Filmy Ripples: Movie Studios (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

Once in my high school vacation, a guy in our friend circle motivated us for a trip to the far away AVM studio to witness a film shoot, on the pretext one of his relatives worked there. Our long bus trip to Puliyur and beyond made a bunch of us cross a lot of fields and Aubergine cultivated lands (you know, Kodambakkam Kathirikkai was very popular in those days), till we reached our dream destination. But our starry eyed expectations were soon blown off by the studio sentry who, forthwith, denied entry to our small group of school kids.

Today, the word ‘Kollywood’, coined after Bollywood, would refer the whole hub encompassing Vadapalani to Kodambakkam to Saligramam, the nerve center of Tamil film industry & TV. It is in this topography, the mighty film studios such as AVM & Vijaya Vahini once clustered & grew with vast facilities for film production. They had innumerable shooting floors, with Vijaya Vahini having as many as thirteen. Of course we had also, by exception, film studios spilled over to other areas of Madras too, such as the mighty Gemini in Mount Road, Venus in Alwarpet, Meenakshi Cinetone turned Neptune turned Satya in Adyar and Newtone, Citadel in Purasawakkam.

kalki-deepavali-malar-1942-3

An Ad for Newtone Studios in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Those days, before the advent of Kodambakkam over bridge in 1965, there was a rickety railway level crossing at busy Kodambakkam, choking with heavy traffic. The gate closed with every suburban service passing. The ever hungry star gazers hanged about this level crossing to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars, lurking inside their car, waiting for the gate to open.

Besides Madras, there were also few well-known studios in other cities; Mr. T.R.Sundaram’s Modern Theatres Studio at Salem, Sreeramulu Naidu’s Pakshiraja Studios, Neptune Studios & Central Studios, all in Coimbatore.

kalki-deepavali-malar-1942-2

An Ad for brought out by Modern Theatres for the film Manonmani in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Prior to production of films in Madras State, some films were produced in Calcutta & Pune. M.S. Subbulakshmi starred Savithri (1941), which had as many as eighteen songs penned by Papanasam Sivan, was produced in New Theatres Studio of Calcutta.

savitri

An Ad for the film Savitri in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1941 PC: From the archives of TCRC

As per the Film Historian Randor Guy, the Madras Electric Supply Corporation (MESC) had built a powerhouse in Kodambakkam area during the World War II times, but without many takers for the energy. The film studios were enthused to set up shops here. Kodambakkam soon saw several studios coming up such as AVM, Vijaya, Rohini, Bharani, Vikram, Paramount (later called Majestic), Golden, Vasu, and Karpagam.

Much before AVM Productions was launched, Sri Valli (1945), directed by A.V.Meyyappan himself along with A.T.Krishnaswamy, was made by AVM under the banner of Pragathi Studios. This movie catapulted A.V.Meiyappan to fame.

AVM Studios was first located at Karaikudi, before shifting to Kodambakkam. The Karaikudi studio was made of thatched roof structures and stood at Devakottai Rastha. ’Nam Iruvar’, released before Indian Independence & which became a thundering success, was made in Karaikudi based AVM studios. This super hit film extensively portrayed the hopes and aspirations of a nation on the brink of independence.  Only after this did AVM move his studio from Karaikudi to Kodambakkam.

 

AVM Studios, in its grand annals, have had many a landmark event associated with Tamil Film Industry.

National Pictures and AVM Productions jointly produced the debut film of Sivaji Ganesan ‘Parasakthi’, though it did not begin well for Sivaji Ganesan, who was on a princely monthly remuneration of Two Hundred Fifty Rupees for the film. In fact, at one stage, Meiyappan, dissatisfied with Ganesan’s “thin” body frame wanted him replaced. But, ironically, time wanted to prove this very Ganesan as an Institution by himself. So, AVM’s partner in the project, Perumal, insisted that Ganesan be retained. But the initial scenes involved many retakes with Ganesan. Rest was history, with the world acknowledging him as Nadigar Thilakam.

