The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema



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: MAYA MAYAVAN
  • 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.


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

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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.


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




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)
8. SARANGADHARA (Producer)
11.BOJARAJAN (Producer)
13. RAJASTHAN ROJA (Producer)
14. NARANARAYANAN (Producer)
15. VISWAMITHRA (Producer)
16. PAVAZHARANI (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!


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: RAJAMBAL
  • 1936: MEERA BAI

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.


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.

Vikrama Sthri Sahasam.jpg

An advertisement for the Film SRI RAMANUJAR and VIKRAMA STRISAHASAM


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




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:

  • 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.)


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.


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.


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!


An advertisement for the Film KALAMEGHAM


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





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.


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.


An advertisement for the Film PRAHALADHA

From the magazine DINAMANI VARUSHA MALAR 1939

PC: From the archives of TCRC


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 

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.

Bhu Kailas.jpg

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

Shantha Sakkubai.jpg

An advertisement for the Film SHANTHA SAKKUBAI


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




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 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: 

  • 1937: CHINTAMANI 
  • 1938: BHAKTA MEERA  
  • 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. 


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. 


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 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.


An advertisement for the Film DEVADAS


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



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!


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.


An advertisement for the Film MENAKA


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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!


Filmy Ripples : Film Directors of nascent stages of Tamil Screen

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

A film’s narration is in the hands of its Director, besides its Editor & Cinematographer. While a Director’s role in filmmaking is second to none, he has to have teamwork with other functionaries.  The Directors are the professionals who see every sequence shot through the eyes of the ultimate cine goer. They are like the captains  of a ship and pilots of an aircraft.

These days, there is so much talent in the industry that we often witness the avtar of a new talent in film direction.

But think of the times when Cinema itself was in nascent stage & the Directors had the risk of experimenting with a pristine audience. In such a stage there were some outstanding Film Directors in Tamil Cinema who contributed to Tamil Cinema from its silent era, about whom we will talk here. We have excluded here the legend Ellis.R.Dungan, as we had covered in details about him earlier.

Sunder Rao Nadkarni

Sundar Rao Nadkarni, a Konkani from Mangalore, was an actor from Silent Film Era & later became an all rounder as editor, cinematographer, director and producer. He lived his formative years in Bombay which enabled him to delve deep into Marathi theatre and cinema. Thereon, Nadkarni moved to Coimbatore and finally Madras, where he settled down permanently. Inspired by the success of Sabapathy when AVM wanted to launch another comedy, he noted Nadkarni who went on to direct the Tamil Mega Hit film of AVM, En Manaivi (1942).

Following this success, Nadkarni also made other successful Tamil films. But his greatest hit was M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar starred Haridas (1944), which set a record by becoming the first Tamil film to run for 110 weeks at the Broadway theatre in Madras.


An ad for Haridas in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1943 PC: From the archives of TCRC

He directed all the top Tamil actors too during his active years, such as T. R. Rajakumari in Haridas (1944), Narsimha Bharathi in Krishna Vijayam (1950), and MGR and Savitri in Mahadevi (1957). (Nadkarni was the co-producer of ‘Mahadevi’).

Raja Sandow


Raja Sandow PC: Unknown

K. Raja ‘Sandow’ (original name: P.K.Nagalingam) was one of the legendary film-makers right from the silent movie era. Besides, he was also a successful actor, producer and director.

According to Randor Guy, it was a sports enthusiast millionaire from Bombay, Omar Sobhani who took P.K.Nagalingam, for his athletic abilities, to Bombay, where he later met Director Patankar who gave him a break in ‘Baktha Bhodhana’ (1922), purely owing to his physique & good looks. Thus he started his film career. In fact, ‘Sandow’ in his name was appended for his physique, after the Hollywood strongman Eugen Sandow.

Between 1922 & 1943 Raja Sandow ruled the roost in silent  (such as ‘Veer Bhemsen’ (1923) & ‘The Telephone Girl’ (1926)) as well as talkie films in Tamil & Hindi. Later he took to film direction and even had scripted for talkies. The ‘Reformist’ Sandow brought many reforms to Tamil cinema & spearheaded making social themed movies with messages. He was also initially handling the Directorial part of the celebrated MKT movie, “Sivakavi” but was replaced by Sriramulu Naidu. A pioneer in the first generation of Indian film making, he also used to act in Tamil & Hindi till his sudden demise at his 48 in1943.



Y.V Rao PC: Unknown

Yaragudipati Varada Rao (born 1903) aka Y.V.Rao was a man of many parts that he was a filmmaker, actor and a film director. He was a visionary in his professional thinking & was a pioneer in making films in various Southern languages besides Hindi, right from silent movie era, when he started as an actor in silent films. Then he shifted to Madras in the 1920s & was cast as hero in many silent films like “Garuda Garva Bhangam”, “Gajendra Moksham” , and “Rose of Rajasthan”. Moving on, Y.V. Rao started his directorial debut with silent films, such as ‘Pandava Nirvana’ (1930), ‘Pandava Agnathavaas’ (1930) and ‘Hari Maya’ (1932).

