Celluloid city

Print edition : September 05, 2014

T.R. Rajakumari in "Chandralekha" (1948), produced by Gemini Studios. The studio, which was a landmark in Chennai, closed down in the 1960s. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Swamikannu Vincent, who in 1905 started showing short movies in a tent in Esplanade near Parry's Corner. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Nataraja Mudaliyar, founder of the India Films Company and Studio. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Rangavadivelu, a Madras lawyer, who trained the actors for Nataraja Mudaliyar. Photo: by special arrangement

Electric Theatre, the first cinema hall established in Chennai. The building, located on the premises of the Anna Salai post office, now houses the Philatelic Bureau. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A file picture of Electric Theatre. Photo: By special arrangement

Gaiety, the first cinema house to be built by an Indian, R. Venkaiah, in 1914. A file picture. Photo: K. GAJENDRAN

A. Narayanan, founder of General Pictures Corporation, and Meenatchi Narayanan, his wife and sound recordist. Photo: By special arrangement

Director K. Subramaniam, at a function of the cine technicians association in Chennai. A file picture. Photo: By special arrangement

A.V. Meiyappan, S.S. Vasan and B. Nagi Reddy, owners of AVM, Gemini and Vijaya-Vauhini studios in Chennai respectively, in 1966. Photo: handout

AVM Studios. It has outlived many other studios in the city.

S.S. Vasan with Jawaharlal Nehru during the Prime Minister's visit to the Gemini laboratory in December 1957. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Technicians inside Gemini Studios. Photo: The Hindu Archives

K.B. Sundarambal, who acted as Avvaiyar in the epomynous film, was the first film artist in the country to become a member of a State legislature. This picture was taken at the Raj Bhavan in Madras, where she signed the register. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliyar, Governor Bishnuram Medhi and Minister Kakkan are also seen in the picture. Photo: By special arrangement

Crown cinema theatre in Mint was also built by Venkaiah. Photo: V. Ganesan

From roadside screenings of short silent films to producing big-budget films, Chennai has come a long way since 1897.

AS ONE OF THE THREE MAJOR PORT towns of the country, and as the capital of a presidency, Madras played a key role in the growth of the film industry in India. It was here, along with Bombay and Calcutta, that the foundation for Indian cinema was laid. In fact until the early 1960s, the city continued to be the main centre of production and related activities for cinemas in the four languages of southern India.

There were signs of momentous changes in the city by the turn of the 20th century. Tamil dailies had been launched, beginning with Swadesamithran in 1899. A motor car could be sighted occasionally. Trams were rumbling along the main roads. Some affluent households and companies had telephones. People were getting used to the marvel of listening to music from a rotating black disc on a spring-wound machine, the gramophone. The mechanical reproduction of works of art had begun. The stage was ready for a totally new art form, a complete child of technology.

Of the three dimensions of the cinema industry—production, distribution and exhibition—it is the last that appeared first in south India, in Madras. Two years after the Lumiere brothers demonstrated their moving pictures in Paris, a screening was held in Madras. M. Edwards, an Englishman, held a show in the Victoria Public Hall in 1897, the first exhibition. This was followed by roadside screenings of films a few minutes long. The film scholar Stephen Hughs points out that within a few years there were regular ticketed shows in a hall in Pophams Broadway, started by one Mrs. Klug, but this lasted only for a few months. Once it was demonstrated as a commercial proposition, a Western entrepreneur, Warwick Major, built the first cinema theatre, the Electric Theatre, which still stands.

Vincent Swamikannu, a railway draftsman from Tiruchirapalli, became a travelling exhibitor in 1905. He showed short movies in a tent in Esplanade, near the present Parry’s Corner, using carbide jet-burners for projection. Soon, he tied up with Path, a well-known pioneering film-producing company, and imported projectors. This helped new cinema houses to sprout across the presidency. Vincent would later turn a producer in the talkie era, with Coimbatore as his base.

The films that were screened in these years were short, silent ones that would run for 10-15 minutes. In any case, the projectors heated quickly and had to be rested before another film could be shown. To fill up these frequent breaks and as an added entertainment component, events such as boxing bouts, magic shows, gymnastics and oriental dances were conducted on the stage. At times, these side events became the main attraction with the appearance of boxing icons such as Gunboat Jack in a fight. Some of the dancers later would shine as actors in cinema.

A photographer, R. Venkiah, who owned a studio on Mount Road, was attracted by this new-fangled entertainment of moving pictures. In 1909, he imported a chromo megaphone, which was a film projector attached to a gramophone. This gave the illusion of synchronised sound, and, in a way, anticipated the talkies. With this equipment, he screened the short films, Pearl Fish and Raja’s Casket in the Victoria Public Hall. When this proved successful, he screened the films in a tent set up in Esplanade. These tent events were the true precursors of the cinema shows. Venkiah travelled with this unit to Burma (now Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, and when he had gathered enough money, he put up a permanent cinema house in Madras—Gaiety, in 1914, the first cinema house in Madras to be built by an Indian. He soon added two more, Crown Theatre in Mint and Globe (later called Roxy) in Purasawalkam.

