ML Vasanthakumari

I owe this post to Mohan Ramiah, my friend on Facebook. I have never had the occasion to meet him but being fellow MLV fans, we sahrdayas are forever in communion. He occasionally sends me gems from MLV’s film songs and he did so last week too.

As you grow older, the joys of chancing on something unread (like a Wodehouse or Agatha Christie novel for instance) become increasingly rare. I place finding a hitherto unheard MLV film song or concert recording in that same class. And so, imagine my joy when Mohan Ramiah sent me Inriravu migananriravu (This night is a good night), a song by MLV for the 1956 film Raja Rani, starring Sivaji and Padmini among others.

I read the wikipedia entry on the film and found it did not have much information. I have since located the entire film on YouTube but decided to give watching it a miss – it looked like one of those films you watch only when you are absolutely jobless. Lots of heavy dialogue, some silly song and dance sequences – you know the type. And there is this one gem.

The film was directed by A Bhimsingh, much before his latched on to the Pa Series. The script is by one Mr Mu Karunanidhi who post Parasakthi (1952) was much in demand and made a good combo with Sivaji who could deliver all the dialogues flawlessly. He also wrote the lyrics for this song, apart from others. Music is by TR Paapa.

Now what makes it special?

For one, MLV speaks and sings. Have you ever had the pleasure of hearing MLV speak? I have and let me tell you that voice was unique – it was relatively heavy for a woman and had a certain fruity texture with just a hint of a quiver, which became accentuated as she aged. Imagine a peach melba slowly melting and the toppings gradually shaking and falling off their places in the glass and you get the idea. My friend P Vasanthkumar often said that the rounded nature of MLV’s voice (kuzhaivu) remains unparalleled and I agree with him. And so here you can listen to that voice speaking.

Next, the song itself is a good word picture of the way the theatre world functioned during its heyday. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar writes of how his Suguna Vilasa Sabha always had a band playing at the entrance on the days a play was staged. The song opens the same way. I am not sure if women managed the box office ever but Padmini does a very good job of it (and looks an absolute delight as well). MLV’s voice suited her to a T and the two friends definitely brought great charm to the songs.

Audience behaviour is captured beautifully – the floor ticket, as the song goes is the cheapest and patrons in this category had to sit on a floor stained with betel juice. That this was a rough and ready clientele is indicated by the coin the man gives Padmini being stained with blood! And then you have back bench and sofa categories. That it was common for mischief makers to flash beams on to the stage to dazzle artistes is made manifest by Padmini’s warning to a man who carries a torch to the hall. And there are the habitual troublemakers – the man who tries to grab a ticket through the window and the Brahmin who will not stand in the queue. Lots of symbolism there – the forward caste man charging ahead and demanding a ticket – but then this is a Mu Karunanidhi song remember?

Women seeking a separate section to themselves was common till fairly recently in certain Sabhas, cinema houses and theatres. I dont know why they had to portray a 53 year-old (I am that age now) as such a doddering man but it is nice to know he got an easy chair. Children below three were entitled to half tickets and you have a nice touch where Padmini tries to assess the age of the kid hiding behind its father. How many times has it happened to us when we went to see films! When we were young we were passed off as being younger than what we were and when we grew into adolescence we tried to pass off as being older to get to see A rated films!

And the last bit where MLV sings of what is sold to the audience – orange, soda, colour, beeda and cigarettes – it brings to life a world gone by. Today we get popcorn, iced tea, cold coffee and chats served at our seats in the multiplexes. Thank heavens smoking is out.

I like the ending with the ecstatic cry – houseful! Not many plays get that today. I dedicate this article to my friend Karthik Bhatt, whose passion in life is Tamil theatre.

Before I end this piece here is one more nugget – the top octave was always MLV’s weak point and she managed it by singing falsetto, thereby making it appear a strength. Only she could have done it. You can see flashes of it here too.

This article is part of a series I write on old film songs, chiefly Hindi and Tamil. You can read the earlier bits here

There are other articles on Vasanthakumari too –

Madras Lalithangi

ML Vasanthakumari