They once walked tall in the world of Tamil films but are now mere names in the pages of history. Randor Guy recalls the pioneers without whom Tamil cinema couldn’t have made such giant strides

On the occasion of the centenary of Indian cinema, particularly the 80th year of Tamil cinema, many of the pioneers of Tamil cinema — filmmakers, on-screen artists, producers and technicians — have sadly been forgotten. In this article, we look back on those men and women who laid the foundation on which the current magnificent edifice stands.

Samikannu Vincent, a clerk with the South Indian Railway, Tiruchi, threw up his job to become the founding father of cinema in South India by building the first cinema house — oddly named ‘Variety Hall’ — in Coimbatore, which still exists under a different name and ownership.

Hailing from Machilipatnam, Raghupathi Venkaiah, a successful Madras City still photographer, built the first cinema in Madras City ‘Gaiety’ and also made movies, silent and talkie. He sent his son, Raghupathi Surya Prakash, better known as R. Prakash, to England for training in moviemaking. On his return, Prakash made movies and with his father built a studio, Star of India - Glass Studio, in Purasawalkam behind the famed cinema, Roxy, built by Venkaiah.

The credit for making the first silent film in Madras City goes to R. Nataraja Mudaliar — he made Keechaka Vadham (1916) in his own studio, The India Film Company, on Millers Road, Purasawalkam. This film was a hit and he also made a few more before calling it a day. As Keechaka Vadham was silent, there were ‘inter-title cards’ between shots, explaining the dialogue or action. They were written in several languages including English, Tamil and Hindi. The Tamil inter-titles were written by Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar; one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance of Tamil Theatre, he was also involved in films in the early days (he was a city civil court judge). The Hindi inter-titles were written by Devdas Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s son and Rajaji’s son-in-law), later a well-known journalist and editor of the Delhi-based English daily Hindustan Times.

Another pioneer was A. Narayanan who was associated with Prakash on his first film Bhishma Pratigna, in which Narayanan played Lord Krishna.

Supplying films

One of the important figures in early Indian film history, Ananthanarayanan Narayanan (1900-1939) was an actor, writer, producer, director, studio-owner and more. Narayanan who hailed from Sivaganga was a graduate of the famed Presidency College, Madras. After entering films, he founded Exhibitor Film Services. This firm supplied films, Indian and foreign, to cinema houses in South India. This led to Narayanan taking theatres on lease in many towns of South India such as Madurai and Calicut. As a representative of Ardeshir M. Irani’s famous Imperial Film Company production, Anarkali, Narayanan went West hawking the film. He spent some days in Hollywood, visiting Universal Studios and others. Besides, he established contact with legends such as Douglas Fairbanks, Carl Laemmle, Cecil B. DeMille, John Barrymore and Robert Flaherty.

Another pioneer of Tamil Cinema was one of the disciples of Prakash, and Narayanan’s brother, C. V. Raman. A lawyer, he loved to have his name in the credit titles as “C. V. Raman B. A. LL.B.” His motto: “Enterprise with caution!” He made good use of his legal knowledge to promote joint stock companies with limited liability.

A historic site

Raman floated Lalitha Cinetone as a limited company with Kasi Chettiar as his main money-backer. Friends like R. Prakash also contributed to the kitty. He acquired a large tract of land on lease with some superstructures in Adayar with Greenways Road on the north and the Adayar River on the south. Brodie Castle was one of the borders. The property belonged to the Nawab of Arcot and the monthly rental was Rs. 150! Thus came into existence the studio that had a chequered history changing hands over half a century and more before finally becoming Sathya Studio and passing into the ownership of the M. G. Ramachandran family. Many memorable movies were made on this historic site, where MGR-Janaki Women’s College functions now.

C.V. Raman, however, did not produce any film after establishing his studio at Adayar. Soon Lalitha Cinetone sank into crises and drowned without a trace. Unfazed, Raman at once promoted another movie company, National Theaters Limited. With great difficulty, he produced a silent film Vishnu Leela (1932) after movies began to talk Tamil in 1931. It was directed by R. Prakash.

Narayanan promoted a studio of his own in Kilpauk opposite the Nehru Park at a site called ‘Nadar Gardens’, and named it after his son, Srinivasa Cinetone. This was the first studio in South India to record songs. Earlier producers went to Calcutta, Bombay, Poona and Kolhapur for this. His wife, Meenakshi Narayanan, worked in the studio as a sound recordist. An orthodox woman attired in a ‘madisaar,’ she sat at the sound console-mixer and worked. She is the first female sound recordist of Indian Cinema.

Yet another forgotten pioneer is Srinivasa Soundararaja Ayyangar or S. Soundararajan as he preferred to be known. Born in Kumbakonam, he and his father had a successful business in brassware in Madras. He had a flair for the fine arts, and lent financial support to Narayanan. This link laid the foundation for his brilliant career in cinema as director, producer, distributor, laboratory-owner, talent scout and more! He named his production Tamil Nadu Talkies as early as the 1930s.