In a society that was non-egalitarian and rigidly stratified, the cinema houses came as a democratic space, in the Habermasian sense, in which all, no matter what caste, class, religion or race one belonged to, could come together under one roof. This was a revolutionary development. But this was also the cause for a condescending attitude towards cinema that developed and persists. In the great divide between high and low cultures, filmic entertainment came to be associated with the latter.

Most of the films screened then were shorts made in the United States and Britain. In 1909, an Englishman, T.H. Huffton, founded Peninsular Film Services in Madras and produced some short films for local audiences. But soon, hour-long films, which narrated dramatic stories, then known as “drama films”, were imported. From 1912 onwards, feature films made in Bombay (now Mumbai) were also screened in Madras. The era of short films had ended. The arrival of drama films firmly established cinema as a popular entertainment form. More cinema houses came up in the city.

Fascinated by this new entertainment form, an automobile dealer in the Thousand Lights area of Madras, R. Nataraja Mudaliyar, decided to venture into film production. After a few days’ training in Pune with the cinematographer Stewart Smith, the official cinematographer of Lord Curzon’s 1903 Durbar, he started a film production concern in 1916. A studio, the first in south India, was set up in Madras at 10 Millers Road, Kilpauk. He called it the India Film Company. Rangavadivelu, an actor from Suguna Vilasa Sabha, a theatre company then, was hired to train the actors. Thirty-five days later, the first feature film made in south India, The Extermination of Keechakan/Keechakavatham, based on an episode from the Mahabharata, was released.

This marked the birth of Tamil cinema. Yes, Keechakavatham was the first Tamil film. The characters spoke Tamil. However, sound in film had not been invented yet, so what they spoke was written in cards that appeared on the screen between shots, and they were called “title cards”. If you have seen Charlie Chaplin films such as Gold Rush, you will know what I am referring to. The viewers, instead of hearing, read the dialogues. So, 2016 will mark the centenary of Tamil cinema.

Though Nataraja Mudaliyar was the first in south India to found a studio, it was Venkiah’s son Raghupathy Prakasa and A. Narayanan who put the cinema industry on a firm footing. After a stint of training in England in film-making, Prakasa came to Madras and set up the Star of the East Film Company. The studio, located behind Roxy Theatre, was modern by the prevailing standards. Beginning with Bhishma’s Vow/Bhishma Pratignai (1921), Prakasa made a number of movies which were screened all over the country, with title cards in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Gujarati. Though the company lasted only for four years, it played a crucial role in the growth of cinema in this part of the country. Many pioneers of south Indian cinema such as Y.V. Rao (father of actor Lakshmi) and C. Pullaiya were trained here.

The third Indian to step into film production in Madras, and the man who truly laid the foundations of south Indian cinema, was A. Narayanan. After a few years in film distribution, he set up a production company in Madras, the General Pictures Corporation, popularly known as GPC. Beginning with The Faithful Wife/Dharmapathini (1929), GPC made about 24 feature films. GPC functioned as a film school and its alumni included names such as Sundara Rao Nadkarni and Jiten Banerji. The studio of GPC was housed in the Chellapalli bungalow on Thiruvottiyur High Road in Madras. This company, which produced the most number of Tamil silent films, had branches in Colombo, Rangoon and Singapore.

A colleague of Narayanan, R. Padmanabhan, started his own film unit, Associate Films, and made a few films. The studio was in the site now occupied by Paragon Talkies in Madras. It was here that K. Subrahmanyam imbibed the basics of film-making. For nearly a quarter of a century of silent era in the studios founded in Madras and other cities, more than 100 feature films were produced and screened all over the presidency and beyond. The Ways of Vishnu/Vishnu Leela, which R. Prakasa made in 1932, was the last silent film produced in Madras. Unfortunately, the silent era of south Indian cinema has not been documented well. When the talkies appeared, film producers had to travel to Bombay or Calcutta to make films. Most films of this early period were celluloid versions of well-known stage plays. Company dramas were popular among the Madras audience. The legendary Otraivadai drama theatre had been built in 1872 itself in Mint. Many drama halls had come up in the city where short silent films were screened in the afternoon and plays were enacted in the night.

The practice was to engage a drama troupe, have it enact the play, which was shot frontally. Sarvotham Badami, who directed the second Tamil talkie, Galava the Hermit/Galavarishi (1932), told me that a stage was erected, and the troupe enacted the drama, scene by scene, in front of a static camera. It was truly a photographed version of drama. Often, they were made by directors and technicians who did not know Tamil. So, there was little scope for cinematic conventions to develop. At a very impressionable stage of its growth, Tamil cinema remained a total slave of the stage. The long-term effects of that enslavement can still be observed.

