By introducing tent cinema, Samikannu Vincent quietly ushered in a revolution.
At the dawn of the 20th century in Tiruchi, a land-locked historic town, a modest and young but ambitious Indian Christian was about to make film history. He was Samikannu Vincent (1883-1942). A draftsman-clerk (salary Rs.25 per mensem) in the South Indian Railway (SIR), he happened to see some silent film shorts screened by an itinerant French film exhibitor named Du Pont. Unused to the local food, water and heat this travelling film exhibitor fell sick and decided to return home. Vincent, who had befriended him, raised the required money with difficulty and bought the Frenchman's projectors, accessories, films and all.
Resigning his dreary desk job, he set up business in 1905 as a film exhibitor and went about screening his stock of shorts. One of the films was ‘Life of Jesus,' which proved to be extremely popular all over South India. Vincent usually screened his films in a tent, which was erected on a stretch of open land close to a town or village. The “tent cinema” concept became very popular.
During 1905 electric carbons were used for motion picture projectors, and during the same year Vincent established his first tent cinema at Madras called Edison's Grand Cinemamegaphone on Esplanade. This was a novelty for the citizens.
The electrically-lit tent and the new equipment attracted large crowds. The shows were a huge success. So he took his tent cinema to Burma, Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) and other places where he was met with equal success. Aware of the advantages of having a brick and mortar cinema house, he built one in his hometown, Coimbatore, in 1914 and called it Variety Hall.
This place still exists, though under a different name (‘Delite') and ownership.
Vincent imported films from abroad and also dealt in movie exhibition equipment. Later he turned producer and assisted in directing a few films. He was not very successful in production and so confined himself to exhibiting, distributing films and dealing in movie equipment. Later, when Central Studios was established in Coimbatore in 1937, he joined the board as one of the directors and involved himself in its activities for sometime. Like most pioneers, he is today aforgotten man. Not many remember his contribution to South Indian Cinema outside his native borough.
In 1933, Pioneer Film Company, Calcutta, and Samikannu Vincent co-produced ‘Valli,' the popular mythological tale of Muruga and his romance with a tribal chief's adopted daughter, Valli. Simultaneously another version was made in Bombay. The Calcutta-made film named ‘Valli Thirumanam' had T.P. Rajalakshmi playing the lead and the film was a huge hit. The Bombay-made one did poorly and few remember it today.
After the completion of the film, the prints were taken from the laboratory in Calcutta and were to be dispatched to Madras and other places for its release on January 1, 1933. At that time, it was found that one reel of the negative was missing! As it was impossible to change the release date, the prints were sent to Madras without that reel being printed.
‘Valli Thirumanam' became a mega box office success and the first money spinner of Tamil Cinema. It had three shows, rather unusual for that time and more interestingly, a noon show was also screened at the New Elphinstone cinema on Mount Road.
While the movie was raking in money, the missing negative reel was found in Calcutta. Prints of that reel were hurriedly made and sent to Madras to be added to the prints already in circulation. In a brilliant move, the distributors (Vincent) came out with an innovative poster announcing that the missing reel had been found and that the film would now be screened with the added reel. This created a sensation and practically every moviegoer, who had seen it earlier flocked to the film again.
After the roaring success of ‘Valli Thirumanam,' Samikannu Vincent was eager to produce another movie with the active association of the Pioneer Studios in Calcutta. And they did ‘Harishchandra' (1935). This familiar tale of the truthful king of Ayodhya had been made many times (even a silent one) and in several languages.
The first talking picture version in Tamil of this stirring story was produced in 1932 under the title ‘Sampoorna Harishchandra' in Bombay by Sagar Film Company. One of the early noted filmmakers of Tamil Cinema, Raja Chandrasekhar directed it. Samikannu Vincent's version was produced in Calcutta with famed stage and screen star of the day, V.A. Chellappa, and T. P. Rajalakshmi in the lead roles. It was directed by noted filmmaker Profulla Ghosh, who had made quite a few Tamil films in Calcutta during that period. (It was Vincent who chose ‘Baby' Rukmini to play Lohidasa. Rukmini is none other than the mother of the versatile actor Lakshmi.)
The next film, Samikannu Vincent produced in association with Pioneer Studios was ‘Subhadra Parinayam' (1935) under the banner ‘Variety Hall Talkies.'
Sambur Vadagarai Subbaiah Bhagavathar was the first trained Carnatic musician to enter Tamil Cinema. In 1937, when that historic Central Studios was founded in Coimbatore, Samikannu Vincent joined the company as one of the directors. Besides production, he was interested in theatre management and equipment distribution. He was also involved in charitable work.
Realising the need for a printing press to produce quality handbills and other materials, he promoted the printing press (around 1916) that was located in a house near his theatre. He expanded the activities of the press by installingadditional machinery, types and printing accessories in another building. Called Electric Printing Works, he used the cinema house's electric power plant to run the printing press too and created history of sorts.
By 1919, he established the first power-driven Rice and Flour Mill in the heart of thetown. He managed all this by working as long as nine hours a day, until his sons took over. In 1922, the then Government of Madras gave him permission to supply electric power to the famous Stanes European High School. With the encouragement of Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyer, member of the Governor's Executive Council in charge of the Electricity portfolio, he was given enough support by the government. His application was approved and the licence to set up a power house was granted. The streets of Coimbatore and the residential buildings in the heart of the city had electric lights.
In 1927 when Edison's Theater came up for sale,Vincent bought it. He screened English movies at Variety Hall and Tamil films at Edison's Theater. In 1927, movies began to talk in America with ‘The Jazz Singer.' Sound came to India later. Vincent kept up with the progress, improvement and inventions that took place in the international motion picture industry and ordered for sound projection machines for Variety Hall and Edison's Theater. Coimbatore beat Madras (the then capital of Madras Presidency) by becoming the first city in South India to have a talkie equipment (an achievement).
In 1936, Vincent got a third theatre, Palace, just to screen Hindi movies. By 1939, after Central Studios went full steam into production, Samikannu Vincent retired. Son, Paul Vincent, and others took over the businesses. Smaikannu Vincent passed away in April 1942.
It is regretful that there is no fitting memorial for him in Coimbatore. Undoubtedly, Samikannu Vincent is the founding father of cinema in South India, but film historians and other cultural chroniclers have not given him his due.