History of Tamil Cinema

Posted By kalyan on April 5, 2008

Movies Come To Tamil Nadu

Source: intamm.com


A visiting European exhibitor screened a bunch of silent short films at the Victoria Public Hall, Madras. The films all non-fiction and told no story. They were mostly photographed records of ordinary events.

In Madras (Chennai) City, the “Electric Theatre” established where silent films were shown. It was the favourite haunt of the British community in Madras. The theatre was closed after few years. This building is now part of the Post Office Complex on Anna Salai.

Mr. Cohen built “Lyric Theatre” in Mount Road area (now Anna Salai). Here, plays in English, Western music concert and ball dances took place regularly and silent films were also shown as additional attraction.

Samikannu Vincent an employee of South Indian Railway, Trichy purchased a film projector and silent films from Frenchman Du Pont and set up business as film exhibitor. He erected tents for screening films. The tent cinema became popular and he went all over with his mobile unit. In later years he produced talkie films and also built a cinema house in Coimbatore.

To commemorate the event of George V’s visit in 1909 a grand exhibition was organised in Madras. Its major attraction was the screening of short films with sound. A British company brought “Crone-megaphone”, made up of a film projector to which a gramophone with a disk containing pre-recorded sound was linked and both ran in unison producing picture and sound simultaneously. However, there was no lip-synch dialogue. Raghupathy Venkiah, a successful still photographer took over the equipment after the exhibition and set up a tent cinema near the Madras High Court.

R. Venkiah flushed with funds built in 1912 a permanent cinema house in Mount Road area named “Gaiety”. It was the first in Madras, to screen films on full time basis. This theatre happily functions though under different ownership.

In tent cinemas there were usually three classes of tickets, the floor, bench and chair. The floor ticket purchaser sat on sand to watch the movie but he enjoyed certain advantages, which other patrons did not. He could sit as he pleased or even he could turnover and take a short sleep when it is boring him and again roll back when the screen shot upto his liking! Luxuries, the upper class could never indulge in. Surely those were the days!

Silent Cinema In Tamil Nadu

1916 R. Nataraja Mudaliar, an automobile spare parts merchant promoted India Film Company Limited and built a silent film studio on Miller’s Road, Purasawalkkam, Madras. Interested in the new medium of cinema he had received training in Cinematography from Stewart Smith, a British cinematographer. Mudaliar’s first silent feature film was “Keechaka Vadam” (1917), first to be made in Tamil Nadu.

Venkaiah sent his son Raghupathy S. Prakash abroad for training in film production. Prakash learnt film technique in Baker’s Motion Picture Studio, London. He also visited Germany and Hollywood; Prakash returned with a 35 mm Williamson silent movie camera.

Venkaiah and Prakash launched a movie “Meenakshi Kalayanam” as their first venture. Prakash, the cameraman, editor, printer and director shot the silent film on actual locations in and around the temple town Madurai. As he found it difficult to get artists to act for several reasons he had no option than to cast Anglo-Indians in interest in non-speaking silent cinema. Others refused because of the superstition that facing a camera reduced longevity!

When Prakash screened his film he found all artist appeared with their heads cut. The movie, in short, turned out to be a headless show! Some commented that it was the curse of Gods for having caste non-Hindus in Gods’ roles. However Prakash made experiments with his camera and found that there was a defect in the lens mechanism.

Prakash designed his own film-processing laboratory in his house using wooden drums and rollers made of wood, he processed film by hand. This laboratory known as “Hand and Tank Lab”. Prakash’s next venture, was “Bhishma Pratigna” (1922). The actor who played Lord Krishna in this film was A. Narayanan.

Silent films made by Narayanan include “Gajendra Moksham” (1930), (directed by R. Prakash) “Garuda Garva Bhaugam” (1920) (directed by A. Narayanan). Y.V. Rao too directed films like “Pandava Nirvana” (1930) “Sarangadhra” (1930) “Bhoja Raja” (1931), all of them produced by Narayanan.

One of the films Narayanan produced and directed by Prakash was “Leila – the Star of Mingrella” (1931), had many half-clad females, prolonged lip to lip kissing scenes. No wonder “Leila” proved to be a box office success all over the country!

Film censoring was in existence from the earliest days in India and the Indian Cinematography Act became law in 1918. Censor Boards were established in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras
(Chennai). The Commissioner of Police was the Chairman of the Board. However, the Censor was mere concerned about the political content of films and anything even suggesting call for freedom or rebellion against the British was neatly scissored. The British Indian Censor did not bother much about matters of sex, morals and the like. Most silent films had passionate kissing scenes and intimate love sequences, with no questions asked!

