From Book to Celluloid: Sevāsādanam

TCRC welcomes our next contributor Mr.Sugeeth Krishnamoorthy who will be penning the series, From Book to Celluloid which will be focusing on important films that were adapted from literature.The first in this series is on the film Sevāsādan.  – Editor

The early part of the 20th Century saw several changes take place in India.During this time,  the ‘Freedom Movement’ intensified against the British with the rise of ‘nationalism’,  ‘social reforms’ were debated deeply, a ‘cultural renaissance’ took place in several forms, and post-independent India started becoming a tangible reality.

Munshi Premchand’s novel Bazaar Ka Husn ( also called Sevasadan) deals with a host of social problems of its time, with ‘prostitution’ being its focal point. Premchand’s earlier novel Godaan had similarly dealt with social issues, but those typically concerned with land ownership and agricultural labour such as the exploitation of rural peasants. Sevāsādan, however, focusses more on an urban environment. Both novels involve deep debates around the multitutde of problems faced by society at that time, and look at these problems through various lens— Nationalistic, Sociological, Philosophical’and Practical. Issues like child-marriage, the dowry system and prostitution are discussed in detail in Sevāsādan.

Suman who is well brought up by her father, ends up in an unhappy marriage due to an unfortunate turn of circumstances, after her father is sent to jail. She moves to the city with her husband and has to live in challenging financial circumstances. Due to a series of fateful events in and around her life, and after she is cast out of her home by her husband, she turns to prostitution for survival.

The story deals with the challenges that Suman faces from leaving behind her ‘life of luxury’ to coming back to a normal ‘life of respect’. How did society and her own family members react when she came back? What was it that she lost, and what did she gain?

From a social perspective, the story is not just Suman’s. It speaks of a hypocritical society at that time, which cursed women who went into prostitution, but encouraged their use not only in the entertainment of the dissolute rich but also in for sanctimonious ritualism in auspicious events.

Behind closed doors, these women were desired by rich men who earned money using unethical means and splurged it on them. This group of people opposed the Anti-Nautch movement. The society at large, preferred to ‘ostracize’ these women, and did not give them a chance at rehabilitation.

There was another prevalent view. Many ‘prostitutes’ were exponents of art and culture, typically in the performing arts. The Mujra dance form had been patronized by the Mughal rulers, just as the “Devadasis” , who were exponents of the ‘Bharatha Natyam’, were patronized by South Indian rulers and temple authorities. However, with time, when the power of the Kings and the Temple declined under the British monarchy, thousands of women from these communities had to resort to common prostitution for survival. Yet, it was these very women who were summoned to perform the classical arts at weddings and ceremonies, supposedly for the advancement of culture and tradition, but were privately used to entertain male patrons in a more overtly erotic manner.

So, those supporting the Anti-Nautch movement were faced not just with the challenge of reforming the women indulging in prostitution and giving them a better life, but also with the re-purification of the cultural and artistic mores associated with them.

The main characters of the original book are Suman —who as a prostitute is known as ‘Suman Bai’—and lawyer Padam Singh, who takes immense trouble to reform prostitutes and reintegrate them into civil society. Then there are others: Suman’s father who goes to prison for a crime committed in a fit of anger, leaving the family orphaned; a loving uncle who takes care of Suman and her sister Shanta until their marriage; Bholi, a prostitute, who introduces Suman to Dalmandi —the market place—when she has no one to turn to for help; Padam Singh’s nephew, Sadan, who is a spoilt brat, who loiters around Dalmandi; and Padam Singh’s wife Subhadra. There are also other minor characters, Hindu and Muslim administrators, who carry forth debates on social change and their implementation.

Sevasadanam was translated and published in Anantha Vikatan magazine by Ambujamma, a supposed social worker. Director K. Subrahmanyam substantially modified the script from the eponymous book to suit the film version.

sevasadanam

PC: mstribute.org

The replacement of the Mujra culture for a south Indian  counterpart must have been easy for the director as there was a parallel social movement in South India against the ‘Dasi’ system.The elements that formed the crux of the original book – the extended debates around the socio-cultural problems faced by Society and measures needed to eradicate them—have mostly been excised, possibly because it would have been difficult to make them visually engaging. Instead, K Subrahmanyam focuses entirely on the human elements of the story, and cuts out the philosophical and ‘debate’ oriented elements.

