The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 10

M.L. Tandon and Michael Omalov

In this episode, we are going to talk about two classmates of Ellis R. Dungan at the University of Southern California: M.L. Tandon and Michael Omalov.

M.L. Tandon

M.L. Tandon, also known as Mani Lal Tandon, was one of the first Indians to study film making in the US. He attended the renowned University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, where he made student films and became the first Indian to work in Hollywood. After returning to India, he became a successful filmmaker in the early years of Tamil and Telugu cinema.

Cut out from an Article by M.L.Tandon

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Some of the films made by M.L. Tandon during the period of 1930-1940 include:

1934: BAMA VIJAYAM

1935: DUMBACHARI

1935: BHAKTHA NANDHANAR 

1938: TUKKARAM (Telugu) 

1938: YAYATHI

While studying at USC, two of Tandon’s classmates were Michael Omalov and the celebrated American Tamil filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan. When Tandon returned to India, he brought both of them with him and played a vital role in shaping their careers here. One of them became a cameraman/director, while the other went on to become an iconic filmmaker.

A still featuring M.L.Tandon with his crew during TUKARAM (TELUGU) shooting

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

While the Tamil version of TUKARAM was directed by B.N. Rao, Tandon directed the Telugu version with the thespian C.S.R. Anjaneyulu, also known as Chilakalapudi Seeta Rama Anjaneyulu, in the titular role. CSR, who acted in many films during the 1930s, was a big star and is believed to have acted in more than 175 films.

YAYATHI, directed by Tandon, had one of the early superstars of the Tamil film industry, P.U. Chinnappa, in the lead role, with M.V. Rajamma playing the female lead. It was one of the early films of Chinnappa, who had worked in BOYS DRAMA COMPANY before joining films.

An advertisement of YAYATHI highlighting M.V. Rajamma

From the magazine DINAMANI VARUSHA MALAR 1938

PC: From the archives of TCRC

YAYATHI was a mythological film based on the story of a princess named Devayani and a prince named Yayathi who fall in love and marry. The film portrays how they overcome curses and Yayathi regains his crown. The multifaceted Serukalathur Sama wrote the dialogues, while Papanasam Sivan handled the lyrics and music composition for the 25 songs in the film. Although the film was not a big hit, it is still remembered by film historians and enthusiasts for the daunting performance of Chinnappa and Tandon’s direction.

M.L. Tandon made some memorable movies in the 1930s before making films for Modern Theatres in the late 40s. Though he was one of the leading filmmakers in the Telugu and Tamil film industry of yesteryears, he, too, is sadly amongst the forgotten pioneers of the industry.

Michael Omalov

Omalov was believed to be an exceptional cinematographer, and according to historian Randor Guy, he even operated the camera for one of Tandon’s student films, OVAL PORTRAIT in 1933 during his USC days. Although he came to India along with his friends Dungan and Tandon with the aspiration to flourish in the Indian film industry, he returned after directing his only film here, NAVA YUVAN.

Released in 1937, NAVA YUVAN was a story about an educated Indian youth who gets attracted to Western culture and forgets the deeply rooted Indian traditions. The film shows how he realizes the greatness of his homeland after his experiences in London. The film also had an alternate title, GEETHA SAARAM.

A still from the Film NAVA YUVAN featuring V.V.Sadagopan

PC: From the archives of TCRC

NAVA YUVAN eventually became the first Tamil movie to be filmed abroad. The film was shot in London and even made headlines in the local newspapers. The famous Carnatic musician V.V. Sadagopan made his acting debut in the lead role. However, during the shooting of the film in London, Omalov disappeared and never returned to India. He later became the Head of the Photography Department at Ford Motors in Detroit.
[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 9

R. Venkaiah and R. Prakash

This week, we will be discussing the father-son duo who played a significant role in the development of cinema in this part of the country.

R. Venkaiah

Raghupathy Venkaiah was born in Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh in 1869, into a family of men who served in the Indian (British) Army. His interest in photography led him to open a photo studio on Mount Road. After achieving resounding success with this business, he began exhibiting films, which also proved to be very profitable for him. He earned even more by extending his shows to all parts of India, as well as Burma and Ceylon. Upon returning home, his aspirations grew even higher, and he wanted to venture into permanent cinema houses. Thus, he built the first permanent cinema house in Madras City, called the Gaiety, in 1912. He then built two more cinema houses in Madras, the Crown and the Globe (which was later renamed Roxy), as well as one more in Madura, called the Imperial. Unfortunately, all of these cinema houses have since been shut down and turned into commercial or housing complexes.

Gaiety.jpg

A Photo of Cinema House Gaiety Mentioned as GaietyTalkies near HarrisBridge 

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1936

PC: From the archives of TCRC

R. Prakash

After achieving remarkable success with his cinema houses, Venkaiah wanted to move into picture production. Hence, his son Prakash was sent to Baker’s Motion Picture Studio in England. 

Raghupathy Surya Prakash, born in 1901, was trained during his stay in England. He also acted in a couple of movies with the role of an Indian. He traveled to France and Germany to keenly observe the leading filmmakers there. After his return, along with his father, he launched Gajalakshmi Productions, and the maiden movie MEENAKSHI KALYANAM was born.

As per his father’s wish, Prakash started the ‘Star of the East’ studio in Purasawalkam, Madras. To avoid dust and simultaneously allow sunlight, a glass roof was erected, which became the reason for the studio to be known as the Glass Studio. The first film made in the studio was BHEESHMA PRATINGA in 1922. The late A. Narayanan, who was known as the father of the South Indian film industry, played the role of Lord Krishna in the film. BHEESHMA PRATINGA, also known as BHEESHMA VADHAM, was made with a budget of Rs.12,000 but earned Rs.60,000. It was written, photographed, produced, and directed by Prakash himself.

The following films were made in the Glass Studio:

  • NANDANAR (1923)
  • SAMUDRA MADANAM (1923)
  • GAJENDRA MOKSHAM (1924)
  • USHA SWAPNA (1924)
  • DRAUPADI BHAGYA (1924)
  • MAHATMA KABIRDAS (1925)
  • MACHAVATHARAM (1927)

Although Prakash was a skilled technician, he lacked business management skills which led to the closure of Star of the East

However, with the help of family friend Motey Narayana Rao, he bounced back and established a new company, Guarantee Picture Corporation. He was given a large open land in Tondiarpet, Madras by another family friend, where he opened a new studio. He had an energetic young team comprising C. Pullaiah, Jiten Banerjee, C.V. Raman, A. Narayanan, P.V. Rao, and Y.V. Rao, who would later become great directors. It can be said that they learned their first lesson in the art of cinema from him. From this studio, DASAVATARAM (1929) and KOVALAN (1929) were made. However, due to poor planning and management, the Tondiarpet studio was also closed. A. Narayanan launched his own venture, General Pictures Corporation, and Prakash joined as a technician. Prakash made several films for Narayanan with reasonable success, including LEILA – THE STAR OF MINGRELIA, which proved to be a huge box office hit not only in India but also in neighboring countries like Burma and Ceylon.

When talkies started to emerge, Narayanan established Srinivasa Cinetone, the first talkie studio in South India, where Prakash continued his work. The first film of Srinivasa Cinetone was SRINIVASA KALYANAM directed by A. Narayanan, with Prakash handling the camera. The second film, DRAUPADI VASTRAPRAHARANAM, was directed jointly by Narayanan and Prakash.