R Padmanabhan, another pioneer of Tamil Cinema also produced silent films. He along with his friends formed Associated Films with a Studio in Saidapet, Madras. For his first film “Anathai Penn” (1930), he engaged Raja Sandow as director and hero.

Raja Sandow also made films for R.Padmanabhan like “Rajeswari” (1931) “Usha Sundari” (1931) “Bhakthavatsala” (1931).

The heroine of “Rajeswari” was another pioneer of Indian Cinema. T.P. Rajalakshmi. She was a stage star, movie actress and soon became film producer and the first female director of India and possibly, in the world! She was active for many years till the 1950’s.

In “Kovalan” (1930) a Narayanan Production directed by R.Prakash there was a shot showing the famous Madurai Meenakshi temple tower in a titled angle with the camera looking up, Moviegoers of Madurai felt that tower was sinking and crashing on them and ran out of the auditorium screaming in sheer terror.

Silent films even in India were not really silent. Appropriate background music was played on harmonium and tabala (drums) by persons seated in front the screen. A man invariably stood in the middle of the half near the wall and narrated the story, and also what might have been the dialogue! Some of them made it so colorful and interesting they became stars and attracted crowds!

Even though more than a hundred silent films were made, it is regretful that not even one is available today for screening and study. The only silent film safe and available is “Marthanda Varma” made in the State of Kerala. A copy of this rare film at the National Film Archive of India at Poona in the State of Maharashtra. It was directed by P.V.Rao, one of the persons trained by R. Prakash.

Sun was the only source of lighting for film making in Madras in those days. As the privately owned Madras Electric Supply Corporation Ltd. was not in a position to supply the requirements of higher power for movie lights and no generators were available shooting could be done only at the mercy of sunlight!

Raja Sandow or P.K. Nagalingam, originally born in Pudukottai and built up a reputation as wrestler. His went to Bombay to teach wrestling to a millionaire. Soon he entered films as hero in a silent movie produced by the Indian film pioneer Ardeshir Irani. Impressed by his hero’s physic and handsome looks, he gave him a new name “Raja Sandow!” Quickly he earned a reputation as a box office hero of Bombay silent cinema and acted against famous heroines like Miss Gohar.

Raja Sandow felt convinced that the cinema should be something more than mere entertainment. It should not be used merely to thrill but to teach and educate masses.

As silent filmmakers like R. Prakash found it difficult to get persons especially ladies to act in their films they recruited artistes from the local Anglo Indian Community. They did not suffer from superstitious beliefs, and were warm and outgoing. They were fair skinned and had good figures. As the film spoke no language the Anglo-Indian’s ignorance of Tamil did not create problems!

However, there were local Indian Heroes of the silent era like “Stunt” Raju and “Battling” Mani. Mani was a star of his day, popularly known as “The Douglas Fairbanks of South India”.

In small towns of South India movies were publicised by bullock-carts going round the places with drum-beats, and music, often like being performed inside the cart! The cart had posters pasted and a person seated in the cart distributed handbills. This medium of publicity was in vogue for a long time even during the 1940’s.

Movies Talk Tamil

The first talking picture in Tamil was “Kalidas” made in 1931 in Bombay. Produced by the Indian Film pioneer Ardeshir Irani and directed by H.M. Reddi, this film had T.P. Rajalakshmi as heroine. Even though this film is considered as the first Tamil talkie, it is not a hundred percent Tamil film, Rajalakshmi spoke and sang in Tamil, while the hero did in Telugu. Some others in Hindi. “Kalidas” is therefore the first Indian multi-lingual film!

While “Kalidas” was far from perfect technically, it was a box office success. People came to see it with a sense of awe and wonder. The mere fact that sound came out of the screen fascinated them. Some even thought it was some kind of black magic indulged by the white man!

The first hundred percent Tamil talkie was “Galavarishi” made in Bombay in 1932. It was directed by Badami and T.C. Vadivelu Naicker. G. Ramanathan, the popular Tamil film music director entered cinema with this film.

In 1933, the famous Prabath Film Company made “Seethakalyanam” in Kolhapur. S. Rajam played Lord Rama while Jayalakshmi, the real life sister of the hero, enacted Seetha! The six-year-old son of the lawyer acted in a small role. Later he rose to be a famous actor, producer, director, music composer and also a classical Carnatic musician as Veena Player. His name was S. Balachandar.

