The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema




This week, we are going to talk about the Raos, a set of people who can truly be said to have ruled the Tamil film industry in the 1930s. These were Y. V. Rao, P. V. Rao, B. N. Rao and Sundar Rao Nadkarni – in some ways, the first royals of the Tamil industry.


Y. V. Rao alias Yaragudipati Varada Rao, born 30 May 1903, was rather prominent during his time as an extremely talented filmmaker; he does, however, seem to have been tragically largely forgotten today. A multifaceted mover in the industry, he donned many hats: as an editor, a director, an actor, a producer and even a screenwriter. His wife Kumari Rukmani, daughter Lakshmi, his granddaughter Aishwarya and even his mother-in-law, Nungambakkam Janaki, were all heavyweights in the industry as actors in their own right. His daughter, Lakshmi, and granddaughter, Aishwarya, are active in the industry to this day; Lakshmi, in fact, is well-known across languages and is National Award winning actress.

Y. V. Rao probably has the honour of bagging the most firsts in the South Indian film industries, collectively.  He made a number of multilingual films in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, and even Hindi, not to mention the plethora of silent movies in his filmography. He was the first to make motion pictures in so many languages; in fact, he holds an international record for this honour according to the film historian Randor Guy. His directorial venture SATI SULOCHANA was the first talkie ever made in the Kannada language. The battle scene in this film, shot using four cameras simultaneously, stayed with many viewers and was all the rage at the time of the film’s release. 

He was also the first filmmaker to ever make a film on the glittering world of cinema in his Telugu film VISWAMOHINI. At a time when most films were either mythological or based on social issues, VISHWAMOHINI was a pathbreaking film.  

Other notable works in the Tamil language by Y. V. Rao include: 

  • 1937: CHINTAMANI 
  • 1938: BHAKTA MEERA  
  • 1941: SAVITHIRI

His film CHINTHAMANI, in particular, broke many box office records and catapulted its hero, M. K. Thyagarja Bhagavathar, to Superstar status. He, of course, went on to create a stunning legacy of his own. Ashwatama, the Kannada actress in the eponymous role, made her Tamil debut with this film. She, too, rose to dizzying heights with her acting and singing skills. However, she tragically succumbed to early death due to tuberculosis in 1939. The film itself ran for a year in single screen theatres – the first film to pull this feat off. It was not only a raging success in South Indian films, but went on to become one of the highest grossing films in India after its release. 


Working Still from the Film CHINTHAMANI Featuring Y.V.RAO himself with L.NARAYANA RAO

PC: From the archives of TCRC

CHINTHAMANI, in later years, acquired a kind of cult status, and continues to be considered a historical event in South Indian cinema. Later, when Rao began producing films, he named his production company Chinthamani Pictures. The profit of this film as of such a magnitude that the distributors of the film, Royal Talkies, constructed a new cinema theatre in Madurai and named it after the film: Chinthamani Talkies.

With SWARNALATHA, Y. V. Rao bagged yet another first. This was the first film to be shot in one of the most famed studios of Chennai, Newtone Studios. 


An advertisement for the Film SWARNALATHA

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Although the movie itself wasn’t a raging success, commercially speaking, it did make a significant mark in the history of Tamil cinema – largely due to Y. V. Rao’s acting skills and careful direction, not to mention the distinction of being the first film to ever be shot at one of the busiest studios in the country during the period spanning 1940-1970. The studio was also was leased to the noted filmmaker A. Bhimsingh, who shot many of his films there. Later it was sold to Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan. This film grappled with many complex social issues such as alcoholism and unemployment. 


P. V. Rao was one of the foremost filmmakers in the South Indian film industry. His name is, perhaps a little oddly, often confused with the initials V. V. or T. V. However, according to compelling evidence available in publication, his name is stylised as P. V. See: the advertisement below, published in the year 1937. He directed many films in Tamil: VALLI, VALLI THIRUMANAM, SAKUNTHALA, SRI KRISHNALEELA, BHAKTHA DRUVAN, NALLA THANGAL, LEELAVATHI SULOCHANA, BALAMANI and DEVADAS

Interestingly during the shooting of BALAMANI (1937), it is said that the TKS brothers were unhappy with P. V. Rao’s discipline when it came to filmmaking. Unfortunately, as was anticipated, the film didn’t do well at the box office and was declared a flop rather swiftly. In startling move of creative revenge, the TKS brothers made a spoof of him, a character named V.P. Var – which cleverly reversed Rao’s name – in their next film, GUMASTHAVIN PENN. This film, curiously, was also directed by yet another Rao, B.N. Rao. This character, played by K.R. Ramasamy, was hilarious, and became quite popular and well loved! 

He also made the first of many DEVADAS films made in India – the first ever to me made in South India. It was released in 1937, where he himself played the lead role, opposite G. B. Rajayee.


An advertisement for the Film DEVADAS


PC: From the archives of TCRC

[To be continued] Next week we will talk about two more Raos – who were each immensely influential in establishing the trends in Tamil cinema.

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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