Rao was at the pinnacle when he directed Tamil film, ‘Chintamani’ (1937) with MKT as its hero. The film created box-office records and proved to be a turning point in the annals of Tamil cinema and also in the life and career of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.

Y.V.Rao married Actress Kumari Rukmini, through which they had a daughter, who would later come to be recognized as Actress Lakshmi.


G. Raghavachari was a successful Madras High Court lawyer who was also active in the early Tamil Cinema writing and directing, without identifying himself for his work, as in those times cinema was a taboo in many minds, leaving Raghavachari to be anonymous in the movies he worked, including the popular film ‘Rishyasringar’ directed by him.

It was in 1943 at the insistence of movie mogul S. S. Vasan his name appeared as “Acharya” in the credit titles in Gemini’s ‘Mangamma Sabatham’.

During his days he was the most knowledgeable in South Indian Cinema and was involved in productions such as ‘Chandralekha’ (1948) & ‘Apoorva Sahotharargal’ (1949). As per Randor Guy, it was Raghavachari who directed the famous drum dance sequence in Chandralekha, using multiple cameras to film the sequence, though he walked out of the film in mid way.

T.R. Sundaram


T.R.Sundaram PC: Unknown

T.R.Sundaram (born 1907) was from a wealthy family & was a graduate from Leeds University. He was married to a Britisher, Gladys while in UK.
Sundaram entered Tamil films in the early 1930s & was involved in film production in partnership. Later he promoted his own company “Modern Theatres” in Salem. He became a successful studio owner & directed “Sati Ahalya’ (1937). Some of the films made by Modern Theatres included ‘Arundathi’ (1943), ‘ Sulochana’ (1947), ‘Utthama Puthiran’ (1940), Manonmani’ (1942), ‘Aayiram Thalaivangi Apoorva Chintamani’ (1947), ‘Adithan Kanavu’ (1948), ‘Digambara Samiyar’ (1950), ‘Manthiri Kumari’ (1950), ‘Ponmudi’ (1950), ‘Valayaapathi’ (1952), ‘Sarvadhikari’ (1951), ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum’ (1956), and ‘Pasa Valai’ (1956). T.R.Sundaram was a great & strict disciplinarian at work.


An ad of Manonmani in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

TRS gave breaks to many like M Karunanidhi & Kannadasan who became legends.Almost all the top stars have acted for Sundaram except the legend M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. Even the American filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan worked for him, directing ‘Manthiri Kumari,’ and ‘Ponmudi.’

Modern Theatres, one of the most successful film entities, has produced nearly two hundred movies in various languages. Out of this studio came out the first Malayalam movie, ‘Balan’. Besides, the first Tamil film in Gevacolor, ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum’ was also from Modern Theatres.

T.R. Sundaram who passed away in 1963.


Subrahmanyam, a lawyer by profession, decided to go into movie making and founded in 1937 the Motion Pictures Producer Combines Studio where later Gemini Studios stood. He was a founding veteran of Tamil Film Industry & one of the founders of Nadigar Sangam in 1952.

He started his film career working on silent films directed by Raja Sandow. He started Meenakshi Cinetone, debuting his Directorial career with film Pavalakkodi, in which M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar too debuted as an actor.

His remarkable movie was Balayogini, dealing with many social issues of the times. In 1938, he made Sevasadanam, advocating  woman’s empowerment, Bhakta Cheta, on the subject of untouchability and  “Mana Samrakshanam’, a war effort film. His best-known work was Kalki Krishnamurthy written nationalistic film Thyagaboomi, which got banned by the British government, for its explicit National flavor.

As to his personal life, he first married Meenakshi and later Actress S.D.Subbulakshmi. Through these two wed locks, he had children such as S. V. Ramanan, Dr Padma Subramanyam & Abaswaram Ramji, amongst others. His grandson S.Raghuram became a legendary dance choreographer in Indian film industry.

When Subramanyam’s studio was gutted in a major fire, the property came up for auction through a court order. At this juncture, Subrahmanyam persuaded S.S.Vasan to bid for it and enter film production. This is how Vasan’s Gemini Studios came into being.

Sriramulu Naidu

Sriramulu Naidu (born 1910 at Trichy) was another illustrious figure in the development of South Indian cinema. He was a great film personality who promoted as many as three motion picture studios in Coimbatore. In his younger days he was managing his railway retired father’s  bakery in Coimbatore. It was the early thirties when Tamil films were made only in far off Calcutta, Bombay or Kolhapur as till around 1934 the South did not have facilities for movie making. When Premier Cinetone Studio opened in Coimbatore, Sreeramulu Naidu joined the Studio & got trained in several aspects of film msking. Later he co founded the famed Central Studios in Coimbatore, where ‘Tukaram’ was made in Tamil 1938, in which the famous Carnatic Musician Musiri Subramanya Iyer debuted I Cinema. In 1941 Sreeramulu Naidu at Central Studios made ‘Aryamala’. In this movie, Naidu introduced M.S.Sarojini as the heroine. (Later he married her too). In this film Naidu learnt he Art of film making from the other capable co-technicians. When a Madras-based Narayana Iyengar promoted Pakshiraja Films at Coimbatore, Sreeramulu Naidu joined him as his agent and eventually became its Partner. But he quit that and founded the legendary Pakshiraja Studios at Coimbatore, where once Kandhan Studios stood.

Naidu’s second film ‘Sivakavi’ (1943) with MKT in the lead was also a grand success. Raja Sandow initially directed this film but since he fell out with Naidu, the latter took over its direction.


Song book of Sivakavi. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The other noted films under his direction included Pavalakodi, Kalyaniyin kanavan, Kanchana, Malaikallan & Maragatham ‘Malaikallan’ (1954) was made in various languages including Hindi. In Tamil version the pair was MGR- Bhanumathi & in Hindi the pair was Dilip Kumar-Meena Kumari.

If there was a Hall of Fame for the Film Industry in India, like it is in Hollywood, all the above illustrious as well as industrious men would have surely found their coveted places therein. The current Tamil Film Industry owe a lot to these relentless pioneers.






Filmy Ripples : Tamil Cinema’s evolution from Theatre (Part 2)

By P V Gopalakrishnan

Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, a qualified lawyer, founded Suguna Vilas Sabha, which is located even today next to the erstwhile Plaza Theatre near Cosmopolitan Club on Mount Road, Chennai. He wrote a hundred plays & staged them there. The title of Kamal Hassan’s film, “Pammal K. Sambandam” was his expression of tribute to this ‘Father of Tamil theatre’.


Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar PC: unknown

Sati Sulochana, Vedala Ulagam, Ratnavali, Manohara and Sabapathi, are some of the hundred and odd plays he wrote. The above mentioned plays were also made into successful films.  Old Madras luminaries such as S. Satyamurthy, R. K. Shanmukam Chettiar, V. V. Srinivasa Ayyangar, C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, V. G. Gopalaratnam and M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar (the father of the famed actor M. K. Radha) have acted in his plays. The British Govt., honored Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar with coveted Rao Bahadur Title, later the Government of India honored him with a Padma Shri Title in 1963.

Kandaswamy Mudaliar was a well known Tamil dramatist and stage actor. When Pammal Sambandham Mudaliar founded the famous ‘Suguna Vilas Sabha’. He became a member of it and took active part in the running of the Sabha. Besides writing plays, he supported his guru Sambandha Mudaliar in the theatre activities of the Sabha.

S.G.Kittappa, trained in music and acting by Sankaradas Swamigal, was a Tamil classical singer and stage actor who was active in the pre-cinema days.

K.B. Sundarambal as a small girl was discovered while singing and begging for alms on trains by F. G. Natesa Iyer, a Railway official, who was also a stage actor, talent – scout and play producer. He introduced her to Tamil theatre. Soon her stage plays such as “Valli Thirumanam”, “Pavalakodi”, “Harishchandra” became great hits during those days

While on a tour of Ceylon she met singer-stage actor S.G. Kittappa to whom she got married and started acting in stage musical plays as pair. KBS and SGK acted in dramas like Thookku Thookki, Nandanaar, Dasavatharam & Aandaal staged by the Kannaiya Nadaga Company. Their fans showered silver coins on stage when they acted. The couple became cult figures. They also took active part in the Indian Freedom Movement. But Kittappa eventually died very young in 1933 at the age of 27 due to which, at this juncture, his young widow K.B.Sundarambal went into isolation.

When the owners of a Sindhi business house, Chellarams, wanted to produce ‘Baktha Nandanar’ they approached KBS who initially resisted the offer. Subsequently, she debuted in that very film in 1935, in the role of Nandanar, for which she was paid a whopping lakh of Rupees. the renowned Carnatic Vidwan Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer (father of late Maharajapuram Santhanam) too acted in the very film ‘Baktha Nandanar’ (not to confuse with the subsequently made ‘Nandanar’ featuring M.M.Dandapani Desikar). Having debuted in this film, KBS acted & sang in many movies, notable of which were Gemini’s ‘Avvaiyar’, A.P.Nagarajan directed “Thiruvilaiyadal”, Poompukar, Kandan Karunai & Karaikal Ammaiyar.

