Filmy Ripples : Tamil Cinema’s evolution from Theatre (Part 1)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

Tamil cinema was literally born in 1910, with the release of the first silent ‘Tamil’ film ‘Keechaka Vadham’, produced, directed, shot and edited by R. Nataraja Mudaliar, known today as the father of Tamil cinema. The film was based on an episode from the epic Mahabharata & was received very well.

It is said that Nataraja Mudaliar met one Stewart Smith, a cinematographer from Britain who was then filming a documentary on Lord Curzon & learnt the basics of cinematography from him. Later, in 1915, Mudaliar also established South India’s first film studio at Purasawalkam, Madras. In this first silent Tamil movie, stage artistes of that time, Raju Mudaliar and Jeevarathnam played the roles of Keechaka and Draupadi respectively. The cost of this 600 feet length film is said to be Rs. 35,000, then considered expensive. The production was completed in just five weeks, with Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar writing the screenplay.

download.jpg

Nataraja Mudaliar PC: unknown

Some sixteen long years later, ‘Kalidas’ was the first Tamil Talkie film (shot at Bombay) to be released in October 1931 on Diwali Day, as produced by Ardeshir Irani & directed by H.M.Reddy.  P. G. Venkatesan and T. P. Rajalakshmi did the lead roles in the movie, which, though principally in Tamil, also contained additional dialogues in Telugu and Hindi.

When the film reels arrived by train at Madras Central Station from Bombay, thousands flocked there to follow the reel box, showering flowers all the way to Kinema Central, the theatre where it was screened (later known as Murugan Theatre).

However, according to Randor Guy, Kalidas was a “crude experiment” with poor lip sync. Despite the numerous technical flaws the film had, it received critical acclaim & became a major commercial success. I understand, no print of this landmark talkie film is available now.

raaga_13027_imagehtmlcontent_0

PC: unknown

It is a relevant point to ponder here, as to how, when the films took avatar as above, did the film ‘industry’ then get their actors! Well, the actors for cinema were sourced from stage plays. The evolution narrated below would explain the anthology in that regard.

The stage plays had their antecedent in street plays literally called ‘theru koothu’, which, as a form of entertainment, has its origins to the Sangam periods of Tamil Nadu & forms part of its ancient Tamil culture. The subjects of Koothu have been from religion or history. Even today ‘therukoothu’ happens in rural areas particularly on special days or during temple festivals. With Its informal dance structure, therukoothu depicted scenes with little dialogues but with abundant songs, often sung by Artists in their own voice. They were dressed in complex heavy costumes and bright elaborate makeup. Males often played even female characters.

Over the time, stage plays got evolved. In Tamil Nadu there were formidable stage play troupes some of which created artistes who became to be absorbed as cine actors, when cinema appeared. As such the early cine actors had the characteristic that profiled characteristic stage actors with stopping dialogue delivery, often loud. There seems to have been seamless supply of actors to cinema, this way, as there was no other institutionalized training places like Film Institutes!

In the bygone era, many renowned Drama Companies such as Madurai Bala Meena Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Sri Bala Shanmukananda Sabha, Kannaiyar Company, Madirai Sridevi Bala Vinodha Sabha, Tiruchi Rasika Ranjani Sabha kept the flag flying high in the field of Tamil Dramatics and produced great Artistes like S.G.Kittappa, K.B.Sundarambal, T.K.S.Brothers, N.S.Krishnan, KaLi.N.Rathnam, K.P.Kesavan, K.K.Perumal, K.P.Kamatchi, P.U.Chinnappa, M.G.Ramachandran, S.V.Sahasranamam, M.V.Mani, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & many more.

There were personalities like Sankaradas Swamigal & Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar who brought dignity to stage plays, in which people from respectable backgrounds did not part take in the prior period. They gave grammar to the stage and in their own way institutionalized play stages with astute discipline.

playwrights-tks

Sankardas Swamigal PC: unknown

Sankaradas Swamigal, who is largely considered as the father of Tamil Theatre, started in 1910 his own drama company known as ‘Samarasa Sanmarga Nataka Sabha’. It was here that the legendary actor S.G.Kittappa learnt his ropes. Around this time, the concept of “Boys Company” – some sort of Gurukula System was slowly gaining popularity. In this system, boys stayed together residentially and learnt under masters of drama.

