S.V. Ramanan on the popular MPPC' logo, watching stalwarts at work and how film rolls would easily catch fire
My father, K. Subrahmanyam, was a pioneer film producer and director, a freedom fighter and a staunch congressman. He had a wide circle of friends in politics, the cultural and the film worlds, not only in the South but in North India as well. There was a large thatched shed with cement flooring near our old Adyar house where eminent politicians of the day and stalwarts from the film industry, including Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, would come for informal get-togethers, and have bun-and-butter from McRennett's bakery and idli-sambar from the Udipi restaurant.
He always had a lot of connections in Bengal, and he brought manyBengali technicians to the South such as Kamal Ghosh, the cameraman, and Hari Babu, the famous make-up artiste. In fact, many of the technicians, art directors and cameramen of early Tamil cinema were from Bengal.
Motion Pictures Producers' Combine (MPPC) was founded by my father in 1937. It was renamed Gemini Studios when he sold it to S. S. Vasan in 1940. One of two boys shown in the logo of the studio is me and the other is my cousin. As children, we were having an oil bath wearing a langot and playing with paper bugles. My father saw us and said, “This looks very nice”, took a picture and made it into the logo. It remains until this day!
I remember attending film shootings at MPPC as a child. I saw the shoot of Kacha Devayani in which T. R. Rajakumari was the heroine — the dream girl of those days! I recall vividly the filming of an earthquake scene for Bhakta Chetha. The set was built on blocks, and then 10 or 20 people pulled at the blocks with wires so that the entire set came crumbling down. Then they threw a lot of mud from the top to create the effect of the earthquake.
The studio was only about two floors, with a tin sheet on the top. In those days, film was susceptible to fire. My father lost a lot of money in a fire, when the negatives of a fully-shot movie were burnt. If you kept these nitrate-based negatives for three or four months, they would start melting. But they were often sold for a good price later —you could get Rs. 30 or 40 per pound. That's because the negatives were made of silver nitrate, and the silver could be separated and sold!
My father was also connected with Meenakshi Cinetone, which then became Neptune Studios and eventually Sathya Studios. Now, it houses the MGR Janaki College of Arts and Sciences. Movies such as Vikata Yogi, Vichitra Vanitha, and my father's last film, Pandithevan were shot there.
When I grew older, I was fortunate in training with the likes of Salil Chowdhury and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. When Hrishikesh was editing Chemmeen in Madras, I used to sit and watch him splicing and cutting the rush prints and then cutting the negatives as well, matching the sound, and then taking the re-recording print. He was known as a great film editor, and he was editing Chemmeen because he was a close friend of the film's director Ramu Kariat.
Hrishikesh in turn was very close to Salil Chowdhury and that's how Salil came to do the music for Chemmeen. Because Salil didn't have anybody in Madras, I fixed up the recording theatre for him — he did the recording in Bharani Studios. I used to arrange the orchestra and then sit and watch how he'd compose.
I remember the days when the great musician, G. Ramanathan Iyer, used to come to our place and have a jugalbandi of sorts with Salil. Ramanathan would play the harmonium, and Salil would play the piano. My mother, who was the first woman music director of Tamil Cinema, would sometimes join them on the veena and harmonium…
The exposure I had to such luminaries in the field from a young age helped me immensely when I entered the audio-visual field and started my own company, Jaishree Pictures.