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Vol. XXXIII No. 9, August 16-31, 2023

Let’s watch Kalidas (1931) together

-- by S.A. Muthuvel,

If one were to search on Google as to which film was the first Tamil talkie, the answer will be Kalidas. The first Telugu talkie is said to be Bhakta Prahalada (1932). That Kalidas – first released in South Indian languages a year earlier in 1931 – was a Telugu-Tamil bilingual talkie is clear from records of its song books and promotional material. Why then isn’t it touted as the first Telugu talkie? Why does cinema history adopt seemingly contrarian positions for Telugu and Tamil?

Let’s set these questions aside for the moment. In truth, it isn’t possible to assert without strong hesitations that Kalidas was the first Tamil talkie. There exist a multitude of opinions and urban legends about the movie, not all of which are true. Most of these are, by and large, later additions and misapprehensions. It is hard to find fault with them, though. After all, they are an invariable product of the passage of time and mark the progress that we have made today. It is admittedly hard to change an opinion that has been firmly entrenched for more than 90 years. Still, surely, we can take into consideration that new truths that have surfaced along the way?

Talkies appeared in India in the 1930s. Sadly, there is no one left to tell us about the films that Indian cinema had released during this historic period. To learn the story of the early Tamil talkies which are lost to us now, we must turn to the press of the time and other recorded evidence. The primary and most trustworthy source of information is the documentation of these films made by people who lived during the times and other such records made by those who came later.

Apart from a few advertisements, there are three primary evidentiary sources to tell us about Kalidas, the first South-Indian talkie – (1) The film’s song book; (2) The reviews of writer Kalki; (3) The reviews published in the paper Swadesamitran. The reviews – the one written by Kalki and the other carried by Swadesamitran alone are first-hand accounts from viewers; and even between these two, the latter is not as detailed as Kalki’s piece. No other reviews of the film are traceable. Kalki’s review was carried in Ananda Vikatan (16.11.1931) and it is an extensive report, with a focus on explanations and other intricate details. This article is an attempt to take forward the comprehensiveness of Kalki’s review.

How Kalidas came to be

When cinema made the great technological leap from silent movies to talkies, there were a few years when films of two types were produced – part-talkies and full-talkies. Ardeshir Irani happened to watch the film Show Boat, which was about 40 per cent talkie. Greatly inspired by the experience, he went on to produce and direct India’s first talkie Alam Ara under the banner of his company Imperial Movietone. Parts of this film were shot in Chennai, too.

Ardeshir Irani also produced Kalidas, under the direction of HM Reddy, his assistant. The reason for this directorial choice had to be that he was South Indian. Alam Ara was released on March 14, 1931 in Bombay. Kalidas followed a few months later, releasing in the movie Kinema Central on October 31, 1931, a Saturday. The movie sets used for Alam Ara were used in making Kalidas, too. And so, the H.M. Reddy directed Kalidas – with its gaze focused on the South Indian market – can be confidently dubbed a direct offshoot of Alam Ara. Incidentally, LV Prasad – then an employee of Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Movietone and later recipient of the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award – acted in both the films.

The Madras Presidency of those days included a large swathe of South India as we know it today. Even at that time, Kalidas was not particularly publicized as a Tamil film. Only a couple of advertisements see mention of the language featured in the movie. Regional advertisements promoted it as the ‘first South Indian film entirely featuring song, speech and dance’.

In those days, the number of theatres blessed with the technical facility to screen new-age talkies such as Kalidas could be counted on one hand – this was true for Chennai city, too. Among this elite pool, some establishments did not screen Indian films. They screened only foreign films, even in later years. These circumstances provide us with additional insight into the thought processes and purpose that went into producing Kalidas as a Tamil-Telugu bilingual instead of a purely Tamil feature – no doubt the intent was to reach a wider audience.

A still from Kalidas featuring Rajalakshmi and Gangadhar Rao. Little is known about the artiste who essayed the role of Kali.

While later accounts reveal that Hindi and Urdu too found a place in the film, Kalidas was promoted as the first Tamil-Telugu talkie. The hero – Gangadhar Rao – spoke in Telugu while the heroine – T.P. Rajalakshmi ‘spoke’ in Tamil. It is also said that the production had a great number of songs, approximately 50 in number.

