One of the directors who caught the eye in the early sixties and seventies when Tamil cinema was still finding its feet was A P Nagarajan. He came from a theatre background, directed a few films with social themes and then drifted into the mythological space where he shone and proved his mettle as a writer and auteur par excellence.
Today, a good five decades after some of his better films hit the screen, they are still talked about and their re-runs in the digital format have been able to set the box office registers ringing merrily. In a career spanning nearly two decades Nagarajan directed twenty five films and also handled the screenplay and dialogues in most of them.
His first brush with devotional films came when he collaborated with director Somu in the making of Sampoorna Ramayanam a film based on Valmiki’s version of the great epic, Ramayana. Nagarajan was entrusted with the screenplay and dialogues and the film went on to become a trendsetter in Tamil cinema.
For the record, N T Rama Rao, who was to stun audiences later with his portrayal of Lord Krishna, played Rama while Sivaji Ganesan was cast as Bharatha, a role that was earlier earmarked for another stalwart S S Rajendran. Nagarajan’s directorial debut however was with a nondescript film Vadivukku Valaikaappu’released in 1962.
Five of his most well known films that belonged to the mythological genre were Thiruvilayadal, Saraswathi Sabatham, Kandhan Karunai, Thirumal Perumai and Sri Krishna Leelai. A review of the aforesaid films reveal the director’s expertise in using cinema as a tool to drive home several homilies associated with gods and goddesses and also to ferret out fables and stories from the Hindu scriptures.
APN also ensured that the films did not merely meander along but enlivened the proceedings with gripping dialogues, comedy, riveting music and standout performances.
This film drew its plot from a set of 64 stories penned by a sage Paranjothi Munivar and APN who produced, wrote and directed the move encapsulated four episodes all related to the human avatars taken by Lord Siva. Well over fifty years after its release, Thiruvilayadal, which in its digitalized format released in 2012, stormed the box office and had a silver jubilee run when it was first released.
The film attained cult status thanks to the performance of Sivaji Ganesan who played by turns, a poet, a hot headed husband who turns his wife to ashes for defying his diktat, fisherman and lumberjack. The film had an overdose of melodrama and a theatrical touch as well, with theatre props being liberally used to portray various locations. However, though the film was shot in a single set in a Madras studio, APN managed to salvage it with some stupendous performances by Sivaji, Savithri, T S Baliah and Nagesh.
The scenes which really struck a chord were the ones where the penury stricken poet Dharumi (Nagesh) pours out his angst at having been deprived of the prize money announced by the king. This, despite help from a stranger (Lord Siva in disguise ) whom he meets in a temple and with whom he engages in a lengthy conversation.
Baliah’s portrayal of the egotist classical singer Emanatha Bhagavathar who is brought down to earth with a thud by the woodcutter (Lord Siva) and has his ego deflated, too, was engrossing. Nagarajan cast himself as Nakkerar, the poet laureate of the king’s court who defies the Lord himself. While the audience lapped it up, the film critics of the time felt that the film was too preachy and even picked holes in the performance of the lead actor Sivaji Ganesan. Thiruvilayadal however set a trend as far as devotional films were concerned and has certainly stood the test of time, if the popularity of the digital version is any yardstick..
SARASWATHI SABATHAM (1966)
Buoyed by the success of Thiruvilayadal, APN next embarked on another mythological project. This time, he set his films in the celestial world with the three goddesses Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Parvathi representing the three forces of knowledge, wealth and strength. They turn rivals at the instigation of the eternal celestial troublemaker Narada.
The goddesses choose three human beings with Saraswathi turning a mute young man into a repository of knowledge, Lakshmi making a beggar girl wealthy and Parvathi bestowing strength and bravery to a coward and turning him into a powerhouse of strength. The interludes between these characters form the crux of the film, which after several twists and turns ends with the holy trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma pacifying the goddesses and making them bury the hatchet.
The film had a moralistic touch in that it sought to drive home the point that knowledge, wealth and strength are complementary to each other and need to co-exist amicably. The strength of the film, apart from the performances of the cast including Sivaji (Narada & the mute young man Vidyapathi), Savithri (Saraswathi) Devika (Lakshmi) Padmini (Parvathi) K R Vijaya (Selvambigai, the beggar girl turned queen) and Gemini Ganesan (Veeravallan, the coward turned strongman), was the dialogues penned by APN. This film, too, turned out to be a box office hit.
KANDHAN KARUNAI (1967)
Another multi-star film with the who’s who of Tamil cinema featuring in it, Kandhan Karunai a tribute to Lord Muruga, had the up and coming actor of the time Sivakumar playing the title role with K R Vijaya and Jayalalithaa as his consorts, Deivanai and Valli, respectively.
K B Sundarambal as Avvaiyar was the surprise package in the film and her number in praise of Muruga remains popular even today. The film also featured Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Ashokan, Nagesh and Manorama in pivotal roles. The story is narrated in a flashback by Nakeerar (Seerkazhi Govindarajan ) and revolved around the birth and marriage of Lord Muruga, how his six abodes came into being etc. Like the earlier films of the director, Kandhan Karunai too found a receptive audience and apart from the devotees of Muruga, the lay audience also appreciated the film.
THIRUMAL PERUMAI (1968)
While Thiruvilayadal extolled the virtues of the Saiviaite God Shiva, Thirumal Perumai focused extensively on the Vaishnavaite God Vishnu and narrated three spellbinding stories of Andal, a longtime devotee of Vishnu, a thief and a dancer. While Sivakumar as Lord Vishnu dominated the film, APN’s favourite actor Sivaji enacted three different roles. K R Vijaya as Andal and Padmini as the dancer who falls in love with a sage, too, added a lot of grist to the proceedings.
The film highlighted the spontaneous grace of Lord Vishnu towards his devotees and how he appears at the right moment to save them from ruin. The drawback of the film was its slow tempo with the scenes being long drawn out, leading to a sense of ennui among the audience.
SRI KRISHNA LEELA (1977)
After a long hiatus during which he took a break from devotional themes and flirted with other genres, APN returned to his pet theme with Sri Krishna Leela, tracing the various exploits of Lord Krishna.
With an ensemble cast including Sivakumar in the title role, the film also featured Jayalalithaa, Sri Vidya, Nagesh and R S Manohar. S V Venkataraman provided the musical score for the film with lyrics by Kannadasan but the popularity of a few numbers could not compensate for the lackluster treatment of the subject and the rather pedestrian performance of the lead stars. The interest in devotional films which was at its peak in the late '60s too had waned quite a bit.
MUSIC AS THE MAINSTAY
The piece de resistance in A P Nagarajan’s films was undoubtedly the music and the lyrics and the credit for this should go to the duo of K V Mahadevan and Kannadasan, the poet who wrote most of the numbers. KVM’s outstanding score for ‘Kandhan Karunai’ also fetched him the National Award for Best Music Director.
It is a tribute to the trio of APN, KVM and Kannadasan that the lyrics and the music still linger in the memory of cineastes who patronized the films when they were released and also the present generation who watched the films in their re-runs. This writer’s favourites: ‘Oru Naal Pothuma’ – Balamuralikrishna – Thiruvilayadal, ‘Agaramuthala Ezhuthellam – T M Soundararajan – Saraswathi Saabatham, ‘Manam Padaithen’ – P Susheela – Kandhan Karunai and ‘Gopiyar Konjum Ramana’ – T M Soundararajan – Thirumal Perumai.