MEMORIES OF COIMBATORE Cinematographer V.K. Gopal on the heydays of cinema studios in Coimbatore and working with the stars
I hail from Veerapandipudur near Coimbatore and moved to the city to study in Sarvajana School under a full scholarship. I was not bad in studies, but yearned to do something that would tax me physically and mentally. Cinema fascinated me. Touring talkies fuelled that interest. So did watching films in Variety Hall and Edison, theatres started by Samikannu Vincent. I decided the film industry was where my future lay.
My father took me to meet B. Rangaswamy Naidu of Central Studios. Sivakavi was being shot there then. I was taken on as an assistant to famous cinematographer Adi Irani. I loved my new vocation as I was very fond of photography. When in school, my father had bought me a Brownie box camera and I used to take pictures of children and sell it to them at Re 1 a picture!
Studios in Coimbatore were technically advanced. We had 10 KW, 5 KW AND 2 KW lights, and the fancy Mitchell camera from the U.K. But people in the city were not star-struck. Actors would happily talk a walk down the road. Even ‘location’ shootings would not get disrupted. Once, we shot for Sivakavi near Rajalakshmi Mills. People walked about minding their business while we canned a scene where a fallen horse is revived after the hero sings it a song!
Actors would be put up in a bungalow near present-day Krishnaswamy Nagar. Actresses would stay in rooms within the studio. Technicians were revered and actors would not hesitate sharing rooms with us. I’ve stayed with Sivaji Ganesan once! MGR (who was yet to become a huge star), Nambiar and I stayed in a lodge in Ramanathapuram. We would cook in our rooms — rice and biryani. MGR used to make good kanji. Later, we would sit down to carrom or cards.
I’ve walked with MGR to the Palace Theatre (later Naaz) to watch a film. We would sit at a tailor’s shop and munch peanuts before the film. After the night show, we would ride a jutka home.
Because of its surroundings, Coimbatore was a cinematographer’s delight. We’ve shot extensively in Walayar, Wenlock Downs, Botanical Gardens, Athupaalam and Goshen Park. Wenlock Downs was a favourite. The lovely blue of the sky, the green of the meadows and the colourful costumes resulted in great frames. I remember Athupaalam as a tranquil place with a lovely water body and lots of greenery around it.
Those days, my salary used to be Rs. 15 a month, and I would manage to save Rs. 5! I would walk from Ramanathapuram to the studio. Later, I bought a Hercules cycle. Walking was our favourite mode of transport. Then, there were jutkas, not autos. For a taxi, studios relied on ‘174 Kaliappa’, which ferried us across town.
The film industry in Coimbatore supported so many families. Make-up artistes were brought in from Bombay, given a good monthly salary and retained in the city so that films made here would look good. Later, many of us moved out of town — to Salem and Madras… But, memories of working in this lovely city will always linger.
V.K. GOPAL (GOPANNA) Born in 1922, he was cinematographer for more than 60 films, 50 of them in Tamil. He has worked in films such as ‘Town Bus’, ‘Sampoorna Ramayanam’ and ‘Makkalai Petra Magaraasi’. He also co-produced films such as ‘Paavai Vilakku’ under the Sree Vijayagopal Pictures banner.
During the freedom struggle, people would sing patriotic songs. A singer was once even arrested on stage for this. When we got Independence, the city erupted in joy. People danced, sang and burst crackers…