Filmy Ripples: Movie Studios (Part 1)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

Once in my high school vacation, a guy in our friend circle motivated us for a trip to the far away AVM studio to witness a film shoot, on the pretext one of his relatives worked there. Our long bus trip to Puliyur and beyond made a bunch of us cross a lot of fields and Aubergine cultivated lands (you know, Kodambakkam Kathirikkai was very popular in those days), till we reached our dream destination. But our starry eyed expectations were soon blown off by the studio sentry who, forthwith, denied entry to our small group of school kids.

Today, the word ‘Kollywood’, coined after Bollywood, would refer the whole hub encompassing Vadapalani to Kodambakkam to Saligramam, the nerve center of Tamil film industry & TV. It is in this topography, the mighty film studios such as AVM & Vijaya Vahini once clustered & grew with vast facilities for film production. They had innumerable shooting floors, with Vijaya Vahini having as many as thirteen. Of course we had also, by exception, film studios spilled over to other areas of Madras too, such as the mighty Gemini in Mount Road, Venus in Alwarpet, Meenakshi Cinetone turned Neptune turned Satya in Adyar and Newtone, Citadel in Purasawakkam.

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An Ad for Newtone Studios in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Those days, before the advent of Kodambakkam over bridge in 1965, there was a rickety railway level crossing at busy Kodambakkam, choking with heavy traffic. The gate closed with every suburban service passing. The ever hungry star gazers hanged about this level crossing to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars, lurking inside their car, waiting for the gate to open.

Besides Madras, there were also few well-known studios in other cities; Mr. T.R.Sundaram’s Modern Theatres Studio at Salem, Sreeramulu Naidu’s Pakshiraja Studios, Neptune Studios & Central Studios, all in Coimbatore.

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An Ad for brought out by Modern Theatres for the film Manonmani in Kalki Deepavali Malar 1942 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Prior to production of films in Madras State, some films were produced in Calcutta & Pune. M.S. Subbulakshmi starred Savithri (1941), which had as many as eighteen songs penned by Papanasam Sivan, was produced in New Theatres Studio of Calcutta.

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An Ad for the film Savitri in Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1941 PC: From the archives of TCRC

As per the Film Historian Randor Guy, the Madras Electric Supply Corporation (MESC) had built a powerhouse in Kodambakkam area during the World War II times, but without many takers for the energy. The film studios were enthused to set up shops here. Kodambakkam soon saw several studios coming up such as AVM, Vijaya, Rohini, Bharani, Vikram, Paramount (later called Majestic), Golden, Vasu, and Karpagam.

Much before AVM Productions was launched, Sri Valli (1945), directed by A.V.Meyyappan himself along with A.T.Krishnaswamy, was made by AVM under the banner of Pragathi Studios. This movie catapulted A.V.Meiyappan to fame.

AVM Studios was first located at Karaikudi, before shifting to Kodambakkam. The Karaikudi studio was made of thatched roof structures and stood at Devakottai Rastha. ’Nam Iruvar’, released before Indian Independence & which became a thundering success, was made in Karaikudi based AVM studios. This super hit film extensively portrayed the hopes and aspirations of a nation on the brink of independence.  Only after this did AVM move his studio from Karaikudi to Kodambakkam.

 

AVM Studios, in its grand annals, have had many a landmark event associated with Tamil Film Industry.

National Pictures and AVM Productions jointly produced the debut film of Sivaji Ganesan ‘Parasakthi’, though it did not begin well for Sivaji Ganesan, who was on a princely monthly remuneration of Two Hundred Fifty Rupees for the film. In fact, at one stage, Meiyappan, dissatisfied with Ganesan’s “thin” body frame wanted him replaced. But, ironically, time wanted to prove this very Ganesan as an Institution by himself. So, AVM’s partner in the project, Perumal, insisted that Ganesan be retained. But the initial scenes involved many retakes with Ganesan. Rest was history, with the world acknowledging him as Nadigar Thilakam.

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A plaque commemorating the 50th year of Parasakthi at AVM studios at the very spot Sivaji Ganesan said his first dialogue ‘Success’ . PC: http://www.rediff.com

AVM’s “Vazhkai” (1949) was the first film to be shot at the new AVM Studio at Chennai. The film starred T.R. Ramachandran and Vyjayanthimala, which was the latter’s debut movie in Tamil when she was a teenager. When M. V. Raman, who wrote ‘Vazhkai’, spotted Vyjayanthimala performing a Bharata Natyam concert at Gokhale Hall in Madras, he was impressed by her talent & beauty and recommended her to the boss Meiyappan.

V. Venkatraman (SVV) was ‘found’ by A.V.Meyyappa Chettiar as a man in distress at Cubbon Park, Bangalore & gave him the break in “Nanda Kumar” as Music Director. SVV became a major name in music scene & scored soul-stirring music for over two hundred films in various languages. Even MSV & TKR worked for him at some point in time.

C.N.Annadurai is said to have written the three hundred pages of screen play for the film “Oar Iravu” in a single night camping at AVM studios, for a whopping sum (at those times) of Rupees Ten Thousand!

It was only at AVM Studios the living legend S.Janaki gave her audition in 1957 before Music Directors Sudarashanam & Govardhanam.

Vijaya Studios made “Maya Bazaar” (1957) which was critically acclaimed and considered as one of the enduring classics of Indian Cinema. It was touted as a landmark achievement in Indian film’s cinematography, art direction and visual effects with the technology available at the time.