R.S. Prakash directed several films during 1930-1940, including:

  • 1935: THOOKU THOOKI
  • 1936: INDRASABHA
  • 1936: KRISHNANARADHI
  • 1936: NALAIANI
  • 1937: AANDAL THIRUKALYANAM
  • 1937: RAJASEKARAN
  • 1938: ANADHAI PENN
  • 1939: SIRIKKAATHE
  • 1940: KRISHNAN THOOTHU

In 1936, Prakash directed INDRASABHA for Srinivasa Cinetone. The film was based on a Hindu mythology story about the romance between a prince and a fairy. The story was adapted into a Hindi film of the same name in 1932. Prakash’s Tamil adaptation for Sound City aka Srinivasa Cinetone starred T.K. Sundarappa, K. Shantha Devi, and Sushila Devi in the lead roles.

Indrasabha.jpg

An advertisement of INDRA SABHA

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1936

PC: From the archives of TCRC

In 1937, RAJASEKARAN was released and produced by Madurai Meenakshi Cinetone. This film directed by Prakash was notable for its music director Rajam Pushpavanam, who became the first female music director in the south and the third in India after Jaddanbai and Saraswathi Devi. She was only 19 years old when the film was released, making her the youngest woman music director in India at the time. 

The film also marked the debut of the legendary actor Madras Rajagopala Radhakrishnan, popularly known as M.R. Radha. He earned the nickname Nadigavel at the peak of his career. His ideology was of Dravidianism and he used stages and films to promote atheism and social reforms.

Rajasekaran2.jpg

A still from the Movie RAJASEKARAN Featuring M.R. Radha

PC: From the archives of TCRC

ANADHAI PENN is considered by many cinema pundits as R.S. Prakash’s best work. The film was based on a novel written by Vai. Mu. Kodhainayaki Ammal, commonly called Vai.Mu.Ko. She had written many successful novels, including topics like detective genres which were uncommon for female writers. She also single-handedly wrote, edited, and published a magazine by the name Jaganmohini, which was very popular at that time. Her most popular novel was ANADHAI PENN, which was adapted into a film with the same name.

Anadhai Penn2.jpg

A still from the Film ANADHAIPENN featuring T.A.Sundarambal

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Madras Kandaswami Radhakrishnan, also known as M.K. Radha, was selected as the lead actor along with T.A. Sundarambal. Radha was actually the choice of Vai.Ku.Mo, who was very particular about the decision, claiming that the story was written with Radha in mind. This was probably the first time in the country that a writer had chosen the leading hero for a movie.

ANADHAI PENN became a very important film in M.K. Radha’s career. The film was a big hit, and he became a style icon, with many fans dressing up and imitating his mannerisms from the film. Unfortunately, Sundarambal didn’t act much after this film and faded away. Interestingly, P.U. Chinnappa played the villain role as a budding actor, who later became a superstar, and another icon, Kothamangalam Subbu, acted in the movie in a comical role.

It’s unfortunate that R. Venkaiah is not given the recognition he truly deserves. He is one of the pioneers who contributed a lot to the city of Madras and is a forgotten figure, although the Andhra Government has instituted an award in his name called the Raghupathi Venkaiah Award For Excellence And Outstanding Contribution To Telugu Cinema. He and his son helped many people in a big way for the development of the film industry in South India. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this Father-Son duo’s contributions made the South Indian Film, particularly the Tamil Film, what it is today.


[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 8

R. Padmanabhan

Rangasami Padmanabhan, also known as R. Padmanabhan, is one of the pioneers of Tamil Cinema. Sadly, few people remember or talk about him today, except for a few old-timers and film historians.

Padmanabhan was born in Sivaganga in 1895 into a middle-class family. His interest in cinema grew while he was in Colombo, where he began arranging exhibitions for an English distributor. Later, he moved to Madras and established his own firm, Oriental Film Services, which provided services such as bringing films from Bombay or Hollywood, arranging spares for film equipment, and assisting with miscellaneous film-related work. With the help of K.S. Venkatramani, who happened to be the father-in-law of the legendary filmmaker K. Subramanyam, Padmanabhan started the Madras-based Associated Film Studios. The production studio was the second-largest in South India at the time, followed only by General Pictures.

Padmanabhan made a name for himself in the silent era, and was responsible for launching the career of K. Subramaniyam, the lawyer turned filmmaker who began as a screenwriter for Padmanbhan but later became a revolutionary filmmaker with films such as SEVASADHANAM and THYAGABHOOMI

Padmanabhan also brought another trendsetting filmmaker, Raja Sandow, to the forefront through the silent film ANADHAI PENN in 1929. This film marked the launch of Padmanabhan’s own Associated Film Studios, and it was quite successful upon its release in 1931. Unfortunately, it is now one of the many lost films from the silent era. Raja Sandow continued to work for Padmanabhan, and several silent films were made, through which K. Subramaniyam also received training.

When Tamil films began to talk — ie. feature sound — in 1931, Padmanabhan, who had made many silent films, began making talkies in both Tamil and Telugu. He established a production company, Oriental Film Services, in partnership with Ramalinga Mudaliar. Most of his films were shot at Pioneer Studios in Calcutta. His first talkie film as a director was DRAUPATHI VASTRAPAHARANAM, which was released in 1934. The film was produced in Calcutta by the Salem-based production company Angel Films.

An advertisement of Oriental Film Services mentioning SETHU BANDHANAM, NALLATHANGAL,

MAYA BAZAAR and GARUDAGARVABHANGAM all 4 films directed by R. Padmanabhan

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1936

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Following the release of DRAUPATHI VASTRAPAHARANAM, Padmanabhan had two more releases in 1935: NALLA THANGAL, and MAYA BAZAAR, also known as VATSALA KALYANAM.

NALLA THANGAL is a story based on Hindu mythology about a mother of the same name who, along with her seven children, commits suicide by jumping into a well due to severe famine caused by barren lands, humiliation, and insults from society. Her brother, upon learning of this tragedy, also jumps into the well and takes his own life. After her death, Nalla Thangal becomes a village deity, and there are temples dedicated to her. Though many films have been made based on this story, R. Padmanabhan’s NALLA THANGAL, produced by Pioneer Films, was one of the first, along with P.V. Rao’s version, released in the same year under the same name, for Angel Films.

A still from the Movie NALLATHANGAL Featuring P.S.Rathnabhai

PC: From the archives of TCRC

The film featured P.S. Rathanabhai in the titular role, with M.R. Krishnamurthy, M.S. Murugesan, and P.S. Saraswathibhai among the supporting cast. Rathanabhai and Saraswathibhai, who were siblings in real life and known as the Palayamkottai Sisters, often worked together as a team in many films. They were reportedly paid a combined fee of Rs. 25,000 for a 45-day shoot, with any extensions incurring additional payment.

A still from the Movie NALLATHANGAL Featuring P.S.Rathnabhai and  P.S. Saraswathibhai

PC: From the archives of TCRC

R. Padmanabhan’s film, SETHU BHANDHANAM, ranks among the top in the most successful films chart of Padmanabhan. The film was based on the Hindu epic Ramayana, where Rama builds a bridge to Lanka with the help of his devotee Hanuman and his friends to fight Ravana and rescue his abducted wife Seetha. This bridge was called Sethu Bhandanam. 