18dying-studios2

A plaque commemorating the 50th year of Parasakthi at AVM studios at the very spot Sivaji Ganesan said his first dialogue ‘Success’ . PC: http://www.rediff.com

AVM’s “Vazhkai” (1949) was the first film to be shot at the new AVM Studio at Chennai. The film starred T.R. Ramachandran and Vyjayanthimala, which was the latter’s debut movie in Tamil when she was a teenager. When M. V. Raman, who wrote ‘Vazhkai’, spotted Vyjayanthimala performing a Bharata Natyam concert at Gokhale Hall in Madras, he was impressed by her talent & beauty and recommended her to the boss Meiyappan.

V. Venkatraman (SVV) was ‘found’ by A.V.Meyyappa Chettiar as a man in distress at Cubbon Park, Bangalore & gave him the break in “Nanda Kumar” as Music Director. SVV became a major name in music scene & scored soul-stirring music for over two hundred films in various languages. Even MSV & TKR worked for him at some point in time.

C.N.Annadurai is said to have written the three hundred pages of screen play for the film “Oar Iravu” in a single night camping at AVM studios, for a whopping sum (at those times) of Rupees Ten Thousand!

It was only at AVM Studios the living legend S.Janaki gave her audition in 1957 before Music Directors Sudarashanam & Govardhanam.

Vijaya Studios made “Maya Bazaar” (1957) which was critically acclaimed and considered as one of the enduring classics of Indian Cinema. It was touted as a landmark achievement in Indian film’s cinematography, art direction and visual effects with the technology available at the time.

fl18_vvstudio_1603499g

The entrance to Vijaya Vauhini studios. PC : http://www.frontline.in

 

Gemini Studios, owned by Movie Moghul S.S.Vasan, had a history. The Veteran Film Director K. Subrahmanyam (Father of Denseuse Padma Subramanyam) who made some iconic movies including ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1938) was having a Studio at the same premises since 1937. But owing to a major inferno the property was totally burnt down. In 1941, S.S.Vasan bought out the premises in a distress sale & built his own studio & named it Gemini Studios. It is said that Vasan, who was a fan of horse racing, named the studio after one of his favourite horses. Gemini Studios produced some of the iconic movies such as Nandanar, Mangamma Sabatham, Miss Malini, Chandralekha, Avvaiyar, Vanjikottai Valiban to name a few.

ananda-vikatan-deepavali-malar-1939-3

An ad for Gemini Pictures Circuit with its distinct logo  (the company that bought over the studio from Subramanyam and renamed it Gemini Studios). Published in Anada Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1939. PC: From the archives of TCRC

                                                                                                                                                             (to be continued)

Kaasethaan Kadavulada: From Stage To Celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

Chitralaya Gopu is one of Tamil cinema’s most well-known humour writers. His association with his classmate and close friend from school, the legendary director CV Sridhar and his unit Chitralaya has been responsible for some of Tamil cinema’s most memorable movies such as Then Nilavu, Nenjil Or Alayam, Policekaran Magal and the evergreen Kadhalikka Neramillai.

Unlike many of his colleagues from the film world who came from a theatre background, Gopu’s association with stage came about quite by chance.  “It was the time of the Chinese aggression. The Tamil Nadu Government requested Sivaji Ganesan and Sridhar to arrange for an entertainment programme involving all the top stars of that time that could be staged across all the major districts of the State for fund raising. I was asked by Sridhar to write short plays for the programme. I wrote two pieces, one a ten minute skit involving Gemini Ganesan and Savitri titled Naveena Dushyanthan Sakunthalai and the other, a multi-starrer 45 min play about a man and his attempts to get his four daughters married. This was Galatta Kalyanam, which was later made into a movie by the same name. It was my first proper attempt at stage plays”, says Gopu.

