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M.K. Thiagaraja Bhagavathar – the first Tamil film superstar


MKT’s birth

Mayavaram Krishnasamy Thiagaraja was born on March 1, 1910, to Krishnamurthi Achari and Manikatthammal. His place of birth was close to Mayiladuthurai Town in Mayavaram, Tamil Nadu. The family occupation was making gold ornaments; the Visvabrahmin goldsmiths.

Krishnaswamy Thiagaraja later became a famous South Indian actor in Tamil films. He adopted the stage name Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, also known as M.K.T. He also worked as a producer and Carnatic music singer. M.K.Thiagaraja Bhagavathar is also widely considered the first Tamil cinema superstar.

The first superstar of Tamil films

Critics and movie historians have acknowledged Bhagavathar as the first Tamil cinema superstar. Together with Chinnappa, another famous actor, set the double-star culture that still rules the Tamil industry. MKT achieved demigod status in Tamil Nadu. From 1934 to 1959, Bhagavathar appeared in 14 films, 6 of which were box-office hits. 

Between 1934 and 1944, Bhagavathar made nine films, all hits. The movies were Pavalakodi, Sarangadara (1935), Sathyaseelan (1936), Chintamani, and Ambikapathi , Thiruneelakantar, Ashok Kumar (1941), Sivakavi (1942) and Haridas.

In 1937, Bhagavathar was cast as Bilvamangal in the Chintamani, directed by Y. V. Rao. The film was the second consecutive success for Bhagavathar in 1937, breaking records established by Chintamani. Bhagavathar’s next film was his production, Sathyaseelan (1938), which performed laudably. Bhagavathar’s second movie, Naveena Sarangadhara (1936), was directed by the film’s director again, K. Subramaniam, and was based on the play Sarangadhara.

In 1937, Bhagavathar was offered the lead role in Ambikapathy, made by American film director Ellis R. Dungan. The master filmmaker, K Subramaniam, saw a Hindu mythological drama. The play was Pavalakkodi (Coral vine), where Bhagavathar played the role of Arjuna. Thoroughly impressed by the performance, the genius moviemaker planned a movie in which Bhagavathar would star. Thoroughly impressed with the performance, businessman Lakshmana Chettiar decided to produce a film based on the same story, with Bhagavathar playing the lead role.

One of the immortal melodies of Tamil Cinema, which is classical Carnatic based, Elam inba mayam, was sung by M.L. Vasanthakumari-P. Leela as a duet, in Manamagal (1951), produced and directed by the iconic personality and comedic supremo, N. S. Krishnan.

Haridas – the film that held a record

Madurai-based distributor Royal Talkies released the movie Haridas starring the first Tamil film superstar, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, in Tamil Cinema. The movie was released on October 16, Diwali day, 1944. Haridas created the record for the longest consecutive run in a single theater in Broadway theatres for 784 days. This record was, however, broken by Chandramukhi (2005), starring another very popular actor Rajanikanth.

M.K.T. was very popular, but his fame ended when he was arrested in 1944 for murdering Lakshmikanthan. 

First signs of trouble with the press

C. N. Lakshmikanthan was a well-known Madras Presidency film journalist. His foray into journalism began in 1943 when he launched Cinema Thoothu. This film weekly magazine was highly successful due to the extensive gossip columns. Many actors and actresses responded by shelling out big bucks to “buy” his silence. As a result, Lakshmikanthan established a prosperous career. 

Lakshmikanthan attempted to run the magazine with forged documents but was forced to close shop after a few months. Things came to a halt when film actors M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and N. S. Krishnan, as well as film director Sreeramulu Naidu, submitted a memorandum to Madras Governor Arthur Oswald James Hope, requesting that the magazine’s license be revoked. Governer Hope complied, and the magazine’s license was revoked.

Unfazed, Lakshmikanthan launched a new magazine, Hindu Nesan, in which he continued his scandalous stories about Bhagavathar, Krishnan, and a few other top actors, actresses, and film people of the time. The strategy paid off handsomely, and Lakshmikanthan purchased his printing press.

Life after jail time

Although M.K.T. went on to appear in Tamil films upon release from jail, none of them did very well. Before he was arrested, he had signed on to do another 12 films but lost interest, and the few films he did post-release were unsuccessful. In 1934, the film Pavalakkodi was made by Krishnasamy, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, which began as a successful stage play performed by an ensemble that toured Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore, where the play was staged hundreds of times.

He is considered one of the most successful Tamil movie actors ever.

The entry of the atheist movement in the industry

It is believed that M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s absence from the film industry allowed Dravidian atheist movements to enter and make their mark on the Tamil film industry.

His end

On November 1, 1959, the superstar M.K.T. died in Madras. 

His mortal remains were brought to his Tiruchi home and buried at the Sangliyandapuram community cemetery.

Cited Sources

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