P.B. Rangachari, a famous star then, acted in the role of Ravanan, while Nott Annaji Rao essayed the character of Rama, and M.S. Mohanambal played Ravanan’s wife Mandothari. Alongside them, T.K. Kannammal acted in the role of Seetha. M.D. Parthasarathy acted in the much-applauded role of Hanuman, who later went on to become one of the most established Carnatic musicians in the country, and a film music composer to boot. His performance as Hanuman is considered a big plus towards the stupendous success of the movie. Padmanabhan later made a Telugu version of the film with the same name in 1946, which also turned out to be a profitable venture.

A still from the Movie SETHUBHANDHANAM Featuring P.B. Rangachari

PC: From the archives of TCRC

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 7

T.R. Sundaram

Tiruchengodu Ramalinga Sundaram was a profoundly important figure in pioneering the South Indian film industry. He was born on July 16th, 1907, in Tiruchengodu of Salem district, into a family of yarn merchants. After completing his schooling in Salem, he moved to Madras to study B.A. Once he finished his degree in Madras, his family, aspiring to modernise their business, urged him to pursue higher studies abroad. Consequently, he went to Leeds to obtain a BSc in textile technology, where he fell in love and married an English woman named Gladys. When he returned with his English wife, his family and relatives didn’t accept their relationship and refused him any role in their textile business. Sundaram was hardly shaken and chose to enter the film world. He eventually became one of the most successful personalities of the industry.

His film career started with a partnership with Salem-based Angel Films. He was actively involved in the production of movies such as DRAUPADI VASTRAPAHARANAM, which was released in the year 1934.

With the experience gained from his partnership with Angel Films, he decided to go solo and started his own venture called Modern Theatres. With 10 acres of land on the foothills of Yercaud (a hill station in Tamil Nadu), he built the studio that played significant role in the careers of many stalwarts of the industry. It was one of the biggest studios in South India built outside Chennai, in Salem. Modern Theatres was believed to have 250 employees. Some well-known names like S.V. Ranga Rao, Anjali Devi and M.R. Radha were introduced by Sundaram through Modern.

The first film that Sundaram produced at Modern Theatres was SATHI AHALYA in 1937, which he directed himself. This film was shot entirely in the Modern Theatres studio for the first time. Sri Lankan actress K. Thavamani Devi was cast in the lead role. Although she was born in Sri Lanka, she moved to Madras to pursue her career. Being trained in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, she was able to dance and sing in her own voice. Eventually, she earned the name Singalathu Kuyil. When Sundaram invited the press to announce his production launch and gave a photo carrying Thavamani Devi in a swimsuit, it raised eyebrows as it was considered too glamorous for that time. In fact, it was Devi who set the trend for glamour among heroines in Tamil films, which actresses like T.R. Rajakumari and Mathuri Devi followed.

The same year, he produced and directed one more film, PADMA JYOTHI. This second film from Modern Theatres had a very new feature in Tamil cinema, in fact, for the whole of India. It was the animation technique used in the title credits. When the heroine’s name Padma was shown, a cartoon face of a woman showing multiple expressions was used. It was incredible as animation was a completely unknown technique during that time. The film is said to have 25 songs, according to film historian Randor Guy. Though the film was only an average grosser, it is still remembered for the introduction of animation, a patriotic theme in cinema, and its music.

Padma Jothi.jpg

A still from the Movie PADMA JYOTHI produced and directed by T.R. Sundaram

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Some of the other films produced and/or directed by T.R. Sundaram during 1930-1940included:

  • 1938: THAYUMANAVAR
  • 1938: MAYA MAYAVAN
  • 1938: MAYURATHVAJAN
  • 1939: MANICKAVASAGAR
  • 1939: SANTHANA DEVAN
  • 1940: VIKRAMA URVASHI
  • 1940: SATHI MAHANANTHA
  • 1940: SATHYAVAANI
  • 1940: UTHAMA PUTHIRAN
  • 1940: HARIHARA MAYA
  • 1940: SATHI MURALI

MANICKAVASAGAR, directed by T.R. Sundaram, was released in 1939. The film was jointly produced by two Salem-based companies, Sri krishna Films and Sundaram’s very own Modern Theatres. It was the third outing for M.M. Dhandapani Desigar as an actor and the second one with Sundaram after THAYUMANAVAR. M.S. Devasena played the female lead role again with the same combo of Sundaram and Desigar after Thayumanavar. Devasena and Desigar became life partners in real life as well later on in their lives.

Manickavasagar.jpg

A still from the Movie MANICKAVASAGAR featuring M.M.Dhandapani Desigar and others

PC: From the archives of TCRC

MANICKAVASAGAR was an eponymous biopic of the saint Manickavasagar. Desigar had his own fan following those days for his singing prowess and later became one of the legends in Carnatic music. He was one of the key personalities in the Tamil songs movement in classical music. His full-fledged concerts of the Thirukural are still applauded and celebrated greatly by music critics all over the country and the world. His music was loved by even people who didn’t have much knowledge of classical music. He earned the moniker of Isai Arasu, or The King of Music. He also received many felicitations like Isai Perarignar from the Tamil Isai Sangam and the Sangita Nataka Academy Award.

Manickavasagar2.jpg

A still from the Movie MANICKAVASAGAR

PC: From the archives of TCRC

SANTHANADEVAN, produced by T.R. Sundaram and directed by S. Nottani, was a film based on Robin Hood. Nottani had been working with Modern Theatres for quite a while, including directing the first talkie in Malayalam, BALAN. The film featured a Muslim hero in Tamil cinema for the first time, G.M. Basheer. It took on the British government’s tax policies and indirectly criticised them through powerful dialogues and songs. However, to appease the British censors, the film used the character Madanan, the brother of a good and kindly king, as the person who mercilessly taxes people. The hero, Chandanadevan, sings with people to do service by looting the rich, landlords, and government servants to help the poor. The film also marked the debut of the legendary M.R. Radha as a villain. It was his second film as an actor after RAJASEKARAN.

Santhana Devan.jpg

A still from the Movie SANDHANADEVAN Featuring G.M.Basheer and P.Bhanumathi

PC: From the archives of TCRC

T.R. Sundaram was the founder of the legendary Modern Theatres, which at its peak had three film productions a year. After completing 98 films and while planning his 99th film he already had set his sight on the 100th film as a centenary celebration for his production unit. However unfortunately Sundaram fell victim to destiny and died at the age of 56 in 1963. By then Modern Theatres had produced 98 films of which 56 were directed by Sundaram himself. His son Rama Sundaram continued the legacy to fulfill his father’s dream, and Modern Theatres ended up producing 117 films before succumbing to the death of production studios in the country.

Sundaram is reverently remembered for the way he ran the studio with discipline and finesse, treating it like a factory with a rigid code of conduct. There was no bias or discrimination, and even a leading actor was made to stand for hours when he came late for work. The gates of the studio were locked on time, and no visitors were allowed. However, Sundaram paid everyone generously and promptly, which was quite rare during those times.

