Filmy Ripples: Train spotting in cinema (Part 1)

By: P.V Gopalakrishnan

The enduring allure of Trains is obvious to all, both young and old, as one can hear them much before actually seeing them. The romance and glamour of railways fascinate train enthusiasts everywhere. And when it is a steam engine, all the more its great hum pierces the stillness of the serene landscape, wheels screeching under the load of the grand locomotive.

The film makers always loved to use the drama associated with a train’s motion & sound, to express various emotions in film sequences, right from the silent film era. It is said that a train’s idea of an extremely compact space has appealed to filmmakers in generating dramatic tension, particularly when it is in motion.

A French short documentary film of silent film era, “L’ Arrivee d’un train a la Ciotat” (1895) (the title translates as ‘Arrival of a train at Ciotat’) is arguably the first movie to feature a train in a film, though for less than a minute duration. From that moment to date, as of writing this, even the latest released movies such as “Lion” & “Rangoon” have scenes involving trains!

Coming to Indian cinema’s connect with Railways, it has been very formidable from the age of steam locomotive to the era of electric hauled trains.

In some of the old movies, they also erected dummy bogies in the studio sets where the characters swayed deliberately to mimic the motion of the train. Sometimes, the studio hands back-projected the images of telephone poles and trees moving in the reverse direction to give that extra make belief effect. They even shook the dummy compartment rhythmically so that you & me would believe it is a real bogey. But often, they went for the big real trains or engines, paying enormous fee to Railways.

Trains have been romantic in movies. They have facilitated boy meeting the girl, helped them to trigger a love story. You may recall David Lean’s great classic, ‘Brief Encounter’ (1945) where a pair fall in love in a train station, with the story unfolding in the backdrop of the whistle of the engines and the clanging sound of the bogies till the affair disappears in the smoke of the locomotives.

In earlier Black & White Tamil films, when a character moved to another town, they invariably included a stock shot of a speeding train, as a symbolic communication. Or whenever they wanted to convey that the story was happening in Madras City, they would simply include a stock shot of the majestic Madras Central building.

When Rajesh Khanna rode a jeep, lip syncing ‘Mere sapnon ki Rani kab ayegi thu’ with his eyeballs set on a petite Sharmila Tagore on a hill train, ‘the film Aradhana’ created flutter in Indian Cinemas. The rest was history!

As kids, we have all played a train, tailing behind one another in a single file, mimicking a moving train, in the sheer fascination of rail. Particularly those burly, black, boisterous steam engines have always kindled our amusement, curiosity & fear as well, as they puffed along, emitting black clouds of smoke! Here is an old song, which used to be played often on Radio Ceylon during my child hood, featuring a song on a train game! The song was from ‘Vallyin Selvan’ (1955). The lyrics were by Kothamangalam Subbu & the music was by P.S.Anantharaman.

In a similar sequence in the film ‘Ashirwad’, Dada Muni Ashok Kumar lent his voice & acted too in the famous song ‘rail gaadi’. In fact this very song was interpreted in a creative way in a promo for Indian Railways.

The old black & white movie ‘Porter Kandhan’ (1955) showed many scenes intimately connected with railways. In the wholesome comedy ‘Missiyamma’ the comedy of errors begin with both Savitri & Gemini alighting from their train. The soul stirring number ‘Annai enbaval neethaana’ from the AVM film ‘Annai’ (1962) was shot in a sequence involving a moving train that added dramatics.

The whole story line of ‘Pachai Vilakku’ (1964) was interwoven, through the film, with the life of Hero, Sivaji Ganesan, playing a loco driver of a Steam Engine. The song ‘OLi mayamana edhirkalam’, involving shots of these artistes were filmed inside a moving ‘black beauty’ WP Canadian Engine. The shoot for the film was all over the yards of Basin Bridge Junction, with tight close ups, Pan shots, trolley shots and what not, involving Sivaji & Nagesh. Who can forget the song ‘Kelvi piranthathu anru’ shot outdoors, showcasing the various railway facilities?

In Anbu Karangal Sivaji Ganesan also donned the role of a benevolent Railway Station Master with Nagesh as a Station hand.

anbu-karangal

The song book cover of “Anbu Karangal’. PC: From the archives of TCRC

‘Onna irukka kathukkanum’ number rendered by TMS was filmed on Sivaji on a railway platform, with a vintage rolling stock waiting to leave the station. It was fascinating to view at the type of antique railway rakes with their wide, open windows, in this sequence.

