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Thursday, October 18, 2001

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Mylapore and movies

Mylapore of yesteryear was known for having produced several eminent personalities. But how many of us know that it was connected with tinseldom? MANY THINK that Mylapore is synonymous only with legal luminaries and High Court judges. Yet, it has its other facets and features too. The history of such others is equally interesting but sadly, remains largely unexplored and, of course, undocumented. Mylapore has its medical experts, sportsmen, and musicians among others. Mylapore has also been connected with motion pictures since the 1930s.

It had film studios, movie houses, screen writers, actors (in Hollywood they no longer use the word `actress' as it is considered `sexist'!), film technicians and all have lived here enriching the culture and life styles of good old Mylai.

Indeed as the editor of the fine arts magazine Sruti, N. Pattabhiraman said, "Mylapore is not a geographical entity but a state of mind." Thus, its includes the traditional area of Mylapore, San Thome, Raja Annamalaipuram, its satellite extensions and, the outskirts of Adyar, on this side of the river.

Mylapore as defined above had in them decades, three active movie studios and two cinema houses. Today, the studios have either vanished or ceased to work. Luckily, one of the two movie houses still functions against odds and changing trends in movie-going habits of Mylaporeans and the onslaught of television, cable networks and the rest of the leisure-pleasure channels.

Not many are aware that in the 1920s Mylapore had its share of `tent cinemas' where silent films were regularly screened.

The tickets were cheap with the `floor' going for one `kalana' or three `dambidis'. Untill the mid-1950s the Indian rupee consisted of 16 `anaas', or 64 `kalanas' or 192 `dambidis'. For two `kalanas', one sat on a rickety, bug-infested bench with no back rest. Two anaas entitled one to sit on a wrought-iron chair which creaked whenever one breathed hard or sighed deeply, moved by the on-screen events! The floor or `tharai ticket' as it was known in Thamizh had its own major plus points. Privileges not enjoyed by the better-placed `havens.' Its frequenter was known as "Thara ticket asami!" used often in a pejorative sense.

The plebeian moviegoer sat on the sandy ground where he could relax and watch the movie, reclining or lying in the comfort of Mother Earth!

If the scenes of the film were not his cup of tea he could roll over, take a short nap, and roll back when things on screen hotted up! "TTA' could whistle at the goings-on or sneeze on cue if the lovers on screen got too close for a kiss! Such joys were denied to the better-placed person on the bench and chair!

The noted musician, musicologist, painter and movie star of the early 1930s, S. Rajam, recalled that as a lad he had seen silent films in a tent cinema located in an open space behind the P.S. High School compound.

He even recalled the name of a movie he had seen decades ago in parts - "Nal Damayanthi." He was emphatic that it was produced in North India! Obviously, it was the second version of the familiar tale made in 1927 by the founding father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke at Nasik. It was 8123 feet long. Rajam evidently saw the Phalke movie of 1927, which was possibly screened, in parts! He was then in his pre-teens.

The first permanent movie house of Mylai, Kapali Talkies came up in the late 1930s and, until the recent years, it served the Mylai-wasis. In that era, it was rather isolated with areas like Raja Annamalaipuram, Mandavelipakkam, and such not being in existence. The first superstar of South India, M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, inaugurated the cinema for which he was given a silver hammer as a memento!

(There have been fanciful explanations why a hammer of all the things was given but none of them are complimentary to poor MKT!)

Foreigners, especially Americans, wonder why movie houses in India are called "Talkies"!

One American diplomat in Madras asked what the word went. In the early days, movie houses or tents screened only silent films. When movie began to talk English in 1927 and Hindi, Tamil, Telugu in 1931, Kannada in 1934 and Malayalam in 1938, cinemas acquired sound equipment and the theatres came to be known as `Talkies' as opposed to places screening silent films.

For some time even after movies began to talk in India, silent films were still being made in South India. To distinguish the two, the word `Talkies' was used in India. (This word is not in use in the West.)

(Some of the silent films made in South India after movies began to talk are...

1931 — "Bhaktha Vatsal" (Directed by P.V.Rao it had the great but forgotten Indian film pioneer of Pudukottah, Raja Sandow (P.K. Nagalingam), and Leela in lead roles.); "Bhut Rajya" (a ghost tale by the famous Kannada man of letters and multi- faceted genius of Karnataka, K. Shivarama Karanth. He played the lead role too!); "His Love Affair" (Directed by a foreigner, Raphel Algoet, and produced by the legendary Gubbi Veeranna. He and his star wife, B. Jayamma, played lead roles.); "Leila, The Star of Mingrelia" (Directed by the pioneer R. Prakash and based on a story by G.W.M. Reynolds of "The Mysteries of the Court of London" fame! - it was also a big hit in many countries like Burma, Ceylon and Malaya because of its high erotic content!); "Marthanda Varma" (made in Trivandrum by P.V.Rao and based on a famous historical novel.); "Maya Madhusudhan" (Directed by D. Seshiah, featuring "Battling" Mani in the lead. He was known as the "Douglas Fairbanks of India!"); "Rose of Rajasthan"(R. Prakash); "Vishwamitra" (D. Seshiah).1932 - "Hari Maya" (Directed by Y. V. Rao with Gubbi Veeranna and B. Jayamma in lead roles);"Vishnu Leela" (Directed by R. Prakash and produced by C.V. Raman at the National Theaters Studios which years later became Satya Studio. The only silent film to be shot on that historic site!

Indeed, silent films were made in India until 1934. Sadly, only one of the 100 and more silent films made in South India survives to this day - "Marthanda Varma," oddly described as the "Malayalam silent film"! The others have vanished without a trace... !

(A print of "Marthanda Varma" is happily preserved at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune.)


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