During the late 1940s and 1950s, several top South Indian banners such as Gemini Pictures, AVM and Prasad Productions remade their successful films in Hindi, often retaining the same directors. Krishnan-Panju, LV Prasad, T Prakash Rao and CV Sridhar were among those who reworked their melodramas for pan-Indian audiences. At the top of the list is A Bhimsingh, who made films in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam all the way until his death on January 16, 1978.

A Bhimsingh.

Born on October 15, 1924, and hailing from Andhra Pradhesh, Bhimsingh began his cinematic journey in the late ’40s in the editing department with famed director duo Krishnan-Panju. He worked as an assistant director before making his debut with the Tamil film Amaiyappan (1954). This was followed by, among others, the Sivaji Ganesan starrers Raja Rani (1956), Naane Raja (1956), Pathi Bhakthi (1958) and Bhaaga Pirivinai (1959). Bhimsingh built up a formidable reputation for message-oriented family dramas. These films always featured good-hearted heroes and virtuous heroines.

One such movie was Kalathur Kannamma (1960), starring the popular romantic pair Gemini Ganesan and Savithri and featuring the sensational debut of Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan as a child actor.

Kamal Haasan in Kalathur Kannamma (1960).

The movie follows the trials and tribulations of Kannamma (Savithri), a farmer’s daughter from Kalathur. Kannamma is emotionally blackmailed into keeping silent about her secret wedding to the zamindar’s son, Rajalingam (Gemini Ganesan), by her father-in-law (T Balaiah).

After Rajalingam has gone away for higher studies, Kannamma finds out that she is pregnant and is made to leave the village with her father by the zamindar. She is told that her son, Selvam, was stillborn, and her father abandons the infant at an orphanage. Meanwhile, Rajalingam returns and believes the canard about Kannamma being an immoral woman. He is shattered and becomes an alcoholic. A few years later, Selvam (Haasan) enters the lives of Kannamma and Rajalingam, and the rest of the film is about how the complications are resolved in time for the customary happy ending.

Kalathur Kannamma (1960).

Kalathur Kannamma is regarded as one of Bhimsingh’s finest films, but he actually stepped in only after the original director, T Prakash Rao, left the project. Bhimsingh reshot the portions canned by Rao. The final movie was hugely successful and went on to win a Certificate of Merit at the National Awards in 1961.

Kalathur Kannamma is a typical Bhimsingh film. It contains a topnotch star cast, chart-topping music and a storytelling style aided by a not-too-subtle reliance on symbolism and metaphors. Savithri’s suffering woman act won her high praise, and she has great chemistry with her real-life lover Ganesan. Kamal Haasan proves that he was born to act, and he got some of the film’s best reviews. The song Ammavum Neeye filmed on him became such a hit that the same tune was used in the Hindi version.

Ammavum Neeye, Kalathur Kannamma (1960).

It was inevitable that AVM would remake Kalathur Kannamma in Hindi, just as it was obvious that Meena Kumari would be the first choice for Savithri’s role. Both were fine expressive actresses who were known for their tragic roles. Kumari had already reprised Savithri’s roles from the Telugu/Tamil bilingual Missamma/Missiamma (1955) when it was made by AVM in Hindi as Miss Mary (1957).

Even though it doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, Main Chup Rahungi’s biggest victory was in introducing Bhimsingh to Hindi audiences. The 1962 movie, co-starring Sunil Dutt, follows Kalathur Kannamma faithfully with some minor changes.

The original still holds up better in spite of Meena Kumari’s strong performance and Chitragupt’s lilting musical score. The chemistry between Kumari and Dutt is cold and clinical, while Babloo as their son comes nowhere close to Haasan’s winning act.

Bhimsingh’s best efforts in Hindi following Main Chup Rahungi were Rakhi, his 1962 remake of Pasamalar (1961), and Khandan (1965), retooled from Bhaaga Pirivinai (1959). Not only were the Hindi films immensely successful, but they also won their leading men (Ashok Kumar in Rakhi and Sunil Dutt in Khandan) Filmfare awards for Best Actor.

Sivaji Ganesan (right) and Gemini Ganesan (centre) in Pasamalar (1961).

Pasamalar, in particular, merits a relook. It is one of the many Tamil films by Bhimsingh whose title began with the syllable ‘Pa’. Pasamalar is one of the best-known titles from Tamil cinema’s golden age, and is widely regarded by film historians as Bhimsingh’s masterpiece. At its heart is a brother-sister relationship that faces its share of problems before ending with the siblings dying together, not unlike George Elliot’s epic 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss.

Pasamalar was a huge commercial and critical success. The film won a Certificate of Merit at the National Awards in 1962. It was the second National Award that year for a Bhimsingh film. Pava Mannippu (1961), a Tamil film on communal harmony, won the All-India Certificate of Merit as the second best film of the year.

Malargalai Pool Thangai, Pasamalar (1961).

The movie follows the emotional journeys of former factory worker Raju (Sivaji Ganesan) and his cherished sister Radha (Savithri). Radha weds Raju’s friend and employee Anand (Gemini Ganesan), while Raju ties the knot with Malathi (MN Rajam). Anand’s scheming aunt creates divisions, forcing Radha to choose between her love for her brother and her duty towards her husband. The siblings meet years later on Diwali day, only to be permanently joined in the afterlife.

Although it is heightened melodrama, Pasamalar gets much of its power from the superb central performances by Ganesan and Savithri. Another asset is the film’s music, especially the ever-popular wedding song Vaarayen Thozhi.

Vaarayen Thozhi, Pasamalar (1961).

Like so many domestic melodramas from the ’60s, Pasamalar has undoubtedly dated. It is not easy today to root for Ganesan’s obsessive and irrational brother, whose life revolves around his sister at the cost of everyone else. Nor can one invest in Savithri’s simpering and self-sacrificing act. But there’s no denying Pasamalar’s legacy. It has been remade several times, including the V Madhusudhan Rao-directed Telugu film Rakta Sambandham (1962) and the Kannada version Vathsalya (1965) by YR Swamy.

Bhimsingh himself directed the Hindi remake, Rakhi. Another reworking of the story was done years later in Hindi as Aisa Pyar Kahan (1986).

In Rakhi (1962), Ashok Kumar and Waheeda Rehman are credited as the “Ideal Brother & Sister.” Pradeep Kumar and Ameeta fill in for Gemini Ganesan and MN Rajam as the spouses. Rakhi has much going for it. It is the crisper version of the two, with a refreshing economy to its storytelling. The scenes are to the point, sometimes quite atypical, and do their bit in moving the story forward.

Since the idea of a sister tying a rakhi on her brother’s wrist every year to cement their bond is much stronger in North India, the climax takes place on Raksha Bandhan to justify the title. Yet, for all the changes, Pasamalar is still much more dramatically effective.

Ya Meri Manzil Bata De, Rakhi (1962).

Filling Sivaji Ganesan’s shoes is a Herculean task, but Ashok Kumar manages admirably even if he is a mite too old for the role. He ably carries Rakhi on his shoulders, getting solid support from Rehman, Ameeta, Mehmood and Madan Puri in a rare positive role. Lalita Pawar, as usual, vamps it up till it almost hurts.

However, the dynamics between Sivaji Ganesan and Savithri, the two Ganesans and Savithri-Gemini in the original are not as strong in the Hindi film. Pradeep Kumar, in fact, is the weakest link and is terribly insipid in the Gemini role. Ravi’s music, while melodious enough, is not among his more memorable scores.