The scene changed in 1934 when Madras got its first sound studio. By this time, all the cinema houses in Madras had been wired for sound. Narayanan, who had been active during the silent era, founded Srinivasa Cinetone in which his wife worked as the sound recordist. Srinivasa Kalyanam (1934), directed by Narayanan, was the first sound film (talkie) produced in Madras. The second sound studio to come up in Madras was Vel Pictures, started by M.D. Rajan on Eldams Road in the Dunmore bungalow, which belonged to the Raja of Pithapuram. Before long, more sound studios came up. Thirty-six talkies were made in Madras in 1935.

There were some rare attempts at improving film appreciation. In 1935, the Madras Film League was formed to develop a meaningful engagement with cinema. One of the activities of the league was to choose the best actor by ballot. For the year 1939, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and the film Thiruneelakantar were chosen for these honours. Much later, in 1956, the Madras Film Society was formed by Ammu Swaminathan. However, these spasmodic efforts did not develop any sense of film appreciation.

In 1921, W. Evans, a cinema expert, was sent by the British government to study cinema in India. With impressive foresight, he pointed out that in a predominantly illiterate society images could have a great impact and that the possibility of cinema being used for political propaganda was immense. It was only a few years earlier, through the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1918, that film censorship had been introduced in India. A board was formed in Madras, with the Police Commissioner as the chief, to censor films.

With the arrival of electricity, more cinema houses came up and filmic entertainment grew popular. Films from Madras, along with those from Bombay, competed with imported films. The British government decided that it was time to take a close look at the film industry and appointed a committee with the Madras lawyer Rangachari (grandfather of actor Balaji) as the chairman. The Indian Cinematograph Committee of 1927-28 had a sitting in Madras. The report of this committee is our main source of information for the initial years of cinema in India (See Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee 1927-28, pages 359-374).

Though the mass of workers in the film industry were unorganised, the producers decided to form a trade body and The South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce (SIFCC) came into being in 1939. S. Sathyamurthy, the Congress leader who had been taking keen interest in the world of entertainment, was its first chairman. He was trying to harness the popularity of film folk to the nationalistic cause.

In fact, during the 1931 Civil Disobedience Movement, stage and screen artists raised money to support the Salt Satyagraha camp at Udayavanam near Santhome in Madras. Some artists took part in the political resistance and courted arrest. It was the beginning of interaction between politics and the entertainment world in Tamil Nadu.

The Second World War hit the film industry, and production fell. Bomb threats to the city triggered a mass exodus. Studios such as Pragati (latter-day AVM) shifted to Karaikudi. Gemini Studios’ equipment was moth-balled and stored in Thanjavur. The film chamber set up a temporary office in Kumbakonam. Blackouts in view of air-raid precautions and restrictions on late shows drastically reduced the number of patrons to cinema houses. Prabhat Cinema House went up for sale for a mere Rs.10.000, but there were no takers.

K. Subrahmanyam, a lawyer by profession, decided to go into movie-making and founded the Motion Pictures Producer Combines studio in 1937. But the studio was gutted in a fire accident, widely believed to be arson by business rivals. The property came up for auction through a court order. Subrahmanyam persuaded his friend Vasan to bid for it and enter film production. Vasan, though hesitant in the beginning, was there on the due date to bid and Gemini Studios came into being.

After the war, production picked up. The flow of capital from eastern countries aided the growth of the industry in the city. A number of Chettiars with business concerns in Burma, Malaya and Indo-China withdrew their investments there and sank the money in the film industry in Madras.

In addition to this, the big studios such as Gemini, AVM and Jupiter were going full throttle. Cinema in Madras, which had been insular, got a whiff of fresh air in 1952 when foreign films were screened in the city as part of the first International Film Festival. Its impact was felt on Tamil cinema in the form of films such as That Day/Andha Naal (1954) and Who is this boy/Yaar Paiyan (1955).

Gemini Studios became a landmark of Madras. National and international leaders dropped in at the studios and spent time with Vasan. Jawaharlal Nehru once visited the studio and watched the shooting that was on. In December 1956, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai spent a few hours in Gemini Studios. With Chandraleka (1948), Gemini extended its operation to the Hindi film world as well. But with the arrival of independent film-makers, studios had to close down in the 1960s. Among the big studios, AVM has outlived many other studios, producing memorable films.

After the reorganisation of States in 1956, a number of studios came up in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. However, Madras continues to be one of the major centres of film production in the world, though a Tamil film rarely attracts international notice. The Prasad colour processing laboratory, which was getting customers from all over the country, was closed last year in the wake of the digital era. The production units in Madras continue to churn out Tamil films and the mesmerising hold of cinema on the lives of people persists, attracting the attention of scholars from many countries to study this phenomenon of interaction between the screen and politics.

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