indian cinema heritage foundation

Pasupuleti Kannamba

17 Oct, 2020 | Book Excerpts by Nalini Shivkumar and Rema Mahalingam
Pasupuleti Kannamba

Unforgettable is a tribute to the women who became synonymous with South Indian cinema.

The book profiles thirty-four amazingly gifted women who challenged stereotypes, redefined femininity and captured the hearts of millions of film goers. Over four decades, their multivarious roles made them larger-than-life images across South India. Most of them acted in all the four languages—Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam—essaying roles that deeply impacted the society. Some of them entered filmdom at a time when cinema was strictly out of bounds for women. But they had the courage to fight against all odds and established themselves.

These are some remarkable human interest stories of individuals who stood up for themselves and left an indelible mark on millions of film buffs.


The following is an excerpt from the book Unforgettable: The Iconic Women of South Indian Cinema written by Nalini Shivkumar and Rema Mahalingam. 

Walking six feet tall bearing a statuesque figure, a dusky lady created a niche for herself in filmdom. Kannamba inched her way on the path she had chosen and proved that she was a female star to contend with. 
Kannamba was born on 5 October 1911 in Cuddapah to Lokamba and M. Venkanarasaiah, a government contractor. She was their only child and grew up with her maternal grandparents in Eluru. Her grandfather, Nathamuni Naidu, a village doctor, encouraged her to study and learn music. 

Once when she was watching the play Harischandra, staged by the Navala Nataka Samajam in Eluru, she was so enraged when she saw that the actor who played Chandramati did not do justice to the role, she got up and shouted that she could perform better! She was barely sixteen then. When the actor who played Chandramati challenged her to come and act, Kannamba instantly jumped on to the stage, delivered the same dialogue, sang the song and acted so effectively without any rehearsal, that she caught the attention of the drama troupe. She was immediately chosen by the company for the roles of Anusuya, Savithri and Yasodha. 

Once when she was watching the play Harischandra, staged by the Navala Nataka Samajam in Eluru, she was so enraged when she saw that the actor who played Chandramati did not do justice to the role, she got up and shouted that she could perform better! She was barely sixteen then. When the actor who played Chandramati challenged her to come and act, Kannamba instantly jumped on to the stage, delivered the same dialogue, sang the song and acted so effectively without any rehearsal, that she caught the attention of the drama troupe.
One of the organizers of this drama group, K.P. Nagabhushanam fell in love with Kannamba and married her in 1934. Later that year, they launched their own drama company called Sri Rajarajeswari Natya Mandali and performed all over the Madras Presidency and the Nizam’s Territories. 

When C. Pullaiah of Star Combines approached her for the role of Chandramati in their production Harishchandra (1935), she told him that there were twenty-two members in their drama troupe, and she was willing to act in his film only if everyone in her troupe was given a role. He agreed and she played Chandramati in the film. The film was shot at Shalini Cinetone, Kolhapur and that was the beginning of Kannamba’s film career. 
When C. Pullaiah of Star Combines approached her for the role of Chandramati in their production Harishchandra (1935), she told him that there were twenty-two members in their drama troupe, and she was willing to act in his film only if everyone in her troupe was given a role.
Thereafter, Saraswathi Talkie Company from Bezwada (Vijayawada) offered her the title role in Draupadi Vastrapaharanam in 1936. The film Kanakadhara shot her to fame, since it had scope for histrionics. Her next venture was Gruhalakshmi (1938), with H.M. Reddi and B.N. Reddi. A film with a social message about the consequences of drinking, it depicted a profligate dancer who seduces a respectable doctor into abandoning his virtuous wife Radha (played by Kannamba). The doctor becomes an alcoholic and is framed for a murder. Meanwhile, Radha is given shelter by her brother-in-law. In a dramatic turn of events, Radha falls down the stairs after a showdown with the dancer and becomes mentally imbalanced. There is a scene where Kannamba goes running all over the streets, screaming, ‘There’s no God, and no justice.’ When this scene was filmed, it was so real that the policemen who were on the beat chased the lady thinking that she was really insane and was running helter–skelter.
For a particular scene where she was supposed to be playing with tiger cubs for a scene, to prepare for the act, she got herself two tiger cubs and personally fed them, making an effort to be comfortable in close proximity with them. That was the kind of commitment and dedication she brought to every role she took up.
A dynamic and proactive actress, Kannamba took the initiative to co-produce some great movies, like Chandika (1940) with Saraswathi Talkies, where she played the title role. It is a pseudo-historical film with court intrigues, and warring factions for power, and the film had Kannamba in the role of Chandika as a valiant woman, also planning to capture the throne. She donned a male costume in the film, gallantly rode the horse and indulged in some sword fighting for the first time. For a particular scene where she was supposed to be playing with tiger cubs for a scene, to prepare for the act, she got herself two tiger cubs and personally fed them, making an effort to be comfortable in close proximity with them. That was the kind of commitment and dedication she brought to every role she took up. It was no wonder then that Kannamba’s performances were always charged with energy and drew huge crowds. 