Sundaram achieved many milestones, such as producing Tamil cinema’s first colour film, ALIBABAVUM 40 THIRUDARGALUM, directing the first Malayalam talkie, BALAN, and producing the first-ever colour film in Malayalam, KANDAM BECHA KOTTU. He also conducted the first people’s poll in India through magazines for casting in his film MANONMANI and provided the film industry with many stalwarts, including P.U. Chinnappa, who became a superstar through Sundaram’s UTHAMA PUTHIRAN. His contributions are to be found in every history book that talks about Indian cinema.
[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 6

A. NARAYANAN

This week we are going to talk about someone who played an immensely important and pioneering role in the nascent stages of the Tamil film industry. This is none other than Sivagangai A. Narayanan— a man of many talents and wearer of many hats: actor, director, writer, producer, studio owner, and even film exhibitor.

A. Narayanan, born in January 1900 at Sivagangai,studied in the famed Presidency College, Chennai as an undergraduate student. After getting his degree, he worked as an insurance agent in a bank in Mumbai — then Bombay — before jumping headfirst in to the film industry. During this time, he worked for the K.D. Brothers, who were widely known and famed as Hollywood film distributors. In 1922, he joined Queens Cinema, in Calcutta, as a manager, and then moved to Chennai to manage Cinema Popular, aka the famed Star Talkies— its name once talkies took the industry by storm. After his many stints managing cinemas, he began his own venture — Exhibitor Film Services— in Chennai. Through this, he was distributing both foreign and Indian films, along with leasing cinema theatres in various towns across the state. No wonder, then, that he came to be known as the Father of South Indian Film Business

In 1927, after dabbling in film distribution, he started his own film studio, General Pictures Corporation, Madras. It is believed that in 3 years — from 1927 to 1930 — he had produced over 20 films — and directed some as well! And all his films were distributed by his own business, Exhibitors Film Services. With its many branches at various places, from Bombay and Delhi to Rangoon and Singapore, he was able to release in a wide range of regions. The Bengal region, in India, on the other hand, had the Arora Film Corporation to distribute his films. 

A few silent films that Narayanan produced during this prolific time include the following films. Unfortunately, all the films listed below are lost. 


1. DHARMAPATHINI (Director, Producer)
2. GNANASOUNDARI (Director, Producer)
3. KOVALAN (Director, Producer)
4. GARUDA GARVABANGAM (Director, Producer)
5. LANKA DHAGANAM (Producer)
6. PANDAVANIRVAAGAN (Producer)
7. GAJENDRA MOTCHAM (Producer)
8. SARANGADHARA (Producer)
9. GAANDHAARI VADHAM (Producer)
10.PRAMILA ARJUNAN (Producer)
11.BOJARAJAN (Producer)
12. PANDAVA ANGYANAVASAM (Producer)
13. RAJASTHAN ROJA (Producer)
14. NARANARAYANAN (Producer)
15. VISWAMITHRA (Producer)
16. PAVAZHARANI (Producer)
17. MAYA MADHUSUDHANAN (Producer)
18. MINGIRELLIATHARAGAI/LAILA (Producer)
19. BHEESHMAR PRATHINGYAI (Producer)
20. MACHAVADHARAM (Producer)

In 1928 he undertook a voyage to Hollywood, and carried with him a print of the silent film Anarkali. He returned to India having earned the distinction of being the first person to ever exhibit a fully produced Indian film in Hollywood. He visited various places of great importance while he was there, including the famed Universal Studios. While in the US, he learnt a lot of the mechanics of film making technology — to say nothing of his studio visits and meetings with various important people active in the industry at the time.  During these interactions, he was heartily encouraged to shake things up in the Tamil film business when he gets back to India by the Hollywood counterparts. This inspired him in 1934 to start South India’s first talkie studio — which he, incidentally, named after his son — Srinivasa Cinetone aka Sound City.

In 1928, he produced a film in Chennai called MINGIRELIYA THARAGAI or LAILA, which was met with resounding success when it was screened simultaneously in Chennai at Wellington Cinemas, Super Cinemas in Bombay, and Cinema de Paris in Rangoon. This film broke records in its box office collections! Its budget, too, marked a historical moment in Tamil cinema. At a time when films were made with budgets of around Rs. 5000 or Rs. 6000 at most, MINGIRELIYA THARAGAI was made on an incredibly lush budget of Rs. 75,000. As it turned out, the only producer capable of pulling this remarkable feat at the time was Narayanan.

One of the significant milestones in his career was the establishment of his talkie studio, which was also South India’s first talkie studio, Srinivasa Cinetone or Sound City. Built in Poonamallee High Road in Chetpet, Chennai. this studio helped filmmakers based in the South make their films locally — rather than having to travel to places such as Calcutta, Bombay, Poona, or even Kolhapur to record sound. At Sound City, shootings took place in sunlight; for indoor shoots a tarpaulin cover was used. The first film produced here was Narayanan’s own film, SRINIVASA KALYANAM, both produced and directed by him. The film earned two important distinctions; one: it was the first Tamil talkie to be fully made in  Chennai; two: his wife Meenakshi Narayanan became India’s first female sound recordist with this film. She also went on to handle the sound recording for four more films. The first woman in India to ever do sound recordings — and for five films, no less — is an astonishing fact that is oft forgotten and left out of history books, unfortunately.

Another interesting event during the film SRINIVASA KALYANAM involved the famous comedienne,Angamuthu,who came to shoot for her part in the film in a bullock cart. In fact, she hilariously maintained this throughout the production of the film.

In the same year, one more film was produced at Srinivasa Cinetone: DRAUPADI VASTRAPRAHRANAM. Another film bearing the same name, in fact, was also released in the same year, 1934, under the aegis of Angel Films, directed by R. Padmanabhan and the production unit had another legend of Tamil cinema, T.R. Sundaram. (We have an upcoming post dedicated to his life and work — keep an eye out for it!) Both films did extremely well, commercially!

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A still from the Movie DRAUPATHI VASTRAPAHARANAM made by R. Prakash and A. Narayanan

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Other films made by A. Narayanan included:

  • 1935: GNANA SOUNDARI 
  • 1935: RAJAMBAL
  • 1936: DHARA SASANGAM
  • 1936: MEERA BAI
  • 1936: MAHATMA KABEERDAS
  • 1936: VISWAMITHRA
  • 1937: KRISHNA THULABARAM
  • 1937: VIKRAMA STRI SAHASM
  • 1937: VIRADA PARVAM
  • 1938: SRI RAMANUJAR
  • 1938:THULASI BRINTHA
  • 1938: VIPRANARAYANA

RAJAMBAL, released in 1935, was based on the novel written by J. R. Rangaraju, and this film marked the first time a film was made based on the book. Another film, based on the same novel, was made by R.M. Krishnasami in1951. This films is believed to be the first detective movie ever made in Tamil. The film garnered many raised eyebrows —from people in the world of law, in particular. The film, after all, was centered around a judicial officer who misuses his position and influencer for his own personal gain and selfish ends.

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A still from the Movie RAJAMBAL

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Yet another interesting movie that came out of Narayanan’s desk was VIKRAMA STRI SAHASAM in 1937. The film featured two plot lines in a single film, which was a relatively new notion in film at the time. It, incidentally, also had another title as well — perhaps to mirror the dual plots —NAVEENA STRI SAHASAM. See, for instance, this advertisement published in Anandha Vikatan, Deepavali Malar, 1937.

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An advertisement for the Film SRI RAMANUJAR and VIKRAMA STRISAHASAM

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Narayanan is a pretty important figure in the history of Tamil cinema, and his life and work in the industry features many stellar achievements:

  • He established the first talkie studio in the South of India.
  • He was the first person to Hollywood Studios and took the time to get an education in the nuances of film making business — commercially and technologically
  • His wife was India’s first female sound recordist — and recorded sound for five films at that.
  • He took film exhibitions to unprecedented levels with the establishment of his Film Exhibitor Services.

Unfortunately, he died very young, at the age of just 39. Many talents were nurtured by him: the likes of R. Prakash, Jithen Banargee, T.R. Raghunath and many others. It is rather tragic, all things considered, that one of the pioneers of not only Tamil cinema but all of south Indian cinema, could just as easily be placed very high indeed on a list of forgotten heroes as well. 

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 5

ELLIS. R. DUNGAN

This week, we are looking at a particularly unique and rather fascinating figure in the world of Tamil cinema. Most people today, perhaps you included, would believe that someone came to Tamil Nadu from a different world, nearly 14,000 km away, and made a string of staggering and trendsetting films in 1930s to 1950s in — all without knowing the language! Allow us to introduce you to Ellis R. Dungan, an Ohio born Irish-American, who was active in the Tamil film industry in the 30s and 40s. 

While studying at South California University, Duncan became fast friends with people in his cohort who studied in the cinematography and production design department with him. One of them was Indian, M.L. Tandon, who played a vital role in Dungan’s career. Tandon, who himself went on to become a prominent filmmaker in South India during the 1930s and 40s, invited Dungan to India to work with him. His film BHAKTHA NANDANAR became the pathbreaking stepping stone for Dungan. 

He is believed to have filmed many portions on the absence of Tandon, although he wasn’t formally credited in the film for his work. Though he initially planned for his visit to India to last only six months, destiny had its say, and kept him active in the industry for over a decade — fifteen years, to be precise — and paved the way for him to establish a wide host of technical trends. He created a legacy of his own, and shaped the careers of many talented personalities of the industry.

Movies he directed in 1930-1940 included:

  • 1936: SATHI LEELAVATHI 
  • 1936: SEEMANTHINI
  • 1936: IRU SAHODARARGAL
  • 1937: AMBIKAPATHY
  • 1940: SAKUNTHALAI
  • 1940: KALAMEGAM

SATHI LEELAVATHI was Dungan’s first official directorial venture. He came to the film itself in a rather peculiar sort of fashion. The film was offered to Tandon by Maruthachalam Chettiar, who was adamant that only he could be the right person to direct this film after the rousing success of BHAMA VIJAYAM. Tandon, on the other hand, was busy with a Hindi film being shot at Calcutta, and recommended his American friend to Chettiar. Chettiar, however, was rather reluctant to accept: he saw Dungan as inexperienced and young, and thought his lack of knowledge of the language would create huge roadblocks. Tandon, however, was insistent, and persuaded Chettiar that he was trained in Hollywood — and this did the trick! Hollywood, in many ways, was the magical word that proved his mettle. Chettiar was thus convinced, and the film was made.

Dungan began his remarkable journey with a bit of a bang with this debut film, which became a vital landmark in the Tamil Industry. It certainly helped that the film was also an enormous success commercially. It also, incidentally, holds the distinction of being first of its kind to be directed by a foreigner. The film, in its theme, dealt with the evils of alcoholism. 

The film didn’t just mark Dungan’s debut; it was responsible for introducing many others who went on to become stalwarts of the industry. M.G. Ramachandran, known popularly as MGR, made his film debut in this film in a minor role as a police inspector. MGR, as many of us know, went on to become one of the most celebrated heroes of the industry, not to mention a revolutionary political leader. Along with him the lead actors M.K. Radha, T.S. Baliah, N.S. Krishnan and M.R. Santhanalakshmi also made their debut. For S.S. Vasan, this was the first step on the road to stardom as a story writer for films; it is his novel — with the same name — that formed the basis for the film’s plot. Vasan would go on to carve a niche for himself as one of the most innovative filmmakers that India produced in its initial years of establishing its film industries. (Watch this space! We’ll return to his fascinating story in another iteration of our series.)

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A still from the Movie SATHI LEELAVATHI featuring M.K. Radha, M.K. Mani and M.R.GNANAMBAL 

PC: From the archives of TCRC

AMBIKAPATHI was yet another feather on Dungan’s cap. The film ran for 52 weeks — a whole year! — And did extremely well at the box office. It was a stellar return to success for M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, better known as MKT, as well, after his film CHINTHAMANI. T.S. Baliah, an actor who was also part of Dungan’s debut film SATHI LEEELAVATHI, was retained in this film to play the villain. His performance was greatly praised for pulling it off with aplomb and panache. The talented Balaiah later went on to become famous as a versatile actor who was capable of performing in all kinds of roles — a man who could don many hats indeed. His unique style of dialogue delivery was particularly distinct, and greatly contributed to his success in his career in acting.

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A still from the Movie AMBIKAPATHI featuring T.S. Baliah with his co-stars 

PC: From the archives of TCRC

With the huge success of CHINTHAMANI and AMBIKAPATHI — all in the same year, 1937, MKT earned the distinction of being the very first Superstar of Tamil cinema. This was nothing short of being crowned king of the industry! Besides acting, his other passion — singing — also took his career to great heights. Records containing his songs sold like hot cakes! Y.V.Rao and Dungan played a major part in the terrific start MKT got in what went on to be a truly prolific career.

The film also had people talking for other reasons: its dialogue, and some bold rather intimate scenes of the time had many heads turning. Dungan had hired a Tamil scholar, Elangovan, to script dialogue for the film, which turned out to be profoundly poetic — very new for Tamil cinema at the time! The move flung open a new trend in the world of writing for films. The line “Thookkam Un Kangalai Thazhuvattum Amaithi Un Nenjil Nilavattum”, spoken by the film’s hero, became very famous, and in fact, was used by many later. The lyricist Kannadasan, for instance, used the line in a song for his critically acclaimed film ALAYAMANI in 1961. 

Dungan conceptualised a scene where the hero winks at the heroine: which was, believe it or not, nothing short of revolutionary at the time. After this particular scene shot to popularity, MKT’s winks became a trademark mainstay of his acting style.

With SAKUNTHALAI, Dungan’s association with the famed classical vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, affectionately and popularly known simply as MS began. The film was produced under the banner Royal Talkie Distributors. MS and her husband, Sadasivam, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, were the producers.

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A still from the Movie SAKUNTHALAI

PC: From the archives of TCRC

While MS played the titular role, G. N. Balasubramaniam, the famous Carnatic singer was roped in for the lead role opposite to her. Though the film was first offered to K. Subramaniyam to direct, Dungan was brought on board in his stead, as Subramaniyam was busy with prior commitments. The comedy duo of N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Maduram were included in the cast too. The film was received well and was immensely successful at the box office as well.

KALAMEGHAM was a biopic on a Tamil poet whose words were always believed to come true. Dungan reached out to a nadaswaram expert, T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, to play the titular role. This ended up being the only film that this nadaswaram legend acted in throughout his career as an esteemed musician. Though the film didn’t require him to play the nadaswaram itself, he was asked to pretend to do so in a scene where he plays the instrument and walks around on the streets. This particular scene was, in fact, filmed only to satisfy his ardent fans — and to have better prospects at the box office!

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An advertisement for the Film KALAMEGHAM

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1939

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Although the film itself didn’t do particularly well it is nonetheless remembered for being Rajarathanam’s sole movie appearance, and for some specific technical mastery that was inventively executed by Dungan. One scene in particular, where a village is shown being submerged by a sandstorm, was fascinatingly filmed using miniatures in a vacant beach area in Chennai — Besant Nagar. And all this personally by Dungan himself. It is said that people stood and clapped for this scene in theatres.

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 4 (2)

THE RAOs-II

B.N.RAO

There lurks an interesting story behind how B.N. Rao, who’s actual name is Balakrishnan Nair, of Talasserry, Kerala, got his name. Although he had been born in Kerala, his family had to shift to Bombay once his father got a job there. While enrolling in school, his neighbor put down his name as B.N. Rao — according to whom all south Indians ought to carry the surname Rao — and thus, the name stuck.

B. N. Rao’s first Tamil Film was TUKKARAM which was unique in many ways. The titular role was played by the famous carnatic Singer Musiri Subramiyam Iyer.

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A still of Musiri Subramaniya Aiyer , from the film THUKKARAM

From the magazine Anandha Vikatan Deepavali Malar, 1938

PC: From the archives of TCRC

TUKKARAM was Musiri’s first and only film to date. The news of his acting in a movie raised eyebrows of many traditionalists as well as common moviegoers, especially as he had to sport a moustache for the role. This was quite a departure from the tradition of clean shaven classical singers of the time. Although he was initially offered a fake moustache to stick on, he found himself rather uncomfortable, and asked that the filmmakers wait while he grew one of his own. Of course, once the film was released, he went right back to his old ways of being clean shaven.

After the success of Tukaram, Rao’s association with the famous CENTRAL STUDIOS grew; most of his films that followed were under their banner including:

While PRAHALADHA didn’t have a particularly memorable impact on ringing the cash register, so to speak, it found other reasons to make its mark in the history of Tamil cinema. One of the reasons was the appearance of the superstar turned later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr. M.G. Ramachandran, known fondly as MGR. This was one of his very early films of his career, his 6th— to be precise. The sword fight scene between him and the lead actress M.R. Santhanalakshmi became quite a talking point. T.R. Mahalingham, who played the titular role, went on to become a famous singer in his own right.

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An advertisement for the Film PRAHALADHA

From the magazine DINAMANI VARUSHA MALAR 1939

PC: From the archives of TCRC

SUNDAR RAO NADKARNI

Sundar Rao Nadkarni, born in Mangalore, started his film career as an actor in silent films and later switched over to editing and direction. His first Tamil film as a director was SAKKUBHAI, which was released in 1934.

A few other films he made included:

  • 1937: RAJA BHAKTHI 
  • 1938: BHUKAILAS 
  • 1939: SHANTHA SAKKUBAI  

His film BHU KAILAS or MANDOTHARI PARINAYAM, released in 1938, was produced by Sundaram Sound Studios Ltd, Chennai. It has, unfortunately, now been lost. However, it is often mistaken for the remake (made by Rao himself) in Telugu with same name, BHU KAILAS. It was produced by A.V. Meyyappa Chettiar known as AVM. The film became a huge hit and helped in reviving AVM’s business, which had previously been hit by losses incurred from 2 Tamil productions namely Alli Arjuna and Nandakumar. We will return to discuss AVM later in this series.

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An advertisement for the Film BHUKAILAS

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

SHANTHA SAKKUBAI, produced by Royal Talkie Distributors, had K.Aswathamaplaying the titular role, and K. Sarangapanithe other lead role.Incidentally, the film was also the debut — as a dialogue writer, no less — for the famous and multifaceted Kothamangalam Subbu, who went on to become very popular later in the industry. 

His association with S.S. Vasan and his famous novel,Thillana Moganambal— which was made in to a blockbuster film with same name — are still proudly, and with awe, discussed in Tamil film history. Subbualso acted in a small role, besides writing dialogues for the film. The film became a big hit, and established, once again, a Rao as one of the successful filmmakers of 1930s

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An advertisement for the Film SHANTHA SAKKUBAI

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1939

PC: From the archives of TCRC[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 4 (I)

THE RAOS – I

This week, we are going to talk about the Raos, a set of people who can truly be said to have ruled the Tamil film industry in the 1930s. These were Y. V. Rao, P. V. Rao, B. N. Rao and Sundar Rao Nadkarni – in some ways, the first royals of the Tamil industry.

Y. V. RAO

Y. V. Rao alias Yaragudipati Varada Rao, born 30 May 1903, was rather prominent during his time as an extremely talented filmmaker; he does, however, seem to have been tragically largely forgotten today. A multifaceted mover in the industry, he donned many hats: as an editor, a director, an actor, a producer and even a screenwriter. His wife Kumari Rukmani, daughter Lakshmi, his granddaughter Aishwarya and even his mother-in-law, Nungambakkam Janaki, were all heavyweights in the industry as actors in their own right. His daughter, Lakshmi, and granddaughter, Aishwarya, are active in the industry to this day; Lakshmi, in fact, is well-known across languages and is National Award winning actress.

Y. V. Rao probably has the honour of bagging the most firsts in the South Indian film industries, collectively.  He made a number of multilingual films in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, and even Hindi, not to mention the plethora of silent movies in his filmography. He was the first to make motion pictures in so many languages; in fact, he holds an international record for this honour according to the film historian Randor Guy. His directorial venture SATI SULOCHANA was the first talkie ever made in the Kannada language. The battle scene in this film, shot using four cameras simultaneously, stayed with many viewers and was all the rage at the time of the film’s release. 

He was also the first filmmaker to ever make a film on the glittering world of cinema in his Telugu film VISWAMOHINI. At a time when most films were either mythological or based on social issues, VISHWAMOHINI was a pathbreaking film.  

Other notable works in the Tamil language by Y. V. Rao include: 

  • 1936: BHAMA PARINAYAM  
  • 1937: CHINTAMANI 
  • 1938: BHAKTA MEERA  
  • 1938: SWARNALATHA
  • 1941: SAVITHIRI

His film CHINTHAMANI, in particular, broke many box office records and catapulted its hero, M. K. Thyagarja Bhagavathar, to Superstar status. He, of course, went on to create a stunning legacy of his own. Ashwatama, the Kannada actress in the eponymous role, made her Tamil debut with this film. She, too, rose to dizzying heights with her acting and singing skills. However, she tragically succumbed to early death due to tuberculosis in 1939. The film itself ran for a year in single screen theatres – the first film to pull this feat off. It was not only a raging success in South Indian films, but went on to become one of the highest grossing films in India after its release. 

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Working Still from the Film CHINTHAMANI Featuring Y.V.RAO himself with L.NARAYANA RAO

PC: From the archives of TCRC

CHINTHAMANI, in later years, acquired a kind of cult status, and continues to be considered a historical event in South Indian cinema. Later, when Rao began producing films, he named his production company Chinthamani Pictures. The profit of this film as of such a magnitude that the distributors of the film, Royal Talkies, constructed a new cinema theatre in Madurai and named it after the film: Chinthamani Talkies.