A classic Carnatic musician made his entry into cinema in this film as music composer. Many of his Tamil film songs are super hits and have found a place in the list of all-time favourites. He was a traditional conservative scholarly musician Papanasam Sivan.

‘Valli Thirumanam’ (1933), a mythological film produced in Calcutta by Samikannu Vincent and directed by P.V. Rao was the first box office success of Tamil Cinema. T.P. Rajalakshmi played the lead role.

“Drowpathi Vastrapaharanam” (1934) produced by A. Narayanan was technically a fine film. R. Prakash, the cinematographer of the film took a stunningly brilliant shot in this film. Lord Krishna was seen in five different places simultaneously, all in a single frame. This trick shot done in the camera is most difficult to achieve. Considering that there were no facilities like, optical printers, special effects generators and others of the modern day, this work reveals the brilliance of the veteran Prakash.

“Bhama Vijayam” (1934) made in Calcutta and directed by Mani Lal Tandon and staring Maharajapuram Krishnamurthy and the famous stars of the stage P.S. Ratha Bai – P.S. Sardaswathi Bai was a big grosser. Produced at a cost of Rs. 80,000, the film collected one million rupees. A staggering fortune in the 1930’s. G.N. Balasubramaniam, handsome colleges graduate, classical Carnatic Musician made his debut in this film as the singing sage “Narada”.

M.L. Tandon, the director was one of the early popular filmmakers of South India studied film technique at the famous University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and also worked as consultant of Indian Culture for a Hollywood production company.

Narayanan, an innovator brought in his wife Meenakshi Narayanan to work in his studio as Sound Recordist. She was the first lady technician of South Indian Cinema. Her knowledge of Carnatic Music encouraged her to take up audiography.

The Early Years

In the early 1930’s no facilities for talkie film production were available in Madras. Producers had to go to Bombay, Calcutta, Poona (now Pune) and Kolhapur for their productions where sound recording was available.

A. Narayanan built the first talkie studio in Madras in 1934. The maiden Tamil talkie produced by him was ‘Srinivasa Kalyanam’ (1934). Its main artistes were P.S.Srinivasan Rao and R.B. Lakshmi Devi.

Narayanan’s talkie unit was named “Srinivasa Cinetone”. The studio was also known as “Sound City”.

M.L. Tandon directed “Nandanar” (1935) a film of unusual interest. A woman K.B. Sundarambal, a stage star and an accomplished musician played a folk myth figure the hero, an untouchable, and a devotee of Lord Siva, with an impressive voice. She created film history as the first person to receive a remuneration of Rs.100, 000 for the film, an undreamt figure of those days!.

This popular folk epic has been filmed five times, twice in silent version and thrice as talkie.
mkt.jpg (5840 bytes) 1934 was the emergence of M.K.Thyagaraja Bagavathar popular singing stages star as a movie star. He made his debut this year in “Pavalakkodi”. A lawyer-turned-film maker Krishnaswami Subramaniam, also making his debut directed it.

K. Subramaniam became a successful filmmaker with many film classics to his credit like “Balayogini” (1937) “Sevasadanam” (1938) and “Thyaga Bhoomi” (1939). He realised the cinema was an effective tool of communication to be used as a mirror to hold-up and reveal the workings of society.

“Menka” (1935) based on popular Tamil stage play was one of the earliest Tamil films with a contemporary theme and story. Such films came to be known as “Socials” in India. The famous stage troupe TKS Brothers who had staged the play earlier participated in the film produced by a group of businessmen in Bombay and directed by Raja Sandow. T.K. Shanmugam the most famous of the Brothers played the hero. His brother T.K.Muthuswami played the role of a widow. As no actress was willing to shave her head for the role and “bald wigs” were not yet in vogue Muthuswami who played the role on stage did in the film too with shaved head!

Intelligent stage comedian named N.S. Krishnan made his debut in “Menaka”. Quickly he became extremely popular and rose to be a living legend and cult figure. He and his star wife T.A. Maturam acted in almost every other film in Tamil during a certain period.

“Menaka” was a box office success and also won an award from the Madras Provincial Government.

They Were Different

“Sathi Leelavathi” (1936) a movie of some historical interest introduced many new talents to Tamil cinema who in later years made waves and created history. Based on a novel by Thiruthuraipoondi Subramania Srinivasan, better known as S.S. Vasan, then a magazine writer, editor and publisher, this film was directed by an American who came to India looking for work and made films of great quality, interest and success in South India, Elllis R. Dungan. The hero M.K.Radha was one of the popular stars of South India. Another newcomer who proved success as brilliant character actor possessing a wide range was T.S.Baliah.

Sathi Leelavathi” a film highlighting the evils of drink was popular success.

Thyagaraja Bhagavathar hit the headlines with thud and attained super stardom with Y.V.Rao’s “Chinthamani” (1937), a folk myth. This film was song-studded and proved as great money-spinner. Music composed by Papanasam Sivan contributed to the enormous success and many songs sung by Bhagavathar and the heroine K.Aswathamma were the rage of the day. The film earned so much money that the producers built a cinema house of its profits in their hometown Madurai and named it “Cinthamani”. Cinthamani ran for over a year in many places. Y.V.Rao as director became a star too.

During the same year Bhagavathar had another spectacular success “Ambikavathi” (1937) based on a folk tale built around historical figures. Ellis R.Dungan directed this tragic love epic story. Bhagavathar blessed with a honeydew melodious voice and musical talents and skills established himself more firmly as superstar with incredible following not only among masses but also classes. His popularity during his day was incredible.

The Scriptwriter Elangovan rose to great heights in his Tamil adaptation and gave the dialogue a classic touch. Elangovan a scholarly writer made his reputation in an innovative literary trend-setting Tamil magazine “Manikkodi” in the early 1930′s. This magazine nursed and nurtured many new talents who contributed greatly to the growth of modern Tamil literature. Some of them like Elangovan, B.S.Ramaiah and S.D.S.Yogi came into films to enrich Tamil Cinema with their creative contribution. “Manikkodi” was one of the few early serious Tamil magazines to publish analytical articles and reviews of cinema.

Elangovan was the first Tamil scriptwriter to invest Tamil cinema with a touch of literature. His elegant Tamil prose attracted attentions of even the common man and dialogue came to play a dominant role in Tamil cinema. This interesting feature would play a far-reaching role not only in cinema but even beyond, in the political arena of Tamil Nadu.

Music Composer of “Ambikapathi” was Papanasam Siva. With two hits in a row “Cinthamani” and “Ambikapathi” Bhagavathar and Papanasam Sivan became household names in South India. After “Ambihapathi” the trio Bhagavathar, Sivan and Elangovan came to be treated with ingredients of box-office success. Dungan introduced many innovations in his films like improved camera techniques, well pictured songs and dances, and also intimate romantic sequences!

Interestingly Dungan did not know the language and yet produced first class films in Tamil.

In 1938 K.Subramaniam made a memorable film “Sevasadanam”. This picture introduced a singer with the most melodious voice ever heard, M.S.Subbulakshmi. She attained enormous popularity and after few movies she took to a carrier in Carnatic music and soared to the top. A living legend and an internationally famous musician. Subbulakshmi has contributed to deserving causes by raising funds with her soul-filling music.

Haridass ran uninterruptedly for hundred and ten weeks at Broadway Cinema, Madras, witnessing, three Deepavalis (The festival of Lights) an important occasion in India. This record of the longest run for a regional film in India continues to be unbroken and unchallenged even after almost half a century.

N.S.Krishnan and his reel and real life partner T.A.Mathuram dominated the Tamil film scene for many years. Krishnan’s comedy was chaplinesque in content. It was purposeful and provoked people not merely to laugh, but also think. He poked fun at meaningless superstitious beliefs, customs, and rituals prevalent in Indian society through his comedy. He wrote and directed his comedy scenes in a film and handed them over to producers on completion, for the final editing. A genius with a vision far ahead of his time he was a social reformer, a thinker who used the medium of cinema to effect change in society.

Many films survived at the box office because of his comedy sequences, some of which were shot and incorporated after the completion of the main film, sometimes after release too! For this N.S.Krishnan was known as “Film Repairer”.

P.U.Chinnappa P.U.Chinnappa, like most early Tamil film stars, an import from the stage was a successful box office hero. Next in line to Bhagavathar and an actor of many talents he could sing and perform a variety of stunts, which he had learnt. He made a splash with ‘Uthamaputhiran’ (1940). An adaptation of Alexander Duma’s novel ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’.

Films like ‘Aryamala’ (1941), ‘Kannagi’ (1942), ‘Manonmani’ (1942), ‘Kubera Kusela’ (1943), ‘Jagathalapradaban’ (1944) all box-office hits made him a sought-after star.

A person having fine voice and training in classical music. Some of his songs became all time hits

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