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First film to talk in Kannada

R. Nagendra Rao, Y. V. Rao and Shah Chamanlal Doongaji made history with "Sathi Sulochana." The first talkie in Kannada laid the foundation for the growth of Kannada cinema, writes RANDOR GUY.



Subbiah Naidu in `Sati Sulochana' ...

THE FIRST Kannada-talking picture appeared on the film horizon during 1934, three years after Indian cinema had burst into Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. In fact two Kannada movies were released in quick succession in that year between March and April.

However, the honour of being the first Kannada motion picture to be screened in the maharaja-ruled Mysore State was won by "Sathi Sulochana."

Creative soul

Many creative souls longed to make movies talk in Kannada. One of them was a legend of Karnataka, a histrionic giant of theatre, Rattihalli Nagendra Rao.

R. Nagendra Rao (1896-1977) went on stage, a mere lad of eight and soon made a mark. At first he played female roles on stage as Seetha, Chandramathi and Desdemona.

Later Nagendra Rao switched to male roles and proved equally popular even in non-Kannada speaking areas of the old sprawling Madras Presidency.

When movies began to talk in 1931 he made his way to Bombay where the Indian pioneering filmmaker and silent film star, Raja Sandow cast him in his Tamil films, "Parijatha Pushpaharanam"

(as the singing sage Narada, 1932), "Kovalan" (as hero, 1933), and "Ramadas (as hero, Telugu, 1933).

Back in Bangalore he joined the famous stage star, M. V. Subbaiah Naidu as partner in Sri Sahitya Samrajya Nataka Mandali.

Dream project

Understandably, Nagendra Rao was anxious to make a Kannada film and create history. He discussed his dream Kannada film project with wealthy persons of Mysore city. But they were reluctant to invest in movies.

But a Marwari businessman in Bangalore, Shah Chamanlal Doongaji, toyed with the idea of producing films in Kannada. During 1932, he floated a film company, South India Movietone, in Bangalore. He decided to make a mythological movie on a slice of Ravana's, his valiant son, Indrajit, and his daughter-in-law, Sulochana's life, under the title "Sathi Sulochana." After prolonged discussions with his partners, Doongaji engaged Y. V. Rao to direct it.

Yaragudipati Varada Rao (1903-1973) was born in Nellore into a prominent and wealthy Telugu Brahmin family. He dropped out of college to seek fame in movies and after a short stint in Telugu Theatre, he went to Kolhapur and Bombay to act in silent films.

In the late 1920s, he relocated to Madras and joined the pioneer, R. Prakash, as his assistant. Impressed by Rao's handsome looks, energy and interest in cinema, Prakash took him under his wing and trained him in all the departments and also cast him as hero in his silent films.

Flair for editing

Rao showed a flair for editing and he assisted Prakash on the sets in direction too.

It would all stand him in good stead later in his brilliant career as filmmaker and actor. He became known in Mysore State because of this film and Doongaji had no hesitation in hiring him.

The screenplay, dialogue and lyrics were written by one of the leading personalities of Kannada Theatre, and later cinema, Bellave Narahari Sastry.

Selecting actors

Doongaji chose Nagendra Rao to play Ravana and his theatre troupe partner, M. V. Subbaiah Naidu, to play Indrajit.

Lakshmi Bai, who was in the troupe, was the automatic choice for the role of Mandodari, Ravana's wife. She was one of the popular stars of Kannada cinema and had acted in a few Tamil and Telugu films too. Y. V. Rao cast himself as Lakshmana, Rama's brother.

Thripuramba, a singer, was to play Sulochana. She had little or no experience in acting.

Well-known harmonium-player and stage music composer, H. R. Padmanabha Sastry, was initially engaged to compose music for the film but later Nagendra Rao took over the job with Sastry assisting him. As Nagendra Rao was the only person in the unit besides the director with exposure to film production, he was given the additional portfolio of production management! He had plans to shoot the film in Kolhapur, because it was economical to do so. Rao booked the Chatrapathi Studio (as the venue), and the team led by the two Raos — Nagendra, and Y. V. — took the train to Kolhapur in December, 1933.

"Sathi Sulochana" took two months to be completed. Shooting was done in natural sun light and by using man-made reflectors. Shooting with artificial lighting in that town was difficult.

Mirrors were carried by camera-assistants on their shoulders to reflect sunlight onto the set to provide back-lighting and the men had to keep moving, shifting the mirrors to be in alignment with the moving sun! The sets had no ceiling and were covered by a white cloth.

There was an emotion-drenched, tear-jerking sequence that followed the death of Indrajit (Subbaiah Naidu) in the battle. His widow (Thripuramba) had to weep, shedding copious tears lamenting her valiant husband's premature demise.

In spite of the best efforts of Y. V. and Nagendra Rao and others, she could not shed a single tear! Y. V. Rao shouted and swore at her in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and English and even tried to slap her to bring tears into her eyes but it did not work. He used raw onions but that did not work either! In sheer despair, he sent for a pungent variety of green chillies available in Kolhapur. They are tiny in size but very spicy and hot. One was brought and gently rubbed on Thripuramba's eyelids. At once her eyes turned blood red but no tear drops came.

At that time glycerine was not used in Kolhapur. Ultimately a few drops of water were sprayed on the actress's cheeks close to the eyes to pass off as tears!

The Ramayana battle scenes between Lord Rama and Ravana were excellently shot and brilliantly edited by Y. V. Rao and proved a highlight in the film.

Produced at a cost of Rs. 40,000, "Sathi Sulochana" was released in Bangalore during March 1934 at Paramount cinema near the City Market. As the first Kannada-talking picture, it had expectedly generated enormous public interest. Hundreds of families not only from the city but also small towns and villages near Bangalore came in bullock-carts to see it, even carrying food and water with them.

Magical moment

When the lights were switched off inside the auditorium before the screening began, people packed inside the hall screamed in fear. And then the projector whirred and when the first Kannada word was heard from the screen the fear was transformed into ecstatic exclamations of joy! Was it some kind of magic?

"Sathi Sulochana," was 16,000 feet long. It was a success and ran house-full forsix weeks in Bangalore and equally well in other places in Mysore State.

After its success, Y. V. Rao rose to become a leading filmmaker of India and made films in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Konkani, and Kannada.

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