Till I was seven years old, we only had silent movies, but soon after that, we started hearing about sound films. Dramas and music concerts, which were in vogue before the appearance of sound films, were quite expensive, and because of this, the silent-movie film was the only attraction for common people in the years before sound films. In our family, we were prohibited from seeing films, but we were up to date with cinema information through wall posters and cinema notices distributed everyday. In those days, the most popular drama company was ‘Nawab Rajamanickam Company.’ It was only from this drama company, great actors like Shivaji Ganesan and M. G. Ramachandran became popular, and film companies absorbed them subsequently. When sound films started coming out in leaps and bounds, the popularity of dramas started dwindling and before long sank into oblivion.
Let me tell you about the first sound film I saw. This film was about the Hindu epic story of Ramayana, and it was chosen because of the actors and actresses and good music. I still remember the name of the actress who acted as Sita (Rama’s wife). Her name was T P Rajalakshmi. Many people spoke in admiration of this film. A few families from the local Christian High School called C. S. M. High School (in Pudukottai) got together and planned to see this film. This took place sometime between the years 1933 and 1934, and I had not turned eight yet. Going to see a film was something of a rarest of rare occasion for us, on par with traveling on a railway train. Going to the cinema was such a rare occasion, not so much because of the expense, but because films were considered taboo in our home. Even later on, our father, being the pastor of the church, never accompanied us to the cinemas, but he was gracious enough to allow us to see a film once in a blue moon like on this occasion. Let me narrate to you how it all came about, and all the accompanying drama that unfolded.
The grownups started planning this almost a month earlier. As was always the case, it would progress to a grownups-perpetually-whispering phase, before we kids suspected anything. The news would eventually reach our little ears, hardly a week before the actual event. The problem would not merely be that it reached our ears so late, but that the grownups would not have the kindness to give it to us clearly. There would always be much suspense about everything to do with it. For instance, they might break the news to us like this. “There is a possibility that we might go to see a film one of these days—but it is not certain—and you must not pester us. If you pester us, we may have to drop the idea.” That was the agonizing part of the ecstasy. This suspense would torment me beyond description. The only course open to me was to look for circumstantial evidence. I would watch the grownups’ every move from that time onwards. Those were crucial days for me.
One evening, I noticed the assembling of three or four persons, and one of them happened to be from the C.S.M. High School. Even though it might be nothing important from my point of view, things could not be taken for granted during these crucial days. So I decided to eavesdrop and take note of what was being said in that meeting. My judgment was correct, and I found out that they were discussing about choosing a person to buy the tickets. In those days in pre-WWII India, we had no queue system; we had no queues for ticket counters, whether it was at the railway booking office or a cinema theatre. Survival of the fittest, being the motto on such occasions, one had to carefully devise strategies. The strategy they were devising was to find a suitable thug to get into the crowd in front of the booking counter at the cinema. One person in the meeting suggested Karupaiah, a close relative of the school office peon who was notorious for handling such affairs. But another person in the group differed saying, “No, no, Karupaiah is OK for such and such purposes, but to enter into such a huge crowd, he will not be suitable with his bulky body. Finally, everyone agreed that Rowdy Mani being both lean and strong was most ideal. After this, they start discussing various other details, about which I was not interested. The piece of information I had acquired abundantly served my purposes—finding enough circumstantial evidence that we might after all go to the cinema. It was more important now, at this critical juncture, that I retreat from this place as unobtrusively as I had eavesdropped, which was no mean task, considering that I had eight siblings in the house, and one had to beware of spies. Who knew what dire consequences awaited if my escapade and eavesdropping came to light. Ok mission accomplished! I was safe.
My next concern was about the choice of dress—what would I wear? You should understand that for an occasion like this, one needed to be in their best available attire. So I needed to have enough time for planning. I also knew that I might have to face some conflict with my sisters in the choice of my clothes. But that was not as serious as the issue regarding whether they would allow me to wear my new footwear, because I feared that someone would raise an objection stating that I might lose it in the crowd. All said and done, these tribulations were not comparable to the joy of being in the cinema. With such thoughts, I temporarily satisfied myself and started imagining and dreaming of the unspeakable joy of seeing the film. This film was not inanimate but also moving, speaking and singing! Oh what a thrill it was going to be. So that motivated me to be patient and obedient. Seeing me this way, some of my siblings started bullying me, taking advantage of my mental excitement, but it did not matter to me.
To cut the story short, let us get to the zero hour of this historical event. The time of our departure from our house had come. I was insisting that everyone come quickly out of the house. I noticed one of the sisters spending an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror, at a time when three others were also to use the mirror. Finally, we managed to leave the house and began the mile-long walk to reach the cinema house. I observed the girls walking unusually slowly. What was the use of reaching the cinema house after the show had commenced? We had only covered half the distance, and how I wished that we had wings to fly the rest of the way! To add to my woes, I could now hear the sound of the band music from the cinema theatre. In those days, a special band played for half an hour before the commencement of the show. I brought this to the notice of the group and begged them to walk a bit faster appealing to them, “Just listen, the band has started playing, please don’t delay.” This had some effect on them, I think, for they now began to increase their pace. If only they had done so earlier, we could have reached even before the commencement of the band’s playing. What was I to do? These were my trials beyond my strength.
