While a lot of discussion, comments, appreciation and a few criticisms are being thrown on the magnum opus of Kalki’s ‘Ponniyiin Selvan’ which ultimately turned out to be a super hit, I cannot but recall a similar popular novel which hit the screens after a decade of its serialization in famous Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan. The novel is ‘Thillana Mohanambal’. The serial started in 1956 and went for more than two years nearly. It turned out to be very popular and as the story dealt with the famous places like Thiruvaroor , the famous shrine down South and the surroundings, the graphic description of the places by Kothamangalam Subbu who wrote the novel in the pseudonym Kalaimani was something special.
An unexpected meeting but an acrid exchange of words between a handsome young headstrong Nadaswaram player and a beautiful Bharatnatyam dancer ends up in a gauntlet thrown between each other. Mohanambal asks Shanmugam whether he can play the Bari Nayanam of Thiruvaroor which is supposed to be an arduous task. Conversely, he asks whether she can dance for a thillana if he plays it in that Bari Nayanam.
The path of love between Mohana and Shanmugam has to tread through an extremely challenging path with many characters interfering, creating problems, and attempting to sabotage their challenge as well as love. The author almost had taken the readers to the beauteous ambiance of Thanjavur district, its charm and their liking and patronage of classical arts as well as disrupting forces of their careers by their foes.
Though they throw challenges at each other inwardly they develop soft corners mutually and fall in love. Mohana’s mother, Vadivambal was dreaming of making big money through her daughter befriending rich zamindars or landlords as per her tradition of those era for which Mohana is not ready.
Another highlight of this immortal novel is the exceptionally beautiful and realistic illustrations by artist Gopulu. Every character has a unique identity and these were brought out very effectively by the ace artist. Apart from Shanmugam and Mohana, we see very real ‘chavadal’ Vaithi, Vadivambal, Kadambavanam Pillai, Minor and his wife Maragatham, Karaikkal Natesan, villain Nagalingam, Jil-Jil Ramamani, Varadan, Aparanji, Muthurakku, Daruman, Paramananda Paradesi, Madanpur Maharaja, Ashalatha Devi to name the important ones.
Since it was completely based on classical music and dance we had Shanmugam playing Muthuswami Dikshitar’s magnum opus ‘Sri Subramanyaya Namasthe’ during the temple festival and Thyagaraja’s ‘Ragasudha rasa’ in Andolika when he was asked to join a drink party by Maharaja in the ship and his masterly playing of a 5 Nadai Thillana in Khamas to challenge Mohana to dance are still memorable. In addition, there were a lot of references to the beautiful Carnatic ragas and compositions of not only the Trinity but also other Tamil poems of Nayanmars and Azhwars. The same holds good with Mohana also; her performing Aichiyar Kuravai ‘Vadavarayai maththakki’ from Silappadikaram later popularized by the great MS Subbalakshmi in the classical concerts, her abhinayams to several padams and javalis were depicted so realistic and lively.
The story went a bit long and it seems someone commented to Saavi, the popular writer who was working in Vikatan at that time for which Saavi in his inimitable style quipped ‘one should worry if a monkey has a long tail, why bother about the long feather of a peacock? It is still beauteous’.
The movie, as usual, had to make compromises though writer director AP Nagarajan tried to stick to the basic events of the novel to the maximum extent possible. Nagesh was the biggest winner as Vaithi. Ramamani’s character played by Manorama had been made comical to some extent. Both Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini were apt for the roles but their age definitely showed off. He was 40 and she was 36 at the time of the film (1968) while the real characters were roughly in their late twenties. Nevertheless, except these two there were none to suit those illustrious characters on screen with acting and dancing prowess. The single Nadaswaram had been turned into a duo as MPN Sethuraman and MPN Ponnuswamy played it and AVM Rajan was an unobtrusive added character.
The story ends with Mohana sacrificing her dancing career to save Shanmugasundaram from the clutches of death at the behest of Paramananda Paradesiyar who had been her guiding source and well-wisher of both the artistes.
Nevertheless, the film satisfied the expectations of the audience as well as the avid readers of the novel in late sixties and not many expectations or controversies were created like now on 'Ponniyin Selvan'. Thanks to the absence of so many fair and critical social media. I strongly favor and feel about the very great and immensely talented artists of those times. Gopulu at the pinnacle of the career sketched the characters and they came alive and moved with the readers personally. Vikatan brought the book later with some of the illustrations. Due to its popularity, a typical marriage invitation was posted in Vikatan for the marriage of Shanmugasundaram and Mohana. But, the original extracted from the Anandavikatan of those times is something absolutely ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’ if one has to use the terminologies popular today. Yes. Those were days of sincerity among magazines to elevate real talents with great care and concern which I feel today turned into a different ball game. Post Script: ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ was the first Tamil novel I started reading at the age of seven. I used to wait in the ‘thinnai’ of my uncle’s house in Thiruvallikeni on Thursday afternoons for the newspaper boy to bring ‘Ananda Vikatan’.