Film Critic Randor Guy's Coimbatore Day Lecture took people on a nostalgic adventure of film history. Pheroze L. Vincent took some notes

At a time when most critics rubbished the early Indian remakes of Hollywood films, Randor appreciated the ingenuity and adaptability of Indian filmmakers. His writings brought Kurosawa to the Indian consciousness. Madabhushi Rangadorai, better known by his nom de plume Randor Guy, spoke to his heart's content on early south Indian cinema, at the Chamber Hall, Avanashi Road, on November 24.

Once upon a time

Intended to be a lecture on Coimbatore and the World of Cinema, Randor's talk was a ramble of reminisces of the days of yore. Such is his passion for the subject that he came despite losing his daughter just four days ago. “She wanted me to keep working,” he said.

“Tamil Cinema was born in Coimbatore,” said Randor. The early pioneers of cinema were people like Samikanda Vincent, A. N. Marudachalam Chettiar, P. Ramaswamy Chettiar, Jupiter Somasamudram and S. K. Moideen.

Vincent, quit his job as a draughtsman in the South Indian Railway, to screen short silent films of the Lumiere brothers. When money began to pour he moved on to bigger productions. Trailblazers like him braved losses and social stigma.

“Even prostitutes didn't want to act. A prominent producer in Madras used to kidnap them and force them to act.” Artistes couldn't find houses for rent, brides to marry and the audience for kutcheris. Society was conservative and film people were rebels, but the money was good and the perks even better.

Early films were mythological plots, which were easy to understand. Historical accuracy wasn't as important as the music. It wasn't uncommon for the deities to sing modern poems or nationalist songs. In M. L. Tandan's 1934 blockbuster Bama Vijayan, Lord Krishna played by M. R. Krishanamoorthy recited a poem of nineteenth century poet Thyagarajar.

Censorship was harsh against nationalism though. “Anything concerning freedom was cut off.” Despite that, songs about Gandhi and the Swadeshi movement were put in films and audiences stood up when Jana Gana Mana was played.

H. M. Reddy's Kalidas was the first ‘talking' Tamil film. The filmmakers weren't sure if the German microphones would record Tamil. Neither were the German technicians sure. The director bit the bullet and recorded in Hindustani, Tamil and Telugu. It worked.

Reel route

The film had a grand opening at Kinema Central (currently Murugan Talkies) in Chennai on October 31, 1931. Crowds showered rose petals, broke coconuts and burnt incense in the procession of the reels of the film, all along Walltax Road from Chennai Central railway station. The posters read Tamil Telugu pesi paadu padam (Tamil Telugu talking singing film).

The film also starred the ‘Cinema Rani' T. P. Rajalakshmi, the first star of Tamil Cinema. Rajalakshmi went on to act in a string of hits. Rajalakshmi was a child widow, whose priest father jumped into a well. She and her mother were thrown out of their village Saliamangalam in Thanjavur district. Such were the tribulations that drove the earliest stars into cinema.

Randor's audience, largely of senior citizens were in a nostalgic trance, reliving the old days when a chair seat at a theatre cost two annas (approximately equal to six paise today).

While the censors focused on nationalism, there was no prohibition on sex on screen. “The British figured that sexuality wasn't taboo in Hinduism. Temples had magnificient sculptures from the Kama Sutra,” said Randor, adding that nude scenes weren't uncommon even in plays. D. Susheela Devi and T. P. Rajasundari Bai were the sirens of the day. “Posters advertised films boasting of 123 kisses,” said Randor smiling.

Never say never

Talking about Coimbatore's contribution he said, “Coimbatoreans don't take no for an answer.” Randor narrated how Marudachalam Chettiar fought against all odds to adapt the Pati Bhakti Play in Tamil. There was a conflict of copyright. Marudachalam got around that by using S. S. Vasan's novel Sati Leelavathi, which was published in Ananda Vikatan.

When it came to court, Vasan admitted that both the play and the novel were plagiarised from an American novel. The movie directed by Ellis R. Duncan and C. K. Sathasivan was a runaway hit. It made all of them stars. Even the actor who played a police sub- inspector in a couple of scenes became famous. He was M. G. Ramachandran.

Randor feels that the importance of music is staging a comeback. In the old days people didn't care for the plot or lip-synchronisation. It was the music that moved them. “Today the sale of the audio is what is bringing in the money. The cycle is coming back,” he concluded.