With SWARNALATHA, Y. V. Rao bagged yet another first. This was the first film to be shot in one of the most famed studios of Chennai, Newtone Studios. 

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An advertisement for the Film SWARNALATHA

From the magazine CINE ART REVIEW 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

Although the movie itself wasn’t a raging success, commercially speaking, it did make a significant mark in the history of Tamil cinema – largely due to Y. V. Rao’s acting skills and careful direction, not to mention the distinction of being the first film to ever be shot at one of the busiest studios in the country during the period spanning 1940-1970. The studio was also was leased to the noted filmmaker A. Bhimsingh, who shot many of his films there. Later it was sold to Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan. This film grappled with many complex social issues such as alcoholism and unemployment. 

P.V.RAO

P. V. Rao was one of the foremost filmmakers in the South Indian film industry. His name is, perhaps a little oddly, often confused with the initials V. V. or T. V. However, according to compelling evidence available in publication, his name is stylised as P. V. See: the advertisement below, published in the year 1937. He directed many films in Tamil: VALLI, VALLI THIRUMANAM, SAKUNTHALA, SRI KRISHNALEELA, BHAKTHA DRUVAN, NALLA THANGAL, LEELAVATHI SULOCHANA, BALAMANI and DEVADAS

Interestingly during the shooting of BALAMANI (1937), it is said that the TKS brothers were unhappy with P. V. Rao’s discipline when it came to filmmaking. Unfortunately, as was anticipated, the film didn’t do well at the box office and was declared a flop rather swiftly. In startling move of creative revenge, the TKS brothers made a spoof of him, a character named V.P. Var – which cleverly reversed Rao’s name – in their next film, GUMASTHAVIN PENN. This film, curiously, was also directed by yet another Rao, B.N. Rao. This character, played by K.R. Ramasamy, was hilarious, and became quite popular and well loved! 

He also made the first of many DEVADAS films made in India – the first ever to me made in South India. It was released in 1937, where he himself played the lead role, opposite G. B. Rajayee.

Devadas.jpg

An advertisement for the Film DEVADAS

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1937

PC: From the archives of TCRC

[To be continued] Next week we will talk about two more Raos – who were each immensely influential in establishing the trends in Tamil cinema.

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema

I DIRECTORS

THE CAPTAINS: MASTERS AND COMMANDERS WITH AN IMPACT TO LAST THE AGES – PART 3

This week, we bring you yet another mover and shaker from the world of Tamil Cinema: Raja Sandow, a prominent filmmaker as well as a trendsetter — in every sense of the word!

RAJA SANDOW

P.K. Nagalingam, better known as Raja Sandow to the world, was born in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu in 1895. There’s an interesting story behind the origin of this new name: the story goes he acquired this unique moniker due to his impressively toned physique, built through his pastime of choice, bodybuilding and wrestling. Once he was satisfied with his bodybuilding, he opened a gym for the world — and a very successful one, at that. He went on to earn many accolades through his wrestling career, and was even featured in the Bombay Chronicle.

This popularity eventually paved his way into the glittering world of show business, and he began acting in silent films in the City of Dreams, Bombay. Right from his very first film, BHAKTHA BHODANA, he performed his own stunts. This attracted the attention of many filmmakers of the time, as a result of which he went on to act in more than seventy silent films.

Once he climbed to the very top of his acting career, Raja Sandow turned his attention behind the scenes, to the art of filmmaking. A keen observer, he had been watching and learning from the films he starred in from the very first one. When opportunity knocked on his door in the form the filmmaker R. Padmanabhan, who offered him a chance to make his own film in Madras, he jumped at it. And thus was made the film ANADHAI PENN in 1929. 

The films Raja Sandow made aimed to portray deep social messages, particular the terrible ways the poor, and women, were treated in society. His films NANDANAR and RAJESWARI, released  in the 1920s, were some such films that were truly remarkable for the times in which they were made.

He was responsible for many firsts and beginnings in the Tamil film industry. In his MENAKA, for instance, the lead and actor and actress were pictured interacting very closely and even touching each other. This was revolutionary at a time when the norm was to place the hero and heroine at a two feet distance from each other at all times. He was, clearly, one of the first and foremost trendsetters of the Indian film industry as a whole.

Menaka.jpg

An advertisement for the Film MENAKA

From the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1935

PC: From the archives of TCRC

MENAKA also marked the debut of the famous N.S. Krishnan, who went on to become one of the pioneers of comedy in Tamil films. It was also the first film appearance of the TKS Brothers, who were the foremost stars of the theatrical world at the time.

THIRUNEELAKANTAR, made in 1939, went on to become one of the biggest hits in the history of Tamil cinema. During its release period, shows were running in cinema halls even a year — 52 weeks — after the films initial release. This film, too, featured an extremely popular soundtrack by M.K. Thyagraja Bhagavathar. The songs were composed by Papanasam Sivan and became sensational runaway hits elevating the stardom of Thyagraja, known fondly as M.K.T. Songs from the movie such as Deena Karuna Karane Nataraja were all the rage. Songs from this film were catapulted to cult status, and remain both well-known and beloved by music lovers even today.

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Working Still from the Film TIRUNEELAKANDER Featuring M.K.T and TIRUNELVELI PAPA

PC: From the archives of TCRC

The comedy duo N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Madhuram— who were, incidentally, husband and wife in reality too — were quite the comedic sensation; many flocked to the cinema to see their exceptional comedy.

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Working Still from the Film TIRUNEELAKANDER Featuring N.K.S and T.A. Madhuram

PC: From the archives of TCRC

In 1943, Raja Sandow tragically suffered a heart attack and died in Coimbatore on the 25th of November. His last film was SIVAKAVI, which he had, in fact, quit due to creative differences with the producer, S.M. Sriramulu Naidu. Naidu went on see the film to its conclusion himself.

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Working Still from the Film SIVAKAVI Featuring M.K.T

PC: From the archives of TCRC

 [To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned! 

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

Filmy Ripples – N.S.Krishnan, the Legend

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

It is generally said, however, a pathos scene is difficult to naturally enact, it is even more difficult to be successful as a comedian as timing & body language have to contribute to its success. Pure, vulgar-free comedy that stands out is a real tough job and all were not cut to deliver that.

In the very early talkie films, there was nothing like a separate comedian. It was only later, as part of the evolutionary process of cinema, comedians came into being in Indian films to provide a relief from the main story line, which, often, was heavy with emotions.

The early cinema (we are talking about pre-Nagesh period) had a bunch of good comedians such as T.S.Dorairaj, Kali N Rathinam, T.R.Ramachandran,

Sarangapani, ‘Friend’ Ramasami, A.Karunanidhi, Kakka Radhakrishnan, ‘Kuladeivam’ Rajagopal, A.Rama Rao, Chandrababu, Thangavelu, Muthulakshmi, T.A.Mathuram, & M.Saroja.

But the Monarch of the Tamil film comedians, undoubtedly, was N.S.Krishnan (NSK).

Tamil cine goers laughed their guts out at NSK’s thought provoking jokes. NSK has often been compared to the legendary comedian, Charlie Chaplin. But, while Chaplin scored with his slapstick comedy and body language, NSK relied more on his verbal humour, one-liners and subtle messages to the audience. His comedy, which also had its share of puns, was always wholesome at its best with no double entendre or misogyny involved.

