He called himself ‘Director K. Subramanyam’ and directed around 20 films in various languages including Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Sinhalese. He was a central figure in the early years of the Tamil film industry and his efforts as a director and producer helped establish the foundations of the same. He is considered to be a progressive filmmaker whose cinematic take on various socio-political issues including the caste system, women’s oppression, child marriage, the dowry system and the ill-treatment of widows were well ahead of his times.
Subrahmanyam was born into an orthodox Brahmin family based in Kumbakonam and he studied law. He joined Associate Films, Chennai, in 1928 during the era of silent films and became an assistant to the renowned filmmaker Raja Sandow. Following a brief stint with the Scout Movement that continued until 1934, he returned to the film world and started making films under the banner of his own business unit, Madras United Artistes Corporation. His interests in both film making and social activism through films were the results of his father’s influence.
His debut film Pavalakodi (1934) was mythological and had Krishna, Arjuna and Subhadra etc. as main characters. He was the first south Indian filmmaker to make a Hindi film, Prem Sagar (1939).Several of his films including Balayogini(1937) that discussed the miserable plight of widows in Brahmin families, Seva Sadanam (1938) that focussed on the women’s question India, Thyagabhoomi (1939) and Bhakta Chetha (1940) that dealt with untouchability are still considered as path-breaking films for their narrative structure and social commitment. Thyagabhoomi was a nationalist film based on an eponymous novel by Kalki Krishnamoorthy, which was banned in colonial India. The film was also banned eventually.
Subrahmanyam introduced a number of artists to a career in films, foremost among them the Carnatic music stalwart M.S. Subbulakshmi. Seva Sadanam (1938) brought the legendary musician M S Viswanathan into the industry. Subrahmanyam was responsible for the induction into the film world of many others including the eminent actor-singer M.K. Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, S.D. Subbulakshmi, music composer Papanasam Sivan, `Baby' Saroja (Subrahmanyam’s niece), the Bharatanatyam trio Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini,B. Saroja Devi and K.J. Mahadevan. Another music exponent of the period, D.K. Pattammal, debuted as a playback singer in Thyaga Bhoomi (1939). Subrahmanyam's wife Meenakshi, who wrote and composed songs for his films, was perhaps one of Tamil cinema's first women lyricists and music directors.Subrahmanyam’s daughter Padma Subrahmanyam also made her first appearance on screen as a dancer in the film Gita Gandhi.
In the Malayalam film industry, he is known for his mythological film Prahlada that was released on 17 August 1941. It was a remake of a Tamil movie of the same title. The Tamil film was released in 1931. It was the first Malayalam-language mythological. The cast of the film included greats like T. K. Balachandran, N. P.Chellappan Nair as Sukracharya, Guru Gopinathas Hiranyakasipu, Thankamani Gopinath as Kayathu, Satyajeet Singh and Kumari Lakshmi as Prahlada. Many news reports of the period suggest that the film was a success at the box office and the performance of Kumari Lakshmi was particularly lauded.
K Subramanyam was instrumental in the establishment of several organisations like the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce, the South Indian Film Artistes Association, the Film Institute, and the Nadaswaram Artists Association. He also spent his retirement life for the welfare of film artists. He has also been part of several cultural delegations to foreign countries and the UN. In 2004 on his birth centenary year, Government of India released a stamp in his name, commemorating the year.
Subrahmanyam’s rich legacy in both the arts and the world of cinema has been taken forward by his children. His sons S. V. Ramanan and Dr. S. Krishnaswami have been active in the film industry and Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam is now a well-known danseuse. Dr .S .Krishnaswamy is known for his award winning historical films and TV series, one of which, He Swam Against the Colonial Current (2011); is a biography about the work of his pioneering filmmaker and freedom fighting father, KrishnaswamiSubrahmanyam. Several of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to remain active in various cultural fields until he passed away on 7 April 1971.