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Sathi Leelavathi (1936 film)

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Sathi Leelavathi
Landscape B&W poster with the title in English
Theatrical poster
Directed by Ellis R. Dungan
Produced by A. N. Marudachalam Chettiar
Screenplay by Madras Kandaswamy Mudaliar
Based on Sathi Leelavathi
by S. S. Vasan
Starring M. K. Radha
M. R. Gnanambal
Cinematography D. T. Telang
V. J. Shave
Edited by Sircar
Ellis R. Dungan
Manorama Films
Release date
  • 28 March 1936 (1936-03-28)
Country India
Language Tamil

Sathi Leelavathi (lit. Leelavathi, the chaste wife) is a 1936 Indian Tamil-language drama film directed and co-edited by Ellis R. Dungan, written by Madras Kandaswamy Mudaliar and produced by A. N. Marudachalam Chettiar. It is based on S. S. Vasan's novel of the same name, which was serialised in the magazine Ananda Vikatan. The film features an ensemble cast including M. K. Radha, T. S. Balaiah, M. G. Ramachandran, M. V. Mani, M. K. Mani, P. Nammalvar, T. N. Lakshmana Rao, M. R. Gnanambal, Santhakumari, M. S. Murugesan and N. S. Krishnan. In Sathi Leelavathi, a wealthy Madras-based man (Radha) is lured into drinking by his friend (Balaiah), and brings misery to himself. After thinking he murdered his other friend (Nammalvar) in a drunken stupor, the man flees to Ceylon to live as a nameless labourer, while his wife (Gnanambal) and daughter (M. K. Mani) are reduced to poverty.

Chettiar initially wanted to produce a film adaptation of the Madurai Original Boy's Company (MOBC) theatre troupe's play Pathi Bhakthi, but MOBC had already decided to do so without his involvement. Chettiar later approached Mudaliar, who wrote the MOBC play. Mudaliar told him about Vasan's serial novel Sathi Leelavathi, which had the same storyline. Both men approached Vasan, who gave them the rights to make a film adaptation of his novel. Subsequently, Mudaliar began writing the screenplay for the film adaptation, also titled Sathi Leelavathi. It was the directorial debut of Dungan, and the cinematic debut of Radha, Balaiah, Ramachandran and K. A. Thangavelu as actors; all except Thangavelu were theatre actors associated with MOBC. Sathi Leelavathi was the first film Krishnan worked on, although it ended up becoming his second release. Shooting took place primarily in Madras at Vel Pictures Studio.

Sathi Leelavathi was one of the earliest Tamil films to become the subject of a court case involving copyright violations; MOBC accused the makers of plagiarising Pathi Bhakthi, the film based on their play. The case was resolved when Vasan revealed in court that both Pathi Bhakthi and Sathi Leelavathi were plagiarised from Ellen Wood's 1860 novel Danesbury House, therefore neither party could claim originality. Subsequently, Sathi Leelavathi was released on 28 March 1936. The film became a commercial success and resulted in Dungan receiving more directorial offers. Several features he introduced to Tamil cinema in this film also became a staple for future Tamil films. No complete print of the film is known to survive, making it a partially lost film, but its remaining scenes are preserved at the West Virginia State Archives.


Krishnamurthy is a wealthy man living with his wife Leelavathi and daughter Lakshmi in Madras. He is lured into drinking, gambling and other vices by his friend Ramanathan at a mock tea party arranged for this purpose; Ramanathan's collaborator is Rangaiah Naidu, a corrupt police inspector. Krishnamurthy is captivated by the wiles of Mohanangi, a woman with loose morals. Infatuated by her, he promises to pay her 50,000 (roughly $18,700.00 US in 1936).[a]

Parasuraman, Krishnamurthy's good friend, tries unsuccessfully to reform him. A Marwari moneylender, who lent a huge sum to Krishnamurthy to meet his lavish lifestyle, issues a warrant for the recovery of his money sinking Krishnamurthy into a deeper mess. In his drunken state, he finds fault with his wife and accuses her of having an illicit relationship with Parasuraman. When Parasuraman visits Krishnamurthy to warn him about the warrant, Leelavathi advises him to leave as Krishnamurthy is not at home. Parasuram leaves, but forgets his umbrella. Krishnamurthy comes home drunk, and notices Parasuraman's umbrella. He beats Leelavathi and rushes out with a revolver to shoot Parasuraman. Meanwhile, Ramanathan sends his servant in the guise of Parasuraman to steal the jewels of the Ekambareswarar Temple.

