Meera is undoubtedly famed Carnatic vocalist, MS Subbulakshmi’s most famous foray onto the silver screen. And such was her impact in this telling of the well-known tale of 16th century Rajput Princess, also one of Lord Krishna’s ardent devotees, that to many old-timers, Subbulakshmi is the definitive Meera of all the versions made in India. This includes the 1979 Hindi version that starred Hema Malini in the title role and was directed by no less a filmmaker than Gulzar.
Meera is also arguably amongst one of American Ellis R Dungan‘s finest films that he made in India while working in the Tamil film industry. Certainly, Dungan seemed to think so. And while, no doubt, there is a technical polish and an overall coherence that Dungan brings to the film, I would still say that there are some sequences in his subsequent film, Ponmudi (1949), where he goes beyond Meera. The opening sequence of the pearl divers out at sea in Ponmudi is beautifully filmed as are the intense romantic sequences between Madhuri Devi and Narasimha Bharathi. However, Ponmudi has its ups and downs in its narrative flow, and that is what gives Meera the overall edge as a film in totality.
Meera sticks to Subbulakshmi’s strengths and keeping in mind her limited experience as an actress, focuses on her singing instead. So Dungan merely uses the skeleton of plot as an excuse to lead us on to a song sequence whenever possible. Surprisingly, this actually works pretty well, even if Meera admittedly falls short of an earlier classic devotional film that set the benchmark for such films, Sant Tukaram (1936). This is because once the songs come on, Subbulakshmi is in her comfort zone and in blazing form, singing divinely. But that is not to say, Dungan the filmmaker is absent from the proceedings. We see enough of his technical flourishes in the story and understand why the film is regarded as one of his best. Having come from University of Southern California, where he studied Motion Picture Photography and Production, Dungan had a fine cinematic sense and knew how to represent thoughts and emotions visually rather than depend on the verbal word. We see this in several sequences in Meera where Dungan illustrates how important it is in filmmaking to show and not tell.
A highlight of the film and an extremely innovative transition for its time (yes, Dungan was that rare filmmaker who gave a great deal of thought to his transitions from scene to scene) is the one where through an interlude of a song (Nandhabala), the young Meera becomes her adult version. This also gives Subbulakshmi the best possible introduction in the film as we are first hear her incredible voice and then are treated to a beautiful close-up of her singing Murali Mohana. Other high points include showing the plotting of giving Meera poison done in dramatic shadow play and Dungan’s fine use of montage in a series of documentary-like shots showing the local people of the land sing Meera’s devotional songs. Again, visually through the music, he is able to let us know the spread of Meera’s fame and the popularity of her devotional songs all over. Another nice touch is a delicate dolly shot coordinated over an evocative flute piece that moves in towards Kumari Kamala playing the young Krishna. This is the beginning of a charming dream sequence as little Meera imagines herself dancing like Radha with the Lord.
Having a stronger instinct for the documentary rather than fiction, Dungan always preferred to film outdoors and on real locations rather than stay bound to the studios as most Indian films were at the time. Besides the necessary studio work at Newtone Studios, Meera is filmed at Dwarka and Brindavan, besides Jaipur and Udaipur amongst other locations thus giving it a look and feel that would never have been possible had these bits been filmed on studio sets. In fact, the film is shot at many places and temples that have a strong relevance to Meera’s actual life.
Meera is Subbulakshmi’s film all the way and though expectedly her singing takes centre-stage, it has to be said she looks stunning in the film. But that is hardly surprising as Dungan and cinematographer Jiten Bannerjee did a dress rehearsal on how to light her up by having a bust of the singer made and then doing elaborate tests on it to see how best and from which angles to photograph her. The result is there for all to see. Radha Viswanathan, Subbulakshmi’s daughter, acquits herself rather well as the young Meera, both as an actress and showing she possesses a fine singing voice as well. However, Chittor V Nagaiah is miscast as Meera’s husband, Bhoj Raj, the crown prince of Mewar. Though a fine actor and singer in his own right, he simply lacks the regal presence and body language of a Rajput ruler and fails to make much of an impact in the film. Interestingly, a heavily made up and almost unrecognizable MG Ramachandran (MGR) plays a small role in his pre-hero days in the film.
Music, of course, is a highlight of the film. The devotional songs, while obviously not using Meera’s real poems as she wrote and composed them in a different language, are lovingly composed by SV Venkatraman for Subbulakshmi who does full justice to them. The film has over 20 songs, each of them extremely popular with Kaatrinile Varun Geetham being easily the most well-known song of the film. However, the song is hardly original. It is inspired from the Sheela Sarkar sung and Kamal Dasgupta composed non-film song Toot Gayi Man Beena. Besides the music, special mention also has to be made of Jiten Bannerjee’s evocative camerawork.
Meera proved to be an extremely successful at the box office and continues to be regarded as one of the classics of Tamil cinema. Its popularity would lead to a Hindi version, also directed by Dungan and released in 1947, which would make Subbulakshmi a household name all over the country.
Tamil, Devotional, Black & White