Sankaradas Swamigal was involved with Bala Meena Ranjani Sangeetha Sabha which had on its rolls several boys who would go on to become subsequently big names in the world of theatre and cinema, such as Nawab T.S.Rajamanickam, M.R.Radha, S.V.Venkatraman and K.Sarangapani. Swamigal thus had the privilege & distinction of having mentored several stalwarts.

In 1918, Swamigal with likeminded few started his own Boys Company, ‘Tattva Meenalochani Vidwat Bala Sabha’. It was here that the celebrated T.K.S. Brothers were brought under the tutelage of Swamigal. T.K.Shanmugam, who was later known as “Avvai Shanmugam’ (Lloyds Road was renamed after him as Avvai Shanmugam Road) was the favorite of Swamigal.

Swamigal maintained very strict discipline and kept vigil over his wards against any vices and any violators were reprimanded.

In short, Sankaradas Swamigal was a one man institution in those days, which, should we say, was unknowingly emulated by later institutionalized training formats such as Film Institute or other acting schools?

                                                                                                                                                            (to be continued)

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

India’s first indigenously-made feature film in colour: “Kisan Kanya” (Hindi, 1937)

In our post about Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director, we had mentioned Ardeshir Irani as the father of Indian talkie films, as he was involved with the making of both “Alam Ara” (the first Indian talkie) and “Kalidas” (the first Tamil talkie), both of which were released in 1931. In fact, “Kalidas” was made on the sets of “Alam Ara” by Ardeshir Irani’s former assistant HM Reddy.

It turns out that Ardeshir Irani has been responsible for other landmarks as well in India’s cinematic history. His production company, Imperial Pictures, backed “Kisan Kanya”, India’s first indigenously-made feature film in colour. The movie, directed by Moti B Gidvani, was coloured using the Cinecolor process that was acquired from an American film by the producers Imperial Pictures. Given below is a still from the film:

"Kisan" | Hindi | 1937. Photo Courtesy: The Times of India

“Kisan Kanya” | Hindi | 1937. Photo Courtesy: The Times of India

The ‘indigenously-made’ tag comes into play thanks to other experiments with colour by pioneer V Shantaram, who co-founded the Prabhat Film Company. In 1933, he produced a Marathi film titled “Sairandhri,” which had some scenes shot in colour. But in the case of “Sairandhri,” the film was printed and processed in Germany, thereby allowing “Kisan Kanya” to be remembered as the first indigenously-made feature film in Hindi. “Kisan Kanya” is said to have had a run time of 137 minutes and its cast is reported to include actors such as Padmadevi, Jillo, Ghulam Mohammed, Nissar, Syed Ahmed, and Gani.

The story of Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director

While pulling out playback singer Shamshad Begum’s version of Katiya Karoon, we at TCRC realised that she was one of the earliest female playback singers in the Hindi film industry. This set us off on a search for India’s first woman film director and led us to this interesting piece on Fatma Begum, written by Rohit Vats for IBN Live as a part of their “100 years of Indian cinema” series. Here’s an excerpt from that piece (click here to read the entire story):

Born in an Urdu speaking family, Fatma Begum was related to Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III. She was the mother of Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi, who were popular actors of the silent era. She started working in films in 1922 after getting trained in plays. Fatma worked with filmmakers like Ardeshir Irani and Nanubhai Desai before founding her own production company Fatma Films which was later rechristened as Victoria-Fatma Films. ‘Bulbul-E-Paristan’ that released in 1926, became the first Indian film to be directed by a female director. However, acting remained on her wish list and she continued to act till late 1930s.”

Ardeshir Irani, who Fatma worked with as an actor, incidentally is the father of Indian talkie films, having made both “Alam Ara” (in Hindi) and “Kalidas” (in Tamil, with songs in Telugu).

We also tried to find an image of Fatma Begum on the web. While we did come across few images, we couldn’t confirm the veracity of any of them. The Whistling Woods (a film school in Mumbai) blog, for instance,  features this picture:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Cineplot Enyclopedia, on the other hand, features this image:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Clearly different people, don’t you think? It is interesting (and worrisome) to note that the internet doesn’t  have a single undisputed image of the first woman director in one of the world’s largest film industries. On days like these, we at TCRC find renewed vigour in our attempt to archive cinema-related artifacts. Have you found other such examples with respect to information about the early days of cinema? Do share them with us by writing to tcrc.india[at]gmail[dot]com.