Director: Kothamangalam Subbu; Writer: Kothamangalam Subbu, K. Rajagopal; Producer: S.S.Vasan; Cinematographer: Thambu; Cast: K.B. Sundarambal, Kushala Kumari, G. Pattu Iyer, M.K. Radha, Gemini Ganesh, Kothamangalam Subbu, Sundaribai, K. Balaji
Summary: A hagiography of the legendary Tamil saint poetess of the Sangam period (100BC-250AD), countering the anti-religious DMK movies. Of her 59 surviving lyrics, 33 are in the Puram mode, addressing worldly matters, wars and politics, and 26 in the Akam mode, addressing the ‘inner world’, often of female desire. Kumari plays her as a young girl, Sundarambal as an adult, while Iyer takes the part of Tiruvalluvar. Starting with the story of her birth to a low-caste woman and being found, like Moses (the film often evokes The Ten Commandments, 1923), in a basket adrift in a river, the film chronicles her devotion to her god, Vigneshwara and her wide-ranging travels. She sings her message to all while effectively filmed miracles confirm her sainthood, first revealed when she resists an imposed marriage. There are spectactular scenes, including an army of several hundred stampeding elephants storming a fortress and Avvaiyyar alone facing a massed enemy when a chasm opens creating a barrier they cannot cross. With this ‘purposeful’ picture, the studio’s boss Vasan and his close collaborator, the poet Subbu, tried to extend Gemini’s reputation for spectacles after Chandralekha (1948). It is the culmination of the 40s Tamil films portraying major folk legend figures (cf. Kannagi, 1942) in the context of Tamil Nadu’s political/cultural revivalism: a prologue dedicates the film to ‘Mother Tamil’, while the heroine symbolises Tamil virtues. Remembered mainly for Sundarambal’s classic musical performance. The actress and singer, a Gandhian, made her debut playing a sensational male role in Nandanar (1935). Avvaiyyar remains her best-known screen performance, putting her among Vishnupant Pagnis (Marathi) and Chittor V. Nagaiah (Telugu) as actors indelibly linked with the saint film genre.