The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema



R. Venkaiah and R. Prakash

This week, we will be discussing the father-son duo who played a significant role in the development of cinema in this part of the country.

R. Venkaiah

Raghupathy Venkaiah was born in Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh in 1869, into a family of men who served in the Indian (British) Army. His interest in photography led him to open a photo studio on Mount Road. After achieving resounding success with this business, he began exhibiting films, which also proved to be very profitable for him. He earned even more by extending his shows to all parts of India, as well as Burma and Ceylon. Upon returning home, his aspirations grew even higher, and he wanted to venture into permanent cinema houses. Thus, he built the first permanent cinema house in Madras City, called the Gaiety, in 1912. He then built two more cinema houses in Madras, the Crown and the Globe (which was later renamed Roxy), as well as one more in Madura, called the Imperial. Unfortunately, all of these cinema houses have since been shut down and turned into commercial or housing complexes.


A Photo of Cinema House Gaiety Mentioned as GaietyTalkies near HarrisBridge 


PC: From the archives of TCRC

R. Prakash

After achieving remarkable success with his cinema houses, Venkaiah wanted to move into picture production. Hence, his son Prakash was sent to Baker’s Motion Picture Studio in England. 

Raghupathy Surya Prakash, born in 1901, was trained during his stay in England. He also acted in a couple of movies with the role of an Indian. He traveled to France and Germany to keenly observe the leading filmmakers there. After his return, along with his father, he launched Gajalakshmi Productions, and the maiden movie MEENAKSHI KALYANAM was born.

As per his father’s wish, Prakash started the ‘Star of the East’ studio in Purasawalkam, Madras. To avoid dust and simultaneously allow sunlight, a glass roof was erected, which became the reason for the studio to be known as the Glass Studio. The first film made in the studio was BHEESHMA PRATINGA in 1922. The late A. Narayanan, who was known as the father of the South Indian film industry, played the role of Lord Krishna in the film. BHEESHMA PRATINGA, also known as BHEESHMA VADHAM, was made with a budget of Rs.12,000 but earned Rs.60,000. It was written, photographed, produced, and directed by Prakash himself.

The following films were made in the Glass Studio:

  • NANDANAR (1923)
  • USHA SWAPNA (1924)

Although Prakash was a skilled technician, he lacked business management skills which led to the closure of Star of the East

However, with the help of family friend Motey Narayana Rao, he bounced back and established a new company, Guarantee Picture Corporation. He was given a large open land in Tondiarpet, Madras by another family friend, where he opened a new studio. He had an energetic young team comprising C. Pullaiah, Jiten Banerjee, C.V. Raman, A. Narayanan, P.V. Rao, and Y.V. Rao, who would later become great directors. It can be said that they learned their first lesson in the art of cinema from him. From this studio, DASAVATARAM (1929) and KOVALAN (1929) were made. However, due to poor planning and management, the Tondiarpet studio was also closed. A. Narayanan launched his own venture, General Pictures Corporation, and Prakash joined as a technician. Prakash made several films for Narayanan with reasonable success, including LEILA – THE STAR OF MINGRELIA, which proved to be a huge box office hit not only in India but also in neighboring countries like Burma and Ceylon.

When talkies started to emerge, Narayanan established Srinivasa Cinetone, the first talkie studio in South India, where Prakash continued his work. The first film of Srinivasa Cinetone was SRINIVASA KALYANAM directed by A. Narayanan, with Prakash handling the camera. The second film, DRAUPADI VASTRAPRAHARANAM, was directed jointly by Narayanan and Prakash.

R.S. Prakash directed several films during 1930-1940, including:

  • 1936: INDRASABHA
  • 1936: NALAIANI
  • 1938: ANADHAI PENN

In 1936, Prakash directed INDRASABHA for Srinivasa Cinetone. The film was based on a Hindu mythology story about the romance between a prince and a fairy. The story was adapted into a Hindi film of the same name in 1932. Prakash’s Tamil adaptation for Sound City aka Srinivasa Cinetone starred T.K. Sundarappa, K. Shantha Devi, and Sushila Devi in the lead roles.


An advertisement of INDRA SABHA


PC: From the archives of TCRC

In 1937, RAJASEKARAN was released and produced by Madurai Meenakshi Cinetone. This film directed by Prakash was notable for its music director Rajam Pushpavanam, who became the first female music director in the south and the third in India after Jaddanbai and Saraswathi Devi. She was only 19 years old when the film was released, making her the youngest woman music director in India at the time. 

The film also marked the debut of the legendary actor Madras Rajagopala Radhakrishnan, popularly known as M.R. Radha. He earned the nickname Nadigavel at the peak of his career. His ideology was of Dravidianism and he used stages and films to promote atheism and social reforms.


A still from the Movie RAJASEKARAN Featuring M.R. Radha

PC: From the archives of TCRC

ANADHAI PENN is considered by many cinema pundits as R.S. Prakash’s best work. The film was based on a novel written by Vai. Mu. Kodhainayaki Ammal, commonly called Vai.Mu.Ko. She had written many successful novels, including topics like detective genres which were uncommon for female writers. She also single-handedly wrote, edited, and published a magazine by the name Jaganmohini, which was very popular at that time. Her most popular novel was ANADHAI PENN, which was adapted into a film with the same name.

Anadhai Penn2.jpg

A still from the Film ANADHAIPENN featuring T.A.Sundarambal

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Madras Kandaswami Radhakrishnan, also known as M.K. Radha, was selected as the lead actor along with T.A. Sundarambal. Radha was actually the choice of Vai.Ku.Mo, who was very particular about the decision, claiming that the story was written with Radha in mind. This was probably the first time in the country that a writer had chosen the leading hero for a movie.

ANADHAI PENN became a very important film in M.K. Radha’s career. The film was a big hit, and he became a style icon, with many fans dressing up and imitating his mannerisms from the film. Unfortunately, Sundarambal didn’t act much after this film and faded away. Interestingly, P.U. Chinnappa played the villain role as a budding actor, who later became a superstar, and another icon, Kothamangalam Subbu, acted in the movie in a comical role.

It’s unfortunate that R. Venkaiah is not given the recognition he truly deserves. He is one of the pioneers who contributed a lot to the city of Madras and is a forgotten figure, although the Andhra Government has instituted an award in his name called the Raghupathi Venkaiah Award For Excellence And Outstanding Contribution To Telugu Cinema. He and his son helped many people in a big way for the development of the film industry in South India. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this Father-Son duo’s contributions made the South Indian Film, particularly the Tamil Film, what it is today.

[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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