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The entrance to Vijaya Vauhini studios. PC : http://www.frontline.in

 

Gemini Studios, owned by Movie Moghul S.S.Vasan, had a history. The Veteran Film Director K. Subrahmanyam (Father of Denseuse Padma Subramanyam) who made some iconic movies including ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1938) was having a Studio at the same premises since 1937. But owing to a major inferno the property was totally burnt down. In 1941, S.S.Vasan bought out the premises in a distress sale & built his own studio & named it Gemini Studios. It is said that Vasan, who was a fan of horse racing, named the studio after one of his favourite horses. Gemini Studios produced some of the iconic movies such as Nandanar, Mangamma Sabatham, Miss Malini, Chandralekha, Avvaiyar, Vanjikottai Valiban to name a few.

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An ad for Gemini Pictures Circuit with its distinct logo  (the company that bought over the studio from Subramanyam and renamed it Gemini Studios). Published in Anada Vikatan Deepavali Malar 1939. PC: From the archives of TCRC

                                                                                                                                                             (to be continued)

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The story of Lena Chettiar, the used-car dealer who turned into a film producer!

We at TCRC are always looking out for interesting trivia about yesteryear film personalities. Also, given that our search analytics told us that people were looking into the TCRC blog for information on one of Tamil cinema’s earliest superstars, actor-singer M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, we thought of putting together a separate post about him. We started looking for information about his 1934-released debut film “Pavalakodi.” But it was one of the producers of “Pavalakodi”, one Mr. Lena Chettiar, who ended up piquing our curiosity.

“Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) was produced under the Krishna Pictures banner promoted by Lena Chettiar. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu.

Writing about the film “Prabhavathi” (Tamil, 1942) in The Hindu’s Blast From The Past column, Randor Guy profiles Lena Chettiar (click here to read the post about “Prabhavathi”):

S. M. Letchumanan Chettiar, popularly known as Lena Chettiar, was a powerful figure in the world of Tamil Cinema. A native of Chettinad, he was a ‘drama contractor’ in his early days, staging plays in various southern parts of the state by hiring freelancing actors and selling tickets for their plays. He also dealt in used cars and was the first man in this part of the world to print and circulate handbills about used cars in Tamil. Most of the Naattukottai Chettiars were wealthy, but did not know English. They found these handbills a novelty and encouraged Lena Chettiar.”

Randor Guy also reports that it was Lena Chettiar who convinced M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to not venture into production himself and stepped in to produce it for him:

M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s (a top-ranking freelancing stage actor then) play with another stage actress S. D. Subbulakshmi, ‘Pavalakodi’, was a raving hit not only in the Tamil-speaking areas of South India but also in Ceylon. Bhagavathar was seriously planning to enter movies with Pavalakodi and Lena advised him against venturing into production on his own and convinced Bhagavathar to team up with him. With his rich pals, Lena produced Pavalakodi in 1934, which marked Bhagavathar’s film debut and proved to be a major hit.”

Lena Chettiar produced numerous films under various labels and eventually, started promoting the ‘Krishna Pictures’ banner in the early part of the 1940s under which he produced films in Tamil and Telugu for nearly 15 years. The last film that he produced, before the founding of Krishna Pictures, was “Krishnan Thoothu,” which was the Tamil debut of Telugu film star Kannamba. In his post about “Krishnan Thoothu,” Randor Guy mentions Lena again:

 He wielded enormous influence beyond the confines of the movie business in official and political circles. Soon after this film, he promoted his own unit, Krishna Pictures, in T. Nagar. His office on Thanikachalam Chetti Road (named after the noted Justice Party leader O.T. Chetti) was indeed a landmark of that area with its Krishna temple besides the building put up by Lena.”

Producers seldom get mentioned in serious writing about cinema. But in the early days of cinema in India, we at TCRC have noticed that often it was the producers who  moved mountains to fuel innovation and creativity. Lena Chettiar seems to be one such gentleman and we at TCRC are glad to bring back to public memory, stories of such film entrepreneurs.

Kamal Hassan, The Singer: “Paneer Pushpangale” in “Aval Appadithan” (Tamil, 1978)

We at TCRC have a large number of still photographs shot during the production of various films that have been made by Tamil filmmakers across the years. We are in the process of digitizing, sorting and cataloguing them. One of the films for which most of this work has been completed is C Rudhraiya’s “Aval Appadithan” starring Kamal Hassan, Rajnikanth, Sripriya and Saritha. In fact, the header image that you see at the top of this page is a production photograph from “Aval Appadithan,” which was released in 1978.

The movie, praised by many for being far ahead of its times in terms of both treatment and technique, had numerous English dialogues and frequently employed jump cuts (two or more shots taken from only slightly different angles being placed sequentially, so as to communicate the passing of time in an abrupt manner). Shot in black and white, “Aval Appadithan” had only three songs, all of which were composed by Ilaiyaraaja.

One of the songs, titled “Paneer Pushpangale,” was written by Gangai Amaren and was sung by Kamal Hassan himself. Now, we’re used to Kamal singing his own songs. But it’s quite refreshing to hear Kamal croon a ‘Raaja Sir’ (as Ilaiyaraaja is known in the Tamil film industry) number from that era. In fact, when we heard the song for first time, we couldn’t even identify Kamal’s voice. Check it for yourself. Here is “Paneer Pushpangale” from “Aval Appadithan”: