Dynamic and hard working, Sriramulu Naidu made significant breakthroughs in Tamil cinema.
(This is the first of a two-part article on Sriramulu Naidu. The author had the pleasure of knowing Sriramulu Naidu well during his brief, 'brief-less, beardless' innings as lawyer in the chambers of the noted Madras High Court lawyer V.C. Gopalratnam during mid-1950s. During those years, he had the opportunity of meeting Naidu - VCG's client - often when he narrated his experiences in filmmaking.)
He is the only Indian film world personality, perhaps even elsewhere in the world who promoted and managed three motion picture studios, producing and directing movies in more than one language. That was not all. He produced and directed a single film of his - "Malaikallan" (1954) in six languages – Tamil (original), Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, and even Sinhala.
‘Malaikallan’ created movie history, and even after half a century and more it still sustains interest. The Hindi version, "Azad" starred two icons – Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari.
Such dynamic and creatively brilliant person was S.M. Sriramulu Naidu (1910-1976). One of the key figures in the astonishing development of cinema in south India he can be described the ‘Coimbatore Movie Mogul.'
Subbarayulu Naidu Munuswami Naidu Sriramulu Naidu was born (1910)in Tiruchi, where his father Munuswami Naidu was a station master with the South Indian Railway Limited(SIR) with its headquarters at Trichinopoly.
After retirement, Munuswami Naidu relocated to Coimbatore where he established a bakery under the name and style of Davey & Company in 1932, along with Hotel Davey in a leased premises on Bank Road opposite the Coimbatore Railway Station. Sriramulu Naidu joined him after completing the intermediate course in college.
A workaholic he slogged at the bakery. He baked cakes, doubled as carpenter and did hard physical labour. Naidu was strongly disciplined and punctual, and a truly no-nonsense tough guy.
Naidu believed in socialising and as a young man in his early 20s, joined the Coimbatore Cosmopolitan Club around 1932. He described himself as 'baker.' Movies had begun to talk Tamil in 1931 with "Kalidas" directed by the 'Grand Old Man of South Indian Cinema' H.M. Reddy produced by Ardeshir M. Irani at Bombay. That was the period when the few Tamil films that
were made were mostly produced in Bombay, or Calcutta or sometimes in Kolhapur for there were no facilities for making talking motion pictures in Madras till about 1934.
Working from Calcutta, Samikannu Vincent along with others produced "Valli Thirumanam" (1933). Sriramulu Naidu decided to throw his lot with the motion picture business. He underwent training in Premier Cinetone Studio in Coimbatore and developed many movie land friendships and life-long contacts with the some of them. One of them was R.K. Ramakrishnan Chettiar, (brother of the famed statesman and onetime Finance Minster of India, Sir R.K. Shanmugham Chettiar), who later founded along with Naidu and others the famed Central Studios in Coimbatore.
Another friend was the equally dynamic and creative K.S. Narayana Iyengar in Madras, who had promoted Narayanan and Company, and later, Pakshiraja Films. At first, Naidu worked as Iyengar's agent and looked after his interests in Coimbatore. Later he became a partner in Pakshiraja Films, only to opt out and promote his own company, and make films under 'Pakshiraja Studios' banner. He built his own studio, 'Pakshiraja Studios,' taking over Kandhan Studio and rebuilt it to his requirements and other creative needs. Naidu's new studio was a model of discipline, cleanliness and one never found a cigarette or a 'bidi' butt thrown around the campus.
Central Studios launched production and their first effort, "Tukaram" (1938), was made in two languages - Tamil, and Telugu. In the Tamil version the celebrated Carnatic musician Musiri Subramania Iyer played the title role, while the famed Telugu stage and screen star, C.S.R. Anjaneyulu the same role as in the Telugu version.
At the dawn of 1940s, Naidu and Ayyangar decided to enter movie production and the two launched their maiden Tamil production 'Aryamala" (1941). Produced under the banner of Pakshiraja Films at the Central Studios, Naidu supervised production also involving himself in all the aspects of direction.
"Aryamala," the Kaathavarayan folk tale, had up-and-coming singing star of Tamil Cinema P.U. Chinnappa as hero. He had made a splash with the Modern Theaters hit "Utthama Puthran" (1939), in
which he played a double role. In 'Aryamala’ Naidu introduced a new heroine to Tamil Cinema, M.S. Sarojini. The younger sister of another actress M.S. Mohanambal Sarojini played minor roles in films. Naidu gave Sarojini the break casting her as the female lead. It also had T.S. Balaiah, M.R. Santhanalakshmi, N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Mathuram.
The film turned out to be a box office success. Interestingly, the film carried no credit for the director but the songbook mentions the noted cinematographer of that day Bomman Irani as director. (some old-timers told this writer that Naidu worked on the sets learning the ropes helped by the cinematographer, and two excellent technicians Krishnan, and Panchapakesan (Panjabi!), who later created film history as directors under their professional name 'Krishnan-Panju.'
Inspired by the success, Sriramulu Naidu launched his second film "Sivakavi" (1943), also shot at Central Studios with M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in the title role. The film was at first directed by Raja Sandow but he fell out with Naidu, who took over the making of the movie.
"Sivakavi," with its rich bouquet of songs, was a grand success and ran for a prolonged period even in non-Tamil speaking areas in the Madras Presidency.
(To be concluded)
‘Vadaname chandrabimbamo,’ one of the songs that MKT sang in ‘Sivakavi’ has an interesting background. At first Papanasam Sivan wrote the first line as ‘Mukam adhu Chandra bimbamo.’ After the song was recorded by MKT and when the positive print of the song was projected on the screen, all including Sivan were stunned for the first line sounded like 'Muhammadhu(!) chandra bimbamo…'! Hurriedly Sivan rewrote the line as 'Vadanamey…' and the song was freshly recorded.