For many, the history of Tamil cinema begins with M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. For others, a few super-hit films of yesteryears are the only reminders of the existence of an early period. Tamil cinema, however, has a richer and longer history than any other film industry, according to Stephen Hughes, whose research on the origins of cinema in colonial Madras digs out the unread pages of the Tamil film history. He shares interesting information on the then Tamil cinema industry with S. Aishwarya.

The non-Indian film chronicler’s few accidental visits to the State and his love for the language gifted the film industry a rich account of its early period. A professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Stephen Hughes has put in nearly two decades of work funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies.

While there is a long list of claims about the beginning of Tamil cinema, Mr.Hughes places it somewhere around 1920s. “There is lot of obsession for ‘firsts.’ We have very poor research materials as cinema was not taken seriously as a medium in the early 20th century,” he explains. “Only big names are remembered. Records say nearly 1,300 silent films were made in Tamil…. of which, we have only 14.”

Among a handful of actors, M.G.R. has left a deep trail and his popularity has overshadowed his predecessors, he observes.

On the everlasting association between film and politics, Mr.Hughes says films were seen as an effective medium to spread political ideologies even before the M.G.R. period. “Regional parties found foothold through cinema. The Congress had divided opinions about embracing cinema as a propaganda medium but parties such as the DMK made the most out it.”

But even before the regional parties patronised Tamil cinema, mythological films infused subtle political ideologies to attract masses.

The evolution of cinema as a mass culture was not a sudden phenomenon, he says. When cinema was at its nascent stage, it was seen as the best platform to spread and share intellectual thoughts. In the 1930s, the industry was a melting-pot of literary and music activities. Leading poets, Tamil scholars and Carnatic musicians took to cinema to gain popularity. But progressively, films earned a stigma that made many dissociate themselves from the medium.

However, before Tamil cinema gained its footing, Hollywood cornered the market. “In fact in 1920s, nearly 90 per cent of the films screened were from Hollywood. Many even feared that too much of exposure to the Western world would denationalise the people,” said Mr.Hughes.

But as the country was moving towards independence, the foreign population started shifting out and to that effect Hollywood lost its prominence. “Much was experimented during that period. As there was no monopoly, everyone who wanted to try cinema, got a chance. It also worked out to be affordable,” he said.

That was also a period when cinema, theatre and music constantly overlapped. But as the market grew, the distinction became marked and each earned an identity for itself.

Mr.Hughes, backed with a lot of research materials, has a claim that cinema worked against the caste system in its early period.

“One could attribute it to the marketing strategies of the filmmakers. Cinema had a small market then and so the producers did not want to create a niche audience by putting one caste in the spotlight.” His two-decade-old research will be shaped into a couple of books by 2011, he promises.