THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 6
This week we are going to talk about someone who played an immensely important and pioneering role in the nascent stages of the Tamil film industry. This is none other than Sivagangai A. Narayanan— a man of many talents and wearer of many hats: actor, director, writer, producer, studio owner, and even film exhibitor.
A. Narayanan, born in January 1900 at Sivagangai,studied in the famed Presidency College, Chennai as an undergraduate student. After getting his degree, he worked as an insurance agent in a bank in Mumbai — then Bombay — before jumping headfirst in to the film industry. During this time, he worked for the K.D. Brothers, who were widely known and famed as Hollywood film distributors. In 1922, he joined Queens Cinema, in Calcutta, as a manager, and then moved to Chennai to manage Cinema Popular, aka the famed Star Talkies— its name once talkies took the industry by storm. After his many stints managing cinemas, he began his own venture — Exhibitor Film Services— in Chennai. Through this, he was distributing both foreign and Indian films, along with leasing cinema theatres in various towns across the state. No wonder, then, that he came to be known as the Father of South Indian Film Business.
In 1927, after dabbling in film distribution, he started his own film studio, General Pictures Corporation, Madras. It is believed that in 3 years — from 1927 to 1930 — he had produced over 20 films — and directed some as well! And all his films were distributed by his own business, Exhibitors Film Services. With its many branches at various places, from Bombay and Delhi to Rangoon and Singapore, he was able to release in a wide range of regions. The Bengal region, in India, on the other hand, had the Arora Film Corporation to distribute his films.
A few silent films that Narayanan produced during this prolific time include the following films. Unfortunately, all the films listed below are lost.
1. DHARMAPATHINI (Director, Producer)
2. GNANASOUNDARI (Director, Producer)
3. KOVALAN (Director, Producer)
4. GARUDA GARVABANGAM (Director, Producer)
5. LANKA DHAGANAM (Producer)
6. PANDAVANIRVAAGAN (Producer)
7. GAJENDRA MOTCHAM (Producer)
8. SARANGADHARA (Producer)
9. GAANDHAARI VADHAM (Producer)
10.PRAMILA ARJUNAN (Producer)
12. PANDAVA ANGYANAVASAM (Producer)
13. RAJASTHAN ROJA (Producer)
14. NARANARAYANAN (Producer)
15. VISWAMITHRA (Producer)
16. PAVAZHARANI (Producer)
17. MAYA MADHUSUDHANAN (Producer)
18. MINGIRELLIATHARAGAI/LAILA (Producer)
19. BHEESHMAR PRATHINGYAI (Producer)
20. MACHAVADHARAM (Producer)
In 1928 he undertook a voyage to Hollywood, and carried with him a print of the silent film Anarkali. He returned to India having earned the distinction of being the first person to ever exhibit a fully produced Indian film in Hollywood. He visited various places of great importance while he was there, including the famed Universal Studios. While in the US, he learnt a lot of the mechanics of film making technology — to say nothing of his studio visits and meetings with various important people active in the industry at the time. During these interactions, he was heartily encouraged to shake things up in the Tamil film business when he gets back to India by the Hollywood counterparts. This inspired him in 1934 to start South India’s first talkie studio — which he, incidentally, named after his son — Srinivasa Cinetone aka Sound City.
In 1928, he produced a film in Chennai called MINGIRELIYA THARAGAI or LAILA, which was met with resounding success when it was screened simultaneously in Chennai at Wellington Cinemas, Super Cinemas in Bombay, and Cinema de Paris in Rangoon. This film broke records in its box office collections! Its budget, too, marked a historical moment in Tamil cinema. At a time when films were made with budgets of around Rs. 5000 or Rs. 6000 at most, MINGIRELIYA THARAGAI was made on an incredibly lush budget of Rs. 75,000. As it turned out, the only producer capable of pulling this remarkable feat at the time was Narayanan.
