One day (or rather night), my father came home from work and asked my mother to wake me early the next morning and make me up for going ‘out’. Having been a slow starter and coupled with a little laissez faire attitude I was not keen on any such excursions early in the morning sacrificing my lovely sleep (the only luxury I indulge in - till date). Mortally afraid of having to incur my father’s wrath, I went to bed early but worrying late into the night about what is in store for me, the next day. I was all of about 6 plus years of age at that time.
Next day morning I was woken and made up when Chettiar, my father’s office driver arrived in the metallic green Landmaster car and picked me and my dad. The car moved on picking up a few more boys and girls and finally reached its destination for the day – the garden in the Chettinad Palace that is located in the present MRC Nagar of Chennai.
When we were asked to alight, I found that there were reflectors, cameras, lights ranging from ‘Baby’ to ‘Brute’ capacities and rails for moving the huge camera (Must be a Mitchell as I wonder whether Arriflex made its entry by that time) all around. I could see Vindan Maama (uncle), the cinematographer, being busy behind the camera, and Uncle Shanker, my father’s boss with a file, under his arm.
A variety of activities were going on around and all people known to me were engaged in some work or other to be bothered about a runt of a boy – that’s me. For me, the location was strange and so were the other kids. A couple of kids invited me to play with them but I could not join them without taking permission from my father and my father who was assisting Uncle Shanker, was very busy. Since childhood I was a loner and even today, with all my international exposure, I am a loner, despite being in a crowd and get on famously well when I am alone.
In about half an hour’s time, the camera turned towards the huge tree under which the kids were asked to stay and surrounded by the reflectors and lights. Uncle Shanker came and announced in his booming voice that they are shooting a shot of kids playing hide and seek under the tree and we have to tease a girl who is to be blindfolded. I was given a rubber squirrel which would make a tweeting sound when squeezed. I am to keep squeezing it and taunt the girl in the blindfold by calling to her as ‘Rani’, ‘Rani’ and drawing her attention to the directions we are in; yet to fool her when she goes in that direction.
Then I understood that they were shooting a film and that it was the debut for me in ‘film acting’ so to say. The scene was being shot among friends who, as per the story, would eventually grow to become the Hero and Heroine around whom the film revolves.
But try as they may, the film crew couldn’t make me taunt the blindfolded girl who was quite tall and I was terrified to even go near her, forget about calling her. After wasting precious time and quite a bit of film, my task was given to somebody else. My father was clearly annoyed at that time, but a couple of days ago when I was mentioning about this anecdote, he was heartily laughing and reminded me that all I did was keep rubbing my buns and pulling up my knickers.
After the day, we all returned home and I forgot what happened. A few years (maybe a couple of years) or so later, the film was released in Rajakumari theatre in Chennai and being a bit of a narcissist that I am, I watched at least two shows of it every day of the week it ran for. Apart from my father and his brother, the only other person known to me who watched this film is my classmate Mr. Madhu Babu who bought the ticket and saw only because his friend ‘acted’ in it. Both of us are still in touch with each other and keep meeting once a way.
Due to indifferent fund flows and paucity of adequate funds, the picture took more than a couple of years in the making and finally when it was released to the audience sometime during 1964-65, it ran for hardly one week with scant audience as it was an experiment of a movie. It was an Indian film made in English language and the cast were all new.
While the hero of the film was an emerging actor called J. V. Ramana Murthy (brother of the famous and well respected film actor J. V. Somayajulu), the heroine was a young girl of 14-15 years of age called Jayalalitha (no, at this point of time the additional ‘a’ in her name was not there; it came much later), daughter of a well-known film actress called Sandhya. The heroine, at the time of acting in the movie, was apparently still studying in Church Park convent and was chosen primarily for her prowess in English language.
Uncle Shanker is better known as Shanker V. Giri (Late) son of HE V. V. Giri (Late) the fourth President of India. Uncle Shanker Giri himself became a MP in Madhya Pradesh contesting on behalf of the Congress Party. Before entering into politics he had some small business interests but his passion was into film making. He had a story and was convinced that story would make waves. He had his own movie company under the banner of SYGA Movies (combination of first alphabets of the names of himself, his wife and sons made SYGA) and ventured into not only producing but also directing the film.
