Randor Guy’s yet-to-be released book highlights Coimbatore’s illustrious connection to cinema. K. Jeshi reports

A 19-year-old boy with a just-sprouting moustache was cast as the hero in Sathi Leelavthi, a film made in Coimbatore in 1936. A. N. Maruthachalam Chettiar produced the film.

It marked the debut for the hero who was paid a salary of Rs.100! After many more films, this hero acted in Malai Kallan, made in Coimbatore by Sriramulu Naidu of Paskshiraja Studios. It was a blockbuster and the actor became a star overnight. He was Marudur Gopala Ramachandran or MGR.

Maragatham, one of the important films in Sivaji Ganesan’s career, was made here. Other movies made in the city includes many of M.K.Thygaraja Bhagavathar’s (MKT) films, and those such as Venugaanam, Chokkamela, and Azhivin Paadai (made by S. Kuppuraj of Jewel Pictures in the late 30s and 40s). Pakshiraja Studios also takes the credit for producing the first ever film on Lord Ayyappa.

A cinema hub

A new book titled Coimbatore and the World of Cinema, written by Randor Guy is packed with this information. It traces the history of cinema and puts the spotlight on Coimbatore, which thrived as a cinema hub till the late 50s. “Cinema in South India began from Coimbatore, thanks to Samikannu Vincent,” says Randor Guy.

Samikannu Vincent, a South Indian Railways employee, introduced Touring Talkies where he travelled with a projector showing movies. In 1914, he built South India’s first permanent cinema theatre ‘Variety Hall Cinema’ at Town Hall. It functions as Delite Theatre even today. He is believed to be one of the first movie millionaires of India.

Later, R.K. Ramakrishnan, C.N. Venkatapathy Naidu, S. Bheemiah Chetty, S. M. Sriramulu Naidu and P.A. Raju Chettiar started Central Studios. When B. Rangaswamy Naidu of Rajalakshmi Mills took over Central Studios, Sriramulu Naidu became the management head. He later started Pakshiraja Studios and went on to become a mogul of South cinema.

Making movies

“Sriramulu Naidu was a big force,” says Rajesh Govindarajulu, research assistant and co-coordinator for the book. The idea for Coimbatore and the World of Cinema came about during the Coimbatore Vizha celebrations on November 24, 2009.

As a co-ordinator, Rajesh chipped in with 600 old photographs, organised interviews with living members associated with cinema such as RHR Ratnavelu of Royal Theatres, former film cameraman S.A. Raju, and the son of Sriramulu Naidu, Dr. Srihari. Rajesh also sourced over 300 song books of old films as reference material.

“Sriramulu made Jagathalapradhaban, Kannika, Malai Kallan (in six languages) and more. R. K. Ramakrishnan Chettiar (brother of the first finance minister Sir R. K. Shanmugham Chetty) of Central Studios went all the way to Kolkata to meet B.N. Rao to make a film on Tukaram. Carnatic musician Musiri Subramania Iyer played the hero,” mentions Randor Guy.

Coimbatore Talkies, Parameswaran Talkies, Pakshiraja Studios and Central Studios churned out movies. It was a time when fleets of cars would be parked outside the studios.

The studios had apartment units for stars. Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari stayed here during the making of Azaad. Dialogues were recorded on the sets and the place was abuzz with activity.

Politicians such as Karunanidhi and NTR have graced the studios. Actors like T.S. Balaiah, M.K. Radha (hero of Chandralekha), and Ranjan started their careers here.

“It was a charming world, where sari-clad women in plaited hair ruled. Films were full of songs. Reams of paper were used to write the screenplay. Everything was rehearsed. And, movies ran for more than a year in theatres,” Rajesh explains.

The book is full of anecdotes. Rajesh narrates: “While Malai Kallan was being shot, a leopard went missing on the sets. A. Pattabhiraman, director of Raja Theatre locked himself in a cage saying, “This is the last place where the leopard will find me!”

Says Rajesh, whose forefather P.A. Raju Chettiar was closely involved in cinema, “I gathered information from my family archives. My grandfather’s brother P.A.R. Viswanathan founded the Coimbatore Film Distribution Association in Gopalapuram. He was the president of Theatre Owners’ Association. They pioneered the trend of using film stars such as Anjali Devi and Varalakshmi as models for jewellery ads. Our family, who are in the jewellery business, supplied silverware such as fruit bowls, wine goblets and lamps for the movies.”

Raju Chettiar built Murugan Theatre (1937) and Raja Theatre (1938) and produced films. He distributed films under the name of Chandra Prabha Pictures.

At the silver jubilee celebrations of Naadodi Mannan, MGR was presented with a large silver sword and a trophy (easily weighing 10 or more kilos). He walked down the N.H.Road holding aloft the trophy before reaching Raja Theatre.

“All the artists were given a silver kooja, each weighing more than a kilo. About 40 kilos of silver were given away during the celebrations,” says Rajesh. The book also pays tribute to Udumalai Narayana Kavi, lyricist of Parasakthi.

Trendsetter

Rajesh shares another nugget. “MKT was a phenomenal personality with a golden complexion. He was one of the first superstars of Tamil cinema and a fantastic singer. One of his friends, a gold smith called Meenakshi Sundaram, copied his signature hairstyle after which a number of other goldsmiths in the city followed suit!”

The book, to be published by Q Print Solutions, is expected to be ready by November.

INTACH is the local partner. Naren Rajan, one of the key players in the Coimbatore Vizha, has also provided great support.