The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema



M.L. Tandon and Michael Omalov

In this episode, we are going to talk about two classmates of Ellis R. Dungan at the University of Southern California: M.L. Tandon and Michael Omalov.

M.L. Tandon

M.L. Tandon, also known as Mani Lal Tandon, was one of the first Indians to study film making in the US. He attended the renowned University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, where he made student films and became the first Indian to work in Hollywood. After returning to India, he became a successful filmmaker in the early years of Tamil and Telugu cinema.

Cut out from an Article by M.L.Tandon

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Some of the films made by M.L. Tandon during the period of 1930-1940 include:




1938: TUKKARAM (Telugu) 


While studying at USC, two of Tandon’s classmates were Michael Omalov and the celebrated American Tamil filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan. When Tandon returned to India, he brought both of them with him and played a vital role in shaping their careers here. One of them became a cameraman/director, while the other went on to become an iconic filmmaker.

A still featuring M.L.Tandon with his crew during TUKARAM (TELUGU) shooting

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

While the Tamil version of TUKARAM was directed by B.N. Rao, Tandon directed the Telugu version with the thespian C.S.R. Anjaneyulu, also known as Chilakalapudi Seeta Rama Anjaneyulu, in the titular role. CSR, who acted in many films during the 1930s, was a big star and is believed to have acted in more than 175 films.

YAYATHI, directed by Tandon, had one of the early superstars of the Tamil film industry, P.U. Chinnappa, in the lead role, with M.V. Rajamma playing the female lead. It was one of the early films of Chinnappa, who had worked in BOYS DRAMA COMPANY before joining films.

An advertisement of YAYATHI highlighting M.V. Rajamma

From the magazine DINAMANI VARUSHA MALAR 1938

PC: From the archives of TCRC

YAYATHI was a mythological film based on the story of a princess named Devayani and a prince named Yayathi who fall in love and marry. The film portrays how they overcome curses and Yayathi regains his crown. The multifaceted Serukalathur Sama wrote the dialogues, while Papanasam Sivan handled the lyrics and music composition for the 25 songs in the film. Although the film was not a big hit, it is still remembered by film historians and enthusiasts for the daunting performance of Chinnappa and Tandon’s direction.

M.L. Tandon made some memorable movies in the 1930s before making films for Modern Theatres in the late 40s. Though he was one of the leading filmmakers in the Telugu and Tamil film industry of yesteryears, he, too, is sadly amongst the forgotten pioneers of the industry.

Michael Omalov

Omalov was believed to be an exceptional cinematographer, and according to historian Randor Guy, he even operated the camera for one of Tandon’s student films, OVAL PORTRAIT in 1933 during his USC days. Although he came to India along with his friends Dungan and Tandon with the aspiration to flourish in the Indian film industry, he returned after directing his only film here, NAVA YUVAN.

Released in 1937, NAVA YUVAN was a story about an educated Indian youth who gets attracted to Western culture and forgets the deeply rooted Indian traditions. The film shows how he realizes the greatness of his homeland after his experiences in London. The film also had an alternate title, GEETHA SAARAM.

A still from the Film NAVA YUVAN featuring V.V.Sadagopan

PC: From the archives of TCRC

NAVA YUVAN eventually became the first Tamil movie to be filmed abroad. The film was shot in London and even made headlines in the local newspapers. The famous Carnatic musician V.V. Sadagopan made his acting debut in the lead role. However, during the shooting of the film in London, Omalov disappeared and never returned to India. He later became the Head of the Photography Department at Ford Motors in Detroit.
[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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