The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema



T.R. Sundaram

Tiruchengodu Ramalinga Sundaram was a profoundly important figure in pioneering the South Indian film industry. He was born on July 16th, 1907, in Tiruchengodu of Salem district, into a family of yarn merchants. After completing his schooling in Salem, he moved to Madras to study B.A. Once he finished his degree in Madras, his family, aspiring to modernise their business, urged him to pursue higher studies abroad. Consequently, he went to Leeds to obtain a BSc in textile technology, where he fell in love and married an English woman named Gladys. When he returned with his English wife, his family and relatives didn’t accept their relationship and refused him any role in their textile business. Sundaram was hardly shaken and chose to enter the film world. He eventually became one of the most successful personalities of the industry.

His film career started with a partnership with Salem-based Angel Films. He was actively involved in the production of movies such as DRAUPADI VASTRAPAHARANAM, which was released in the year 1934.

With the experience gained from his partnership with Angel Films, he decided to go solo and started his own venture called Modern Theatres. With 10 acres of land on the foothills of Yercaud (a hill station in Tamil Nadu), he built the studio that played significant role in the careers of many stalwarts of the industry. It was one of the biggest studios in South India built outside Chennai, in Salem. Modern Theatres was believed to have 250 employees. Some well-known names like S.V. Ranga Rao, Anjali Devi and M.R. Radha were introduced by Sundaram through Modern.

The first film that Sundaram produced at Modern Theatres was SATHI AHALYA in 1937, which he directed himself. This film was shot entirely in the Modern Theatres studio for the first time. Sri Lankan actress K. Thavamani Devi was cast in the lead role. Although she was born in Sri Lanka, she moved to Madras to pursue her career. Being trained in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, she was able to dance and sing in her own voice. Eventually, she earned the name Singalathu Kuyil. When Sundaram invited the press to announce his production launch and gave a photo carrying Thavamani Devi in a swimsuit, it raised eyebrows as it was considered too glamorous for that time. In fact, it was Devi who set the trend for glamour among heroines in Tamil films, which actresses like T.R. Rajakumari and Mathuri Devi followed.

The same year, he produced and directed one more film, PADMA JYOTHI. This second film from Modern Theatres had a very new feature in Tamil cinema, in fact, for the whole of India. It was the animation technique used in the title credits. When the heroine’s name Padma was shown, a cartoon face of a woman showing multiple expressions was used. It was incredible as animation was a completely unknown technique during that time. The film is said to have 25 songs, according to film historian Randor Guy. Though the film was only an average grosser, it is still remembered for the introduction of animation, a patriotic theme in cinema, and its music.

Padma Jothi.jpg

A still from the Movie PADMA JYOTHI produced and directed by T.R. Sundaram

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Some of the other films produced and/or directed by T.R. Sundaram during 1930-1940included:

  • 1938: MAYA MAYAVAN
  • 1940: SATHI MURALI

MANICKAVASAGAR, directed by T.R. Sundaram, was released in 1939. The film was jointly produced by two Salem-based companies, Sri krishna Films and Sundaram’s very own Modern Theatres. It was the third outing for M.M. Dhandapani Desigar as an actor and the second one with Sundaram after THAYUMANAVAR. M.S. Devasena played the female lead role again with the same combo of Sundaram and Desigar after Thayumanavar. Devasena and Desigar became life partners in real life as well later on in their lives.


A still from the Movie MANICKAVASAGAR featuring M.M.Dhandapani Desigar and others

PC: From the archives of TCRC

MANICKAVASAGAR was an eponymous biopic of the saint Manickavasagar. Desigar had his own fan following those days for his singing prowess and later became one of the legends in Carnatic music. He was one of the key personalities in the Tamil songs movement in classical music. His full-fledged concerts of the Thirukural are still applauded and celebrated greatly by music critics all over the country and the world. His music was loved by even people who didn’t have much knowledge of classical music. He earned the moniker of Isai Arasu, or The King of Music. He also received many felicitations like Isai Perarignar from the Tamil Isai Sangam and the Sangita Nataka Academy Award.


A still from the Movie MANICKAVASAGAR

PC: From the archives of TCRC

SANTHANADEVAN, produced by T.R. Sundaram and directed by S. Nottani, was a film based on Robin Hood. Nottani had been working with Modern Theatres for quite a while, including directing the first talkie in Malayalam, BALAN. The film featured a Muslim hero in Tamil cinema for the first time, G.M. Basheer. It took on the British government’s tax policies and indirectly criticised them through powerful dialogues and songs. However, to appease the British censors, the film used the character Madanan, the brother of a good and kindly king, as the person who mercilessly taxes people. The hero, Chandanadevan, sings with people to do service by looting the rich, landlords, and government servants to help the poor. The film also marked the debut of the legendary M.R. Radha as a villain. It was his second film as an actor after RAJASEKARAN.

Santhana Devan.jpg

A still from the Movie SANDHANADEVAN Featuring G.M.Basheer and P.Bhanumathi

PC: From the archives of TCRC

T.R. Sundaram was the founder of the legendary Modern Theatres, which at its peak had three film productions a year. After completing 98 films and while planning his 99th film he already had set his sight on the 100th film as a centenary celebration for his production unit. However unfortunately Sundaram fell victim to destiny and died at the age of 56 in 1963. By then Modern Theatres had produced 98 films of which 56 were directed by Sundaram himself. His son Rama Sundaram continued the legacy to fulfill his father’s dream, and Modern Theatres ended up producing 117 films before succumbing to the death of production studios in the country.

Sundaram is reverently remembered for the way he ran the studio with discipline and finesse, treating it like a factory with a rigid code of conduct. There was no bias or discrimination, and even a leading actor was made to stand for hours when he came late for work. The gates of the studio were locked on time, and no visitors were allowed. However, Sundaram paid everyone generously and promptly, which was quite rare during those times.

Sundaram achieved many milestones, such as producing Tamil cinema’s first colour film, ALIBABAVUM 40 THIRUDARGALUM, directing the first Malayalam talkie, BALAN, and producing the first-ever colour film in Malayalam, KANDAM BECHA KOTTU. He also conducted the first people’s poll in India through magazines for casting in his film MANONMANI and provided the film industry with many stalwarts, including P.U. Chinnappa, who became a superstar through Sundaram’s UTHAMA PUTHIRAN. His contributions are to be found in every history book that talks about Indian cinema.
[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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