Subrahmanyam has taken the liberty of adapting the screenplay to suit the sensibilities of a South Indian audience. For instance, he changes Suman’s character to Sumathi  (M.S.Subbulakshmi) gets married to a much older man, Eswara Sarma ( F.G.Natesa Iyer), a departure from the original story but an important statement on an equally important social problem of its time.  Secondly, he  introduces a new character, Gundamma, Eswara Sarma’s sister who constantly taunts Sumathi.

Vakeel Padmanabha Iyer’s character is more or less the same as the character played by Padam Singh, and his wife Subhadra (Jayalakshmi Varadachariar’s swan song)  retains the original name.[1]Subrahmanyam introduces another character, Suguna, who is the daughter of the prostitute Kamalesh Kumari—possibly an analogous character to Bholi.

Sumathi is continuously harassed in her house, by her husband Eswara Sarma and her sister-in-law. She is given moral support by Vakeel Padmanabha Iyer and his wife, Subadra. On suspecting her fidelity one day, Padmanabha Iyer throws Sumathi out of the house. Later, he learns about the evil ways of his sister and in disgust tears his sacred thread.2 Sumathi later becomes ‘Sumathi Bai’, resulting in the cancellation of her sister Shanta’s marriage,as in the original,.

But from here on, Subrahmanyam seems to have diverged in some aspects. The book features Suman’s husband becoming a fakir and spreading the message of cultural reform. However, in the film, Eswara Sarma is seen to have become the leader of a Nationalist movement called ‘Desa Sevika’. Sumathi, her sister Shanta, and Kamalesh Kumari come together to start ‘Sevasadan’, a home to look after destitudes and orphan girls.

In the original, Shanta gets married to Sadan and Suman is forced to leave her home, leaving her lonely and abandoned, questioning her very own existence. What happened to Suman later, forms the underlying theme of the story.

The film was the second in a trilogy of social and Nationalist films made by ace Director K. Subrahmanyam—Balayogini  (in Tamil and Telugu), Sevasadan and then Thyagabhoomi. In this film, the director introduced several iconic actors like M.S.Subbulakshmi, F.G.Natesa Iyer, S.Varalakshmi (who played Kamal Hasan’s mother in Guna) and Seethalakshmi (the widow who played Gundamma)[3].

According to Anantha Vikatan[4], the film also introduced for the first time, playback recording of songs[5].

There are several reports available on the internet that cite Sevasadanam as a ‘critical and commercial’ success. This is untrue as. K. Subrahmanyam himself admitted, in an interview, that although the film was a ‘critical success’, it was a commercial failure.[6]

Most unfortunate, however, is the fact that no copy of this film is known to exist. Reviews of the films can be found here and there, and usually no more than 2 to 3 pages. Most of the information published has been ‘rehashed’ over and over, with possibly nothing new. It is for this reason that the primary book reference becomes more important, giving immense depth to each aspect of its film version. Reading the book and then the film reviews patiently gives the viewer a better understanding of the film, which, we can only hope, resurfaces from some hidden corner of the earth, to give us a glimpse into our own past.

REFERENCES:

[1] ‘I Won’t do it Again’ – Jayalakshmi Varadachariar – Talk A Tone October 1944 – NFAI – Jayalakshmi Varadachariar explains her disillusionment with Films and says that she will never act again.

2 This scene apparently raised a storm by the ‘conservatives’ against K.Subrahmanyam, compounded by the director showing, for the first time, a real widow playing a role on screen.

3 There are some reports that say that the widow was first introduced in Balayogini.

4 Anantha Vikatan 8-5-1938

5 Prior to this, songs were recorded live. The orchestra played the music, while the actors sang the songs themselves. This was the reason that early cinema featured legendary singers like M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.D.Subbulakshmi and P.U.Chinnappa as actors.

6 “Mythology – A Missionary of Hindu Religion” – Director K. Subrahmanyam Speaks Out, TALK A TONE, Nov. 1943 – NFAI.

OTHER LINKS :

  1. Sevasadan Book Link :- https://www.amazon.in/Sevasadan-Munshi-Premchand-ebook/dp/B01N5OCM1J?_encoding=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0&deviceType=desktop&redirect=true
  2. NFAI – National Film Archive of India, Pune.
  3. Sevasadam Songs – http://mio.to/album/Sevasadanam+(1939)
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Filmy Ripples: Ghost voices of bygone era (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

The voices of M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & Dhandapani Desikar need special mention here. The former was a Super Star of his time, with innumerable renderings to his credit, since his debut in ‘Pavalakodi’ in 1934. Half of his fourteen films were run away hits. His 1944 movie ‘Haridas’ ran for three years at Broadway Theatre, Madras. His well known songs include  “Amba Manam Kanindhu”, “Soppana Vazhvil Makizhndu”, “Sathva Guna Bodhan”, “Krishna Mukunda Murari”, “Radhe Unaku Kobam Aagadadi”,  “Vasantha Ruthu” and more. Convicted in Lakshmikanthan murder case, he later died after his release when he was just forty nine.

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A photo of a young M K Thyagaraja Bagavathar in the 1937 edition of Cine Art Review Magazine. PC: From the archives of TCRC

Here is the visual of the ever green song ‘Vasantha Ruthu’by MKT in the film Sivakavi (1942).

M.M.Dandapani Desikar was a great musicologist & composer. Songs such as ‘Jagat Janani’, ‘Inba kanavonru kanden, ”Thamarai pootha’ composed by him are hugely popular. His singing prowess was evident in ‘Nandanar’ (1942) produced by Gemini was a musical treatise, as he sang the compositions of Gopalakrishna Bharathi & Papanasam Sivan. Desikar also served as the HOD of Music Department of Annamalai University.

dandapani-desigar

A photo of Dandapani Desikar from 1942 Kalki Deepavali Malar. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The below video features Sivan’s Composition Pirava Varam (from the film Nandanar) set in the unusual Lathangi raga, which is now a concert regular. The singer was MM.Dandapani Desikar

There was another singing star in the forties by name V.V.Sadagopan. He was a man of many parts, by being a university rank-holder, ICS aspirant, film actor, music teacher, performer and composer.  He was a disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar & Professor of Music in Delhi University till 1975. However, he went missing since he got off a train at Gudur in 1980, on his way from Delhi to Chennai. Since that none has information about him.

“Premaiyil yaavum matandhene” was a haunting romantic duet, based on Raga Desh, composed by Music Director S.V.Venkatraman, in the voice mellifluous voices of M.S.Subbulakshmi & G.N.Balasubramaniam. The movie was Sakunthalai (1941) , directed by Ellis Dungan.

D.K. Pattammal was inducted into playback singing in Tamil screen by the lawyer-turned-filmmaker cum director, K. Subramaniam, for ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1939), at the instance of Papanasam Sivan. She only accepted songs of devotional or patriotic flavour and declined offers to sing romantic songs. She sang in many super hit films of the yesteryears. But there was a song ‘Sri Saraswathi’ which she recorded for Gemini’s ‘Miss Malini’ (1947), which was not featured in the film, though she was paid a handsome remuneration for the same.

M.L.Vasanthakumari was in the top amongst playback artistes of those times. In ‘Krishna Bhakti’ she even appeared on screen, rendering ‘Enta Veduko’ in a concert scene. N.S. Krishnan produced ‘Manamagal’ gave her the all-time hits ‘Ellam Inba Mayam’ and ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye’, which are being sung even by the kids in Super Singer reality show. There were many other memorable numbers of MLV such as ‘Konjum Purave’.

J.P.Chandrababu was a versatile actor-singer of his own unique style.  He had an unique voice. In AVM’s ‘PeNN’ (1954) he even sang ‘Kalyanam..haha..kalyanam’ for S.Balachander, the actor-director-veena maestro. There are many memorable songs of Chandrababu to name a few: ‘Pambara kannale’, ‘Naan oru muttalunga’, ‘sollurathe sollipurren’, ‘Jolly life’, ‘Budhiyulla manithar ellam’. In fact his entry into the filmdom was very dramatic. While fishing for a film role, his life took through struggles leading to utter frustration that he attempted suicide in the premises of Gemini Studio in 1952, having failed to meet S.S.Vasan. Later, when Vasan came to know of this episode he gave him  a small role in the film Moonru Pillaigal. Chandrababu rose to become a sought after artiste that in the film, ‘Sabhash Meena’ he commanded a remuneration that brushed past that of his co star Sivaji Ganesan. But in his later days he was broke and died penniless! This writer has seen him walking the Dr.Rangachari Road in his lesser fortunate days.

There were many other formidable ghost voices of those times which deserve detailing here. But for want of space in this write up we are constrained in not dealing with them. This does not in any way undermine their mighty contribution to Indian Tamil film music.

The magic of pre sixties’ Tamil film music, till recently, were available only on those old vinyl records. Now that the technology has brought them to us through other music formats, there no stopping to patronise these classic gems.

 

 

 

Filmy Ripples :Ghost voices of bygone era (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

You cannot accept or even imagine Indian Films without songs. Whether it is a romantic duet or a parody number or song with some philosophy engrained in it or even an off screen rendering in the backdrop of a visual, songs have thrived,to the enchantment of the movie goer. There are instances where the songs have outlived the memory of a film in which they featured. In contrast, western films had limited number of musicals like My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific where songs featured, as they were based on Broadway Musicals.

