The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

Introduction

Cinema is easily one of the most fascinating and compelling of all human endeavours – both in the realm of storytelling and otherwise. The history of Indian cinema, in particular, can be said to have truly begun with the Silent Era – way back, late in the 19thcentury. The first Tamil Talkie, KALIDAS, changed the face of Tamil cinema and Indian film in 1931.

In this series, we bring to you the fascinating stories of the people behind and in front of the screen – people who were originally responsible for taking the Tamil film industry to dizzying heights. 

We begin with the captains of these majestic ships: directors. 

I. Directors

The Captains: Masters and Commanders With An Impact To Last The Ages – Part 1

Although we intend to discuss film directors of a different era altogether – and the profound impact their work had on the development of Tamil cinema – we cannot speak of this industry without invoking the name of Shankardas Swamigal, the Father of Tamil Theatre. He and Pammal Sambhanda Mudaliar are considered the true pioneers of Tamil theatre. He was instrumental in shaping the careers of stalwarts of the craft, such as Nawab T.S. Rajamanickam, M.R. Radha, S.V. Venkatraman, K.B. Sundarambal, S.G. Kittappa and K. Sarangapani.

THE SILENT ERA

NATARAJA MUDALIAR

Nataraja Mudaliar began his career as a businessman trading in bicycles, and later, in the import of American cars. Greatly inspired by the first feature film to ever be released in India, Dadadsaheb Phalke’s RAJA HARISCHANDRA, which was released in 1913, he decided it was the world of filmmaking that was his true calling. 

After reaching out to a close friend, Pammal Sambhanda Mudaliar, one of the foremost pioneers of theatre in Tamil, he decided to tell the story of Draupadi and Keechaka from one of the greatest epics of India, the Mahabharata. The first feature film of his career was released in 1917, and was called KICHAKA VADHAM. It holds the honour of being the first South Indian silent film ever made and released in India. 

And thus was born the first ever production company in Southern India: The Indian Film Company. He donned many helms for the film; he was producer, cameraman, editor, as well as the director for the film. He went on to make many more films, often rooted in the rich heritage of Hindu mythology: DRAUPADI VASTRAPURANAM, LAVA KUSA, RUKMINI SATHYABAMA and MAYIL RAVANA.

However, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and so was the case with his time in cinema. After the devastating loss of his son and a catastrophic fire accident in his studio – which was already taking heavy losses – he went back to his trade of automobiles.

Despite this difficult end, he rightfully earned the moniker of being the Father of Tamil cinema, and was ultimately responsible for sowing the seeds that led to the fertile growth of the industry’s future. 

RAGHUPATHY SURYA PRAKASH

Raghupathy Surya Prakash, also known as R.S. Prakash, was one of the most prolific directors of silent films in Southern India. He also directed the first Telugu feature film, BHISHMA PRATINGNA, in 1921, which was produced by his father, Raghupathy Venkaiah Naidu, who was responsible for the construction of the first movie theatre in Chennai, Gaiety Talkies. He was also the man behind the first film studio in Chennai, Glass Studio, which was believed to run from Vepperi to Sangam Cinemas, now in Kilpauk. The film company was named as Star of the East Films, and BHISHMA PRATINGA was produced under this company. 

The formidable father-son duo went on to make many silent films for both Tamil and Telugu audiences in the 1920s and early 1930s, which was when the revolutionary shift from silent films to talkies finally took place. 

The 1930s

H.M. REDDY

H. M. Reddy is India’s first multilingual film director. In his film, KALIDAS, he featured and utilised dialogue in both Telugu and Tamil. The film went on to earn the shining distinction of the first film in India to have sound in more than one language, as well as being the first Talkie in both the Tamil and Telugu film industries. Reddy, who assisted Ardeshir Irani in the production and direction of the first Indian talkie film, ALAM-ARA, was deeply inspired by his experience and decided that he must make a talkie film with sound in the South as well. Thus, KALIDAS was conceived. L.V. Prasad, the founder of the famous Prasad Studios, who also played a small role in ALAM-ARA, became an integral part of the cast of KALIDAS as a comical priest as well.

Kalidas_WM.jpg

Working Still from the Film KALIDAS, Featuring T.P. RAJALAKSHMI and VENKATESAN

PC: From the archives of TCRC

H. M. Reddy went on to produce and direct many more films – BHAKTHA PRAHALDA, GRUHALAKSHMI and TENALIRAMAKRISHNA– primarily in the Telugu language.

He later directed a Tamil Movie MATHRU BHOOMI in 1939. One of the doyens of Tamil music, Papanasam Sivan, composed the music and wrote songs for the film. Kumidhini was the vocalist for many of the songs, which went on to become great hits of their time. The film’s theme was primarily dealing with the struggle for India’s freedom. However, the British Raj’s ironclad censorship would have made the release of such a film impossible. 

To sidestep this problem, he set the story at an entirely different time in history: the invasion of North West India by Alexander the Great. Despite this careful measure, the film did feature songs that were sympathetic to the freedom movement and echoed its sentiments; consequently, the film faced rumours of an impending ban.

MATHRU BHOOMI was made on a budget of two lakh Indian rupees – an enormous budget in that era – and was the most expensive movie of its time.

Mathru Bhoomi_WM.jpg

Working Still from the Film MATHRU BHOOMI

PC: From the archives of TCRC

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

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