Madras to Pondicherry — 50 Tamil movies to watch before you die — 5
What was the first road movie in Tamil? There are only a few but none of them were as good as the first one. The first Tamil road movie was an absolute light-hearted comedy entwined with a small mystery and that too in 1966!
Madras to Pondicherry (1966)
A road movie is defined as a story which happens during a journey from one place to another. The best example would be Motorcycle Diaries, which tells the transformation of Che Guevara. It’s not easy to make a road movie, and Indian directors have successfully failed in it. Only the recent ones like Zindagi Na Milega Dobara, Piku, Karwaan have worked it well. In Tamil, though it has been an elusive genre. Anbe Sivam and Nandalala seems to be the well-made ones, but they didn’t fill the cash boxes.
Interestingly, Tamil cinema was so bold in the 1960s and experimented with a road movie. Madras to Pondicherry’s story moves along with the bus journey of a host of interesting characters. An ever fighting couple with a son — who has an insatiable appetite for pakoras, an old lady with her granddaughter, a respectable family, a roadside vendor, a snake charmer and above all the conductor — driver duo. The main story though revolves around a young college girl (Kalpana) who wants to make it big in the movies and her love story with a young man in the bus (Ravichandran). During one of her talent shows, she meets two crooks who promise her with a role in movies. She leaves her family for the film but finds that the two are crooks. Due to greed, one of them (Kallapart Natarajan) kills the other. Kalpana becomes the witness to the murder and runs for her life, eventually ending up on the bus with others. The goon hires a contract killer to murder her on the bus while the young man tries to save her. The journey continues, after a lot of commotion and confusion, all’s well that ends well.
Usilai Somanathan wrote the movie and directed by the director duo Thirumalai-Mahalingam who were assistant directors of Bhim Singh. The film was produced by M.S. Adhi Narayanan of Sun Beam Productions along with three others, and Bhim Singh is credited as Direction Supervisor. T.K. Ramamoorthy (of the Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy fame) composed the music for the movie, and Vittal Rao handled the camera.
Why Madras to Pondicherry is special?
- It’s not easy to create a movie in new genres and break the status quo in Tamil cinema. Madras to Pondicherry experimented and succeeded. The excellent screenplay combined with some acting brilliance from Nagesh and A Karunanidhi (not Kalaignar Mu Karunanidhi), the movie is a treat to watch. Karunanidhi was one of the underrated comedians, and his expressions are just magnificent in the film.
- The bus is the lead character of the movie according to me. The film had sociological storytelling with the bus being the centrepiece, and the story is about how people interact in the space. Throughout the journey, the people become one family, and at the end, the entire bus tries to save the girl from the goons. The supporting characters are very well written, and you will remember each one of them at the end. Khader as the Pakoda eating boy earned him the name “Pakoda Khader” and Veerappan as his irritating father with Manorama as his mother are excellent portrayals. Angamuthu as the roadside vendor and her chicken becomes the reason one of the best slapstick comedy sequence. If I am not wrong, the first snake based comedy sequence was in the movie too.
- The movie had a perfect blend of comedy, romance and songs. In short, the genre was made palatable to the audience.
Why is it on the list?
- It was a pioneer in the road movie genre. Even now, it has become quite difficult to nail the genre in Tamil movies. Bollywood is slowly making inroads into the genre. After Madras to Pondicherry, AP Nagarajan made a devotional road movie, Thirumalai Thenkumari.
- The critics of Tamil movies always maintained that there are no good representations of genres in Tamil. Madras to Pondicherry is one of those movies, which can be quoted as an instance of experimentation in Tamil movies. Although half of the film was made inside the studio due to the technical limitations of those times, the movie has to be hailed for the thought process.
- The movie remains as the inspiration for many slapstick comedy sequences in Tamil cinema. You will be startled the blatant reproduction of sequences of the movie.
- Madras to Pondicherry was remade in Hindi with Amitabh and Aruna Irani with Mehmood doing the Nagesh role. It was called Bombay to Goa, and it was a super hit. It was said that Mehmood wanted Rajiv Gandhi to do the part of Amitabh. 
