Phalke's Raja Harischandra marked the birth of Bombay cinema. Mohan V. Raman gives a overview of the inception of some of our regional cinemas.

In a sense, Bollywood — Bombay's Hollywood, in other words — can be said to have had its beginnings with Dadasaheb Phalke shooting his first film “Raja Harischandra” almost a 100 years ago in Bombay. Phalke took over “Mathura Bhavan”, the residence of one of his friends in Dadar East and converted into a studio. He built many of his sets there and shot large parts of the first Indian film “Raja Harischandra”.

Paresh Mokashi, the director of the award-winning biopic on Phalke, “Harischandrachi Factory”, says, “Nothing remains of this historic place. When I visited the site a few years ago, it was an apartment building and a chawl-like structure. The faded marble nameplate alone was there. At least the road has been named after Phalke, though the site is unmarked.”

But if Bombay is the father of Indian Cinema, then Chennai is truly its mother. Within a few years of Phalke's film, Nataraja Mudaliar, a young businessman from Chennai went to Pune, trained under an English cameraman named Stewart and returned, in 1917, to set up the first “non-Phalke” Indian Studio. He made his first film “Keechaka Vadam” in a bungalow called “Tower House” on Millers Road, Kilpauk. He built his sets there and covered the ceiling with a white cloth for diffusing sunlight.

Solar electricity

Raghupathy Venkaiah and his son, R. Prakash, set up their studio a few years later behind Roxy Theater in Purasaiwalkam. This was called the “Glass Studio” as it had a roof made of glass to allow the sun to shine through. There being no electricity, the lighting was all solar.

The first studio to be equipped with all the facilities to shoot and process the film in Chennai was set up in 1933-34, and with the advent of sound, many studios sprung up all over Madras. A. Narayanan's “Srinivasa Kalyanam” was the first talkie to be entirely made in the south of India. His studio was named “Sound City”, whose exact location remains a mystery today. Narayanan's wife Meenakshi was the first lady sound recordist. It must have been a curious sight to see a lady clad in the traditional nine-yard silk saree at the audio console.

The sleepy outskirts of the city — Kodambakkam — was chosen by A. Ramaiah as the location for his studio “Star Combines” by 1946. He is truly the founder (and forgotten father) of “Kollywood” (Kodambakkam's Hollywood, in other words). When Ramaiah built his studio on a six-acre plot, they had to use horse carts to commute as there was no road beyond the Vadapalani Temple. The entire stretch of road from the Kodambakkam railway station to Vadapalani was a dark and desolate place.

Then others followed. Moola Narayanaswamy and B.N. Reddy started Vauhini Studios, A.V. Meiyappan established AVM Studios, H.M. Reddy set up Revathi Studios. By the 1970s there were more than 20 studios in Kodambakkam with over 80 shooting floors. (Today it is down to just three studios, with less than 10 floors.) Costumers, wig makers, technicians, carpenters and makeup artists started to take up residence in and around Kodambakkam.

Tollywood, today, is associated with Telugu cinema. But it was not always so. The cinematographer/ consultant of the first Indian Talkie film “Alam Ara”, Wilford E. Deming, had coined it as a conflation of Tollygunge, an area in Calcutta, and Hollywood. (“Tolly”, as it was called, rhymed with “Holly”.) It was also the home for a few film studios in the 1930s and plans for more studios were in the offing. During the early part of the 20th century, Hiralal Sen, one of the silent-film era's true pioneers, had started making documentaries. (He is considered one of the pioneering advertisement filmmakers.) After Phalke's success, D.N. Ganguly's Indo British Film Company and J.F. Madan's Madan Theatres Pvt Ltd came up in Calcutta and are probably the founding fathers of Tollywood.

The first Telugu Talkie, “Bhakta Prahalada” was made by H.M. Reddi in 1931 on the sets of “Alam Ara” and so Telugu cinema was born outside Andhra Pradesh, in Kolkota. Interestingly all the “talkie” films of the early 1930s were shot either in Mumbai, Kolhapur or Kolkata.

Friendly neighbourhood

The Telugu Film Industry has always been a part of Madras. In fact Madras was the home for the Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil film industries. The early Sinhala films were also shot in the studios of Madras. Hyderabad, today's Tollywood, saw its first studio coming up after the formation of the State of Andhra Pradesh —The Sarathi Studios in 1958. Much later, in 1976, actor A. Nageswara Rao set up his Annapurna Studios and N.T. Rama Rao started Ramakrishna Studios. Actor Krishna too set up his Padmalaya Studio in 1983 and D. Rama Naidu followed suit a few years later.

With the Andhra Pradesh government extending entertainment tax concessions to films shot entirely in the State in 1991, the shift away from Madras was almost complete. Telugu cinema had established its own roots. Soon, Malayalam cinema and Kannada cinema too left Madras. Technology too played a part, as the recording of sound along with the filming stopped and dubbing the dialogues came into vogue — this meant that films could be shot on actual location and not always in soundproofed studio floors.

The government is planning a celebration of the centenary of Indian cinema in 2013. A movie-lover's suggestion: Perhaps they can begin by marking these historic sites with a commemorative plaque. “Where it all began.”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012