What started as an experimental venture in 1931, has grown to make the Telugu talkies a mammoth industry. Is it headed the right way, M.L. Narasimham wonders.

How time flies. It seems like only recently we celebrated the platinum jubilee of Telugu talkie with celebrities and film legends participating in it. And this September 15 Telugu talking picture turns 80!

Mammoth industry

What started as an innovative and experimental venture in 1931 with a modest budget of Rs.15,000 today has grown into a mammoth industry with an annual budget of over Rs. 300 crore and the second largest film producing centre in the country. It is only natural to have a brief look into the making of the first Telugu talkie, Bhakta Prahlada born out of the pioneering efforts of producer Ardeshir M. Irani, director H.M. Reddy and cinematographer Adi M. Irani.

While in New York , Ardeshir Irani was inspired by Universal Studio's Show Boat (1929) and bought the portable Tamar single system sound recording equipment that can record sound on film and also brought the company's technician Wilfred Deming to work along with his brother Adi Irani to photograph India's first talkie, Alam-Ara in Hindi-Urdu. Awed by the talking motion picture, people thronged to the theatres making it a huge hit. Tasting success and big money with his pioneering work, Ardeshir set his eyes on regional cinema to cash in on the phenomenon. He entrusted the job of making the first Talkies in Telugu (Bhakta Prahlada) and Tamil (Kalidas) to his protégé Hanumanthappa Muniappa Reddy better known as H.M. Reddy. A teacher, H.M. was one of the first from the South to set foot in Bombay as early as in 1927. He started his career in films as a reflector boy and acquired knowledge of cinematic technique during the silent picture era. Ardeshir spotted the talented youngster and took him under his wings in Imperial Movie tone.

H.M. Reddy decided to film Surabhi Nataka Samajam's play Bhakta Prahlada. But the popular drama company was apprehensive about having their play filmed. H.M used the good offices of his friend and stage actor C.S. R. Anjaneyulu (who later became a famed cine artiste too) to pursue them. The troupe consisting of V.V. Subbarao (Munipalle Subbaiah), ‘Surabhi' Kamalabai and Master Krishna Rao along with other actors were retained. L.V. Prasad was the only one to feature from outside that troupe in a comic role. He was then working with Irani's company. Though certain modifications were done to accommodate a couple of songs specially written by Chandala Kesava Dasu, hailed as the first Telugu cine lyricist, H.M. retained largely the original drama version. Adi Irani cranked the camera and the film was shot in Bombay.

There were no booms. Microphones had to be hidden in incredible places to keep out of camera range. The French De-brie camera then had no blimps, and add their noise, drowned out the dialogue. To muffle the camera noise, they wrapped the camera in blankets and put insulating tapes around it. The actors accustomed to the stage often were self conscious facing the camera. Due to the inexperience of the players in facing the hidden microphone and their tendency to talk too loudly resulted in the voice reproduction some what patchy.

Pioneering effort

“It had its technical flaws but it was a pioneering effort and was a huge hit” observes the 92 year veteran journalist Maddali Sathyanarayana Sarma who had seen the film twice when he was 12.

“I remember watching the movie at Maruthi Mareedu theatre in Gudivada. There were three categories of tickets, chair (four annas), bench (two annas) and floor (one anna) with two shows at 6 pm and 9 pm and on Saturdays and Sundays there is a matinee show. No ‘Q' system was followed and it was like ‘might is right.' Since there was only a single projector, after every 15 minutes there was a brief interval to change the reel. Watching the movie version of Bhakta Prahlada was like watching the drama itself because the actors were the same. But the moving images that talked and sang thrilled and surprised us.”

Whether it was Ardeshir Irani, H.M. Reddy or Warner Bros. the makers of the world's first talkie The Jazz Singer (October 6, 1927), they owe it to William Friese Green, the British portrait photographer and inventor who invented the chronophotographic camera that was capable of taking up to ten photographs per second using perforated celluloid film and of course to Thomas Alva Edison whose invention, kinetoscope (1913) had revolutionised the concept of motion picture photography. From Firese Green to green matte screen tech where you can shoot the actors at one place and mix it with the actual location, motion picture technology had witnessed many advancements and Telugu cinema too used them to its advantage.

Not only that up to the 1980's Telugu film industry had given many directors, technicians and actors (read heroines) to the Hindi and Tamil and other film industries.

But there was a gradual decline on this front since the 1990's as we started importing technicians, heroines and even character actors from the other film industries. The number is increasing despite the availability of local talent.

“Then content ruled and now commerce is ruling,” lamented a senior producer. Today, like never before commerce is dominating film art. It may be true that art may not keep the kitchen fires burning but total emphasis on commerce is also no solution. C. Pullaiah, P. Pullaiah, K.V. Reddy, Kamalakara Kameswara Rao and Adurthi Subbarao tried to create a balance between commerce and art and gave wholesome look to their films. Today we seem to have largely lost that look.

If the first 60 years of Telugu talkie had seen the release of 3, 549 (source: Film News Anandan) films, the next two decades accounted for nearly 2,400 releases, a laudable growth indeed. But the sad part is the decline in success ratio.

Time has come for our filmmakers for self analysis and to look for new ways of cinematic expression, to search for novel themes without missing on our nativity, the soul of any language movie.

Besides slick technique there should be refinement of content. No cause to worry as there are a few young filmmakers working on these lines.

The hopes are alive.

Keywords: Tollywood