Nikhil Raghavan talks to Tamil film personalities about their beginnings in the textile city, which produced a number of landmark films
Manchester of South India. Cotton City. Two names associated with Coimbatore. What is probably forgotten is that Coimbatore was also the hub of Tamil filmmaking and the birthplace of some of the leading lights in the film industry — Bhagyaraj, Sathyaraj, Sivakumar, Manivannan, Goundamani and Kovai Sarala, to name a few. And the next generation — Sathyaraj’s son Sibiraj, Sivakumar’s sons Suriya and Karthi and the latest entrant, Nandha.
All these are sons of the Coimbatore soil who were subconsciously influenced by the fact that two of the earliest film producing studios in Tamil Nadu were set up in Coimbatore way back in 1935.
“Central Studios, which was set up first, followed by Pakshiraja Studios, established by one of the breakaway partners (W. Sreeramulu Naidu) of Central, saw frenetic film activities those days,” informs film historian Mohan Raman.
“Film buffs will remember that the classic film Haridas starring M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, was made here and holds the record of running continuously, celebrating three Deepavalis in its wake!” says Coimbatore-based filmmaker ‘Race Course’ Raghunath. “Folks will also remember that it was from Coimbatore that M. M. A. Chinnappa Thevar transformed himself from a body builder (which gave him the name ‘Sandow’) to a celebrated producer and director in Chennai.
Another banner which originated from here was Jupiter Pictures which later became a successful producer of films from Chennai.”
Some of the other hit films of that period, Malaikallan, Manthirakumari and Marmayogi as well as parts of Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum were shot in Coimbatore, notes Raghunath. Incidentally, most of Alibabavum…was shot in the foothills of Yercaud as it was produced by Modern Theatres in Salem, another Tamil Nadu town which has a rich history of filmmaking.
Mohan Raman says, “At one point in the 40s, actors like MGR and M. N. Nambiar resided in Coimbatore to facilitate their shooting for films being produced by Central and Pakshiraja Studios.
A few other actors resided in Salem where Modern Theatres was set up while others stayed back in Chennai. The constant movement of actors between the three filmmaking centres was not unknown. In earlier days, most of P. U. Chinnapa’s films were made by either of the production houses in Coimbatore. Incidentally, the famous Marudamalai Temple in Coimbatore was Chinnappa Thevar’s favourite. It is said that he was known to place the first copy of each of his films at the feet of the deity before its release.”
Director-actor K. Bhagyaraj may not have been born in Coimbatore, but his birth place Erode, was in close proximity to the textile city. “In the initial days of my career in Chennai, I used to frequent Chinnappa Thevar’s office to narrate my stories. I used to find many talented writers and directors from Coimbatore among Thevar’s group waiting for the right break. Subconsciously, this must have influenced me to take to direction and acting independently,” says Bhagyaraj. A decision that helped him become an accomplished writer of screenplay and dialogues as well as a successful filmmaker.
Actor Sathyaraj who hails from an agricultural family in Coimbatore sought his dream in Chennai, after he did not do too well in academics. “I had a cousin who was a good friend to Sivakumar with whose help I used to visit the sets of Annakkili. I also remember frequenting Chinnappa Thevar’s studio and when he came to know that I was from Coimbatore, he asked if I could do stunts. I have somersaulted in front of him to convey my earnestness in acting in films,” says Sathyaraj who hasn’t looked back since. “Pakshiraja Studios has been converted into a marriage hall and I was thrilled that the wedding of both my sisters was held in that premises,” notes Sathyaraj.
Sivakumar’s most memorable experience of his hometown was maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s first Tamil film, Annakkili. “This was my first Tamil film which was entirely shot outdoors and many rural scenes were filmed in a small village, Thengumarahada, surrounded by coconut groves and paddy fields. From Bhavani Sagar Dam, we had to cross a 13-km ghat section to reach the location,” recalls Sivakumar. He recalls from history the fact that actors like Rajagopala Iyer, who did Lord Shiva’s role in several films produced from Coimbatore, did so with a live snake hung around his neck. “Such was the dedication and feel for authenticity with actors of those days. It should also be remembered that the beginnings of music composer M. S. Viswanathan was in the studios of Jupiter, where he was a mere errand boy serving refreshments,” reveals Sivakumar.
Coimbatore continues to be a hub for filmmakers with Pollachi on one side, providing rural locations, and the Nilgiris on the other side lending scenic locations for song sequences and sometimes, complete films. It doesn’t matter if the pioneering studios have shut shop… celluloid dreams continue, unabated.