Krishnamurthy pursues Parasuraman; a shot is heard, and a man lies dead. This sudden and unexpected calamity brings the drunken Krishnamurthy to his senses. He thinks he has murdered Parasuraman, decides to escape, and leaves Leelavathi and Lakshmi in the custody of his faithful servant Govindan. He goes to Ceylon where he leads a wretched life as a nameless labourer on a tea estate. Ramanathan takes this opportunity to try to molest Leelavathi, who rejects his advances. Penniless, she goes with Govindan and Lakshmi and leads a meagre but honourable life spinning the charka. Krishnamurthy finds a treasure trove and gives it to his master who is pleased and adopts him as his son.

Krishnamurthy returns to Madras to be with his family, but is arrested for Parasuraman's alleged murder. Detective Sreenivasan's investigation reveals the malicious wiles of Ramanathan and Rangaiah. He supports this with evidence by producing the real Parasuraman in court disguised as an old man. Parasuram then discloses his true self, proving Krishnamurthy's innocence; in reality, Ramanathan was secretly following Krishnamurthy and, in his drunken stupor, Krishnamurthy fell unconscious near the temple, dropping his gun. As soon as the servant came out, Ramanathan picked up the gun, shot him and placed the gun back in Krishnamurthy's hands, making it look as if Krishnamurthy murdered Parasuraman. Krishnamurthy is acquitted by the court and reunites with his family. Ramanathan is sentenced to death and Rangaiah is convicted to seven years' imprisonment. Lakshmi and Chandrakanthan (Parasuraman's son) later marry.[1]


M. G. Ramachandran as Rangaiah Naidu



Pathi Bhakthi was a Tamil play written by Te. Po. Krishnaswamy Pavalar in the 1930s.[2] It dealt with the evils of drinking and the impact it had on family life. The play was staged all over the Madras Presidency with great success. Pavalar's original play was re-written for the Madurai Original Boy's Company (MOBC) theatre troupe by another playwright, Madras Kandaswamy Mudaliar, and was staged more than 150 times.[3][4] A. N. Marudachalam Chettiar of Manorama Films was anxious to produce Pathi Bhakthi as a film, but to his dismay, the proprietors of MOBC had already decided to produce it with P. Y. Altekar as director. Mudaliar's son M. K. Radha thought he would play the lead in this film, but both father and son were dismayed when they learnt that MOBC had selected K. P. Kesavan for the role.[5]

Still determined to adapt the play for the screen, Chettiar approached Mudaliar. To please him, Mudaliar revealed there was a novel called Sathi Leelavathi that was being serialised since 1934 in the weekly magazine Ananda Vikatan, and had the same storyline as Pathi Bhakthi.[6][7] Both men approached the novel's author S. S. Vasan who gave them the rights to make a film adaptation of his novel. Mudaliar soon began developing the screenplay from the novel.[6] Vasan was credited in Sathi Leelavathi's opening titles for the original story,[8] and Sathi Leelavathi marked his first tryst with films.[9] Chettiar wanted Manik Lal Tandon to direct the film, but he turned down the offer.[b] He then helped Chettiar by introducing him to his American friend Ellis R. Dungan and recommended that Dungan direct it instead.[10] Chettiar was reluctant since Dungan was new to India and did not know Tamil or much about Indian culture, but the fact Dungan had worked in Hollywood convinced Chettiar.[12] The film marked Dungan's directorial debut.[13] Sathi Leelavathi was later listed in the Limca Book of Records as the first Indian film to be "directed by a foreigner".[14] Because Dungan did not know Tamil, Chettiar hired C. K. Sathasivan, an associate director, to help him.[15][16] S. Panju, who later gained fame as one half of the Krishnan–Panju directorial duo, worked as an assistant director.[17]