My father donned several roles while serving Late Shanker Giri. For his business under the proprietorship called SYGA Corporation, he was the Manager of the firm. For SYGA Movies he was the Associate Director doubling as Production Manager as well. When Uncle Shanker Giri became the MP, my father became his PA and also the PA of HE V. V. Giri, in Chennai (incognito in the government records though and interestingly till date my father never visited Delhi).
So as an Associate Director for SYGA Movies, my father became instrumental in getting Ms. Jayalalitha’s screen and voice tests to check her suitability for the film, because contrary to many people’s, especially the Tamil Nadu’s people’s belief, this English film was her debut film paving way into the film industry.
While the film progressed and the ‘rushes’ were being run in AVM studios, it so happened that one day when Late C. V. Sridhar, the famous and popular director of Tamil and Hindi films under his banner Chitralaya Films, was in AVM studios, he casually peeped into the moviola (editing machine) in the editing room, to see a south Indian actress speaking good English dialogues. Intrigued, he inquired as to what was happening and came to know that an Indian film is being made in the English language, with several new faces of actors and actresses.
Apparently he approved her acting and dialogue delivery ability that he booked her for his next Tamil film called ‘Vennira Aadai’ (white coloured cloth) worn by widows in India. As production costs were not an issue for him Late Sridhar could complete and release the Tamil film earlier than the English film and thus people believe that ‘Vennira Aadai’ is Jayalalitha’s first film. Recently when I narrated this to dear Sanjay, Late Sridhar’s son, he was surprised and said that he never knew this nor did he hear this from his father.
The story of the English film goes something like this. The hero as a boy is a hyper tense boy and to add, he also falls from a tree getting injured in the brain, in his young age. As he grows, he does carry with him a baggage of complexes and allows them to spill over into his life and affecting his married life and his wife ‘Rani’(meaning queen) who also is a classmate of his and who grew along with him. After undergoing quite a turbulent married life, ‘Rani’ delivers a child and dies in child birth, leaving the child and if I remember well a letter expressing her care, for the hero, who more often spurned it. I am not sure whether one has to take the letter or the newly born child as the ‘Epistle’ which is the name of this English film.
Thus, it is the English film ‘Epistle’ that happens to be the debut film for Jayalalitha and also a small guy who is now writing this blog. Paradoxically while in her first film the character depicted by her dies leaving a widower and in her next film her character becomes a widow.
Despite being in the same film and my father being instrumental in her first film, I never, not once, met Jayalalitha the actress or Hon. Jayalalithaa the chief minister of Tamil Nadu that she evolved into. Even my father never attempted to meet her when she was climbing up in positions nor curried any favours and remained to be simple and inconspicuous, as is wont of him.
Excepting the fact that her first film was ‘Epistle’ which was known to us, whatever further information we knew of her was hearsay or from the media. We now understand that the lady who ruled the state as a ‘queen’ (Rani) was in fact quite reluctant to enter films or even politics and was always interested in reading and gaining more and more knowledge.
That after ruling her political party and the state with full control as ‘Amma’ (Mother), she fell ill and was hospitalised for over 2 ½ months and suddenly passed away making people wonder as to what exactly went wrong with her health and what really led to her demise. It’s about a month now since her demise and still nobody knows much more than what has been announced, excepting for the fact that she is no more with us.
It was so saddening to see a lady who was fondly called ‘Amma’ by her admirers and an ‘Iron Lady’ by both her admirers and detractors and who was accused of amassing wealth beyond her known means, left this world taking nothing with her but leaving a legacy of determination which certainly can be emulated. That a person who could wield such power when alive, had to die so seemingly helpless was ironical!
May her soul be blessed and may she rest in peace!
Respectfully to the departed,
Krutagjnatalu (Telugu), Nanri (Tamil), Dhanyavaadagalu (Kannada), Nanni (Malayalam), Dhanyavaad (Hindi), Dhanyosmi (Sanskrit), Thanks (English), Dhonyavaad (Bangla), Dhanyabad (Oriya), Gracias (Spanish), Grazie (Italian), Danke Schon (Deutsche), Merci (French), Obrigado (Portuguese), Shukraan (Arabic), Shukriya (Urdu), Sthoothiy (Sinhalese) Aw-koon (Khmer), Kawp Jai Lhai Lhai (Laotian), Kob Kun Krab (Thai), Asante (Kiswahili), Maraming Salamat sa Lahat (Pinoy-Tagalog-Filipino), Tack (Swedish), Fa'afetai (Samoan), Terima Kasih (Bahasa Indonesian) and Tenkyu (Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea).
Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy