Burma Rani, a lost-and-retrieved Tamil film, represents a genre that has an important place in Indian film history.
RECENTLY, I watched Burma Rani (1945) a Tamil film by Modern Theatres, screened at the Nadigar Sangam preview facility in Chennai by Vintage Heritage, an association for the appreciation of film classics and music. This rare film is representative of the war effort films that came out of Indian studios at the height of the Second World War, which occupy an important place in Indian film history. It was retrieved from some source, and a mint condition DVD is now available in Malaysia. The War generated some interesting and memorable films. Burma Rani in the South and Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (Hindi and English versions, 1946) in Mumbai. V. Shantharam played the lead in the latter film.* * *
In the wake of the Government of India Act of 1935, elections were held in the various Presidencies. In the Madras Presidency, the Congress party came to power with a comfortable majority and formed government in 1937 with C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) as Prime Minister. Many film actors and singers had thrown in their lot with the Congress and campaigned for the party. Their list included Nagaiah and K.B. Sundarambal (she would later become the first film actor in the country to enter the legislature). A number of actors, including M.V. Mani and M.M. Chidambaranathan, had taken active part in political agitations, such as picketing toddy shops and burning foreign textiles, and courted arrest. Seethalakshmi, lead actor of the film Ramanujam (1938), took part in a passive resistance campaign and was imprisoned for one and a half years. Once the Congress government came to power, film censorship, led by the Commissioner of Police, ceased to be effective. There was a sudden whiff of freedom over all the media, including drama and cinema.
Taking advantage of the absence of restrictions, film-makers made and released a series of explicitly propagandist films. Both on the screen and on the stage, patriotism had become a popular subject. So you had Development of the Nation (Desa Munnetram) in 1938 and Motherland (Mathrubhoomi), Lion among Dalits (Harijana Singam), Lion of Bharath (Bharathkesari) and the well known Land of Sacrifice (Thyagabhoomi), all in 1939. Of these, only a print of Thyagabhoomi has survived and is in the archives in Pune.
But this newly gained artistic freedom proved short-lived, as the Second World War broke out and the Congress resigned in 1939, protesting against India's involvement in the War. Censorship was promptly reimposed with renewed vigour over all the media. Not content with that, the government appointed a propaganda officer and pressurised film-makers to make movies supporting the British position in the War. Distributors were compelled to screen war news films. G.D.B. Harvey, a British civil servant, was appointed propaganda officer for the Madras Presidency. At the all-India level, the government formed a Film Advisory Board to encourage the production of war effort films and to produce documentaries explaining the point of view of the government. J.B.H. Wadia was made its chairman.
Of all the media, the one that gave in easily to this pressure was the film industry. The industry that had been busy producing patriotic films during the Congress interregnum was quick to change stance and produce pro-British films. Modern Theatres, Gemini and the United Artistes Association produced war effort movies in rapid succession. There was one common element in all these movies: they were all set in Burma, present-day Myanmar.
On April 5, 1942, Madras (now Chennai) was bombed and an exodus was triggered. Studios like Pragati (later-day AVM) shifted to Karaikudi. The South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce moved out of Madras and set up a temporary office in Kumbakonam. It was difficult to import equipment because of the restrictions on shipping. Blackouts due to air raid precautions and restrictions on late shows drastically reduced the number of patrons to cinema houses. Film production dwindled considerably. While in 1940 the studios in Madras had produced 39 films, in 1943 only 14 were made.
There was another development during the War. Indian movie-makers had been using Agfa film. This was manufactured in Germany, and supply of this raw stock stopped with the outbreak of the War. Japan entered the War in 1941, and after that getting Kodak film also became tough. So the industry faced a severe shortage of raw stock.
In 1943, the government imposed a raw stock control and issued an order, under the Defence of India Rules, that no film should exceed 11,000 feet. At that time, the average length of a film was anywhere between 18,000 and 20,000 feet. Film-makers in Tamil Nadu had mastered neither the grammar of cinema nor the craft of telling a story crisply through images. So they faced difficulties with these restrictions. Another problem was the reduction in the number of songs, which is a major entertainment component of an Indian film. It was a period when people went to a film as if they were going for a concert. An interesting debate went on in the Tamil press of the day about this order, the length of Tamil films and also about their content. There were angry protests and heated editorials. It was argued that this restriction had been imposed only to accommodate the screening of documentaries on the War. Speaking at an anniversary function of the Cine Technicians Association in Madras, S.S. Vasan described the order as "brutal". But the government stuck to its position.
The government brought in a rule that one out of every three films made by studio-owning producers should be a war effort film. From the early years of cinema in India, the British government was conscious of the propaganda potential of this medium, and so they used the situation to persuade film-makers to support the War on the screen. A few war effort films came out of Chennai: Burma Rani, produced by Modern Theatres and directed by T.R. Sundaram; In Defence of Honour (Manasamrakshamam), produced by Madras United Artistes Corporation and directed by K. Subrahmanyam and C.S.V. Ayyer; and Kannamma My Darling (Kannamma En Kathali), produced by Gemini Studios and directed by Kothamangalam Subbu. All the three were released in 1945. Central Studios in Coimbatore produced En Magan (My Son, 1945), directed by A.S.A. Swami, as a war effort film. Of these, only a print of Burma Rani is available for study.
While patriotic films have received attention from scholars such as Gautham Kaul, war effort films have largely been ignored. However, in a recent book, Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (Duke University Press, 2006), film scholar Priya Jaikumar deals with the subject of the British government and Indian cinema at the end of the colonial period. She writes about the various regulations the British government brought in and tracks the historical changes through the cinema of the period.
The premiere of the film Burma Rani in Madras was presided over by G.D.B. Harvey. The story revolves around a British spy ring in Rangoon (Yangon) headed by a Tamil woman named Mangalam. She keeps under surveillance the Japanese General Bakjina, who is planning a major thrust into India. Three Indian pilots serving in the British Air Force parachute into Burma for espionage work and plan their escape. A Buddhist vihara in Rangoon becomes the rendezvous for the spies. They get in touch with Mangalam and make their way out of Rangoon, by sea. The role of Bakjina is played by the director of the film, T.R. Sundaram, and he is made up to look like Hitler and the performance is wooden and stylistic. Honnappa Bagavathar, used to mythological roles, is the lead pilot who bales out over Rangoon. Serukalathur Sama as the Buddhist monk helping the Indian pilots, comes through very convincingly. T.S. Balaiya plays the role of the stoic spy who gets caught and is tortured to death by the Japanese.
The film tries to answer the Japanese propaganda, mouthed by Bakjina in the film, "Asia for Asians" and tries to expose the imperialistic designs of Japan. Most of the shots were taken in indoor sets except for the last scene, showing a sea front. One interesting feature of the film is a Burmese dance sequence, which was hand-tinted, making it one of the earliest colour-film sequences to be screened in India. It was also one of the earliest Indian films to portray an assertive female character, played convincingly by Rajakantham.
Manasamrakshamam was also set in Burma and was also about a spy ring. It was advertised as "An excellent propaganda film (Mahonmadha prachara padam)" and a device to end the Japanese menace. No print of this film is available. From contemporary reviews, one learns that the portrayal of a Japanese officer by Kali. N. Rathnam and the scene of the mass trek across the Burmese border into present-day Manipur were its highlights. Citizens' participation in Air Raid Precautions and related civil defence measures put in place during the War were well documented in this film.
En Magan, which came out the same year, was about an air force pilot and his involvement in the War. The heroine is a nurse in the army, and they are reunited in the hospital, reminding one of The Farewell to Arms (1932).
The next engagement with the subject of war occurred in the early 1960s, after the Chinese war. One look... Hunger is Quenched (Parthaal Pasi Theerum, 1962) and Thilak of Blood (Ratha Thilakam, 1963) both dealt with this subject.
However, unlike the films set in the Second World War, these films and the subsequent Pakistan-bashing films had no ideological issues. Nor were they so well structured as the earlier films. They - the later films - merely succeeded in trivialising the issues at hand.