Tamil Drama & Film -
- நாடகத் தமிழ்
In Memory of Tamil Theatre
The writer has been active in the
theatre circuit for over two decades engaged as a tutor, critic
and producer.with over two decades of experience. He was also a
producer with Doordarshan Chennai and is currently the guest
facutly on theatre at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
His research work on Tamil Metro Theatre from 1960 to 1985 is
awaiting publication with the Union Cultural Ministry.
21 August 2008
When I was asked to write about Tamil theatre—both
that was and that is—I felt I was in a uniquely privileged position
because I have been a theatre critic for more than 23 years.
I feel as societies evolve, the early beginnings are forgotten in
the process of evolution—much like a butterfly forgets its cocoon.
Only academics indulge in ‘remembering’ and, in some ways, it is
In the second half of the 20th century, theatre came in a weak third
after dance and Carnatic music. The disappearance of professional
theatre encouraged the emergence of sabhas—small groups of amateur
actors who staged a play or two a month. Each group had its own
playwright, who knew the artistic capabilities of the members and
wrote plays accordingly. Over the years, the number of sabhas
mushroomed from six or seven to 65.
Initially, the sabhas did not all do too well. If a play was well
received or if it was booked by Mylapore Fine Arts, then the group
was assured a minimum of 65 performances. The sabha recovered its
costs only after a few shows. While the male cast of the play
usually consisted of office-goers, the female roles were enacted by
professionals—a tradition that is still practiced.
Film stars like Major Sundarajan, AVM Rajam and V S Raghavan had
their own theatre groups. Komal Swaminathan, the better known among
them, started Major. In fact, Shivaji Ganesan belonged to one such
Around this time, theatre also began its relationship with cinema.
If a play was very successful, it invariably became a film. The
rewards of this were manifold. For example, the lead actor was
normally signed on to be the film’s hero and the playwright earned a
good packet by selling the script.
The family theme was very popular, as was comedy and satire.
Playwrights, including Raman, wrote comedy mostly based on the
French playwright and actor Moliere. These plays, whose
presentations are unforgettable, gave rise to many new actors.
Y G Mahendra and Prabhu were the notable actors of the age, who
mainly did political satire. The actor duo of Visu and Mouli, who
followed in the dramatic actor M R Radha’s tradition, also began an
era of brilliant plays. But their reign came to an end when they
left their sabhas and struck out on their own—their grip on their
work slackened and the duo collapsed.
The advent of television changed the scenario. With the emergence of
channels and their daily soaps, playwrights have almost disappeared.
However, among notable playwrights, both Augusto and Venkat continue
to write. Some ventured into films, with questionable success. This
list includes Visu, who plays the Sutradar in his own gossip arena.
Isn’t this an extended form of theatre?
The glory has died—proud traditions are in ruins.
The habit of going to the theatre is now non-existent. The number of
sabhas have gone down and in their place have sprung up new kinds of
The new breed caters to a specific audience that enjoys a particular
brand of comedy. And this brand is being defined by newcomers like S
V Shekar and Crazy Mohan. T V Varadharajan also put up some
plays—mostly to boost his own image than to contribute to the
The doors to great theatre are closed for ever. It is irreversible.
Though theatre is still successful in states like Maharashtra,
Kolkata and Karnataka, where are we? Quo vadis. My heart sinks as I
write this—is it a memoriam or an obituary?