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Era Of The Tamil Drama

Stage, they say, is the mother of modern cinema. There was a time in Tamil film industry when the road one took to the silverscreen was through live stage. Veteran actors Shivaji Ganesan to M G Ramachandran (MGR who later became the state’s chief minister preceding his disciple Jayalalitha Jayaram),  almost everyone most naturally followed this time-tested route to stardom. The galaxy of character artistes who made it big with a giant leap from stage-plays to tamil filmdom included those like Major Sundarrajan, M R Radha, Nagesh (the comedian), Srikkanth, Poornam Viswanathan etc besides leading ladies from the ’50s such as Banumathy and Manorama barring a lucky few who hit the jackpot straight away like MGR’s prodigy Jayalalitha herself (who also succeeded him incidentally as the state CM) and ‘Gemini Ganesan’  (father of bollywood heroine Rekha) (to name a couple of stalwarts).

Histrionics, dialogue delivery, screen presence and even singing abilities were considered to be the chief merits of those who ruled the stage as well as the cinemas from as early as the ’50s. P U Chinnappa and M K Thiagaraja Bhagavathar from 1940s were sort of cult heroes of their times with a huge, huge fan following.

Nearly sixty years later unfolds an interesting scene:

The once vibrant and healthy Tamil theatre has visibly (and perhaps audibly) gone silent for sometime now; it is not though entirely or exactly dormant but it has stopped  making waves since long. Or may be it is drawing its last breath… One or two like the ’70s dramatists like Kathadi Ramamurthy and Y G Mahendra seem to be persisting against all odds but for whom it is nearly dead, well almost. Sad, but inevitable reality? Satellite tv did to Tamil stage dramas what not even celluloid films could manage to do for a whopping 40-50 years, reasons for which can be attributed for a variety of causes. Mass media came home with the idiot box, not reserved for a selective, ‘appreciative’ audience as the stage plays seemed to command and cater to. Atleast it was fashionable for middle-class folks of the 1970s and 80s to hold ‘sabha’ memberships, and attending fortnightly plays was like kind of an unmissable ritual. The sabha appearance became a social status where one flaunted his/her friends and family. The odd films were here and there but the dramas were a huge draw and mainstay of quality family entertainment. Expensive, to start matters with or perhaps privileged to those who had ‘the aesthetic sense’ and ‘good company.’


Revival of Tamil Theatre: ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ by Kalki


The monochrome tv set was ignored for a while but things changed with the arrival of the colour tv concept. Coupled with scores of multilingual entertainment content and news packages with the new dish tv in the block round the clock all 24×7, curtains were beginning to fall for the ‘elite’ Tamil drama stage.  Elite, in the sense, the drama audience comprised mostly of urban middle-class society for whom a hot steaming ‘filter’ coffee with a plate of spicy oily onion ‘bajjis’ in the recess between the plays meant a heady social interaction nonetheless. This was nothing short of class act.  Something that was compromised and leveled even with the advent of colour television. TV truly is a game-changer that way. Paupers to the pompous, folks retired to the comfort of their own couches where class and taste had no role to play. Around this period began a series of half to one-hour concise plays that were telecast to tv viewers weekly twice catering to the drama-hooked patrons. The package was disappointing and perhaps around this time, interests started to wane. Over years, the plays simply got rarer and stopped one fine day unable to keep up with mega serials that became the staple diet of popular television viewing.

So much so that by the ’90s, there were hardly any sabhas regularly featuring tamil plays. A flourishing business was coming to a close but with the other door swinging open for artists left in the wake by way of endless family sagas of tv soaps, drama took any new avatar? The halls of the city from now on almost always were rather booked full for only the December music season ‘kutcheries’. For the few persisting drama companies, to expect a packed audience became like believing in a miracle.

Interest in live stage has since clearly diminished if not totally vanished…

The interest in stage plays was however rekindled recently in Tamil audience with the picture ‘Kavia Thalaivan’ (Epic Hero) starring Siddharth, Prithviraj and Nasser. It was a period film from the times of Sankardas Swamigal who is revered to be the father of Tamil Theatre.

The film brought out memories of late ’70s and ’80s synonymous with stage dramas for Tamils.

R.R. Sabha in Mylapore for instance was virtually a temple for avid drama-watchers. There was a time when people used to queue up outside the ‘sabha’ halls for tickets like they do in movie halls.

Mylapore Fine Arts, Karthik Fine Arts etc where routinely they screened Tamil plays were also some regular haunts for drama-enthusiasts.  Proximity to the sabhas/halls was the main reason many of us had access to a variety of performing arts in those days.

Many of us the ’80s teenagers did miss the era of stage plays of the K Balachander and Y G Parthasarathy generation. Our parents had literally soaked in the stage creations of the bygone era that were truly dramatic. KB made successfully to the pictures in ’50s and until today there is no match for him in entire India when it comes to dealing with dramatic-turned-realistic scripts. It was bold of him to touch upon taboo subjects, far advanced for those ages and adapt them later on successfully in the silverscreen. It was risk but one which payed off luckily.

Debuting in stage and progressing to mass media like cinema also came to be a well adopted ploy to some well known political figures of Tamil Nadu who used both the forms of theater as springboard to leap into political arena. The trend started with Anna Durai, Tamil Nadu’s first dravidian party CM, who was a scriptwriter for tamil plays. It continued with K. Karunanidhi and then M G Ramachandran, all of whom used the stage as a stepping stone into silverscreen and eventually politics apart from utilizing it as (DMK) party’s propaganda machinery. Stage plays and cinema became a good medium for ‘educating’ masses on certain ‘ideologies’ synonymous to state political machinery.