All train travellers encounter people who seek alms in exchange of a song. While some of them could be physically challenged, some just take up this practice out of sheer poverty. But a study had revealed that many of these beggars are also musically trained or belong to families that have been practicing music for generations together. The Hindi song from the film ‘Dus Lakh’ (1966), “Garibon ki suni who thumari sunega’  was a favorite song by people begging on trains. Here is a Train singer seeking alms from the Movie ‘Vaazhvu en pakkam’ in the voice of Music Director M.S.Viswanathan. The song “Tirupathi malaiyil eruginraay” is set to the chugging rhythm of a steam train.

                                                                                                                                                         (to be continued)

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Filmy Ripples : Movie Studios (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

I have seen from the Kodambakkam High Road side, the mammoth sets put up within Gemini Studios, about the same place where today Park Hotel stands, for ‘Bhama Vijayam’. It was a two-story ‘building’ where the story unfolded. Similarly I have seen, from outside, a large Big Top of a Circus being put up in AVM for ‘Parakkum Paavai’.

All these studios were virtual dreamlands where the celluloid industry made its ware. There was an element of fascination & grandeur about them. The studios were products of necessity as films could be made only in controlled & capsuled spaces, where only production was technically possible. In the black-and-white era of those days when the film ran at slow speed requiring abundant light, the Director and Cinematographer had to exercise extraordinary judgment & vivid imagination.

A busy film studio was a beehive of activities as technicians, set property guys, lighting equipment handlers all moving about in feverish activity, even as the artistes applied grease to their face in preparation for their day’s shoot in humble green rooms, there being no private Caravans owned by any big star then.

cine-art-review-1937

Image from Cine Art Review Magazine 1937. PC: From the archives of TCRC

In the humble recording theatres in these studios, dating back to pre-stereo era, many a musician huddled up in small recording rooms, amidst running power & audio cables, to produce the ever charming film music that we adore to date. Veteran Music Directors such as Emani Sankara Sastry, Parthasarathy, C.R.Subburaman, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, T.G.Lingappa, Sudarshanam, G.Ramanathan, T.R.Pappa, S.V.Venkataraman, S.Rajeswara Rao, Parur Sundaram Iyer,  K.V.Mahadevan, MSV-TKR, S.Dakshinamurthy & Pandurangan swayed their baton in these Studios in collaboration with legendary lyricists like Papanasam Sivan, Kothamangalam Subbu, Thanjai Ramaiahdas, and Ku.Ma.Balasubramanyam.

While recording ‘Engey Nimmathi’ song for Puthiya Paravai, MSV-TKR team had to accommodate the large number of spill over musicians on to the outside lawns. In this song the Music Directors used huge musical ensemble comprising instruments such as Harp, Violins, Cello, Bass, Vibrofone, Bongos, Kettle Drums, Flutes, Castanet, Trumpets, Tuba, Trombone, Clarinet & Mandolin.

The early films of Black & White era too had brief spells of outdoor shoots. But sets were more predominant as a rule owing to limitations.

Gradually the trend was increasingly towards outdoor shoots, away from the confines of the mighty studios, as evidenced by Kathalikka Neramillai (1964). Most of the outdoor locales of this iconic wholesome comedy were shot at Azhiyar Reservoir Dam, some sixty five kilo meters away from Coimbatore, located in the picturesque foothills of Valparai, in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats.

Similarly, Karnan was notably the first Tamil film to be shot extensively in locales at Jaipur & Kurukshetra. The Art Director Ganga of Karnan got huge chariots made in Chennai and shipped them to Kurukshetra, where the war sequences were filmed in out door. With Central Government’s permission, real cavalry and infantry men from the Indian Army were deployed in the battles scenes at Kurukshetra.

Lobby Card of Karnan (1964) .Image courtesy The Cinema Resource Centre.

A lobby card  from the film Karnan featuring the chariot PC: From the archives of TCRC

The cameras have since become smarter and often airborne on drones. The Information Era has changed the very way films are made. Today, most of these mighty shooting spots called Studios have disappeared one by one, as Technology has made a paradigm shift in film making, which tendered  those mammoth sized studios redundant. The sophisticated equipment and availability of alternative resources enable film makers to shoot at any place of their choice. Thus the brick ‘n’ mortar studios of huge sizes lost their popularity.

In contrast, today the films are made about everywhere, ranging from the rural hamlets to urban slums, from deserts to highways, from cricket pitches to Pizzeria.

Several film studios in Chennai have downed their shutters and their vast areas have turned over to real-estate development. Many got transformed into hospitals, hotels, multiplexes, colleges, wedding halls and the like.

Similarly, the Bombay’s landmark studios such as RK, Mehboob, Filmistan & Famous too have lost their sheen.

