Chandralekha poster, courtesy Pinterest account of Bollywood posters from old

She always sent a frisson of excitement down the collective spines of members of my family. Somewhere in the distant past, a grand uncle got so obsessed with her that he watched the film Chandralekha some fifty times or more. He had to be weaned off with the help of spells, chants and protective talismans. That was TR Rajakumari for you. The original dream girl. But there was a lot more to her than mere oomph. 

There was firstly her lineage. In his monumental survey, Marabu Tanda Manikkangal, scholar BM Sundaram traces this to great-grandmother Thanjavur Bhavani, who was a disciple of Sabhapati Nattuvanar, a son of Sivanandam of the Thanjavur Quartet fame. Bhavani’s daughter Kuchalambal learnt dance from Mahadeva Nattuvanar. One among her fourteen children was Thanjavur Ranganayaki, who after pursuing dance  as a career for a while took to Harikatha. Her daughter was TR Rajayi, who took on the screen name TR Rajakumari. May 5, 1922 is her date of birth as per  Vamanan in his book Thirai Isai Alaigal, though Sundaram has it that she was born in 1920. Going by the former date, this marks Rajakumari’s birth centenary. In keeping with her rich cultural background, she was trained in dance, could sing and also play the veena. Above all, as she personified on screen, she was a woman of infinite grace and a charm that was all her own. 

While the first film offer was for acting in the film Kumara Kulothungan (1938) made by Deccan Cinetone, it was undoubtedly K Subrahamanyam’s Kacha Devayani (1941) that catapulted her to fame. It is said everyone except Subrahmanyam was dead against casting Rajakumari in the film. As per Aranthai Narayanan, (Tamizh Cinemavin Kathai), the makeup man, having readied her for a camera test, declared that the director was insane. Their predictions seemed justified when the film opened to a tepid reception at Gaiety Theatre on January 9, 1941. It seemed destined to be a flop but by the fourth day crowds picked up and it ran to packed houses for six weeks thereafter – Rajakumari being the chief reason. As per Narayanan, the critics raved and described her as a temple sculpture, ivory figurine, a peacock and a nightingale. She became the Dream Girl.

If by that title, they implied someone who was just a glamourous presence they were mistaken. Three iconic roles define Rajakumari’s career though she acted in several more. In terms of recall the first would probably be Chandralekha (1948) and that had as much to do with Vasan as it had with her. Who can forget Rajakumari as a trapeze artiste, as a gypsy, and above all dancing on the drums? But she was much more than that – Chandralekha was a thinking woman. In many ways that was what brought life to the role. The second was Ramba, the scheming courtesan who inveigles the hero Haridas in the eponymous film released in 1944. Etched in our minds is Manmatha Leelaiyai Venraar Undo sung by MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar where when he yearningly calls out ‘Ramba..’ she replies in her somewhat deep voice, ‘Swami…’. Here again, the courtesan Ramba, unlike Haridas’ wife (essayed by NC Vasanthakokilam) was no inchoate character. Under Rajakumari she emerges as the second-most important character in the film. And finally, we have her as Vasanthasena in Manohara (1954). The film was all Sivaji’s but without Rajakumari’s contemptuous glances and barbed comments, his anger would have all gone to waste. She was the perfect foil as evil personified. And she did it consistently by underplaying – she matched Sivaji and Kannamba’s histrionics with just a glance, a quiet word, and a curling of the lip. It is no wonder that following the film’s success, Rajakumari was cast as a vamp in Thangapadumai (1959).

But she was careful not to be typecast. Her role in Gulebakavli (1955) is good fun – switching from a fraudster to a demure wife. The former is where she excels and the song Villendum Veerarellam.. sung by P Leela has Rajakumari at her best. Once again, a thinking woman, who shows the hero MGR how to find the mysterious flower that will cure his father’s blindness. But perhaps her career best is the film Anbu(1953) where she co-starred with Sivaji and Padmini. As a young widow with a posthumous child and suffering ignominy, she showed a new side to her acting, essaying a woman who unites the family. There was more to Rajakumari than just an actress – she produced films and owned the Rajakumari theatre in T Nagar. In short, she was a self-made, successful, professional – a post-Independence ideal for Indian womanhood.

Famously reclusive off screen, Rajakumari, like the courtesan she played in Krishna Bhakthi (1948), withdrew into prayer on retiring. She passed away on September 20, 1999. 

This article appeared in The Hindu dated September 23, 2022 and can be read here

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