“It was around this time that an amateur theatre troupe called the Unity Club was functioning in Triplicane”, he continues. “Primarily comprising members who were lawyers or employed with various offices, its star attraction was Major Sundararajan. Following his exit, the troupe was on the lookout for a suitable replacement, who could help their cause with obtaining performance opportunities. Thanks to my film connections, I was roped into the troupe by my cousin who was its secretary. I managed to get Manorama to act in a script written by Ananthu, who was part of K Balachander’s unit. Since I had approached her to be part of the troupe, I was given a role in the play too. It was probably a way of ensuring that I was committed to be present at all times”, chuckles Gopu, who soon started writing full-fledged plays. The troupe continued its journey continued with fairly successful plays such as Sreemathy and Dhikku theriyadha veetil. Its biggest hit was however Kaasedhaan Kadavulada”.

The story of Kaasedhaan Kadavulada revolved around the matriarch, the boss of a wealthy family. The second wife of a henpecked husband, her miserly ways cause great consternation with the son of the first wife and his cousin, who forever look for ways to make her part with the wealth. Taking advantage of an opportunity that arises with the news of the arrival of a Swamiji to their home, they enlist the services of a petty thief turned tea shop owner, a childhood friend to impersonate him and steal the money. The hilarious sequence of events that follow his arrival form the crux of the story.

“By this time, we had managed to rope in the likes of Muthuraman, Venniradai Moorthy and V Gopalakrishnan to act in our plays. The first three were part of Kaasedhaan Kadavulada. Muthuraman played the role of the son, while Venniradai Moorthy played his father. The role that was the biggest hit was however that of the Swamiji. It was essayed by Ramani, a popular mimicry artiste who was a colleague of K Balachander at AGS office and also a part of Ragini Recreations. Manorama played Muthuraman’s love interest”, remembers Gopu.

The play was a resounding success. AV Meiyappa Chettiar and his wife enjoyed it immensely and their sons watched it in succeeding shows. “Manorama told me that it was sure to be made into a movie, as the entire family had witnessed the play. Sure enough, I was soon called to AVM Studios. AV Meiyappa Chettiar was particular that I direct the movie. It marked my debut as a director. Muthuraman and Venniradai Moorthy reprised their onstage roles. As Manorama was not a regular heroine artiste, she was made the matriarch of the family, while Lakshmi was brought in to play Muthuraman’s love interest. For the pivotal role of the Swamiji, the name of Thengai Srinivasan was suggested, to which I readily agreed. The onstage success of the character was replicated on celluloid. A huge hoarding of Thengai Srinivasan was put up by AVM at Pilot theatre, where the film was running to packed houses”, recollects Gopu.

One of the highlights of Thengai Srinivasan’s performance was the gibberish he speaks in an effort to pass it off as Sanskrit.In the video clip below, you can see him even uttering the names of all the actors in the scene as he enters!

An interesting anecdote revolving around the play which was written about in the media was the death of a man who had come to watch one of the shows. His hearty laughter apparently caused him seizures due to which he had to be hospitalised, only to pass away shortly after!

That the movie attracts a great fan following and continues to be regularly shown on television channels to this date is perhaps the greatest tribute to the genial Chitralaya Gopu and his brand of clean humour.

The play has been recently revived by YG Mahendra’s UAA, with a few modifications by Gopu’s son, Chitralaya Sriram.

(Special thanks to Chitralaya Gopu for his inputs and to his son Chitralaya Sriram for having facilitated the interview).

 

Naam Iruvar : From Stage to Celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

The next in the series of from Stage to Celluloid we visit AVM’s baby Naam Iruvar.

The AVM productions banner occupies a pride of place in Indian cinema. With movies not only in Tamil but also in other languages such as Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and even Sinhalese, its seven decade journey has been a remarkable one, launching the career of many a star.

Born in Karaikudi in 1907, AV Meiyappa Chettiar as a teenager joined his father’s general stores business, AV and Sons. In 1928, they acquired the distribution rights of gramophone records of SG Kittappa and KB Sundarambal for the southern districts and thus began AV Meiyappa Chettiar’s tryst with the world of cinema. In 1932, he along with his friends started Saraswathi Stores in Madras, dealing in gramophone records. His foray into film making in 1934 had a disastrous start with a hat-trick of losses over the first few years (Alli Arjuna, Aryamala and Nandakumar). These movies were produced under various partnerships with his associates.