When we reached the venue, we saw that the theatre was surrounded by a huge crowd, in my imagination, a sea of people spanning half a furlong. But where was Rowdy Mani, who was chosen for the tickets purchase? They were now searching for him, and I felt like fainting at the thought of what would happen if that man was not there. Through my dazed feelings and such dreadful thoughts, I heard a shout from someone from somewhere, “Mani is located. Give him the cash” Money now changed hands and our hero Mr. Mani plunged into the crowd like a prowling tiger attacking its prey.
Alas within two or three minutes, Mani came out—without tickets! Our people rushed towards him, “Mani what happened?” Mani replied, “The crowd is formidable but I have other strategies. Please don’t lose patience.” Stating this, he left us and made his way slowly but steadily back towards the crowd. This time we noticed that he had a small boy by his side, may be his brother or a nephew. He wrapped his towel two or three times around the boy’s head and ordered the little boy to get on to his shoulder. The boy obliged with ease. Like a man with a basket on his head Rowdy Mani plunged into the crowd again. The boy did not look like a basket at all. Instead Mani seemed to have suddenly grown two feet taller. When they came near the counter, the boy shot his hand into the ticket counter with the cash, Mani shouting from behind, “Annae, 14 tickets – correct cash, handover the tickets.” The ticket vendor must have wondered, “The hands are the hands of a boy, but the voice is that of an adult.” He then must have reasoned, “All I need is cash, and all that this peculiar creature with boy’s hand and man’s voice wants is tickets.” So he quickly pushed the tickets into the small hands, and just as Mani was making his way victoriously back to us, I recollect that there was a bit of a distraction—a loud commotion on account of a pick pocketing incident—and no one in the crowd noticed what Rowdy Mani had done. It was not long before we were all seated in the cinema theatre.
Before the commencement of the film, once again, we were subjected to a series of experiences that added to the suspense. This was how films were shown in those days. (As to how it is done today I have no idea, for it is nearly 40 years or so since I entered a cinema hall.) The loud band music suddenly stopped. We were looking at the screen expectantly. Nothing happened. After two minutes, a loud whistle blew. Then a couple of electric lights were switched off, giving us reason to believe that something was just about to take place. After the lapse of couple of minutes more, the doors of the entrance were closed. It was now quite dark except for two or three lights still burning. Then, all the lights except one were switched off. Another couple of minutes of suspense. Now the curtains of the various entrances of the hall came down. I felt thrilled. All this suspense was delightful to me, unlike the leaving of the house, the slow walking, and even earlier, the slow trickle of information disclosure about our going to see the film. I was intently gazing at the single light burning, wondering what would happen to it. Suddenly it was switched off. I could hear the cries of some babies, because of the sudden darkness. But before long, the screen was illuminated—the film had commenced.
I am going to highlight only one scene from this film as a sample. It is the girl Sita leaving the home of her parents to join her husband, Rama. Indeed very touching it was, and the scene is still green in my mind. The girl bid goodbye to everyone in the home—the servants and her parents—then went behind the house to the backyard to bid goodbye to the cow, the calf, and to her pet parrot last of all. That was the most touching scene. She sang to the parrot, and through that song expressed her agony of parting. 75 years on, I still remember those words, and it goes like this (sung by singer T P Rajalakshmi): Parrot dear:
It was on my fifth birthday that my father bought you and gave you to me as a gift. Since then, we have been inseparable friends. I was a little girl then, and now I stand before you as a bride ready to leave this home, my parents and even you in order to join my husband. To be parted from you is unbearable. What shall I do, tell me dear parrot!
This film lingered in my mind for a long time, especially this song. People heard me sing the song, and this information spread and reached the ears of some of the teachers in the school where I studied at that time. The teachers individually and sometimes in groups would call me and ask me to sing this song. That was the time I myself realised that I had a voice for singing, a harbinger of the part music would play in the future, apart from my main spiritual ministry. One morning, my brother Anbunathan (Anbannan) announced, “I see that you have a gift for music. I am going to recommend to father that you begin your first lessons in organ playing.” I was happy that I had the privilege of using the great historical musical instrument in our home. Only three persons had the license to touch the organ; they were Sinnakka, Anbannan, and me. I became an organist, but the other two discontinued midway.
[My father indicates that the parrot song was sung by “T P Rajalakshmi”. He could be right because she was a singer in her own right. But in this film, she was also cast as the heroine, so I am not sure.]