In the bygone days, the music came from those fragile vinyl records as they revolved under that magical pin! The success of Indian Cinemas’ music was amplified by the music companies such as HMV, Odeon, Columbia that published music, then. Out of these HMV fascinated me the most as a child, with its dog peering into the phonograph player, with inscriptions “His Master’s Voice”. In later adult years, I learnt that this logo was based on a painting by Francis Barraud, a Liverpudlian painter, with the same caption. Francis painted his late brother’s pet dog Nipper, as Nipper would run over to the phonograph and listen intently to the voice of his late master. In India, HMV became RPG when bought out by RP.Goenka Group and later came to be known as ‘Sa Re Ga Ma’.

In my childhood in the village, around late forties, I used to sprint to one of the neighbouring houses where a ‘thatha’ lived, to see & listen to his gramophone, as he played ‘oridam thannile’ song. Here is the video of the very song from the 1949 fim ‘Velaikkari’, sung by P.Leela & V.N.Janaki (wife of MGR) in the music of C.R.Subburaman & S.M.Subbiah Naidu.

In the initial days of Talkie Cinemas, it was a prerequisite that the main artistes had singing ability. Personalities such as M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.G.Kittappa, P.U.Chinnappa, Honnappa Bhagavathar, K.B.Sundarambal, M.S.Subbulakshmi, G.N.B, T.R.Rajakumari , T.R.Mahalingam, N.C.Vasanthakokilam were all singing stars. Most of them could travel to high altitude octave levels with ease. They had to be mostly loud in rendering as was the need of the recording technology available.

Somewhere, the play back artistes, who lent the actors their ghost voices, took avtar as a professional tribe in cinemas. That has a background too.

When AVM was making ‘Nandakumar’ he found a song rendered by the actress playing Krishna’s mother, Devaki was far from satisfactory. So he got an innovative spark of replacing the sound track of the song recorded by the actress with an external voice and shooting the song with the actress lips ‘sync’ing.  And he got cracking with that idea which finally worked. AVM commissioned a then prominent Carnatic musician of Bombay, Lalitha Venkataraman, to render the song. It worked, as the song was re-shot with the actress moving her lips to Lalitha Venkatraman’s singing. This is the origin of the playback system in Tamil cinema. Necessity, sure, is the mother of invention! It was a major breakthrough in those times, which practice is continuing with great tradition & aplomb even into these days of state of the art sound engineering.

nandakumar

A still from a scene in the film Nandakumar published in the 1937 issue of Cine Art Review Magazine. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The current generation or even the immediately preceding one might not have had the opportunity of listening to the old Tamil film songs of fifties & prior, leave alone knowing the names of playback singers of those times? This writer has catalogued nearly seventy Tamil Film play back singers (some of them actors too) of sixties and the prior period extending back to thirties. These names, alphabetically, are: A.G.Ratnamala, A.L.Raghavan, A.M.Raja, A.P.Komala, A.S.Mahadevan, Balamurali Krishna, C.R.Subbaraman, C.S.Jayaraman, Chandrababu, D.K.Pattammal, G.N.Balasubramanyam, Gajalakshmi, Ganasaraswathi, Ghantasala, Hemant Kumar, Honnappa Bhagavathar, Jamunarani, Jesudas, Jikki, K.A.Chokkalinga Bhagavathar, K.B.Sundarambal, K.R.Ramasami, K.Rani, K.V.Janaki, K.Vijaya, Kanaka, Kothamangalam Seenu, L.R.Easwari, M.H.Hussain, M.L.Vasanthakumari, M.M.Dandapani Desikar, M.R.Santhanalakshmi, M.S.Rajeswari, N.S.Krishnan, Nagerkoil Mahadevan,  P.A.Periyanayaki, P.B.Srinivas, P.Bhanumathi, P.Leela, P.Suseela, P.U.Chinnappa, Pazhani Baghirathi, R.Balasaraswathi Devi, Radha Jayalakshmi, Raghunath Panigrahi, S.C.Krishnan, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, S.Varalakshmi, Sarangapani, Sirkazhi Govindarajan, Srinivasan, Sulamangalam Jayalakshmi, Sulamangalam Rajalakshmi, Sundari Bhai,T.A.Madhuram, T.A.Mothi, T.M.Soundararajan, T.R.Mahalingam, T.R.Rajakumari, T.R.Ramachandran, T.S.Bagaavathi, T.V Ratnam, Thavamani Devi, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Tiruchi Loganathan, U.R.Jeevarathinam, Udutha Sarojini, V.J.Varma, Vasundara Devi, V.N.Sundaram, V.Nagaiah, V.T.Rajagopalan, V.V.Sadagopan. Huff….even reading this long enumeration of singers of yesteryears makes one pant!

