Career

Padmashri ‘Kalaimani’ Kothamangalam Subbu is an avant-garde novelist, poet, director, lyricist, exponent of the Villupaatu, and a nationalist, who is best remembered for his cult classic on the musical traditions of Tanjore, Thillana Mohanambal. He is equally renowned for immortalizing Gandhi among the Tamil-speaking masses across the country, through his Gandhi Mahaan Kadhai: a heartrending chronicling of the life of Mahatma Gandhi that was performed on more than 1,500 occasions.

An eighth form drop out, Kothamangalam Subbu’s career had modest beginnings, as a compositor in a printing press, and clerk in a timbre company in Karaikudi. It was only when he was 25 years old that the first signs of a career in the artworld took shape for Subbu, who joined an amateur stage troupe in Pallathur. His first major stage play was Nandhanaar, in which he reprised 12 different roles. This play also made him lyricist for the first time, with his first song incidentally based on his real-life hero, Mahatma Gandhi. He had then moved to Kothamangalam in 1931, and had also begun his literary journey by contributing songs and poems to vernacular magazines. His first published work was a folk song Maariyaatha, for the magazine Hanuman in the year 1932. For more, check his poems and lyrics page.

It was around the same time that his good friend and upcoming actor Kothamangalam Seenu gave Subbu his first break in films. The film was Pattinathaar, which was shot in Bombay and released in 1934. Subbu then was doing small roles in films Minor Rajamani and Anaadhai Penn, but only in the name of SM Subramaniam. It would remain so for five more years, until he changed it to Kothamangalam Subbu in 1939 with the film Thiruneelakantar.

Kothamangalam Seenu also introduced Subbu to legendary filmmaker K Subramanyam, who gave Subbu a role in Kacha Devyaani (1941) and Bhaktha Chedha (1940). Subbu’s role as Drona in the latter earned him other offers, but K Subramaniam convinced Subbu that he wasn’t to confine himself as an actor and would have to remain with him and expand his horizons. When K Subramaniam was forced to sell his Madras United Artistes Corporation to SS Vasan, Subbu joined Vasan’s production house Gemini Studios in 1941 with a monthly salary of Rs 300, and permission to perform six radio shows a year.

This association proved to be legendary, and led Subbu to be part of Tamil cinema’s exciting early years, under the guidance of SS Vasan. Several memorable blockbusters and experimental films of those times, including Chandralekha, Avvaiyaar, Nandanaar, Miss Malini and Vanjikottai Vaaliban, had Subbu contribute as a director, scriptwriter, lyricist or an actor. In his film career spanning four decades, Subbu had directed four films, scripted seven films, penned dialogues for about 10 films and lyrics for over 20 films. He worked as an assistant director for over 20 movies, and acted in 18 films.

Subbu had to quit Gemini Studios in 1960, when Vasan had decided against producing more films. Yet, Subbu continued to write to Ananda Vikatan, and thus began Thillana Mohanambal, his legendary novel, and his innings as a renowned novelist. Soon, Subbu became a much sought-after novelist, and he began writing novel series for Ananda Vikatan, Kalki and Dinamani Kadhir. During this time, he penned five novels. He was awarded the Kalasikaamani (known today as Kalaimaamani) in 1967, and the Padmashree in 1971. For other honours, check the awards page.

Meanwhile, Subbu’s love for the Father of the Nation made him take to villupaatu, using which he narrated several mythological stories and lives of eminent persons. For more details, check Villupaatu page.

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