One of the significant milestones in his career was the establishment of his talkie studio, which was also South India’s first talkie studio, Srinivasa Cinetone or Sound City. Built in Poonamallee High Road in Chetpet, Chennai. this studio helped filmmakers based in the South make their films locally — rather than having to travel to places such as Calcutta, Bombay, Poona, or even Kolhapur to record sound. At Sound City, shootings took place in sunlight; for indoor shoots a tarpaulin cover was used. The first film produced here was Narayanan’s own film, SRINIVASA KALYANAM, both produced and directed by him. The film earned two important distinctions; one: it was the first Tamil talkie to be fully made in Chennai; two: his wife Meenakshi Narayanan became India’s first female sound recordist with this film. She also went on to handle the sound recording for four more films. The first woman in India to ever do sound recordings — and for five films, no less — is an astonishing fact that is oft forgotten and left out of history books, unfortunately.
Another interesting event during the film SRINIVASA KALYANAM involved the famous comedienne,Angamuthu,who came to shoot for her part in the film in a bullock cart. In fact, she hilariously maintained this throughout the production of the film.
In the same year, one more film was produced at Srinivasa Cinetone: DRAUPADI VASTRAPRAHRANAM. Another film bearing the same name, in fact, was also released in the same year, 1934, under the aegis of Angel Films, directed by R. Padmanabhan and the production unit had another legend of Tamil cinema, T.R. Sundaram. (We have an upcoming post dedicated to his life and work — keep an eye out for it!) Both films did extremely well, commercially!
A still from the Movie DRAUPATHI VASTRAPAHARANAM made by R. Prakash and A. Narayanan
PC: From the archives of TCRC
Other films made by A. Narayanan included:
- 1935: GNANA SOUNDARI
- 1935: RAJAMBAL
- 1936: DHARA SASANGAM
- 1936: MEERA BAI
- 1936: MAHATMA KABEERDAS
- 1936: VISWAMITHRA
- 1937: KRISHNA THULABARAM
- 1937: VIKRAMA STRI SAHASM
- 1937: VIRADA PARVAM
- 1938: SRI RAMANUJAR
- 1938:THULASI BRINTHA
- 1938: VIPRANARAYANA
RAJAMBAL, released in 1935, was based on the novel written by J. R. Rangaraju, and this film marked the first time a film was made based on the book. Another film, based on the same novel, was made by R.M. Krishnasami in1951. This films is believed to be the first detective movie ever made in Tamil. The film garnered many raised eyebrows —from people in the world of law, in particular. The film, after all, was centered around a judicial officer who misuses his position and influencer for his own personal gain and selfish ends.
A still from the Movie RAJAMBAL
PC: From the archives of TCRC
Yet another interesting movie that came out of Narayanan’s desk was VIKRAMA STRI SAHASAM in 1937. The film featured two plot lines in a single film, which was a relatively new notion in film at the time. It, incidentally, also had another title as well — perhaps to mirror the dual plots —NAVEENA STRI SAHASAM. See, for instance, this advertisement published in Anandha Vikatan, Deepavali Malar, 1937.
An advertisement for the Film SRI RAMANUJAR and VIKRAMA STRISAHASAM
From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1937
PC: From the archives of TCRC
Narayanan is a pretty important figure in the history of Tamil cinema, and his life and work in the industry features many stellar achievements:
- He established the first talkie studio in the South of India.
- He was the first person to Hollywood Studios and took the time to get an education in the nuances of film making business — commercially and technologically
- His wife was India’s first female sound recordist — and recorded sound for five films at that.
- He took film exhibitions to unprecedented levels with the establishment of his Film Exhibitor Services.
Unfortunately, he died very young, at the age of just 39. Many talents were nurtured by him: the likes of R. Prakash, Jithen Banargee, T.R. Raghunath and many others. It is rather tragic, all things considered, that one of the pioneers of not only Tamil cinema but all of south Indian cinema, could just as easily be placed very high indeed on a list of forgotten heroes as well.
[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.