A way of life

Print edition : October 18, 2013

M.G. Ramachandran in "Ayirathil Oruvan" (1965). He went on to become India's best-known star politician.

Swamikannu Vincent, the earliest of the exhibitors who, starting in 1905, toured the entire country with his tent theatre. Photo: K. Ananthan

R. Nataraja Mudaliyar, who built the first studio in Chennai, called India Films, and produced the first Tamil silent movie, "Keechakavatham", in 1916. Photo: The Hindu Archives

File photo of Gaiety in Chennai, the first permanent theatre built by an Indian. Photo: S. Thanthoni

M. R. Radha and Sivaji Ganesan in "Paava Mannippu" (1961). Photo: THE HINDU

In this rare photograph, C.N. Annadurai with Sivaji Ganesan in the stage play "Sivaji Kanda Indhu Samrajyam". Photo: By Special Arrangement

Song and story book of "Kalidas", the first Tamil Talkie.

Mahendran directing Ashwini on the sets of "Udhiri Pookkal" (1979).

Kamal Hassan in"16 Vayathinile", Bharathiraja's landmark movie.

Mani Ratnam directing a scene in "Nayakan" (1987).

Sivakumar and Jayabharathi in film "Marupakkam" (1992), one of only two Tamil films to get the National Award for Best Film. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rajinikanth and Jayalakshmi in Mahendran's "Mullum Malarum" (1978).

Saranya Mohan and Appukutty in "Azhagarsamiyin Kuthirai" (2011).

Bobby Simha, Vijay Sethupathi and Sanchita Shetty in "Soodhu Kavvum" (2013). In recent years, young film-makers have explored refreshing themes.

Tamil cinema inherited interesting and different characteristics from the art form it evolved from, the “company drama”: a strong aural tradition and the space to critique social maladies. It has evolved into a powerful medium, breaking the traditional style and format and venturing into refreshingly new themes.
100 years of Indian Cinema

WHEN cinema made its appearance in 1897 in Victoria Town Hall, Madras, no one had an idea that they were witnessing the birth of a cultural colossus. Before long, in some parts of the city small roadside shows appeared, screening, with the help of magnesium lamps and hand-operated projectors, short films that consisted of simple visual gags lasting a few minutes. An entrance fee was collected. In the first few years, cinema shows were looked upon as a mere curiosity, of pictures that moved. There was no anticipation or indication of it emerging as an entertainment giant. By 1900, feature films from the West were screened in regular shows. Before long, permanent cinema houses came up and the first was Electric Theatre, built by one Warwick Major, which still stands in the Anna Salai post office complex.

The exhibitors

It was on the exhibition side that the south Indian cinema industry originated. In 1905, Swamikannu Vincent, a draftsman in the railways in Tiruchi, ran into M. Dupont, an exhibitor from France who was passing through the town. He bought from Dupont a projector and a few short films. With these, Vincent began his amazing career as an exhibitor by screening these films in Tiruchi in a tent. He then travelled to Madurai, Tirunelveli and Tiruvananthapuram and finally came to Madras, where he held shows. From there he went on to Bombay, Peshawar, Lahore and Lucknow and returned to Madras in 1909 and held shows at the Esplanade. While in Madras, he started an agency for Pathe projectors, an initiative that facilitated the spread of cinema in the south. Vincent would later move to Coimbatore and make his mark as a producer of talkies. He built the legendary Variety Hall. During his 1934 tour of Tamil Nadu, Gandhiji visited this cinema house to receive the money collected for the Harijan Fund.

There were others who got interested in the newfangled entertainment of moving pictures. Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu, a photographer, toured Ceylon and Burma as an exhibitor. He built a permanent theatre in 1913 in Madras, the first one by an Indian, the Gaiety. His son, R.S. Prakash, after a stint in Barker’s Studio, London, would later produce a number of silent films and thereafter talkies, both in Telugu and Tamil.

The film-makers

While Vincent and Venkaiah, and possibly some others also, were concentrating on the exhibition side, R. Nataraja Mudaliyar, an automobile spare parts dealer, took a pioneering step and set up a studio which he pointedly named India Films, and produced full-length movies. The first studio-made feature film of south India, Keechakavatham (Slaying of Keechaka), made in 1916, marked the birth of Tamil cinema. The characters spoke in Tamil. However, since there was no sound track, the gist of what they spoke was shown in title cards in Tamil. The largest number of silent films was made by A. Narayanan in his General Pictures Corporation Studios. A new mechanical medium of visual narration had arrived at a time when the visual and narrative arts themselves were at a low ebb in India after a century of colonial rule.

The silent era of cinema in south India lasted nearly 16 years. Unfortunately, we have only one silent film with us, Marthandavarman (1930). We do not have any of the talkies of the first five or six years.