There is an opinion, however, that that the movie did not showcase much speech in Tamil and instead simply presented a few songs. This view can be gleaned from both the song books and Kalki’s review. It is the reason why Kalki claimed in a fit of Tamil pride that the film was a Tamil paati, not a pechi – a clever pun that Tamil readers will appreciate, alluding to the dominance of music over dialogues in the film. Some records also mention that a few scenes were filmed entirely devoid of speech.

“… but the pechi I saw turned out to be a paati, in truth. That is, it did not contain much speech in Tamil. There was a little dialogue here and there, but I learned that these were in Telugu. However, it must be said that the beginning, end and the middle of the film showcased a few songs in Tamil. So I have decided that it would be appropriate indeed to dub the entertainment that I saw, heard and experienced a Tamil paati. Should some take a dislike to this point of view, I warmly welcome them to consider the production a Telugu talkie.
– Kalki

T.P. Rajalakshmi also said much the same thing:

“One day, H.M. Reddy was talking to me. He asked me what I knew [to do]. I replied that I was familiar with folk song and dance. He filmed it and went on to produce a Telugu film titled Kalidas. I received the chance to play the role of the princess in the film. Whatever he said in Telugu, I translated into Tamil and delivered as dialogue. This is how the first talkie came to Tamil Nadu as a miscellany.”

Even though the film was released under the single title Kalidas, it was in reality a presentation of three distinct short films. This much is clear from information contained in the song books. Kalki’s assertion that ‘some Tamil songs found a place in the beginning, middle and end’ also serves as supporting evidence to this fact.

According to the song books, the different sections of the movie were as follows – (1) Three reels of film with themes of national pride, featuring national songs, hymns and romantic ballads; (2) Two reels of film presenting folk dances by TP Rajalakshmi, pieces that she had already won acclaim for on the stage; and (3) Four reels of comedy and romance sequences alluding to the titular story, Kalidasan. Kalidas the film included all three segments. The film presented 8 songs, amounting to nine reels. It was a feature with a run time of approximately 1 hour 20 minutes.

Sifting through evidence

Going by Kalki’s account, the first segment in the film comprised song and dance – “After a sequence of songs – songs of national pride, songs of love, and dance – the story began.” Kalki also confirms that it was in Kalidas that the song Raattinamam… Gandhi Kai Bhanamaam was featured. The songs of national fervour showcased in the film were ones that had already garnered acclaim on stage. And so we can see that music stoking national pride had a place in the cinema of those days, reflecting the zeitgeist of the times and the stirrings of political awakening.

The second segment presented in the film was the story of the eponymous Kalidas. Amounting to just four reels, Kalidas was by no means a full-length feature film.

“An arrogant princess who feels that there is none to equal her in educational prowess, is wedded to a simpleton so dull that he saws a tree branch whilst sitting on its very tip. The bride discovers on the wedding night that her husband – whom she had married under the impression that he was a great pundit – was, in truth, a dimwit beyond measure. He prays to Kali Mata. The Goddess’ grace transforms the dunce into a wise scholar.”
– Kalki

That, in a nutshell, was the story featured in Kalidas. The canonical tale of Kalidas is actually lengthier and contains more detail. Since the movie was shot with great effort and with only four reels, the production was able to film only parts of the narrative. This was also a time when cinematography technology was still being developed. So, the cinematic lighting did not quite come out satisfactorily in the film. Compared to later works, Kalidas’ cinematography decidedly fell short of standard.

Kalki’s record suggests that the third segment of the film was a folk dance presentation.

There is a viewpoint that makes the following argument – Who cares whether the work was a short film, a feature film or a multi-lingual? Was Tamil the first language heard in the feature presentation or not? That makes Kalidas the first Tamil talkie.

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  1. S.MUTHUVEL says:

    please read the following //Parts of this film were shot in Chennai, too.// as, ”This film (Alam Ara ) was screened in Chennai Too”.
    And please note the following //This was also a time when cinematography technology was still being developed. So, the cinematic lighting did not quite come out satisfactorily in the film. Compared to later works, Kalidas’ cinematography decidedly fell short of standard.// It was originally mentioned about Sound, Not cinematography. And it is translation error from tamil to english .

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