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25 April 2021

Manthiri Kumari (1950)

Directed by: Ellis R Dungan, TR Sundaram
Music: G Ramanathan
Lyrics: M Maruthakasi, M Karunanidhi
Starring: Madhuri Devi, SA Natarajan,
MG Ramachandran, G Shakuntala,
MN Nambiar, Sivasooriyan

A year or so ago, Tom Daniels asked me if I would be interested in sub-titling Manthrikumari. I’d subtitled some Hindi movies for him, and edited others that already had [bad] sub-titles and since Tamil is one of my spoken languages, I thought I would give it a try. For various reasons, the project had to be put on the back burner multiple times, and it’s only recently that I delivered the subtitles to him. During this process, I watched this film multiple times. For all the trouble I went through, I thought it merited a review.

Mullai Nadu is plagued by dacoits who loot and kill tradesmen and caravans entering the kingdom. The king (Sivasooriyan) is under the control of the Raj guru (MN Nambiar). The latter’s son, Parthiban (SA Natarajan), had had ambitions of becoming the commander-in-chief of the army, but his arch-rival Veeramohan (MGR) is elected unanimously. A miffed Parthiban takes to dacoity to avenge his humiliation. It is he who heads the gang that’s creating such chaos in Mullai Nadu.

When the nth caravan is looted and travellers murdered, the survivors approach the king for relief. When his offer of compensation is rejected by the grieving survivors, the king orders Veeramohan to produce the dacoits in eight days. Veeramohan sets his men to search high and low for the dacoits. 

Meanwhile, Parthiban, lusting after Jeevarekha (G Shakuntala), the princess, sends her a note begging her to meet him secretly. The note falls into the hands of Amudhavalli (Madhuri Devi), the minister’s daughter. Jeevarekha is in love with Veeramohan, and Amudhavalli assumes that the princess is being courted by both men. 

Knowing Parthiban’s reputation, Amudhavalli is determined to save Jeevarekha from the consequences.[But of course, talking to her friend is not one of her options!] She follows Jeevarekha (who’s run off to meet Veeramohan) but loses her trail. Knowing where Parthiban would be waiting, she makes her way there. Parthiban, who was expecting the princess, in not dissatisfied at seeing Amudhavalli there. As he said to his henchman earlier, ‘Naan vandu, ethineyo pookkal undu.’ ("I’m a bee, there are many flowers out there.")

Though Amudhavalli has, she says, come to save the princess’s chastity, she is soon sweet-talked into falling in love with Parthiban. [If that sounds daft, it’s because it is.] Soon the two couples are billing and cooing but Veeramohan, at least, is distracted – he must discover the thieves. [He seems more interested in that than in the princess, but then she's spinning like a top, so I can say I blame him.]

And then Veeramohan has a stroke of luck – he and his men join a caravan that’s entering the kingdom. As he suspects, the dacoits attack and he’s able to unmask the head. To his shock, it’s Parthiban. Veeramohan produces Parthiban in court. 

Amudhavalli, who’s shocked beyond belief at this turn of events, pleads first with Parthiban (to apologize) and then with her father to free him. The minister refuses, of course, and the next morning, despite his father’s many attempts to free him, Parthiban is sentenced to death.

The minister is torn, however; Parthiban is the Raj guru’s son, after all, and his defence in court is most convincing. Alone in his chambers, he addresses the goddess, hoping for a sign that he had done the right thing. Unfortunately for him, the reverse happens. Amudhavalli, who hides behind the goddess’s idol, pronounces Parthiban innocent.

The shaken minister goes off to inform the king. Believing that the goddess had indeed spoken, the king sets Parthiban free, despite Veeramohan’s scepticism. The Raj guru demands his pound of flesh, the minister intervenes, and Veeramohan is merely exiled instead of beheaded for ‘conspiring to murder’ Parthiban.

To make amends for what he sees as his error of judgement, the minister offers Parthiban his daughter’s hand in marriage. The king, not to be outdone, makes Parthiban the commander-in-chief. The news prompts Jeevarekha to run away to be with Veeramohan. Parthiban and Amudhavalli are married and live happily ever after. 
Well, almost, because despite Amudhavalli’s touching [and touched-in-the-head!] belief that her husband would have turned over a new leaf, Parthiban is soon looting and plundering.

Meanwhile, the Raj guru has ambitions – like Iznogoud, he wants to be the king instead of the king. So, he sounds out Theekanna, the palace guard, bribing him with the dreams of being minister once he, the Raj guru is crowned king. 

And Parthiban, accosted by Amudhavalli, who’s seen his bloodstained garments and suspects he’s back to doing what he loves most ["Who woulda thunk?"as the Americans would say], is busy planning her murder so he can marry Jeevarekha and become the crown prince.

Will he succeed? What happens to Veeramohan and Jeevarekha? How will Amudhavalli face the knowledge of her husband’s murdering ways?