One more dramatist Cho Ramaswamy well known for the wizard and king-maker he has been (in Tamil Nadu), was also popular on stage for his political plays. He had his own select faithful followers. He was in many ways our first political satirist, a novelty in the ’60s and ’70s. His stage creations were like ‘fireworks.’

The latest entry into the world of politics following the historical route of stage play-cinema-party is S Ve Shekhar, a popular comedian-dramatist from the ’80s.  Shekhar remained a contemporary of Crazy Mohan from whose troupe he split after their most successful debut drama ‘Crazy Thieves in Palavakkam.’ The play infact was re-enacted in parts by many of us school kids of the ’80s for its humour content. It was a runaway hit.

Shekhar and Crazy Mohan also had the company of Mouli, a quiet humourist himself who modelled on ‘Kathadi Ramamurthy.’ The humourous brigade took aver Tamil stage after a serious rebel spell by those like Y G Parthasarathy, K Balachander and others who were their seniors.

There was also an other strain of dramas : of Jayakanthan’s genre, which are my all-time favourite. Those of us who missed his screenplays in stage caught up with them in celluloid form – as black & white magic, produced in late ’70s. ‘Oru Nadigai Nadagam Parkiraal’ (an actress watches a show) and ‘Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal’ (some men at times) both classics starring Lakshmi and Srikkanth with razor sharp dialogues and retorts and fine direction are a treat to our literary senses.

As for KB, his adaptations ranged from middle-class dramas to travails of rebellious women who were protagonists of a varied kind . ‘Bama Vijayam’ to ‘Arangetram’ KB’s transition was not only smooth but also was received well by audience. (Incidentally KB also debuted in tv soaps, only one of his calibre successfully making it to all three stages of mass entertainment viz., live stage, cinema and television. Kudos to the director!)

After the heavy-themed plays of the ’60s and ’70s whether the humour brigade adopted a slightly weakened script keeping with times – is something we keep our fingers crossed about. For a matter of fact it is now figured that many a big name on the stage made it to the larger theatre called cinema without much of hitch.  It couldn’t have been easy but at some stage, the crossing must have been inevitable as technology won over.The lighter side of the ’80s dramas could perhaps be attributed to changing pulse of Indian nation? While the ’60s and ’70s were unsettling phases in our political history with India engaged in multiple wars with her adversaries, the mood of the populace could have been sombre. Imposition of ‘Emergency’ in 1975 worsened matters. The ’80s saw a change in trend with a young prime minister (in Rajiv Gandhi) heralding a new era in Indian history while in the state, a popular MGR (ADMK) front took over the reins of governance. Did the combined effect, comfort factor play any indirect role in loosening up of the nerves of our script writers?

Because the idealism that we see etched in both theater and cinema of the late 1970s and early ’80s seems to be largely a missing factor from the late ’80s from when on the audience started relaxing. Late ’80s could have been undefined period where a shift could have commenced forth.

Some of us teenagers of the ’80s basked in the timeless humour of those like Crazy Mohan who also seamlessly made it to the celluloid medium scripting for pictures like ‘Avvai Shanmughi’ (Chachi 420 in Hindi starring Kamal Hassan). The ’90s saw exactly this kind of flowering of drama artists into mainstream theater personalities of the other kind.   Amitabh Bachchan (of Bollywood) could have been the ‘angry young man’ of his times but instead Tamil cinema has always had ‘angry young woman’ thanks to KB. The loosening up happened with the arrival of software boom as value systems changed. This is where the crazy-kind came into foray.

The entire bunch seems to have made it along including Visu, Mouli to name the others who took to low cost production of middle-class subjects which make for an interesting viewership even today from the 1980s. Humour mixed with society values was the new mantra. Of these, Visu carved for himself a niche with branding this kind of films that were most entertaining and literal adaptations of some of his most successful stage plays.

The post would go incomplete without the mention of R S Manohar, the roaring thunder of Tamil theatre.

R S Manohar exalted playing anti-hero to the hilt in his in-house productions that were mega-hits! From period costume drama to erecting grand sets, he set a benchmark in stage plays that kept packed auditoriums pinned to their seats in anticipation and thrill. Famous for his histrionics on stage, Manohar screened historical plays/epics like Ramayan, Mahabharat or mostly some select episodes/branch stories from them. His most popular play was ‘Ilangeswaran.’ (Lord of Lanka meaning Ravan) The anti-hero had a cult following playing the hideous villain laughing loud and shaking the stage with his over-acting.

The thunderous echo of dramatists like R S Manohar died away since long and what follows is steady silence in a still vacuum. There have been attempts in recent times to revive the Tamil stage, proven futile. Lack of sponsors and rigorous working climate (for aspiring artists to be cast in live stage) could be reasons for Tamil drama to linger over unveiling a bold and new era. Besides how lucrative the old business is, is a million dollar question. To hold an audience captive for hours can’t be more challenging than now, with attention span of today’s society dipping to new lows.

Stage  plays are NOT and must NOT be equated to tv plays because in the former, there are no re-takes and the act has to be performed in front of a live audience. The cast has to be super-alert and on toes as there will be no second chance. Dramas nurtured the performing arts scene when there were no professional institutes grooming would-be theater personalities and technicians. The plays provided an excellent platform to express individual views as well as social concerns bringing in an awareness on their part. Tamil stage has indeed played a constructive role in instilling ‘swadeshi’ spirit in patriots in pre-Independence India.

GenNext has no clue what stage play is about. Or does it all boil down to after all one more phase of evolution in entertainment industry?  It may be too much to expect a resurrection of Tamil Theater in this digital age, still for those of us bred on wholesome hearty family dramas, the loss is deeply felt.

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