Filmy Ripples : When Film Stars are from the Fauna (Part 2)

By P.V Gopalakrishnan

Elephants have been used as attraction seekers in Tamil Cinema ever since a pachyderm called ‘Chandru’ played heroine, singing star Thavamani Devi’s (from Ceylon) accomplice in ‘Vana Mohini’ (1941). In this film, a rehash of a Hollywood ‘jungle’ movie , the story, screenplay and direction were by Hindi film actor and Director Bhagwan. The elephant virtually stole the hearts of all as he indulged in many tricks.

200px-Vanamohini1941

Vanamohini PC: unknown

‘Sri Valli’ (1945), produced by AVM featured the elephant named Krishnan Kutty, sourced specially from South Perinkulam in Kerala, which is, by the by, also the village of this writer.

According to the well-known writer & film historian Theodore Bhaskaran The Gemini Studios resembled an elephant camp in 1948 while the Magnum Opus ‘Chandralekha’ was in production, as many elephants were in residence in the studio premises. He goes on to say “Two well known circus companies, Kamala Circus and Parasuram Lion Circus, camped in the Gemini Studio compound for shooting a film. At least one of them changed its name into Gemini Circus after the shooting of the film Chandralekha (1948) that Vasan was then engaged in, and in which the circus elephants were featured.”

In Gemini’s Avvaiyar (1953), a large herd of elephants were needed for a battle scene in the film and Vasan’s search ended in an elephant camp near Vayanad at Manandhavadi, which featured in the spectacular scene in which stampeding elephants attack a Fortress.

In the MGR starred ‘Gulebakavali’ (1955), there was a much publicized scene of MGR fighting with a live Tiger. However, there is no mention of the tiger’s name in its credit titles.

Now, I want to dwell in detail about exotic animal specie that featured in a Chennai produced Hindi Movie as early of the fifties.

Mr. S. S. Vasan of Gemini Studios who had produced grand movies praised as Magnum Opus made a Hindi movie in the fifties, starring Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand & Bina Rai. After shooting quite a footage of the film, when Vasan reviewed the same he felt an immense need to introduce an animal character in the film, which he felt was otherwise dull. After all, Vasan has had the benefit of featuring a bunch of elephants in his immediately preceding grand Tamil film ‘Avvaiyar’, much to the movie’s box office advantage.

Someone in his team suggested a monkey, which sparked an idea in Vasan’s industrious mind.  In those times, Chimps were often featured in many movies & TV Shows with ample fan following in the USA. One of such Chimpanzees, called Zippy was a star of his own right there. He is believed to have earned about USD 55k per month through his busy engagements in TV Shows, Night Clubs & other special events.

Living up to his reputation as India’s ‘Cecil B. DeMille’, the movie mogul, this time, turned his sights West and struck a deal to fly in Zippy, the Chimp, at a phenomenal price. Before the month was over, the chimp from Hollywood was on his way to India. Zippy, from USA, landed on a hot day in 1955, with his Trainer (Ralph Quinlan) & Owner (Lee Ecuyer), within a month, first At Santa Cruz Airport & then on to Madras Meenambakkam.

No ordinary monkey and being a bonafide American star, he was welcomed with a garland in Indian Tradition by Mohana, one of the Artistes of the film ‘Insaniyat’. Film India magazine reported about Zippy: “On arrival at the Santa Cruz airport he kissed Mohana and stuck to her till he departed. That proves that Zippy believes in cushioned comforts. So do many but they are not as fortunate as Zippy…”

Movie Animals

Welcoming Zippy. PC: www.thebigindianpicture.com

The Hindu reported, “No star in recent times received such a tumultuous reception as was accorded to Zippy, the chimpanzee, at the Meenambakkam airport when he arrived with his trainer and owner”.

I recollect, I was in fifth standard, when Zippy took Madras City by storm. Gemini Studio was issuing special viewing sessions of Zippy to the public. VIPs & school children were accorded special ‘audience’ with the great chimp. Zippy was an instant hit with the Press as well as the crowds who had been awaiting his arrival. As a news report in The Hindu noted the next day, “the patience of the crowd was amply rewarded when they had the fun of seeing the chimp walk and do things like a boy, and shake hands with all those who wanted to do so. With close fitting dress and boots, Zippy delighted the people by his mannerisms”. For the short period of a month that Zippy stayed in Chennai, he received royal treatment. Lee Ecuyer, in a New York Times interview, recounted people “bowing at our feet as though he really was royalty”.

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Zippy with S.S Vasan PC: From the archives of TCRC

As Zippy was small in stature, scenes featuring the chimp were reportedly shot slightly lower than eye level, so cleverly that the audience never realized that the action on screen was physically impossible for such a small creature.

insaniyat_covers

The lovable diminutive young chimp Zippy, trained & adept at playing piano, roller‐skating and typewriting, besides several other feats, was featured in not just one but two song sequences — “Beta Bada Hoga’ and ‘Main Hoon Bandar Shaher Ka’ in the film ‘Insaniyat’.

