The story of Lena Chettiar, the used-car dealer who turned into a film producer!

We at TCRC are always looking out for interesting trivia about yesteryear film personalities. Also, given that our search analytics told us that people were looking into the TCRC blog for information on one of Tamil cinema’s earliest superstars, actor-singer M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, we thought of putting together a separate post about him. We started looking for information about his 1934-released debut film “Pavalakodi.” But it was one of the producers of “Pavalakodi”, one Mr. Lena Chettiar, who ended up piquing our curiosity.

“Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) was produced under the Krishna Pictures banner promoted by Lena Chettiar. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu.

Writing about the film “Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) in The Hindu’s Blast From The Past column, Randor Guy profiles Lena Chettiar (click here to read the post about “Prabhavathi”):

S. M. Letchumanan Chettiar, popularly known as Lena Chettiar, was a powerful figure in the world of Tamil Cinema. A native of Chettinad, he was a ‘drama contractor’ in his early days, staging plays in various southern parts of the state by hiring freelancing actors and selling tickets for their plays. He also dealt in used cars and was the first man in this part of the world to print and circulate handbills about used cars in Tamil. Most of the Naattukottai Chettiars were wealthy, but did not know English. They found these handbills a novelty and encouraged Lena Chettiar.”

Randor Guy also reports that it was Lena Chettiar who convinced M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to not venture into production himself and stepped in to produce it for him:

M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s (a top-ranking freelancing stage actor then) play with another stage actress S. D. Subbulakshmi, ‘Pavalakodi’, was a raving hit not only in the Tamil-speaking areas of South India but also in Ceylon. Bhagavathar was seriously planning to enter movies with Pavalakodi and Lena advised him against venturing into production on his own and convinced Bhagavathar to team up with him. With his rich pals, Lena produced Pavalakodi in 1934, which marked Bhagavathar’s film debut and proved to be a major hit.”

Lena Chettiar produced numerous films under various labels and eventually, started promoting the ‘Krishna Pictures’ banner in the early part of the 1940s under which he produced films in Tamil and Telugu for nearly 15 years. The last film that he produced, before the founding of Krishna Pictures, was “Krishnan Thoothu,” which was the Tamil debut of Telugu film star Kannamba. In his post about “Krishnan Thoothu,” Randor Guy mentions Lena again:

 He wielded enormous influence beyond the confines of the movie business in official and political circles. Soon after this film, he promoted his own unit, Krishna Pictures, in T. Nagar. His office on Thanikachalam Chetti Road (named after the noted Justice Party leader O.T. Chetti) was indeed a landmark of that area with its Krishna temple besides the building put up by Lena.”

Producers seldom get mentioned in serious writing about cinema. But in the early days of cinema in India, we at TCRC have noticed that often it was the producers who  moved mountains to fuel innovation and creativity. Lena Chettiar seems to be one such gentleman and we at TCRC are glad to bring back to public memory, stories of such film entrepreneurs.

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