She faced a few debacles in Tamil films; her pronunciation of Tamil words carried a conspicuous Telugu accent. But she worked hard to change this and was soon the choice for the 1941 film Kannagi. She gave a stunning performance and immortalized the role. She has rendered the longest ever dialogue impeccably, which remains unparalleled in the history of Tamil cinema, winning her a huge fan following. 
Her role as queen mother in Manohara (1954) was another milestone in her career. Even a veteran like Sivaji Ganesan was in awe of Kannamba’s dialogue delivery, particularly in this film. He considered her his mentor.
Her role as queen mother in Manohara (1954) was another milestone in her career. Even a veteran like Sivaji Ganesan was in awe of Kannamba’s dialogue delivery, particularly in this film. He considered her his mentor. She played the role of mother to NTR in the Telugu version of the film titled Raja Makutam (1959). Tamil film distributors would insist and request that Kannamba be given more dialogues, as she was really a favourite with the Tamil audience, who enjoyed her immaculate and powerful dialogue delivery.

Her imperial presence made her the apt choice for many mythological roles. She was also accomplished in action scenes, having learnt sword fighting and horse riding since she wanted to play her role to perfection. Interesting snippets that made the rounds about her, were that she owned a lot of heavy jewellery and had the habit of storing them in big jars in her kitchen. It was even rumoured that she wore all her jewellery to sleep every night! 
Noteworthy actresses, like Anjali Devi, recall how Kannamba gave them tips on dialogue delivery and even taught them the art of interacting with people. She was the one who paved the way for Telugu-speaking actors to make inroads into the Tamil film industry.
Noteworthy actresses, like Anjali Devi, recall how Kannamba gave them tips on dialogue delivery and even taught them the art of interacting with people. She was the one who paved the way for Telugu-speaking actors to make inroads into the Tamil film industry. She was known to be very gracious with her colleagues, often helping them out with her suggestions and guidance. 

In Gudavalli Ramabrahmam’s historical film, Palnati Yuddham (1947) her performance as Nayakuralu Nagamma was much appreciated. Kannamba didn’t hesitate to play negative roles as well, acting in a wide range of roles right from being the queen mother, mother, sister-in-law, to being the wicked stepmother and mother-in-law, bringing life to all the roles. 