Like Narayanan, R. Padmanabhan was also born in Sivaganga in 1896, and entered the industry with his firm, Oriental Film Service. Under this banner, he imported foreign films, arc light carbons and other spares. He also bought films made in Bombay for distribution in the South and soon opted for production promoting Associated Films. He had a financial backer, a wealthy lawyer from the port town of Tamil Nadu, Nagapattinam, K. S. Venkatarama Iyer. With Iyer, came his grandson-in-law, also a lawyer named Krishnaswamy Subramaniam.

K. Subramanyam or “Director K. Subramanyam,” as he chose to call himself, rose to great heights, carving a niche in Indian Cinema, and making classics such as Seva Sadanam ( which introduced the legend ‘MS’ to movies), Thyaga Bhoomi and Balayogini.

Sandow’s brush with fame

Another sadly neglected figure of Indian Cinema is Raja Sandow (original name P.K. Nagalingam). Born in Pudukottai, he was obsessed from a young age with bodybuilding, gymnastics and wrestling. He developed a stunning physique and started a gymnasium, which proved a success. His reputation as a wrestler spread far and wide reaching Bombay and beyond. Omar Sobhani, a Bombay-based millionaire, textile magnate and philanthropist with an active interest in wrestling, took the south Indian gymnast to Bombay. Sobhani engaged Nagalingam to train him and his rich friends. While in Bombay, Sandow, an avid movie goer, began to feel why he should not act in films. One evening, he walked into the office of National Film Corporation and met producer and director S. N. Patankar who was then making Bhaktha Bhodhana (1922).

Impressed with the visitor’s physique and good looks, Patankar instructed one of his assistants to give Sandow a screen test. The assistant director took him to the set and called five of his actors and explained to the newcomer the scene to be shot: Five bad men on horses surround a farming family and ask the farmer to surrender the bags of grain for their granary. When he refuses, the men attack him and he fights back.... Sandow heard it all and then the “acting test” began.

The “Madrasi pehalwan” who knew nothing about acting took his job seriously. In a matter of moments, the horsemen lay on the floor writhing and screaming in pain, blood gushing out of their broken noses and crushed mouths! The poor assistant director hid himself in a corner shivering in fright! Hearing the screams, Patankar rushed out of his office and the sight on the set shocked him! At once he understood what had happened and explained to Sandow that acting meant pretending where bloody realism had no place. Patankar then asked him to do a scene of pathos and Sandow did it so realistically that even the producer found himself sobbing!

(Many years later during the 1960s, the beating-up scene was brilliantly used in the Vijaya-Vauhini production, the M. G. Ramachandran-starrer Enga Veettu Pillai. MGR who knew Sandow and on learning about this incident incorporated it into his film. He enacted the sequence so well it had the audience in splits.)

T.G. Raghavachari was a successful Madras High Court lawyer who ventured into films. In those days cinema did not enjoy a good reputation and so he initially worked anonymously for producers such as S. Soundararajan and AV. Meiyappan. He directed Rishyashringar starring Ranjan and Vasundhara Devi for Soundararajan but his name did not appear in the credits. Then S.S. Vasan brought him into the Gemini Studios family and Raghavachari directed the box office bonanza Mangamma Sapatham in 1943. At Vasan’s insistence, he directed this film under the pseudonym ‘Acharya’. Many people thought that it was Vasan hiding behind that name! Besides, he worked on the early parts of Chandralekha (1948). The famous drum dance, which finds mention in every book about Indian Cinema, was actually directed by Raghavachari and not by K. Ramnoth as many people think. He used four cameras to shoot the sequence and as he walked out of the film midway for personal reasons Vasan took over and spent as many as six months to edit this single sequence. Later TGR directed for Vasan Apoorva Sahotharargal, also a hit.

The multi-faceted Ramnoth wrote scripts, handled the camera, edited the film and did everything to make the final product glossy. The circus scenes in Chandralekha were his creation. His ‘alter ego’ A.K. Sekhar was another genius. Besides being an ace art director, he was a sound recordist, editor and director.

Sundar Rao Nadkarni began acting in silent films in Bangalore and soon became an editor and director, making several films in more than one language. His best hit was the MKT-starrer Haridas.

Another forgotten filmmaker who made most of the early films of the first superstar of the Indian Cinema, MKT, was Raja Chandrasekhar. His brother T.R. Raghunath was more successful.

The contribution of music composers such as S.V. Venkataraman, G. Ramanathan and S. Rajeswara Rao, cinematographers Kamal Ghosh and Marcus Bartley cannot be brushed aside. It is difficult to mention all the personalities, especially the stars of Tamil cinema, within the scope of this article.

During the recent centenary celebrations of Indian cinema held in the city, in the full-page ads in colour, drawings of people who contributed to the success of Tamil cinema were highlighted. To the shock of many, there was no illustration of Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, S.S. Rajendran, P. Kannamba, T.R. Rajakumari or such other greats.