 

 

When the movie was at last released, Zippy was the Star, not the Bombay’s biggest stars, to the curious crowds. Their verdict was unanimous: the chimp had stolen the Show. It is learnt that as Zippy grew old, its owner found it difficult to manage it & donated it to The Bronx Zoo, New York.

Some sections also conspired that since the owner Lee Ecuyer had multiple chimpanzees with him for featuring in TV shows, it was not clear whether the very ‘Zippy’ who landed in “Insaniyat’ was the same celebrity who had appeared on popular American shows ‘Howdy Doody’, “The Ed Sullivan Show’ or ‘Cheeta’ of  “Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle”.

There was another chimp called ‘Pedro’ who acted in Indian film produced by Homi Wadia of Bombay who specialized in making Tarzan kind of movies in Hindi. In fact he produced a series of such films, which were also dubbed & released in Tamil.

Jimbo

Song book of the Tamil dubbed Hindi Film Zimbo (1958) featuring Pedro the CHimp PC: From the archives of TCRC

In South Indian film industry there was Sandow Chinnappa Devar who regularly featured animals in his films. His delightful Hindi movie ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’, extolling the loyal instincts of elephants for their masters, starred Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja.

 

There have been innumerable films in which animal species have appeared and it would be difficult to enlist all. Here is some of the cross section of movies with animal actors. Devar also produced Shatrughan Sinha‐Jaya Bhaduri paired ‘Gaai Aur Gori’ featuring a cow. The same film was remade in Tamil as ‘Aattukara Alamelu” replacing the cow with a goat. Thangamalai Rakasiyam (1957) had Sivaji Ganesan in a Tarzan­like character talking to elephants, which were picturised in Anamalai woods. Chinnappa Devar, who used extensively animals in his films, made Yanaipagan (1960) & Nalla Neram (1972), the later with M.G. Ramachandran as hero, both these films featuring elephants. Yanai Valartha Vanambadi (1967) & its inevitable sequel, Yanai Valartha Vanambadiyin Magan (1972) too had pachyderms in stellar roles. Even in Kumki (2012) an elephant featured as a main character. Film ‘Saivam’ had a Rooster in it, whereas ‘Kumudam’ had a Cat in it in the song ‘Meow meow poonai kutty’. Server Sundaram had a parakeet in the beautiful song ‘Thathai nenjam’. However, it was nota talking parakeet, as was presented in the sequence. The parakeet’s voice in the song was lent by, mimicry artist who worked with MSV, named Saibaba (one of the sons of T.S.Baliah).

Going forward too, the animal kingdom is sure to continuously attract the attention of film-makers throughout the world, for the simple reason that the animals are ever irresistible to people. The child in us would demand to see animals in films. However, the filming of animals in India is subject to certain regulations by the Animal Welfare Board of India. We only pray that the animals are not ill treated in the course of filming, as has been reported in the past.

 

 

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Filmy Ripples : Cinema Halls of old Madras – An Anthology (Part 1)

TCRC is very happy to introduce our latest contributor Mr.P.V Gopalakrishnan who will be writing the series Filmy Ripples. The series promises to be very different from our earlier ones. Filmy Ripples hopes to share with you stories on Cinema over the last 60 years from the eyes of an avid Tamil film and music aficionado.  – Editor
At the outset, you may wonder why I chose to christen this new Blog with this Title. Well, I am going to share with you Film related subjects, which may be like ripples, forming waves of circles, even as you develop to visualise it in your minds through your own extended thoughts, whilst the ripple itself waning away to merge with the stillness of water!Having said that, we will dwell on the period things relating to films from the bygone era as I have seen, experienced, read about and so on!
In this very debut blog under this fancy title, lets time travel back to sixties and before, to see how people of Madras City saw movies.
In the past, a variety of venues let people witness cinemas. These included touring cinemas, thatched halls, single screen cinema theatres, Multiplex as the movies played there made people dance, clap, shed tears, as they watched the larger than life stars on the big screens, in awe!
The first film I ever watched as a child was in a thatched ‘cinema kottaai’ some where in a desolate village in Kerala, where I was born. (By the by, I am not a mallu!). And the movie was the Thespian Nagaiah starred ‘Chakradhari’ (1948). While Nagaiah played the protagonist Gora Kumbhar, Pushpavalli, mother of yesteryears’ Hindi siren Rekha acted as his wife.
 
