As Indian cinema enters its centenary year, here's an enjoyable session with ‘Film News' Anandan.
The centenary of Indian cinema will probably culminate in a celebration on May 3, 2013, and now is the right time to go on a nostalgic sojourn with ‘Film News' Anandan, an octogenarian, who lives and breathes cinema. It was on this date in 1913 that ‘Raja Harischandra,' the first silent Indian movie, was released. “In the South it was R. Nataraja Mudaliar's ‘Keechaka Vadham' in 1918, and the first talkie was ‘Kalidas' in 1931,” Anandan informs.
Sense of humour
Will you believe me if I say that the sedate, senior film historian, has an excellent sense of humour? I'm in for a surprise too, when I meet him at his apartment in Mylapore, Chennai. His anecdotes about cinema in its nascent years have me in splits. Sample this. “‘Kalidas,' the first talkie in Tamil was being made by Ardeshir Irani, around the time of ‘Alam Ara,' the maiden Hindi talkie.” Really commendable of him to think of producing a Tamil film, I comment.
“Yeah, only that it turned out to be quite a hilarious exercise. His friend, H.M. Reddy was the director. He brought in a Telugu speaking Venkateswarlu as the hero. T.P. Rajalakshmi, who was a popular silent movie heroine, was roped in. Try as they did Venkateswarlu couldn't get his Tamil right. So TPR's dialogue was in Tamil and the hero's in Telugu,” he chuckles.
So that was why it was advertised as the first Tamil and Telugu talkie? “I wonder why they forgot the Hindi part,” Anandan pretends to look serious. Oh, so were there Hindi speaking characters too? “Of course, L.V. Prasad played the comedian and spoke his lines in Hindi.” Then how can it be called a Tamil film? “It beats me too,” he grins.
The film must have had songs. “They did, in plenty. ‘I can sing a song on the charka. I've been singing it on stage and the audience love it. Shall I,' Rajalakshmi is believed to have asked Reddy. ‘Go ahead,' he had said. ‘I perform the gypsy dance very well. Can I?' was her next appeal, and Reddy nodded.”
In a devotional film on Kalidas, they included a ‘kurathi' dance and a patriotic number? “Reddy was probably pleased to add on anything artistic that came his way. Relevance was hardly an issue. And that was not all. A request for a Tyagaraja kriti, ‘Enta Nerchina,' had the director giving the green signal. So a couple of kritis also found their way into ‘Kalidas.'” Seeing me double up in laughter, he smiles, “I'll tell you about comedy tracks in our early films. But that can wait …”
‘Film News' Anandan is the only film historian in this part of the country, who has been diligently recording the occurrences in cinema day in and day out, for more than 60 years now. “Working late into the night is a norm because I don't rest till I complete the day's work,” he says. Every January he brings out booklets that contain all information about the films released in the year gone by. “I print them at my own cost and distribute them,” he says. A typical historian's den, his room should be a treasure trove for students of cinema. Such an effort shouldn't go unrecognised. “The CM knows about my work. I'm waiting for an audience with her,” he says.
“In those days films were shot in natural light,” Anandan continues and from the tone I realise that I'd soon be in stitches again. “So you had actors performing under the direct rays of the Sun, screwing their eyes. Just imagine, they emoted with eyes half closed!” I burst out laughing.
Does he maintain a record from the beginning of cinema here? “I began collecting details in 1954, and within a year I had got all possible information about the films till that time,” he smiles. And not just Tamil, his record then, encompassed Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam cinema. “One of the reasons was that Madras was a cinema hub and films in the regional languages of the South were also made here.” Anandan has not only pioneered the field of filmography, but is also the only person who's still assiduously at it. To whom will he pass on the mantle? “There's none, as far as I can see,” he shrugs.
The historian didn't begin his career as a recorder of film history. He stumbled upon it much later. That Anandan's father, an Assistant Accountant General at the AG's office, allowed the son to follow his heart and try out the line he wished to, surprises Anandan even now. “As a 12-year old, I asked for a box camera, and he bought it for me at once. When I grew up to become a photographer, I wanted a high-end, German Rolleiflex that cost Rs.3,000 in those days and got it. If he had insisted I go in for a Bachelor's after my Intermediate course at the Government Arts College, I would have done it. But he never forced me into anything. But for my dad, the name I've earned may have never come my way …” Anandan turns slightly emotional. “I even christened myself Anandakrishnan. I was called Mani. My father took me to school for admission to Class I. But when the principal asked me, I coolly said ‘Anandakrishnan.' Puzzled he looked at my father, who was taken aback. ‘The application says it's Mani.' ‘It is. I don't understand why he's calling himself so. We haven't even uttered the name at home.' ‘Leave it to him. Let him be Anandakrishnan,' the principal smiled. Later, when I began working, I shortened it to Anandan. Again, he didn't say a thing.”
Obsessed with the camera, even with his modest box he would try out innovations such as twin images in a picture, and this led to him to C.J. Mohan, the cameraperson of N.S. Krishnan's first directorial venture, ‘Manamagal.' Soon began his career as a freelance photographer for Film News, a fortnightly published by his classmate in college, C.B. Devarajan. And when he moved on to supply salient details of all the shootings that took place in the city every month, for the journal brought out by the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce, the film historian in him began to emerge. But the less-known facet of his life is his days as a PR person for nearly 3000 films. “It was thanks to M.G. Ramachandran that I entered that field. Beginning ‘Nadodi Mannan,' I took care of the public relations of all his films till the very end,” he says. After which he changed tack to film history.
Does he ever think of calling it a day? “No, I know only cinema and I love my work. Retirement is not for me,” he smiles.
I remind him of the comedy tracks he promised to talk about? “Oh, that … in our early films viewers weren't happy if the film got over soon. So a comedy track that had nothing to do with the main story was screened after the main film. And you had posters proclaiming, ‘Come and watch ‘Naveena Sarangadhara' and ‘Kozhukattai' comedy!'” What's that? “Search me. Must have been an unconnected humour story about the delicacy,” he says in a sober tone. And I know that Anandan is in his element again.
A moment to savour
It was in the early 1950s the time when several films were made at New-tone Studios in Kilpauk, Chennai. Anandan, who was learning photography under C.J. Mohan at the studio would see actors shooting, but felt diffident about meeting them. One day he wished to try clicking actors with his new rollieflex camera. ‘Big heroes may not oblige a young man like me,’ he thought, and walked up to a seemingly unknown, elderly face, and asked, ‘May I click a few pictures of you?’ “Of course, you may,” was the reply.
“Your name, Sir?”
“Imagine my shock and joy! Parasakthi had already been released and he was emerging as a name to reckon with. I couldn’t recognise him in the old man’s make-up. I had a dozen pictures of him before I left. His reply in flawless English and his simplicity stunned me,” laughs Anandan.