Silent origins

Published : Jul 27, 2012 00:00 IST

Electric Theatre on Mount Road (now Anna Salai). The first cinema house in Madras, it still stands, as part of the Anna Salai post office.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT Electric Theatre on Mount Road (now Anna Salai). The first cinema house in Madras, it still stands, as part of the Anna Salai post office.

Electric Theatre on Mount Road (now Anna Salai). The first cinema house in Madras, it still stands, as part of the Anna Salai post office.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT Electric Theatre on Mount Road (now Anna Salai). The first cinema house in Madras, it still stands, as part of the Anna Salai post office.

The foundation of Tamil cinema, which is 96 years old, was laid by the pioneers of the silent era.

The birth of a cultural colossus went almost unnoticed in Madras (now Chennai). In 1897 in the Victoria Public Hall, one M. Edwards organised a show publicised as kinemascope and screened a few short films, each lasting 10 or 12 minutes. Barely two years after its invention and demonstration in Paris by the Lumiere brothers, the newfangled medium of moving images had arrived in Madras.

For nearly a quarter of a century of the silent era, more than 100 feature films were produced in the studios founded in Madras and other cities of the south and screened all over the presidency and beyond. Indians ventured into all aspects of the film industry, right from production and distribution to exhibition. Unfortunately, the silent era of south Indian cinema has not been documented well and one has to piece the story from the little bits of information available. Only one film from that era has survived. After screening, films were sold as junk to dealers who extracted what silver they could out of the nitrate stock. Even photographs are hard to come by. When I was working on my book Message Bearers in the 1970s, I was able to meet some pioneer film-makers and actors from that age. But the major source of information for this period is Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee of 1927-1928, which was brought out in 1928 by the committee headed by the Madras lawyer T. Rangachari.

It was a time when a working class was in the process of formation in Madras. Buckingham and Carnatic (B&C) Mills, which produced textiles, had been opened. The railway had come, and its network was spreading. Match factories were employing a large number of workers. Mass culture was in the offing. There were also other signs of a society changing. Cars had come to Madras, and a few could be seen on the roads. The gramophone was taking classical music to the common man. Tamil newspapers had appeared on the stands. It was at this stage that moving images arrived.

Following Edwards show in Madras, some enterprising men began showing short clips in tents put up at roadsides and collecting a gate fee. People went to these shows out of curiosity to see the spectacle of pictures moving. There was no indication then of its morphing into an all-pervading entertainment medium in its own right.

The south Indian cinema industry began at the exhibition side. In 1905, Swamikannu Vincent, a railway draftsman in Tiruchi, ran into an exhibitor from France called Dupont, who was passing through the town on his way from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to France. He sold Vincent a projector and a few short films. Vincent began his amazing career as an exhibitor. He put up a tent near St. Josephs College, named it Edisons Cinematograph, and screened films, including the two-reeler Life of Jesus Christ, known to film historians the world over. Patronage was good, and he travelled to Madurai, Tirunelveli and Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) and finally came to Madras, where he held shows continuously for 75 days before deciding to proceed north. He toured Bombay (now Mumbai), Peshawar, Lahore and Lucknow and returned to Madras in 1909. He set up a tent near Parrys Corner and continued his shows. While in Madras, he started an agency to supply Pathe projectors, an initiative that facilitated the spread of cinema in the south. Vincent would move to Coimbatore and build the legendary Variety Hall and later would blossom as a producer of talkies.

There were others who got interested in movies. R. Venkiah, a photographer, conducted shows in the Victoria Public Hall and toured Ceylon and Burma (now Myanmar) as an exhibitor. He built a permanent theatre, the Gaiety, in 1913 in Madras, the first one by an Indian. His son R. Prakasa would later produce a number of silent films.

While Vincent and Venkiah, possibly some others also, were concentrating on the exhibition side, R. Nataraja Mudaliyar, an automobile spare parts dealer, went further and produced films. D.G. (Dadasaheb) Phalke had shown the way in Bombay. Nataraja Mudaliyar bought a Williamson camera and a printer for Rs.1,500 from Marudappa Moopanar of Thanjavur, an amateur cinematographer. (More about him later.) With remarkable drive, Nataraja Mudaliyar travelled to Pune, sought and met Steward Smith, cinematographer of the British government, and learnt film-making. As the primitive camera was operated by hand-cranking, it took only a few days to master the technique. The trick was to hand-crank the camera at uniform speed.

Nataraja Mudaliyar returned to Madras and started in 1916 the first studio and film-producing company of south India and called it the India Film Company. With the Swadesi Movement fresh in collective memory, Nataraja Mudaliyar made a political point by naming his outfit The India Film Company when all the films shown were from the United States or Great Britain.

This studio, the first in south India, was located on Millers Road, Kilpauk, and Nataraja Mudaliyar was its director, cinematographer and editor. Rangavadivelu of Suguna Vilasa Sabha was hired to train the actors. Exposed films were sent daily to Bangalore, where Nataraja Mudaliyar had set up a laboratory under Narayanaswamy Achari, who was trained in developing film. Nataraja Mudaliyar would travel to Bangalore every Sunday to check on the progress. In 35 days, the first studio-made feature film of South India was ready for screening in 1916.

Keechakavatham ( Annihilation of Keechaka), an episode from the Mahabharata, was the first Tamil film. The characters spoke Tamil. However, soundtrack had not been invented yet, so what they spoke was written on cards called title cards that were flashed on the screen between shots, as was done in Charlie Chaplin films such as Gold Rush. The viewers, instead of hearing, read the Tamil dialogue. For the benefit of those who could not read, a man stood near the screen and read the cards aloud. One Raju acted as Keechaka in this 6,000-foot-long film.