Photo courtesy: West Virginia State Archives [Karan Bali]
Who cares?

By the time I watched this film for the sixth time (15 hours I’ll never get back), I could cheerfully have helped Parthiban kill Amudhavalli. In fact, I wonder that someone hadn’t killed this woman already!

How much do I hate her? Let me count the ways:

  • She’s a self-righteous @#^...

and all set to ‘catch’ Jeevarekha in a compromising position. When she spies a compromising letter, she assumes the worst of her friend and makes snarky remarks about lust vs. love.

  • What’s worse than a self-righteous bore? A foolish self-righteous bore.

When she meets Parthiban and discovers that the princess is not around, does she go away? No, she stands there snarking at him, and then, at the first bit of flattery, promptly falls ‘in love’ with him.

  •  She’s so sure she can 'reform' her beloved.

Don't take my word for it. She sings a song telling us so. God/FSM save me! Did no one tell this babe that men are not made of clay that you can ‘change’ them?

  • She cares not a whit for her father’s honour.

When she deceives him into letting Parthiban go, does she ever stop to think that he might be devastated when he finds out? [At least, it answers the question where she got her [lack of] intelligence from!]

  • Nor does she care, apparently, that she’s framing an innocent man.

Even though she knows that Veeramohan has been exiled because of her actions and that her 'best friend' Jeevarekha has left the palace to be with him.

  • With friends like her!

She’s a bloody hypocrite. She is so busy simpering at her husband, it’s quite some time before she says [in that mealy-mouthed pious manner], “Oh, I wonder where poor Jeevarekha is and how she’s faring.”  As a seven-year-old once told me incredulously, “Seriously, dude?”

What makes it all so much worse is that she’s supposed to be the heroine, the role model, the 'independent woman', the symbol of sacrifice. No, I’m not making this up; in case you didn’t appreciate her ‘sacrifice’, they sing a song about it! Bah! 

Madhuri Devi wasn't bad in the role. It was just the character who made me want to barf. She did her best with what she had, but the acting of the time demanded several of Memsaab's Nahiin! faces. So she widened her eyes and her nostrils as and when the occasion demanded it.

Neither MGR nor Shakuntala had much to do, except sing songs  and in the case of the former, declaim some fine speeches. 

MN Nambiar was fabulously evil as always and Sivasooriyan was both intentionally and unintentionally comic. (The less said about the comic side plot the better.) The only one who comes off well in this film is SA Natarajan. In his Parthiban, you had a deliciously unapologetic villain, completely camp and totally over the top. But, at least, he was no hypocrite.

Right from the beginning where he tells his father that dacoity is high art, he sets the tone for his character. He refuses to apologize for his actions even to free himself because, as he says, then he will be forced to give up his plundering ways. Besides, he’s not sorry in the least. And if he is to 'die for his art’, well, so be it.

What’s more, he’s brutally honest – when Amudhavalli, who’s turning on the waterworks in the prison begs him to think of her, he snaps, “Here I’m about to die, where the hell do I have the time to think of you?

When he claims in court that he’s innocent of the charges against him, he’s still defiant and unapologetic. Also, he has a penchant for talking in rhyme. Apart from the earlier one about the flowers and bees, he also tells Veeramohan "Arasa naaye, moodida vaaye." [Literally "Shut your mouth, you palace dog! - but it sounds so much better in Tamil.)

When Amudhavalli excoriates him for being who he is, he points out – quite fairly – that she knew exactly who he was when she married him. He had told her so. So, for her to shed tears now is hypocrisy. I cheered.

Manthrikumari, based on a play of the same name written by M Karunanidhi, is based on an incident from Kundalakesi, the Tamil epic poem, but including Karunanidhi's socialist rhetoric and his assiduous campaign against brahminical caste hierarchy which would later prove to be the platform of the Dravidian movement he eventually headed.

It is considered one of the seminal films in Tamil cinema. Apart from the fact that both Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran would go on to play an important part in the politics of the state in later years, Manthrikumari was the last film to be directed by Ellis Dungan, the American director who made several films in Tamil and one in Hindi – Meera. The film boasts a stellar music score by G Ramanathan - 14 wonderful songs, with great lyrics by M. Maruthakasi (and one song written by Karunanidhi himself). You can also spot all three Travancore sisters in one dance, as well as Kamala [later Lakshman] in another dance.

I know Manthrikumari is considered to be a classic. I have been told it is a classic. I’ve also been told that the minister's daughter is the epitome of a woman’s love and sacrifice.

To that, all I can say is, Bah! Humbug!


Anybody who wants to watch this film will find a beautifully restored (thanks to Tom), well-subtitled (even if I do say so myself!) print on his channel here.

p.s. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ram Murali for going above and beyond the call of friendship to help me translate the songs. 

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