Radha, an actor associated with MOBC,[18] was chosen to play Krishnamurthy the male lead, his cinematic acting debut.[1][19] Three other MOBC actors too made their acting debut in films with Sathi Leelavathi: N. S. Krishnan, T. S. Balaiah, and M. G. Ramachandran.[20][21] Balaiah played Ramanathan, the antagonist, while Krishnan played the comic character Balu.[1] Though Sathi Leelavathi was the first film Krishnan worked on,[15] Menaka (1935) which he signed later, became his first release,[22] and Sathi Leelavathi his second.[23] Ramachandran appeared in Pathi Bhakthi as the antagonist's henchman.[24] Much to his dismay, MOBC's owner Sachidanandam Pillai did not offer him the opportunity to appear in the film adaptation.[25] He later approached Mudaliar to seek a better role in Sathi Leelavathi, since he felt his role in Pathi Bhakthi had "no room to shine". Mudaliar spoke about the possibility of Ramachandran playing the detective. Ramachandran believed if he played this role onscreen, he would leave an impression.[26] He was ultimately cast as the inspector Rangaiah Naidu, a role he disliked.[27][26] He was paid an advance of 100 (about $37.50 US in 1936) for acting in the film, and his total fee was 300 (about $112.40 US in 1936).[28][a] Ramachandran considered this a form of compensation since it was the first time he had seen a 100-rupee note.[29] Chettiar gave the role of the detective, Sreenivasan, to M. V. Mani without Mudaliar's knowledge.[1][30] Despite Ramachandran's aversion to playing Rangaiah, his mother, Sathyabama, was actually happy he got a "respectable" role and advised him to perform it responsibly; he relented.[31]

The casting of Krishnamurthy's wife Leelavathi was troubled; no actress was willing to play the character since the script required that she be physically abused and ill-treated by her inebriated husband. In sheer despair, the exhausted producer asked Mudaliar and Radha to cast M. R. Gnanambal, Radha's wife, in the role.[32] Gnanambal, who had retired from acting after her marriage to Radha, was initially reluctant to accept the role and came out of retirement to play the role because no other actress was willing to.[19][33] The role of Leelavathi's daughter Lakshmi was played by a boy named M. K. Mani. P. Nammalvar was cast as Krishnamurthy's friend Parasuraman, T. N. Lakshmana Rao as the family servant Govindan, and P. N. Ramakrishnan as a devotee of the Hindu god Shiva. Dhanalakshmi played Bama, Santhakumari played Mohanangi, a loose woman with whom Krishnamurthy is infatuated, and M. Chanthraboi played Shanbagavalli.[1] Krishnan appeared in the comedy subplot and wrote the screenplay for his own scenes.[34] He beefed up his appearance in preparation for the role.[35] M. S. Murugesan played another comic role, that of a Marwari moneylender, while S. Sundaram appeared as Sesha Iyengar.[1] K. A. Thangavelu, a theatre artist associated with the Rajambal Company troupe, made his cinematic acting debut with this film,[36][37] in a minor, uncredited role.[38] Ramachandran's brother M. G. Chakrapani, also an MOBC actor, approached Mudaliar seeking a role,[35] but was not cast.[28] Still, he watched the shooting and absorbed "the new art form that was cinema".[39]


Although Manorama Films was located at Coimbatore,[27] Sathi Leelavathi was shot primarily at Vel Pictures Studio, then located on Eldams Road, Madras.[15] In a 1994 interview with Ananda Vikatan, Dungan mentioned that during the first few days of shooting Ramachandran did not understand the nuances of film acting. He was delivering the dialogues aggressively as if doing a play and he overacted. Dungan claimed that he corrected this and advised Ramachandran to deliver dialogues naturally with natural acting; Ramachandran changed his method.[40] Dungan wrote in his 2001 autobiography A Guide to Adventure that, since the majority of cast members were theatre actors, he was tasked with "subduing [their] voices and facial expressions".[41][42] He claimed that when facing the camera the actors would frequently freeze and not speak because it "frightened" them.[11][43] One sequence required Ramachandran to ride a bicycle, but Dungan was in disbelief when he realised that Ramachandran did not know how to ride one. Eventually, Ramachandran sat on the bicycle, with two people balancing it, and was given a push as the camera rolled.[44]

