A recent talk by Mohan Raman, the well-known film actor and film heritage buff, took me back to the beginnings of film-making in South India. Many still remember theatre personality Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, but few remember his kinsman, R. Nataraja Mudaliar, whose pioneering ‘Tamil’ film, "Keechaka Vadham", was inspired by that giant of the Madras stage.
Nataraja Mudaliar started life as a businessman in the first years of the 20th Century, when he set up Watson & Co. to sell imported British bicycles. Before long, he took over a firm that had been importing American cars. With the success of both, he looked for a new field to enter. His interest in photography, and the films of the silent era that he was fascinated with, made him decide that film-making is what he wanted to be in.
Once the decision was made, he acted fast. He went to Poona to study cinematography with Stewart Smith, an Englishman who ran a film theatre in the city but was better known as a newsreel photographer. Next, in 1916, Nataraja Mudaliar, floated with his relatives, the Indian Film Company, a joint stock company, and found himself a cinecamera with accessories to buy for Rs.1800. Then he bought a large garden house in Miller’s Road, Kilpauk, Tower House, and built in its spacious acreage a film studio, the first in South India. What, I wonder, has replaced Tower House? Maybe I’ll find out one day, but meanwhile there’s the matter of the making of “Keechaka Vadham”.
With a studio and equipment in place, Nataraja Mudaliar was looking for a story. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar whom he consulted, told him that whatever story he decided on, it must have emotional content, action and the element of sex. There was all three in the killing of Keechaka by Bheema in the Mahabharata, they decided — and Nataraja Mudaliar was in business.
The film was shot in five weeks in 1917 and opened in January 1918 at the Elphinstone Theatre. Silent though the cast was, everyone connected with the film was Tamil — so it has been considered the first ‘Tamil’ film, though to be accurate about it, it was actually the first full-length feature film (6000 feet) made in South India. Nataraja Mudaliar personally handled all the technical work and Sambanda Mudaliar the script and the actors. Randor Guy, the film historian, tells me the film cost Rs. 35,000 to make and netted Rs. 50,000 after being screened all over India and in Burma, Ceylon and the Federated Malay States and Singapore. Rs.15,000 was a tidy profit in those days.
Nataraja Mudaliar made five other successes, all mythologicals. Then, ill-fortune struck. Fire consumed the studio, the partners fell out, and his only son died. Nataraja Mudaliar returned to concentrating on selling bicycles and cars. But between 1918 and 1923, when he made his last success, he had laid the foundation for today’s giant South Indian film industry.