As we cannot justifiably cover all the stalwart comedians who tickled our funny bones in a single Article, we hereby restrict our current write up to the Monarch of them all – N.S.Krishnan.

N.S.Krishnan was born as Nagerkovil Sudalamuthu Krishnan in 1908 in a poor family. His childhood years were spent selling snacks in a theatre in his hometown & working as a ball picker in a Tennis Club. His lack of formal education was amply made up by his native genius & curiosity.

Later, in his formative years he joined the celebrated drama company run by TKS Brothers. He was also proficient in a rural art form known as ‘Villu Paattu’.

Later he formed his own touring theatre group and traversed the length and breadth of erstwhile Madras Presidency with his plays, which always drew packed houses.

NSK’s entry into the celluloid world was through S.S.Vasan produced and Ellis Dungan directed film ‘Sathi Leelavathy’, where he was introduced as a comedian. Though this was his debut film, his second movie ‘Menaka’ got released before ‘Sathi Leelavathy’ could hit the screen. However ‘Menaka’ was adjudged the best movie of the year in 1935.

Menaka

An Advertisement of the Film MENAKA in the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1935  PC: From the archives of TCRC

It was during the shooting of ‘Vasantha Sena’ (1936), directed by Raja Sandow, NSK ‘met’ co-star T. A. Mathuram and both fell in love. Their marriage was held in a simple manner, while the shooting schedule moved to Pune, with Raja Sandow presiding over the ‘wedding’. The couple got the honor of being the first real-life couple acting as couple of reel life too, between 1936 and 1957, when they did a whopping 122 films, as a pair!

Vasanthasena

An Advertisement of the Film VASANTHA SENA in the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1936  PC: From the archives of TCRC

N S Krishnan, who popularly goes by his popular title, ‘Kalaivanar’, rose from humble beginnings as a ‘villu paatu’ artiste who became a master in the art of repartee. In tandem with his wife TA Mathuram, he regaled audiences, often stealing the spotlight from the lead stars. NSK was known to pen his comedy tracks himself and always ensured that he was never repetitive.  Noted lyricist Udumalai Narayana Kavi usually wrote the lyrics for Krishnan.

Untitled

In the early timeframe of his career, he worked with comedians like TS Durairaj, Pulimootai Ramaswamy, CS Pandian and Kali M Rathinam and later worked in most of the films of MK Thiagaraja Bhagavathar as Hero. Krishnan was also a gifted singer and his numbers in ‘Sivakavi’, ‘Raja Rani’ and ‘Manamagal’ became immensely popular.

He also produced the hit film ‘Nallathambi’, directed by C.N Annadurai. He directed films such as  ‘Panam’ and ‘Manamagal’ penned by Karunanidhi. SS Vasan’s magnum opus ‘Chandralekha’ too featured Krishnan in comedy tracks. There was a time in Tamil cinema when no film was complete without NSK!

He also shared screen space in many films of the leading heroes, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, and despite the presence of these Titans always stood out with his comedy.

NSK went on to work as unparalleled comedian in as many as 150 films, MGR starred ‘Raja Desingu’ being the last one, released after his death.

On 8 November 1944, Lakshmikanthan the gossip columnist & Editor of ‘Indu Nesan’ was knifed by some unknown persons in Purasawalkam and was admitted to the General Hospital, Madras as an outpatient. But the next day, Lakshmikanthan was murdered mysteriously while still in the hospital. The police arrested eight persons as accused for the murder including M.K.Tyagaraja Bhagavathar and NSK. This came as a rude shock to their fans and the cine world.

After thirty long months of jail term they were acquitted for want of proof by the London Privy Council, thanks to the eminent lawyer V. L. Ethiraj who argued for them at Privy Council at London. (The same illustrious lawyer founded Ethiraj College for women).

Though N.S.Krishnan did manage to pick up the threads of his life again as an actor post his release from prison, things were not quite the same & he was financially drained and his fortunes plummeted rapidly.

When Krishnan was first sentenced to jail, Mathuram took a break from her acting career. Later she came out her self-imposed exile to generate revenues for financing her husband’s appeal to the Privy Council.

When NSK was in prison, T. A. Mathuram started a drama troupe called N. S. K Nataka Sabha, which staged plays written by and starring S.V.Sahasranamam. ‘Paithiyakaran’ (1947) was one of those plays. Later Mathuram converted the troupe into a film production company and made a film based on the play. While the film, being directed by Krishnan-Panju Duo,  was in production, Krishnan was acquitted released from prison. A new role was written for him in the film. NSK made fun of his stint in prison through the song jailukku poi vantha in which he described in prison life, his fellow inmates and the types of prisoners he met. MGR played a supporting role in the film.

In 1947, after his release from the prison, Nataraja Educational Society, Triplicane awarded him the title of ‘Kalaivanar’ to NSK through the ‘Father of Stage’, Pammal.K.Sambanda Mudaliyar. He is, to-date, known by this Title even without his name!

‘Manamagal’ (1951), produced & directed by NSK, saw the debut of Padmini as a lead actress. In this movie, A.Bhimsingh, who later became a big Director, was an Assistant Director to NSK. He also generously gifted his own expensive car to Baliah for his stellar performance in Manamagal.

MSV-TKR duo was formed as Music Directors by NSK for his Film ‘Panam’ (1952).

In his times, NSK was instrumental in bringing a number of leading Tamil stage and film personalities to the fore; he was also a Gandhian, patriot and philanthropist who became an active member of the Dravidian Movement. On the assassination of Gandhi, NSK raised a Memorial for the Father of the Nation at his own expense in the Municipal Park his hometown.

NSK was one of the founding fathers of South Indian Actors Association. He is reported to have even gifted his own land for its premises.

NSK passed away at his 49 on 30th August 1957, after bringing a lot of joy and cheer to his audience through his film roles.

Some of his well known films included Sathi Leelavathi, Ambikapathi, Madurai Veeran, Kala Megham, Uthama Puthiran, Sakunthalai, Arya Mala, Mangamma Sabatham, Harischandira, Haridas, Pavalakodi, Paithiyakkaran, Chandrakantha,  Chandralekha, NallaThambi, Managaiyarkkarasi, Rathnakumar, Vana Sundari, Panam, Amara Kavi, Kaveri, Dr. Savithri, Mudhal Thethi, Rangin Radha, Raja Rani, Manamagal & Raja Desingu.

Chandrakantha

An Advertisement of the Film CHANDRAKANTHA in the magazine ANANDHA VIKATAN DEEPAVALI MALAR 1936  PC: From the archives of TCRC

In his personal life, he had three wives, Nagammai, T.A.Mathuram & T.A.Vembammal (T.A.Mathuram’s sister).

 

NSK Interview

Stills from a short Interview of NSK in the magazine KALKI DEEPAVALI MALAR 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

The Tamil Nadu Government dedicated the Children’s Theatre on Wallaja Road, Madras as a memorial building in 1979, named it ‘Kalaivanar Kalai Arangam’  in his honour . His revered public statue adorns a major junction in T.Nagar in Chennai.

If NSK were to be alive today he would have been 108 years old!