The next year, Nataraja Mudaliyar made his second film, Draupathi Vasthirabaharanam ( The Disrobing of Draupathi). But after this film, he relocated to his native place, Vellore, set up a studio in Sathuvachari, and went on to make a few films, including Mahiravana (1919) and Kalingamardhanam ( Annihilation of Kalinga, 1920). He told an interviewer that he used the Vellore fort as a locale for some of his films. Struck by two successive tragedies the sudden death of his son and a fire accident in his studio he gave up film-making.

Soon, a few other studios came up in Madras. If I were to pick up one name as crucial in the early years of south Indian cinema, it would be A. Narayanan. After graduating from Presidency College, he started a distribution outfit, the Exhibitor Films, in Madras. To promote Imperial Films Anarkali, he toured the U.S. where he met Carl Laemmle and visited Universal City Studios. Inspired, he founded General Pictures Corporation Studio in Madras in 1929. GPC, as it was known, was the school in which many pioneers of south Indian cinema were trained in screen entertainment. It was GPC that established film-making as an industry in Madras. Under Narayanan, 18 feature films were made in this studio, including Dharmapathini ( The Virtuous Wife) and Kovalan ( The Fatal Anklet), both in 1929. Narayanan went on to establish the first sound studio in South India, Srinivasa Cinetone, in 1934 and make talkies.

Another name that comes up when one talks about the silent epoch is R. Padmanabhan, who in 1928 founded Associated Films, with which the pillars of early Tamil cinema, such as K. Subrahmaniam and Raja Sandow, were associated. Sandow had made a name for himself in Bombay as an actor and a director. Padmanabhan talked him into moving to Madras to direct Peyum Pennum ( Devil and the Damsel) and Nandanar, both in 1930. Sandow was one of the earliest south Indian directors to have held sway in Bombay. He brought the expertise he had developed there into Tamil cinema. He was active well into the talkie era and directed Araichimani ( The Bell of Justice) before he died suddenly in 1943.

There were other pioneers in the silent era who made short films even before Nataraja Mudaliyar. Marudappa Moopanar, a landlord from Thanjavur, filmed the coronation of George V in 1911 in London and screened it in Madras. When the first airplane landed in Island Grounds, he filmed it. Joseph A. David, a self-taught cinematographer from Madras, made short films on subjects such as temple sculptures and festivals and sold them to companies in the U.S. He was paid a dollar for every foot of film accepted.

Early film-makers such as Nataraja Mudaliyar and Narayanan had to struggle against many odds. The British government was suspicious, if not hostile, of the new medium in the hands of Indians. In 1922, W. Evans, sent to check on the status of cinema in India, cautioned the government about its possible use for propaganda by nationalists. The British blatantly promoted films from the West. After the breakout of the First World War, one was not allowed to import films from Russia, Germany or France, and so Indian cinema grew in a kind of cultural isolation. The educated class looked down upon cinema as a plebeian preoccupation, a prejudice that still persists in many forms in spite of cinemas immense popularity. Writers ignored cinema as not worthy of attention. In contemporary papers and magazines, one hardly sees a reference to the silents made in Madras.

Film-makers found it difficult to get women to act in movies. Nataraja Mudaliyar persuaded an Anglo-Indian woman, Marien Hill, to act. For another film, he signed up an English woman. Artists such as T.P. Rajalakshmi and T.K. Rukmani, who featured in silent films, lasted long into the talkie era.

The studios were primitive affairs, mere sheds with their open tops covered with canvas sheets, which could be manipulated to let in the required amount of sunlight. The camera was hand-cranked to give 16 frames a second.

Most of the films drew upon well-known mythological stories or folklore, and the audience responded to these familiar stories. However, as film-makers were telling well-known stories, the scope for film grammar to evolve was severely restricted.

The primitive projector got heated quickly, and breaks were needed during the screening. These breaks were filled with extraneous entertainments such as dance, gymnastics and even boxing matches. These were publicised along with the film. Packing a film with unrelated attractions such as songs, dances and comedy shows could have its roots in this practice.

In the following 18 years, nearly 110 Tamil silent films were produced in the studios in Madras, Vellore, Trivandrum and Mysore. Only one film, Marthandavarman directed by P.V. Rao in Trivandrum, has survived. When P.K. Nair was the curator of the National Film Archives, he was able to retrieve a print and restore it. Although the first sound picture, Kalidas, was released in 1931, silent films continued to be made in the south until 1932.

So how old is Tamil cinema? It is 96 years old. Nataraja Mudaliyars Keechakavatham was the first Tamil film. No cinema in the world disowns its silent era. That is where the roots of any cinema lie. The silent era is to a cinema what childhood is to a human being. Moreover, the rules of film grammar were formed during the silent era.

Every cinema in the world, be it French or German, glorifies its silent films as an artistic legacy and counts its own history from the silent era. Look at British cinema. Most of Charlie Chaplins films, including the classic The Kid, a silent, are part of British film heritage. The Russian film-maker Sergei M. Eisensteins unforgettable silent Battleship Potemkin is almost a symbol of Russian cinema. Hindi cinema celebrates Phalke and his Raja Harishchandra (1912).

The foundation of Tamil cinema was laid by the pioneers of the silent era such as Vincent, Nataraja Mudaliyar, and Narayanan. Hopefully, when the centenary of Tamil cinema is celebrated in 2016, these forerunners will be remembered. Sendhamizhan, a young film-maker, made a Tamil documentary in 2008 titled Pesaa Mozhi ( The Silent Language) about the silent era. The film ends with a shot of some admirers paying homage at the grave of Vincent in Coimbatore.

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