Munshi Premchand (1880 -1936) needs no introduction to the world of arts and book lovers. The literary genius called the "Shakespeare of India" had once influenced a large part of Indian thinking. South India, though far away from him and his writings, could not be left behind. Many of his short stories and novels have been translated into all the south Indian languages. Premchandâ€™s ideas and politics have played a major role in shaping public thought.
Premchand wrote the Urdu short story "Bazaar-e-Husn" in 1918. It was published in Hindi as "Seva Sadan" and again published in Urdu in Lahore in 1924. It was translated into Tamil by a famous social worker Ambujammmal, the daughter of Srimaan Srinivasa Iyengar. The magazine Ananda Vikatan that was launched in 1928 was at the peak of its journalistic fame in the 1930s. Headed by S S Vasan and supported by writers like Kalki Krishnamurthy and T Sadasivam who was working as the advertising manager, the magazine was flourishing and made great profits. It was also actively involved in the nationalist movement. The entire story of Seva Sadan was serialized in Ananda Vikatan.
Director K Subramanyam who was highly impressed with this story decided to buy the filming rights for it. Subramanyam is said to have purchased it for a princely sum of four thousand rupees. Sadasivam, who was dealing with this contract, said he would bankroll fifty percent of the cost of the film if the director agreed to cast the heroine he suggested. The heroine was none other than Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi, or as the world would know later the great Bharat Ratna M S Subbulakshmi or MSS.
M S Subbulakshmi in Seva Sadan
However it was not that easy to shoot. When Sadashivam had signed the contract with film director Subramanyam, MSSâ€™s mother strictly opposed it. She packed her bags and returned to Madurai. After six months it was MSS who had the courage to run away from home and board a train back to Madras. The shooting of the film began after she returned to Madras.
The story of "Seva Sadan" was about a poor young girl who wants to become a singer and becomes the second wife of an old Brahmin man. The man has a shaven-headed widowed sister who is the villain of the story. The girl finds a Good Samaritan who helps her in becoming a singer. The husband comes and seeks pardon. For the role of the widowed sister, director Subramanyam cast a real-life shaven-headed widowed Brahmin woman. The famous stage and screen actor F G Natesha Iyer played the role of the old man and Subbulakshmi plays the role of the young girl.
A scene from "Seva Sadan"
The film created a stir in certain sections of conservative Tamil society, especially among Brahmins. Towards the end of the film is a scene where the hero Natesha Iyer cuts his sacred thread in remorse and seeks pardon. All these were revolutionary in their time and questioned societal norms and worked for social reform. No copy of the film exists unfortunately. The film is remembered as the debut film of M S Subbulakshmi and a seminal way in which literature was converted to cinema. Whatever it is, the film introduced the powerful writing of Premchand to south Indian book and film lovers alike.
Continue reading: How Munshi Premchand made his way into south Indian cinema