- Mehmood, a fan of Nagesh has done some memorable (some not so notable) remakes of Nagesh movies in Hindi. Lakhon Mein Ek — Ethir Neechal, Do Phool — Anubavi Raja Anubavi, Mein Sunder Hoon — Server Sundaram and the list goes on.
- Veerappan continued to write comedy portions for the movies. In fact, most of the comedy sequences of Goundamani-Senthil duo were written by him. Yes, you are right, the masterpiece Vazhappazha (Banana) comedy of Karagattakaran was written by him only.
- “Kallapart” Natarajan is one of the underrated villain actors. He was born in Thanjavur and his parents were stage actors. His father was also popular doing “Kalla” Part — villain roles in stage play. As his parents were in plays, he started acting when he was 10 years old. He worked in the Nawab Rajamanickam for 12 years. He started his film career as a dubbing artist. He was the Tamil voice for NT Ramarao and his first break as an actor came in Parasakthi. Natarajan was also an excellent dancer and a choreographer. He choreographed the famous Therukuthu sequence in Navaratri with Sivaji Ganesan and Savithri. Some of the songs he performed include Sithadai Kattikitu from Vannakili andMama Mama from Kumudam. He was active in movies until the 1990s but he moved to TV and acted in Balachander serials. In 1996, he passed away while giving interview to a TV channel. 
5. Thirumalai-Mahalingam later went on to direct some successful comedies like Saadhu Mirandal and Soapu Seepu Kannadi with Nagesh.
6. T.K.Ramamoorthy was initially with MS Viswanathan, and they were called as the “Mellisai Mannargal” (Melody Kings). The first movie they composed music together was Panam (1952), and the last movie they composed music together was Aayirathil Oruvan (1965). They came back one more time for Engiruntho Vandhan (1991).
7. The movie could have been the brainchild of legendary director A Bhimsingh (he has been credited as direction supervisor), and the movie was shot in Venkateswara Cinetone (originally Newtone Studios). Now, the building has given way to Rajaji School (run by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan). But the movie starts with “Vividh Bharati” presents — whether All India Radio also called Vividh Bharati released the movie could not be established. 
8. The lead actress Kalpana is from Kannada movie world. She started as Sharat Lata in Rajkumar’s Saaku Magalu. Later, she changed her name to Kalpana and became one of the most important actors in Kannada. She was the favourite of Puttana Kanagal and they collaborated in critically acclaimed movies like Belli Moda, Kappu Biluppu, Gejje Pooje, Karulina Kare etc., Kalpana acted in only few Tamil movies like Madras to Pondicherry, Saadhu Mirandal etc., Kalpana was a fashion icon of her times and she was called the “twinkling star”. 
9. Ravichandran was credited as BS Ravichandran while his real name was BS Raman. 
10. Usilai Somanathan joined the Communist party when he was 15 years old. He was part of the cultural wing of the party, acted in stage plays and started writing plays when he was 21 years old. Paavalar Varadharajan (elder brother of Ilaiyaraaja) composed music and songs for many of his plays. He moved to Madras to make it big in the movies. PS Veerappa and the Thirumalai-Mahalingam duo supported Somanathan to shine in movies like Madras to Pondicherry, Soapu Seepu Kannadi, Ponnu Maapillai and Saadhu Mirandal . Writer Sura in his memoirs, reminisces about how Usilai Somanathan was trying to make a mythological comedy movie in 1980. He says the movie didn’t move forward and later he passed away . It’s so sad this intelligent writer is forgotten in the world of cinema.
11. Pakoda Khader started his career as a child artist in Server Sundaram (it’s a guess) where he acts as the boy who provides juice for Nagesh. Nagesh, in order to make K.R. Vijaya smile after she rejects him, makes fun with Pakoda Khader. But Pakoda Khader became popular only after Madras to Pondicherry and in fact, he was cast in the same role in the Hindi remake. He was credited as Kader (of south).