films are available at the Archive; there must be a way to make these available to the public.
How does it matter whether it was a short film, full length feature or multilingual? How does it matter whether it was largely songs or dialogue? Wasn’t Tamil the first language that was heard by the viewer? That certainly makes Kalidas the first Tamil talkie. I offer a piece of information to those who make such a claim. Film historian Theodore Baskaran has put in writing that the first Tamil talkie ever made was the 4-reel film Kurathi Paatum Dansum produced by the company Sagar Movietone in 1931. We shall see more about this short film later on.
When sound recording technology first appeared on the scene, it was used to record song and dance. Ardeshir Irani imported sound recording equipment from foreign countries to use in the making of the films Alam Ara and Kalidas. In the past, Gundoosi Gopal has speculated that Kalidas was produced chiefly to attempt recording dialogues for the first time. But such an attempt had already taken place earlier, with the making of Alam Ara! (His statement, however, paves the way for the theory that songs did not have a place in the film Kalidas.)
The synopsis of the film has been printed in the Kalidas songbooks in Tamil, English and Telugu. In Tamil, the film title is printed as Kalidasa.
There are some misnomers even about the people who acted in Kalidas and the characters they played. References in the songbooks point to only three people whom we can be certain played roles in the film – T.P. Rajalakshmi, Jhansi Bai and Mr. RD. In fact, since the names are printed in Tamil letters, it not known whether the actor’s name was RD or RT.
To promote this first-of-its-kind talkie, the makers of the film have largely relied on Rajalakshmi’s fame and talent. This is the reason why no one else was given the spotlight or accorded much publicity.
It is said that P.G. Venkatesan acted in Kalidas, too. But there is no truth to the claim that he was the film’s hero. The hero was V.R Gangadhar, a B.A. graduate who performed his role by speaking Telugu dialogues. Kalki has misnamed him as Gangalarao in his review. In fact, Kalki made a similar error in Rajalakshmi’s case as well. Even though she was quite well-known in her time, he printed her name as Ranilakshmi. That he was not aware of Rajalakshmi is an admission that Kalki himself has made in his review. It is an affirmed fact, however, that the hero was none other than V.R. Gangadhar, BA.
P.G. Venkatesan hailed from Pondicherry. He has acted in the olden films of those days as supporting characters, such as in comedy roles. P.G. Venkatesan had a good strong voice.
He had a talent for singing, and so attained fame as the ‘South Indian Saigal’. He has sung and acted in other roles as well, including that of a sadhu. In appearance, P.G. Venkatesan had a flat stomach and a slim frame. Some of the movies that he has acted in are available to watch, even today. In Kalidas, the Gangadhar (Rao?) that we see – hazy and unclear though the visuals are – is unmistakeably a veritable giant. It is also more or less a matter of fact that L.V. Prasad has acted in the film, too. But there’s no information about the character he played.
A full-length feature film titled Kavirathina Kalidas directed by T.C. Vadivelu Nayakar was released later, in 1936. It is apparent that the earlier Kalidas is often confused with this one.
And so, stills from the later film as well as the name of M.R. Santhanalakshmi are bandied about in error. We shall see later about the research pertaining to Jhansi Bai and RD.
Because there was no speech in Tamil but only songs, Kalki had remarked in review that the film was not ‘a Tamil pechi (talkie), but a Tamil paatti (musical). ’ We’ve seen this already. But there is another theory that Kalki made such a statement because the film had fifty songs. That Kalidas contained fifty songs is simply not true. All three segments of the film put together had a runtime of roughly 1.5 hours. How could it have had 50 songs? The songbooks specify only a total of 8 songs, all eight of which are sung by female characters.
It is evident that the person who sang all the songs is none other than Rajalakshmi. To explain the reasoning in detail might be a bit tedious for the reader, so we shall see a couple of arguments in the theory’s favour.
The Kalidas songbooks carry no details about the people who sang the songs, the characters they played, or the writers.