While film historian Film News Anandan wrote in his book Saadhanaigal Padaitha Thamizh Thiraipada Varalaru that shooting also took place at Ceylon,[45] another historian, Randor Guy, wrote in the fortnightly Madras Musings that a vast stretch of land behind Vel Pictures Studio stood in for the Ceylon tea plantation seen onscreen.[46] Through this film, Dungan introduced many features to Tamil cinema such as a lack of on-screen theatrical influences,[47][48] and the concept of "the cabaret dance", also known as the "club dance".[49] J. Susheela Devi played the cabaret dancer.[50] Since there was no facility to pre-record songs in Madras at the time, performers had to sing on set. The accompanying musicians sat on a trolley outside camera range and played the background musical score. This condition often restricted camera movement. During one sequence, while Radha's character sang outdoors at a tea plantation, the orchestra sat under a nearby tree playing the harmonium, tabla and other instruments.[51] Cinematography was handled by D. T. Telang and V. J. Shave,[52] while Sircar and Dungan worked as the editors. Ramamurthi, the manager of Vel Pictures Studio, used to clean all the exposed negatives by hand.[11] The completed film was 18,000 feet (5,500 m) in length.[45]


Sathi Leelavathi revolves around the themes of temperance,[41] social reform, the Gandhian concept of selfless service,[53] the tragedy of labour on Ceylon's tea estates, the miserable conditions of Tamil Nadu labourers there and the plight of labourers in general.[54][55] It also highlights the ills of alcoholism.[14] Ramachandran felt the film had a theme "after [his] own heart".[29] Sathi Leelavathi depicts chastity as the noblest ideal of Indian women.[1]


G. Sundhara Bhagavathar (also known as Sundhara Vadhiyar) worked as Sathi Leelavathi's lyricist,[56] making his cinematic debut.[57] The tune of the song "Theyila Thottathle" (also spelt "Theyilai Thottatile") is based on Subramania Bharati's poem "Karumbu Thottathile",[58] with modified lyrics. While the original poem dealt with the plight of bonded Indian labourers in Fiji, the new song dealt with the problems of tea plantation workers in Ceylon.[59] The song, which was composed in the carnatic raga known as Chenchurutti, became popular and was frequently performed by Carnatic musicians in concerts. It was re-used in the Malayalam film Balan (1938) as "Jaathaka Doshathale".[60] The other songs featured in the film were: "Manidha Nee Seivinai", "Thaayadhu Vayatrile Maayamai", "Hello Yennudaiya Dear", "Adhigha Sinamaen", "Thallaadi Naanae", "Ini Yenna Seighuvaen Dhaeviyae", "Sadhikaaramaaranovubaanam", "Kaami Satthiyamaa Kannatthaik", "Pudhunilaamughap Poomaan Punniya", "Kallae Kadavuladaa Thambi", "Vaazhvinilae Maghaa Thaazvadaindhaenaiyo", "Undheepara Adhi Unnadha Thakkaliyae", "Raattinamae Kadhar Poottinamae Kai" and "Maadhae Un Meedhu Naanae Mighu".[61]

Release and reception

Sathi Leelavathi was released on 28 March 1936. Although the film was completed in 1935,[11][62] its release was delayed because of a lawsuit over allegations of plagiarism.[48] It was one of the earliest Tamil films to become the subject of such a case. MOBC, the makers of the Pathi Bhakthi film adaptation, sued Chettiar and Mudaliar for plagiarising their story.[63] Many similarities were noted between the two films, such as their lead female characters having the same name, Leelavathi.[64] The case was resolved when S. S. Vasan revealed in court that both Pathi Bhakthi and Sathi Leelavathi had been plagiarised from British writer Ellen Wood's 1860 novel Danesbury House,[48][2] therefore neither party could claim originality.[12] Upon its release, Sathi Leelavathi emerged a major commercial success. According to film historian Aranthai Narayanan, this was attributed to the performances of Radha, Balaiah, Krishnan, along with publicity adapted by Vasan, and the support of Independence-era politicians for the anti-alcohol movement.[11] The film ran for over 100 days in theatres.[65]