Here is another  popular song, in the lighter vein, “Oosi pattase” from the film ‘Digambara Samiyar’. (1950), in the voices of Gajalakshmi & V.T.Rajagopalan. The tune of this duet, between a young girl and her grandfather,  was inspired by a popular Hindi tune ‘O…..dilwalo!’. The music directors G.Ramanathan & S.M.Subbiah Naidu.

From the early talkie Tamil films and up till the fifties the film songs followed the classical Carnatic genre and there are gems among such compositions. Those days many senior music directors were employees of big Studios which owned orchestras.

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Music Director MD Parthasarathi with his orchestra at Gemini Studios. PC: unknown

AVM’s orchestra was known as Saraswathi Stores Orchestra. Even though these orchestras had many Western instruments like Trumpets, Clarinets & French Horns, besides typical desi instruments like Jaltharangam, Veena, Morsing, Hormonium, they all played Carnatic tunes. To say it all, in those days even the Madras Corporation had a Band consisting of Western Instruments playing songs like Chakkani Raja or Nagumo! There was also a famous private Brass Band in the old Madras known as Nadhamuni Bros. Band, which was, out and out, a Carnatic music band. This shows how strong the classical music had influence on general public.

It was only at the advent of MSV-TKR in the early fifties the cine music assumed a light music genre, which is why they were called Mellisai Mannargal. In fact, MSV-TKR duo stepped into main stream music direction when C.R.Subburaman died abruptly leaving unfinished music assignments. The era of MSV-TKR heralded a new chapter in Tamil film music. It was also the induction of musical instruments like Accordion, Dilruba, Bongos, Grand Piano, Spanish Guitar, Mandolin and the like into orchestration. They experimented with numerous genre of music. You could spot jazz, blues, samba, rock, cha cha cha and what not in some of their compositions. Their music never drowned the lyrics. Together they created magic through the voices of living legends for decades well into seventies. You need a dedicated write up to discuss their music.

In the early days they used the lyrics of celebrated personalities like Bharathiyar , Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Thayumanavar et al. Then there were composers of the tall order of Papanasam Sivan, Bharathi Dasan, Kalki Krishnamurthy. There were other well known lyricists such as Udumalai Narayana Kavi, Aroordas, Maruthakasi, Kamatchi sundaram, Thanjai Ramaiahdas, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram much before the later lyricists such as Kannadasan & Vaali.

Papanasam Sivan wrote many beautiful songs for films which are greatly remembered & revered. Mostly these were set to Carnatic tunes. Some of these, like ‘Maa Ramanan’ which was a cinema song, has come to be sung on Carnatic Stages even today. Papanasam Sivan’s Carnatic compositions were largely popularised by D.K.Pattammal & D.K.Jayaraman. Another interesting thing about Papanasam Sivan is, neither his name was Sivan nor was he from Papanasam. He was, in fact, born Polagam Ramaiah. His ‘mudra’ name in his compositions was ‘Ramadas’. He spent a lot of time in Papanasam, thereby adopting the “Papanasam” tag. Also, it was a tradition to address men of respect as Sivan in those days, this explains the suffix to his name. It is also said that there was lot of influence of Mahavaidyanatha Sivan, during his tenure at Trivandrum, on his compositions, thereby making Sivan as his second part of the name.

AVM used many songs of Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathi in their films such as Naam Iruvar, Vethala Ulagam, Ore Iravu, Vazhkai. The rights to Bharathiyar’s works were held by a gramaphone company owned by Surajmal & Sons which bought the rights for Six Hundred Rupees. Later AVM bought the rights from them for Ten Grand. It was at the instance of Omandur Ramasamy Reddy , who was the then Chief Minister of Madras Presidency between 1947 & 1949, AVM relinquished their rights.

Bharathidasan’s ‘Thunbam nergaiyil’ written by Bharathi Dasan as expression addressed to a child was used in AVM’s ‘Oar Iravu’ (1951) in the voices of M.S.Rajeswari & V.J.Varma and filmed in a situation of romance between lovers, played by Lalitha & Nageswara Rao

                                                                                                                                                              (to be continued)

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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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.