PU. Chinnappa, was a popular singer movie actor in Tamil screen from 1930s. At a tender age of 8, Chinnappa joined in Meenalokshani Vidvabala Sabha, run by one Palaniyapillai, under the tutelage of Sankaradas Swamigal. At that time T.K.S brothers were acting in this popular drama company at that time. From there P.U.Chinnappa joined Madurai Original Boys Company for a salary of Rs.15 with a 3 year contract. Chinnappa was very prolific in singing too. When Chinnappa acted as hero, M.G.Ramachandran, P.G.Venkatesan, Ponnusamy and Alagesan were acting as a female lead with him. Kali N Rathinam and M. G. Chakrapaniwere acting in supporting roles.

Chinnappa debuted in the movie Chandrakanta (1936) & continued his career in films like Punjab Kesari, Raja Mohan, Anadhai Penn, Yayathi and Mathruboomi. But the movie Uthama Puthiran was a block buster, catapulting the career of Chinnappa. His movies such as Aryamala & Kannaki made him a box office hero. Several other movies of him like Dhayalan, Dharmaveeran, Pruthivirajan and Manonmani too ran very successfully.


Song book of Aryamala PC: From the archives of TCRC


An ad of Manonmani in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

It was during this time, the professional competition between M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and Chinnappa became intense. Vanasundari, Ratnakumar and Sudarshan were the movies that Chinnappa acted last. He passed away in his late thirties in 1951.

One F.G.Natesa Iyer through his Rasika Ranjana Sabha, an amateur theatre group, introduced M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to Stage when MKT was in his pre-teen years. He also took professional training in Carnatic music. MKT teamed with S.D.Subbulakshmi toured even Ceylon & Burma to stage their dramas successfully.

MKT debuted in ‘Pavalakodi’ (1934), produced by Lena Chettiyar & directed by K.Subramanyam, in the music score of Papanasam Sivan.


Inside the pages of Pavalakodi song book. PC: From the archives of TCRC

In all, he acted in 14 movies in his life most of which were record breakers. Thiruneelakandar, Ambikapathi, Chintamani were among the highly successful Tamil films. His film Haridas, released (1944) ran continuously for three years at Broadway Theatre, Madras. The super hit film ‘Chintamani’ (1937) lodged MKT firmly in Super Star status. During the period of World War II, MKT staged his plays & gave concerts to collect funds for Red Cross Society.

He was very popular in classical concert circuits when very many doyens ruled the roost in that field.

After ‘Haridas’ was released, MKT emerged as an unequalled singer-actor & in this pinnacle of his career he had to undergo a jail term of three years, along with N.S.Krishnan, though he had been booked for many more films by that time for which he had collected even signing amounts. When he was released from the jail by the higher court in London after three years of jail term, MKT started seeing decline. His own production ‘Rajamukthi’ also bombed. He passed away at his 49 in the year 1959.


An ad for the film Haridas in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1943  PC: From the archives of TCRC

NS. Krishnan (NSK), the highly acclaimed ace comedian of Tamil Screen of forties & fifties, started his career too on stage. He joined The Original Boys Company in the year 1924, while he was very young. A year later in 1925 NSK joined the Drama Company, ‘Sri Bala Shanmukhanandha Sabha of TKS Brothers where he debuted in a play titled “Savithri”. Subsequently, he worked in various other dramas and donned a variety of roles.

His debut into cinema was through the film ‘Sathi Leelavathy’, produced by Gemini S. S. Vasan, as a comedian. However his debut film was released only in 1936, a year later than his second movie ‘Menaka’ (1935), in which TKS Brothers & K.T.Rukmini acted.  ‘Menaka’, based on a play by TKS Brothers, was shot on a schedule of three months at Ranjit Studios, Bombay. Menaka was the first film to use a Bharathiyar song in a movie. The producers were bold to do that despite there having been a ban on Bharathiyar’s works by the British Government.

Soon in his life he added T.A.Madhuram, a co artiste of par excellence, as his spouse, during the shooting schedule at Poona of the film ‘Vasantha Sena’, directed by Raja Sandow. The rest was history with this couple acting together in over 120 movies, as a pair, between 1936 and 1957.

NSK & Maduram were both singing actors. Towards the later part of his career he too was implicated in the Lakshmikantan murder case along with M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & had to undergo a prison term of thirty months.

N.S.Krishnan produced & directed the movie “Panam” (1952), after his release from jail term, in which he paired music directors Viswanathan & Ramanoorthy first time. Though Ramamoorthy was senior to Viswanathan, NSK decided to have Viswanathan’s name first due to phonetic reasons. And it stayed so!

He passed away in 1957 & few of his films were released much after his demise.

                                                                                                                                                           (to be continued)