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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

 

 

 

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Filmy Ripples : Cinema Halls of old Madras – An Anthology (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan
The movies always began after ‘The News Reel’ of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry of the government.
Whenever a song sequence came in the movie the audience fled out to have a soda or smoke or to relieve themselves!
In the very few theatres that were air conditioned in those days, after the first reel was screened, the operator used to quietly switch off the a/c. In those times the word consumerism was unknown and none batted an eyelid at such practice!
On the metal backs of the seats you would find creative engravings by the ‘learned’ audience. In some seats the sponge was found scooped out by some disgruntled theatre goers. The washrooms had a mixed stink of phenyl and human fluids while their walls bore unsharable graffitis.
But the audience inside these halls, with high ceilings sporting sporadic ceiling fans, lived the movies with their favourite chocolate faced Heroes and buxom Heroines.
When Srinivasa Kalyanam was released in Maharani Theatre, in the front foyer a Tirupathi Balaji was installed. On the release of Marma Manithan, cycle rikshaw men were dressed like that character a la style Mr.X, as they distributed fliers about the movie.
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Maharani still standing. PC: V.Harihara Subramanian, Feb 2017

One of the oldest theatres of Madras was Murugan Talkies. It was originally started in 1910 by one Murugesa Mudaliyar as Majestic Theatre where Tamil Plays happened.
This was later converted to a cinema hall. In 1931, Majestic’s name was changed to “Kinema Central” ,  where the first Indian talkie film “Alam Ara” was screened, with People coming by road and rail, packing food,  to watch the first talkie. This theatre also saw the screening of the first “Tamil-Telugu” Talkie ‘Kalidasa’. Classics like Meera, Shakunthala , Avvaiyaar , Uththama Puthiran, Sathi Leelavathi , Thyagabhoomi, Ambikapathy , Thiruneelakantar, Ashokkumar ran at  Kinema Central.The theatre’s name was changed as Murugan Talkies in 1942.This iconic cinema hall was pulled down a couple of years ago, after 80 years.
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An unimpressive shopping complex stands in the place of Murugan Talkies.                          PC: V.Harihara Subramanian

Then the new air-conditioned cinemas such as Safire & Anand came right on Mount Road.
Safire was a pioneer featuring multiscreen complex. It had screens named Safire, Emerald & Blue Diamond. Its Blue Diamond cinema ran continuous shows, where one could buy a ticket and enter the theatre in the middle of a screening and continue to stay as long as one wanted, as the movie was screened non stop, back to back. Safire complex opened with the iconic 70MM movie ‘Cleopatra’, followed by Battle of the Bulge, Mutiny on the Bounty, South Pacific – all in mammoth 70MM. The Safire Complex also had the first ever Disco of Madras, named Nine Gems. It even had a restaurant serving Rajasthani culinary. When ever I pass by, these days, the bush grown compound where once Safire complex stood proudly on the Mount Road, I feel both melancholic & nostalgic.The Anand Theatre owned by an influential Congressman Umapathi had its mammoth electric screen raise before each movie projection started, revealing the silver screen, to the accompaniment of Spanish Gypsy tune, which, by the by, also inspired MSV to compose ‘Thulluvatho Ilamai’.

 

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The projectionist with his projector at the erstwhile Anand theatre.                                            PC: Sruti Harihara Subramanian

Then came the Pilot Theatre in late sixties at Royapettah, started by Mr. Sanjeevi of Pilot Pen Company, with Cine Rama technology.

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Pilot theatre in the process of being demolished on Feb 9th 2017 PC: Srinivasa Ramanujam

This is the anthology to the current generation of cinema halls, which are cartelised screens in corporate run set-ups, such as PVR & Inox, with plush seatings, comfy air-conditioning with snacks served at your seat, if you had pre booked them.
PVR which spearheaded multiplexes across India was a JV by the Indian film distributor Priya Exhibitors and Australian Media company Village Roadshow, from which first letters P-V-R, their multiplexes are known now.
Movies are an experience, indeed, whether in sixties or now.

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)