And then came sound

Cinema is the only art form whose origin can be traced with some certainty. And this is the only secular art form, as distinct from traditional art forms which invariably have their roots in some modes of religious practice. Evolving in the context of a long and vigorous aural tradition, Tamil cinema developed some very interesting characteristics.

Tamil talkie cinema did not grow out of its silent phase as the cinemas in France, Germany and England did. Instead, in an abrupt switch, it adapted an already existing, ready-made art form, complete with trained artists, writers and sound design. It was the company drama, staged by commercial companies. The early Tamil sound films were mere photographed dramas, and this set in motion a strong aural tradition, along with other characteristics. By the 1940s, there were regular studios in Madras such as Gemini, and production of talkies was in full swing. Over the decades that followed, the Tamil film industry grew to be one of the most prolific in the world. Tamil Nadu has the highest rate of exposure to cinema in India. There are 2,545 cinema houses in this State, of which 806 are touring outfits, operating mainly in rural areas.

Like the other cinemas of India, early Tamil films were all mythological, with a series of excuses for songs. This was a legacy of the company drama. Within a few years of the arrival of talkies, film music grew into an independent aural entertainment and increased the hold of cinema on people. The gramophone industry, coupled with the availability of inexpensive machines, popularised film songs, which became an important dimension of film culture. Today, Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman symbolise the popularity of film music. The elitist and subaltern cultural divide began to get reflected in the discourse on music.

Riding piggyback on rural electrification schemes of post-independent India, cinema penetrated deep into rural areas and by the 1950s, the hold of cinema on the Tamil people had increased. Touring talkies, another unique feature of Indian cinema, facilitated this hold by taking films into remote rural areas.

Over nearly a hundred years of its existence, Tamil cinema has grown to become a domineering influence in the cultural and political life of Tamil Nadu. As film-makers treated the subject of human beings in different situations, their films inevitably touched upon social and political issues. Various movements in Tamil Nadu, in turn, shaped the development of Tamil cinema. Even as it gave expression to the social comments and stances of the film-makers, Tamil cinema also reflected the changing social concerns and moods of the period. The close interaction between politics and cinema in south India is another factor that evoked academic curiosity about this medium. Robert L. Hardgrave looked at this phenomenon in 1970 and since then, a number of scholars have been studying this subject. At a different level, films are increasingly being recognised as a source of historical information, and scholars from varied disciplines are dipping their hands into Tamil cinema.

Politics and cinema

A prominent feature of Tamil cinema is its interaction with politics. How did it begin? When sound came to Tamil cinema in 1931 with the film Kalidas, artists from company drama moved into the studios. They were already a highly politicised community, having taken an active part in the freedom struggle. They brought with them their ideology and a penchant for political activism. For instance, the film Kalidas, though a mythological, had a song praising Gandhiji. Soon cinema became an instrument of political propaganda and many film artists began taking part in politics. Some went as delegates to the all-India Congress sessions and many appeared on political platforms along with national leaders. One of the stars of the 1930s, K.B. Sundarambal, campaigned for the Congress in the 1937 elections. She was the first film artist in India to enter the legislature in 1958 as a Congress nominee in Chennai. This interaction between film artists and politics continues to the present day. In recent years, three stars, Vijaya T. Rajender, Vijayakanth and Sarathkumar, have each floated a political party. The interaction between Tamil cinema and politics has attracted academic scholars from all over the world. The latest work is Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry (Routledge, London, 2008) edited by S. Velayutham of Sydney university.

After Independence, Congress leaders ignored cinema. Leaderless and directionless, film artists gravitated towards the Dravidian movement, whose leaders offered them recognition and patronage. Many of the luminaries of the party, like C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, were themselves playwrights and often wrote movie scripts. They became Chief Ministers later. Thus, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which grew out of the Dravidian movement, strengthened the interaction between politics and cinema. M.G. Ramachandran, the best-known star-politician and later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, had in fact acted in patriotic plays during the pre-Independence days and was a khadi-wearing Congress sympathiser in his younger days.

The fan clubs

The fan clubs (“rasigar manrams”), well organised and spread all over Tamil Nadu in thousands, often acted as surrogate party outfits and facilitated the process of the politicisation of cinema. At times, these clubs were used as springboards to launch actors into political careers. Some of the office bearers of these clubs, like Musiri Puthan of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), later became members of the Legislative Assembly. But not all fan clubs have a political agenda. Kamal Hassan’s fan clubs chalk out programmes of social work like blood donation camps. In fact, the fans call it narpani manram (the club of good deeds). The fan clubs of Vijay conduct talent competitions in mimicry and singing, and the winner gets to have dinner with Vijay. Stars in Tamil Nadu have emerged as folk deities, and the traditional rituals connected with these deities are extended to the stars. A cut-out figure of Rajinikanth was anointed with beer by his fans. Some stars, like Gemini Ganesan, Sathyaraj and Sivakumar, assiduously avoided having fan clubs. They proved that one could be successful and survive without the scaffolding of fan clubs. Among the present generation, artists such as Bharath, Arya and Surya are functioning comfortably without the support of fan clubs.