The most famous songs from her renditions on stage can be heard in the film – Entara Neetana and Swararaga Sudha. Tyagaraja compositions both, they are presented in the ragas Harikambhoji and Sankarabharanam. She has sung the song Inthiyargal Nammavargalukkul in a good voice, as well. That the lyrics are clearly heard testifies to the superior quality of the film.
The references in Swadesamitran make it clear that three songs can be credited to Rajalakshmi’s voice. Apart from these, the piece that starts with the lines Aadhiyil Namathu Avvai and ends with Rajalakshmiyai Kanbeere is the opening song of the film and would have been presented at the very beginning of the feature. It is apparent that there was a practice in those days to introduce the film as well as the production house in the opening song. This was a cultural crossover from stage performances.
The songbooks also specify the folk dance performed by Jhansi Bai and RD. Underneath are printed the words Rattinamam Gandhi Kai Baanamaam. The placement of these words has also given rise to misnomers. Kalki confirms that the song Rattinamam Gandhi Kai Baanamaam makes an appearance in the first film segment and that T.P. Rajalakshmi was the artiste who performed the song and dance to it.
There was no one to write Telugu kirtanais or songs exclusively for the film Kalidas. The makers took songs that were already being performed on stage and used them in the film.
The practice of hiring songwriters to write songs exclusively for a film came into being much later. The first instance was in the movie Seetha Kalyanam (1934), whose songs were written by Papanasam Sivan. As for Kalidas, only the song Rattinamam Gandhi Kai Baanamaam includes the name Madhurakavi Bhaskaradas in its lyrics.
In those days, songwriters had the practice of adding their own names in the songs. There was no music directors for films then, either. The same tunes that were played on stage would be recorded by an orchestra at the film studio.
Though some very old films are lost to us forever, most of their songs have survived as sound. In the beginning, film songs were not recorded on gramophone records during production itself. The artistes who had sung the songs – or other singers in some instances – would be made to perform the music on a subsequent occassion so that it could be recorded. The technology to record music directly from film recordings appeared later.
The first attempt was made in 1934 in North India, by V. Shantaram. The Tamil industry received such a chance later than even that. Songs from such early gramophone records have now been retrieved and made available to hear on social media platforms such as YouTube, thanks to the praiseworthy efforts of social workers who undertake such tasks. In the case of Kalidas, however, we’re faced with rather unfortunate luck – the practice of releasing cinema songs on gramophone records surfaced a few years after talkies first appeared on the scene. So we’ve lost the songs of the early talkies, including those of Kalidas.
Though there are a few more findings related to the songs of Kalidas, we shall bring the topic to an end, for now.
Kalidas’ film reel – including all three film segments – ran to a total length of 10,000 feet.
Even though it was produced in Bombay, the censor certificate was issued in Madras. From records, it is seen that the certificate number was 1598. The distributor of Kalidas was Bangalore-based Select Pictures Circuit.
The Swadesamitran archive carries another interesting error. The magazine’s advertisement specifies that the presentation of the film Kalidas is accompanied by Pathi Gazette’ scenes as well. Whatever could ‘Half Gazette’ mean?
The English daily The Hindu helps clarify this point through an advertisement carried in its pages for Kalidas.
The ad goes thus:
Also Showing…TECHNICOLOR AUDIO REVIEW AND PATHE GAZETTE –
The Hindu, 31.11.1931.
It is the phrase Pathe Gazette that has been confused as Pathi Gazette, or Half Gazette, in Tamil. Pathe was, in fact, a news agency of the time. It was quite a normal practice then, to show news reels produced by them. It was so typical that people – including Kalki – did not make mention of them. It was a norm even since the time of silent films to release songs in a single sequence, followed by news reels.
The advertisement in The Hindu also gives us an additional piece of information – that colour films were available at the time. Colour scenes were also present in the Tamil talkie Raja Harischandra, released on 9.4.1932. We shall see later the new discoveries that have come to the fore about the subject.