In 1946, AV Meiyappa Chettiar decided to strike it out on his own. Thus was born AVM Productions. This post is about its first production, Naam Iruvar.

Meiyappa Chettiar had great regard for theatre. In his autobiography Enathu Vaazhkai Anubavangal (My Experiences in Life), he writes about its importance and how a good stage circuit was essential for new actors and technicians to develop in cinema. Many of his early movies were based on stage plays.

Pa.Neelakandan, born in 1916 began his career as a journalist, working for a couple of Tamil magazines. His first play, Mullil Roja was staged by TKS Brothers in 1942 and won him instant fame. He then wrote a play called Thyaga Ullam, which was awaiting a troupe for its staging. It was around this time that NS Krishnan had been sent to jail in the sensational Lakshmikantan murder case. The responsibility of running his troupe, NSK Nataka Sabha fell on his close friend and associate SV Sahasranamam. The troupe was undergoing troubled times, with a split causing actors such as KR Ramaswamy and Sivaji Ganesan to move out. Sahasranamam was looking for a suitable script to stage when he heard of the success of Mullil Roja. He wrote to TK Shanmugam and requested to be introduced to Pa.Neelakandan.

Neelakandan met Sahasranamam the following week and narrated the script of Thyaga Ullam, which was based on the relationship between two brothers. Sahasranamam liked the script and it was decided that the troupe stage the play. He however suggested to Neelakandan that a character portraying the sister of the two brothers be included, which was agreed to. The play was renamed Naam Iruvar. In his autobiography Thirumbiparkiren, Sahasranamam says that the songs for the play were written by KP Kamakshi Sundaram, who would later go on to become a well-known lyricist. The song ‘Parakkum Bharatha Manikkodiye’ particularly was a hit with the masses. A few songs of Subramania Bharathi which were also used added immense value to the play. Sahasranamam also says that the concept of playback singing in a stage play was introduced in this production. The play, whose inauguration was presided over by noted journalist and author, Va.Ra was a tremendous success, with over 100 shows being staged.

AV Meiyappa Chettiar, who had watched the play nearly 10 times at the eponymous Walltax theatre decided to make it into a movie. He bought the rights from Pa.Neelakandan for a sum of Rs 3000 and also hired him as an assistant director for the movie. A few actors from the play were booked for the movie. Sahasranamam was offered the role of the hero, which he initially accepted. He later backed out owing to logistics issues of balancing the running of NSK Nataka Sabha and the shooting of the movie, which was being held in Karaikudi, where AVM Studios was then functioning. However, it would prove to be a big break for another actor who would go on to become of Tamil cinema’s most popular comedian and character actors, VK Ramaswamy. Notable names in the film included TR Mahalingam (who replaced SV Sahasranamam,), BR Panthulu, who would later go on to direct and produce several colossal movies, K Sarangapani and TR Ramachandran. The role of the sister to the two brothers was played by ‘Baby’ Kamala, a child prodigy who would later make waves in the world of dance as Kumari Kamala.

The most interesting side story in the making of this movie is the nationalisation of Subramania Bharathi’s songs. Meiyappa Chettiar decided to buy the full rights to use a few songs in the movie. The rights lay with the famous jewellers M/s Surajmals, who had bought them to reproduce in the form of gramophone records but had not used them. They demanded a sum of Rs 10000, which was paid by Meiyappa Chettiar in full.  After Independence, the Premier of Madras, OP Ramaswamy Reddiar offered to buy out the rights from Meiyappa Chettiar in order to nationalise the works. A magnanimous Meiyappa Chettiar, the ardent patriot at heart he was, gifted the same to the government.

Below is a popular patriotic song from the film by Subramnia Bharathi