Orality in Tamil cinema

One of the distinctive characteristics of cinema in India is its subservience to the spoken word. In Tamil cinema, this was a legacy of the stage, and it was accentuated when dialogue writers from the Dravidian Movement became active in films. They used dialogue in films to lampoon social maladies and to make political allusions. Long monologues with alliterative sentences became popular, as in the film Parasakthi (The Goddess, 1952). These monologues are remarkably like formal speeches. Even the camera angles were such that the characters appeared to be addressing the vast multitudes in the cinema house. These writers’ engagement with cinema ushered in an era of dialogue writers and earned them star status. In fact, dialogues of a few of these films were published in book form and as gramophone discs. Thus, cinema, as handled in these films, became almost an extension of literature, instead of belonging to its own realm.

Stellar rivalry

Beginning with the 1950s, Tamil cinema was in the shadow of two stars, M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, rivals both in films and in politics, for three decades. They had both built up a huge following, with thousands of fan clubs functioning as surrogate party units. MGR specialised in swashbuckling roles. His Nadodimannan (Vagabond King, 1958) was characteristic of this genre. Sivaji Ganesan, on the other hand, featured in melodramas such as Pavamannippu (Forgiveness of Sins, 1961). The films that came during this period were formulaic, the characters stereotyped and the acting stylised. One critic observed: “Bedevilled as Tamil films are by the Big Two, the story of every year is the story of what films they made and who outscored the other at the box office. Aesthetics do not come into the discussion at any point, for, aesthetics here is subordinate to economics.”

The sabha stream of the 1960s

I had pointed to the company dramas providing a model for the early Tamil films. In the 1960s too, some new film-makers from the world of drama companies came into cinema and reinforced this character. For instance, A.P. Nagarajan and K.S. Gopalakrishnan. The former started as a vathiyar (master) in a drama company, entered films as a dialogue writer and made his debut as a director with Nalla Idathu Sambandham (Good Alliance, 1958). Soon, he had a series of mythological and religious movies to his credit. A large number of old stage hands were featured in his films, intensifying the staginess of his work. K.S. Gopalakrishnan, schooled in the famous Nawab Rajamanikkam drama company, was a popular director in the 1960s. These two film-makers retained features of the stage, complete with the painted backdrops, and reinforced the photographed-company drama format. There was a great reluctance on their parts to go out of the studio.

At this time, there was another stream, from the amateur drama groups operating in Madras known as sabhas. Some of the prime movers of amateur drama groups such as S.V. Sahasranamam (Seva Stage), Cho Ramasamy (Viveka Fine Arts), Mouli (Nadaga Rasa), S.V. Sekhar (Nadakapriya), and Visu (Viswashanthi) came into films as dialogue writers, morphed into directors and went on to make successful films, without any compulsion to change their style or format. Their perspective remained quite theatrical and their presence in Tamil cinema reinforced its stage tradition. Their works emphasised the art of the actor rather than that of the film-maker. The most successful of them was K. Balachander from Ragini Recreations. He produced a series of popular films under the banner Kavithalaya, such as Thanneer Thanneer (Water, water, 1982). Most of his films are set in contemporary times and deal with urban, middle-class issues and in the process reinforced conventional value systems and beliefs. He describes himself as a “middle-of-the-road film-maker”. He has the credit of having introduced a number of actors who later shone as stars, including Rajinikanth.

The 1960s Tamil cinema belonged to another young film-maker, Sridhar, who made memorable films like Nenjil Oru Alayam (A Temple in the Heart, 1962).

With the cinematographer Vincent, he made deft use of lighting as in the song sequence “Ninaipathellam…” in the above film. Sridhar’s favourite theme was the eternal “love” triangle and he emphasised traditional values.