Any new film release in these ‘kottais‘ were publicised by a bullock cart borne person throwing colourful hand notices around. Often such carts had huge cone speakers blaring cine music with intermittent vernacular announcements. Occasionally a drummer aboard the cart invited the attention of folks around.There used to be hand pushed carts with pneumatic wheels and slanting banners on either side, publicising the films.
I have experienced a tent cinema too in my younger days. I recollect, the film was  ‘Naya Daur’ (Hindi) starring Dilip Kumar & Vyjayanthimala. Typically tent cinemas had just a couple of rows of chairs in the rear of the ‘auditorium’ , with the forefront seating the cinema goers right on the mother earth. These guys stretched their legs and scribbled on the sandy surface with their fingers. The hall’s sides used to be thatchings spun of dried coconut leaves, with liberal holes through which anyone could have a peep show. The vendors used to crisscross hawking the likes of murukku & groundnuts.
Then there were these stand alone theatres, which have been since giving way to wedding halls, shopping arcades & car showrooms.
Paragon, Roxy, Sri Krishna, Prabhat, Broadway, Gaiety, Casino, Chithra, Brighton, Maharani, Thangam, Kamadhenu, Eros, Kapali, Rajakumari, Bharath, Ashok, Plaza, New Globe, Sayani, Star, Wellington, Odeon, Midland, Krishnaveni, Shanthi, New Elphinstone, Sun were all well known stand alone theatres of the old Madras.
These theatres displayed on them huge banners & cutouts of the sequences from the movie being shown, drawn in bright colours, by renowned Banner Artistes such as Ayakan, Balu Brothers, G.H.Rao etc.
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Star Theatre with a film’s banner at its entrance

Some of these halls used to be of very huge capacity, with those in balcony sporting an air about them.
The doorman, often in soiled lungis, at these cinemas used a vertically held torch to see your seat number and usher you in, sliding the blue curtains, at the door, that went to laundry ages ago!
Besides selling ‘soda, colour’, the vendors inside the hall used to hawk handy booklets, printed on poorest quality paper, containing the songs of the film. They used to print even the synopsis of the film being shown in such ‘paattu pusthakam‘ (song books), withholding as to how the film ended. ‘Matravai Velli thiraiyil‘(The rest on silverscreen)  was the last line, in print!
 Song Book of the Tamil film ‘Rambayin Kadal'(1956) PC: TCRC Archives
The lowest tickets were at four and three quarter Annas, before the advent of Naiya Paisa. The premium balcony seats costed a whopping Two and a half Rupees.
The tickets were issued out of a small window opening and there would be a winding high walled passage, that could choke you for lack of fresh air. As the tickets were often sold to black marketeers in bulk by the malicious counter staff, you could get tickets in grey market just about near the official counter! Booking tickets was a nightmare. After all, Bookmyshow was not around in those times!

(To be continued)

The incredible story of PK Nair, India’s most respected film archivist, has now been documented!

On the 3rd of May later this year, an anniversary of epic proportions will occur. For it was on that day in 1913, one hundred years ago, that “Raja Harishchandra”, the silent film produced and directed by Dadasaheb Phalke which is widely accepted as the first Indian full-length feature film, was released. In effect, the day marks the existence of one hundred years of Indian cinema. And what a glorious century it has been!

Of the many ways in which this anniversary is likely to be commemorated, we at TCRC are particularly excited about the release of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s National Award-winning documentary “Celluloid Man” on 3rd May 2013. The film showcases the life and work of legendary Indian archivist and founder of National Film Archive of India (NFAI), PK Nair.  Given below is an excerpt from the film:

The film is said to feature interviews with many leading film personalities including including Krzysztof Zanussi, Lester James Peries, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Kamal Haasan, Girish Kasaravalli, Jahnu Barua, Jaya Bachchan, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, Sitara Devi, Santosh Sivan, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy and Mrinal Sen, all of whom share their reflections on the influence of PK Nair on the films that they watched and loved. In the 2012 National Film Awards, “Celluloid Man” won accolades for Best Editing and Best Biographical/Historical Reconstruction.

PK Nair, now 80 years old, has meanwhile spoken about how the prints of films such as “Raja Harishchandra,” “Alam Ara,” etc are not available at all and has lamented the loss of many important films made before the 1950s (click here to read that whole story).

We at TCRC salute PK Nair, or Nair Saab as he is known, for his commitment to archiving the early days of Indian cinema. May his tribe only grow.

Understanding Devdas

The story of Devdas has got to be one of the most popular tales to have been embraced by Indian cinema. There have been a number of versions in a variety of languages. Some movie versions have remained largely faithful to Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s original novella, while others have added their own twists and turns, reinterpreting the original story to suit the demands of the time period in which they were set.

Dilip Kumar & Shahrukh Khan as Devdas. Photo Courtesy: IBN Live.

This week, we at TCRC bring you a couple of pieces of academic writing on Devdas. The first is “The Devdas Phenomenon” by Corey K Creekmur, who is the head of Film Studies at the University of Iowa. He writes about the three versions of Devdas in Hindi cinema and also, discusses the original book on which these interpretations were based (click here to read his paper).

The second is “Devdas: India’s Emasculated Hero, Sado-masochism and Colonialism” by Poonam Arora, who is a professor of English at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. She writes about how the “Devdas narrative discursively construct a prototypical colonial male subjectivity.” (click here to read her paper).

And here’s a clip from PC Barua’s “Devdas”. This was released in 1935.