In fact, by 1970s that filmmakers slowly ventured out of the studios of Kodambakkam, to shoot in outdoors and actual locales, abandoning the sets. The bougainvillea creepers, the ceiling dropped pigeons, ornate fountains of the make-believe sets were gone, with ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ outdoor shoots setting in. A huge tribe of set making carpenters, painters, decorators, prop suppliers were all gone with the sets. These were the very people who feasted cine-goers with the celebrated visuals of the black & white era with their enormous sets. They made us relish the clever make over to the mythology and historical subjects of films. Who could forget the sets of Chandralekha or Avvaiyar? Even much later, the sets of Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, Karnan and the like provided us the much of visual enchantment.

avvayar1

A photograph from the film Avvaiyar. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The Gemini twins, in their ‘langoti’s, blowing the bugle at the corner entrance of erstwhile Gemini Studios still haunt us, by their sheer absence there anymore.

But change is unchangeable!

RARE: Original LP cover of Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal” (Tamil, 1989)

In May 1989, Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” which featured the actor in the roles of a police officer, a mechanic and a dwarf clown, was released amidst much fanfare. Directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and produced by Kamal Hassan himself, the film’s cast included Gouthami, Srividya, Delhi Ganesh, Jaishankar, Nassar, Nagesh, Janakaraj and many others. The film was a blockbuster hit and is said to have completed a 200-day run at the box office, a record run in Tamil cinema then (the record was broken six years later by superstar Rajnikanth’s “Baasha”). The film’s screenplay was penned by Kamal Hassan and the dialogues were written by Crazy Mohan. “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was Crazy Mohan’s debut film as dialogue writer.

The musical score of “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was composed by Ilaiyaraaja and its songs went on to become cult classics, with tracks such as “Raaja Kaiya Vecha” receiving airplay on radio and TV channels even today. And today, we bring to you from the TCRC archives the cover of the original LP record of the film:

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

The film was dubbed into Telugu as “Vichithra Sodarulu” and into Hindi as “Appu Raja,” a year later. Both the dubbed versions enjoyed a successful run at the box office, with Kamal receiving unanimous praise for his portrayal of the dwarf clown Appu. In the movie, the episode where Appu falls in love with the daughter of the circus owner (the daughter played by Rupini and the father played by Mouli) is said to be a tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus,” which was a silent film released in 1928. In “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” Appu goes through a Chaplinesque heartbreak in romance that is very similar to what transpires in “The Circus.”

The title “Aboorva Sagodharargal” itself is a hat tip to SS Vasan’s 1949-released feature film of the same name. That “Aboorva Sagodharargal” featured actors MK Radha and Bhanumathi in titular roles and was produced in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi simultaneously. Directed by Acharya and written by Kothamangalam Subbu, the old “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was an adaptation of the novella “The Corsican Brothers” by Alexander Dumas. The idea of brothers coming together to avenge the death of their father is the common thread running between both the old and the new “Aboorva Sagodharargal.”

The Madras Film Industry in the 1960s: On the sets of “Thillaanaa Mohanambal” in a French documentary!

Today, we bring to you a clip from “L’inde Fantôme” (Phantom India), a documentary film made by Academy Award-winning French filmmaker Louis Malle. This is an excerpt from “Choses Vues A Madras,” which was the second episode of the documentary. Focusing on the Madras film industry in the late 1960s, the excerpt features footage shot on the sets of the 1968-released, classic Tamil film “Thillaanaa Mohanambal,” starring Sivaji Ganesan, Padmini, Balaiah, Manorama and others. Directed by AP Nagarajan and written by Kothamangalam Subbu, the film and its songs continue to be remembered even today.

What we found most interesting was the commentary in French (you can turn on the English subtitles by clicking on the “Captions” button in the bottom bar on the YouTube video). The commentator, at one point, refers to Sivaji Ganesan as the “Indian Belmondo.” “Belmondo” here is a reference to Jean Paul Belmondo, the French actor who was a prominent face in the New Wave films that were made in France in the 1960s. He continues to be remembered for his portrayal of the character Michel Poiccard in Jean Luc Godard’s extremely influential film “Breathless” (“À bout de souffle” in French). “Breathless” was a path-breaking film that inspired many filmmakers through its brilliant use of the jump cut. So, while the comparison to Belmondo is flattering, it’s important to remember that Sivaji Ganesan had made his mark with “Parasakthi” in 1952, a good eight years before Belmondo broke out with “Breathless” (1960).

Jean Paul Belmondo in "Breathless" | Sivaji Ganesan in "Thillaanaa Mohanambal"

Jean Paul Belmondo in “Breathless”   |    Sivaji Ganesan in “Thillaanaa Mohanambal”

Do watch the clip and let us know about your thoughts on Louis Malle’s commentary and his take on Indian films. You can leave a comment or write to us at tcrc.india[at]gmail[dot]com.