The 1970s wave

Even as the era of big studios came to an end and the influence of the two stars began to wane in the 1970s, there were signs of change. It was the decade of a new generation of film-makers making a mark. Bharathiraja, through his 16 Vayathinile (At the age of 16, 1977), focussed on rural Tamil Nadu. Balu Mahendra’s Azhiyatha Kolangal (Enduring Patterns, 1979), a story centring on three schoolboys, clearly reflected the influence of European cinema. He later went on to make Veedu (Home, 1988), the story of a middle-class family struggling to build a house. Like his other films, this one also featured strong female characters. Mahendra adapted a literary work of Pudumaipithan to make Udhiri Pookkal (Scattered Flowers, 1979). A few young film-makers who trained under these directors individuated and made movies, extending the frontiers of Tamil cinema. Bala was one such who has made films like Sethu (1999). And there was Cheran, whose film Autograph (2005) endeared itself to the Tamil public. There were a few others who came on the scene and set new trends. Cinema aesthetics came to be discussed in Tamil magazines. Film society movements and film appreciation courses helped the trend. However, the bulk of the movies continued to be rootless stories, laced with the song-dance-fight routine.

But the reign of stars continued, though not in the manner of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. Kamal Hassan exhibited a keen understanding of cinema and began writing and directing, the latest being Vishwaroopam (2012). Rajinikanth, playing invulnerable macho characters, built up a huge fan following. He is popular even in Japan.

Maniratnam made his presence felt as a film-maker in the 1990s through a series of successful films starting with Nayakan. He retains the basic ingredients of Tamil filmic entertainment like the song, dance, choreographed violence and melodrama. The group dance sequences in his earlier films display a strong influence of music videos. His films have been screened in many film festivals, including Cannes and Locarno. His films often had the backdrop of ongoing conflicts, such as the ones in Kashmir ( Roja, 1992), Sri Lanka ( Kannathil Muthamittal/ A Peck on the Cheek, 2002), the north-eastern region ( Dil Se, 1998) but avoided engaging with the basic issues. He often writes the script and the dialogue for his films. The story and dialogue for his Kadal (The Sea, 2013) was written by the renowned Tamil writer Jeyamohan.

The awards

Though more than 6,000 films have been made so far, it is only in recent years that Tamil cinema is getting noticed at the national level. Only two Tamil films have won the Best Film award at the National Awards ceremony. One was Marupakkam (The Other Side, 1992), a film by Sethumadhavan, based on a story by Indira Parthasarathy and the other was Kanchivaram (2008) by Priyadarshan on the plight of silk weavers in the temple town during the colonial period. Two Tamil film-makers have won Best Director awards, Agathiyan and later B. Lenin. Actors have done better. Lakshmi, Shoba, Suhasini and Archana have won the Best Female Actor award while Kamal Hassan got the Best Actor award thrice. One actor and one film-maker—Sivaji Ganesan and K. Balachander—have been awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.

The present scene

In recent years, some adventurous young film-makers have broken the traditional style and format and made films with refreshingly new themes. One such film was Subramaniapuram (2008), and the warm reception it received from filmgoers augurs well for Tamil cinema. It may even have a salutary effect on the films to come. It is a film in which the director, Sasikumar, avoids the traditional formula and recreates the reality of life in an enclave on the periphery of Madurai. The film marked the beginning of a trend in Tamil cinema in which violent scenes were featured in graphic detail. Some critics named these films “Cruel Cinema”. In fact, in 2012, a seminar titled “Cruel Cinema: New Directions in Tamil Cinema” was held in San Francisco in which scholars focussed attention on four such Tamil films in which violence was predominant. The film Azhagarsamiyin Kuthirai (2011), about a horse and its owner, had some telling surrealistic scenes. It was an understated comment on religious beliefs. In these new films, the film-makers are able to free themselves from the song-dance routine and one can see the influence of Latin American films. Stories around marginalised people, set in urban ghettos, chases, violence, betrayal and intrigue are the usual elements. Vazhakku En 18/9 (Case No.18/9, 2012), directed by Balaji Sakthivel, was a very urban tale set in Chennai and centred around the injustice meted out to domestic helps. It was a tightly woven tale, and both in form and content was refreshingly new. The latest in this kind of films is Soodhu Kavvum (Evil will Befall, 2013) by Nalan Kumarasamy, who makes his debut through this film. In addition to getting rave reviews, the film became a box-office hit and proved the point that the audience welcomes unorthodox narratives.

The focus on subaltern studies and culture studies has drawn scholarly attention to Tamil cinema. In many research institutes in India and in a number of universities abroad, researchers are taking a close look at what is happening here. Scholars from disciplines such as anthropology and history are engaged with this subject. At a different level, films are increasingly being recognised as a source of historical information. But at the audience level and among journalists, distorted notions about cinema persist. Cinema is not taken seriously. The focus is on actors and a film is seen only as an entertainment. The academic world in Tamil Nadu has not shown any interest in film studies. In fact, no university offers a course in this or related subjects. The attitude of successive governments has not helped in any way in enhancing the quality of films, both in form and content.

Theodore Baskaran’s book The Message Bearers (1981) is a standard reference work on early south Indian cinema. His other book The Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema (East West, 1996) won the Swarnakamal Award.

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