In its January 1937 issue, the art magazine Aadal Paadal appreciated the film for its social setting and praised it for its acting.[66] Politician C. Rajagopalachari, who was a critic of cinema in general and did not think much of films, watched Sathi Leelavathi and appreciated it for its Gandhian ideals and pro-prohibition stance.[51] A day's collections were given to him for public causes.[49] However, he commented sarcastically that "the main artiste in a charka-spinning sequence did not know how to handle it".[67] Playwright and retired sub-judge Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar commended Radha for having acted a "difficult part very creditably" and added that the music was given its proper place.[1]

The Hindu, in a review dated 14 February 1936, lauded Radha for acting with "naturalness and ease", Balaiah's villainous performance and Gnanambal's portrayal of the "difficult role" of Leelavathi. The reviewer also lauded the sound recording, photography and direction.[1] On the same day, The Illustrated Weekly of India called the film more "interesting, natural and convincing" than the source novel, also praising the general handling of the plot in sequence and continuity, and the climax.[1] The magazine Cine Art Review appreciated the settings and the recording, the cross-gender acting of M. K. Mani as Lakshmi, and the opening sequence where Lakshmi hums a tune while going down the stairs.[1]

Several new filmmaking techniques introduced by Dungan were not properly understood by the audience and went unappreciated at the time. Writing in Silver Screen magazine on 1 August 1936, Pe. Ko. Sundararajan (journalist and writer of the Manikodi movement) complained that the new methods of depicting emotions were not understood by the audience; in one scene, Dungan showed the dancing girl as viewed by the inebriated hero, and in another, he showed the hero's fright by his twitching fingers and feet. Sundararajan claimed these techniques not only helped the actors to emote their characters better but also showcased Dungan's talent, yet the audience believed that the lighting was not clear in the first case and the film was stuck in the second. He opined that this reflected the ignorance of the audience.[68]


Sathi Leelavathi attained cult status in Tamil cinema,[69] and established Dungan as a competent director,[49] leading to him receiving more directorial offers.[70] It also became the first Tamil film to be a success in overseas markets.[71] Many features introduced by Dungan in this film would later become a staple of future Tamil films such as the lack of theatrical influences on screen, and cabaret dances.[51] Despite Vasan's initial aversion to participating in films,[72] film historian Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai noted that Sathi Leelavathi's success encouraged him to enter the film industry as a distributor.[73] Ramachandran avoided playing roles similar to Rangaiah Naidu in his later films, instead preferring to play a "good Samaritan", an image he developed with films like Marmayogi (1951), Malaikkallan (1954), Nadodi Mannan (1958) and Enga Veettu Pillai (1965).[74] Randor Guy wrote that the film "rightly earned its place in the history of Tamil Cinema".[51] Despite this, no complete print of Sathi Leelavathi is known to survive, making it a partially lost film.[75] The film's remaining scenes are preserved at the West Virginia State Archives.[52] Footage of the film's making was later included in An American in Madras, a documentary directed by Karan Bali about Dungan's career in India.[76]


  1. ^ a b The exchange rate in 1936 was 2.67 Indian rupees () per 1 US dollar (US$).[77]
  2. ^ While historian Randor Guy has stated that Tandon was reluctant to accept Sathi Leelavathi since he was busy directing Bhakta Nandanar (1935),[10] Ellis R. Dungan said that, after the release of Bhakta Nandanar, Tandon asked him if he would accept Sathi Leelavathi since he already had an offer to direct the Hindi film Shame of the Nation.[11]


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  3. ^ Guy 1997, p. 173.
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  14. ^ a b Limca Book of Records. Bisleri Beverages Limited. 1999. First directed by a foreigner Sathi Leelavathi (1936) highlighting the evils of alcoholism was directed by Ellis R. Duncan [sic]
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  43. ^ Dungan & Smik 2001: some of the actors had never appeared in front of a motion picture camera before and it frightened them, whereupon they would often 'freeze' and couldn't speak.
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