Ashok Kumar was a 1941 Tamil film directed by Raja Chandrasekhar with Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, and Kannamba. The film was based on an age-old Buddhist folktale surrounding Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s son, Kunal. The Mauryan prince, Kunal, was courted by Ashoka’s younger queen Tishyarakshita (played by Kannamba), and when he rejected her advances, he was falsely accused by the queen of trying to seduce her and was thrown into prison and blinded. The story, however, comes to a happy end with his eyesight being restored. While all the popular actresses hesitated to take up therole of Tishyarakshita given the negative amorous shades of the character, Kannamba accepted the role without any inhibitions. For the song ‘Unaikandu Mayangada’ rendered in the inimitable voice and style of M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, she had to learn how to dance, since she was not a trained dancer. Just for this sequence she learnt dance from the famous nattuvanar, Vaideeswaran Koil Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, who commended her and said that she was a quick and an intelligent learner. 
For the song ‘Unaikandu Mayangada’ rendered in the inimitable voice and style of M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, she had to learn how to dance, since she was not a trained dancer. Just for this sequence she learnt dance from the famous nattuvanar, Vaideeswaran Koil Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, who commended her and said that she was a quick and an intelligent learner. 
Another classic Telugu film she acted in was Thalli Prema in 1941, where she plays a rich advocate’s wife, pining for a child. Her real life yearning for a child was perhaps distilled into her role and touched the hearts of people. It created a stir and is remembered as one of her finest films. 

Yet another incident during the making of the film Saudamini (1951) that stands testimony to her dedication, as narrated by M.L. Narasimhan, is the scene in which she was left alone in the forest, caught in a heavy cyclone. On the sets, (rain) water was poured from above and a gusty wind was created using a giant fan, which in those days, was called ‘aeroplane’. Kannamba was so fanatical about her acting that she always used to wait for the director to say ‘Okay’ before getting out of the mood and the scene. Though fully drenched, she did not get up even after the shot was over. When the worried unit hands rushed towards her, she said, ‘How can I get up unless the director says “okay”?’ 
In Raja Makutam (1959), an adaptation of Hamlet, she acquitted herself brilliantly in the role of the queen, while in Lava Kusha, she played Kausalya so impressively that the film became a blockbuster and won the National Film Award for the Best Feature Film in Telugu.
In Raja Makutam (1959), an adaptation of Hamlet, she acquitted herself brilliantly in the role of the queen, while in Lava Kusha, she played Kausalya so impressively that the film became a blockbuster and won the National Film Award for the Best Feature Film in Telugu. She produced several hits with the help of her husband, director Kadaru Nagabhushanam, under their production banner, Sri Rajarajeswari Pictures. She had the privilege of earning the highest remuneration in those days—85,000 rupees. In her immensely productive career, she acted in about 170 films in all, winning wide acclaim for all her roles. 

Some of her other memorable films include 

Sumati (1942), Tulasi Jalandhaar (1947), Sudarshan (1951), Mugguru Maratheelu (1946), Mangayarkarasi (1949), Anarkali (1955), Uma Sundari (1956), Todi Kodallu (1957), Abhimanam (1960) and Athma Bandhuvu (1962). Chittoor V. Nagayya’s Bhakta Ramadasu (1964) was her last film. Among her peers, P. Kannamba enjoys the distinction of having acted with all the superstars of the time, including M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, P.U. Chinnappa, Chittoor V. Nagayya, S.V. Ranga Rao, M.K. Radha, M.G. Ramachandran and Gemini Ganesan. Kannamba was also a popular singer, rendering many songs in her films. Her gramophone record, ‘Krishnam bhaje Radha’, became a big hit and broke sale records. 

Never having children of her own, Kannamba adopted a boy and a girl. Her daughter, Rajarajeshwari, married director C. Pullaiah’s son, C.S. Rao, who was also a film director. 

Towards the end of her prolific career though, Kannamba’s production ventures upset the applecart and she ran into serious financial problems, which affected her health and that was the beginning of her end. P. Kannamba died at the age of fifty-one. After her death, her husband wandered around lonely, poverty-stricken, and died in obscurity. 

But Kannamba will be remembered as the first female superstar of South Indian films.
 


This excerpt is from Unforgettable: The Iconic Women of South Indian Cinema by Nalini Shivkumar and Rema Mahalingam published by Rupa Publications.


 

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About the Author

Nalini Shivkumar and Rema Mahalingam teach at a women’s college in Hyderabad. They have presented papers in national and international forums on gender issues and are interested in documenting women’s concerns. They have edited a book titled Women in Nation Building: A Multi-dimensional Perspective, and have authored a coffee table book on women achievers titled, Divas of Deccan: An Ode to the Women of Hyderabad.

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