That AVM has a hoary past is a given -- but that it houses film artefacts and history worthy of a museum, definitely isn’t! The majestic landmark at Vadapalani, Chennai, is much more than a beehive of activity with various film and small screen shoots, editing and recordings taking place day and night!
“AVM is the only studio in the country which has been functioning for more than six decades and a half,” says M. Saravanan, the third son of the doyen A.V. Meiyappan, and managing partner, AVM Studios, when I meet him at his plush office in the premises. The building where the office is located has various equipment from the oldest Arriflex camera, 16mm projectors, old editing gizmos and sound systems from the days of PM45 and obsolete mikes, besides agreements that the production house made with actors, like the one made with veteran actor V.K. Ramasamy in 1945, neatly displayed. “We have state of the art devices but that doesn’t mean we don’t preserve things that become outdated. Every piece here is serviced and is in working condition,” smiles Saravanan.
As I glance around his commodious office room I notice an interesting blend of the old and new. Incredibly huge mementoes awarded to AVM after successful runs at the box office are eye-catching pieces. The tallest among them is a cup of pure silver presented by distributors in Karaikkudi after the 25-week win of AVM’s ‘Vazhkai’! “In those days success statistics were true. Today a 100-day run of a film means nothing because the number of prints and shows are much more than the three-show-a-day norm of yore. But we adamantly continue to celebrate it more for vanity and as an image-booster,” Saravanan smiles sardonically.
The well-laid out museum of sorts is a feat no doubt -- so how has this tireless preservation drive been possible? Saravanan points out to the quiet frame seated beside me and says, “It is thanks to the one and only Arjunan, the walking encyclopaedia of AVM!” Begun in 1945, AVM completes 65 years this October, and S.P. Arjunan has been with the institution for 64!
The octogenarian smiles a little self-consciously. “It was all AVM senior’s training. We had to be constantly on our toes. He worked with passion and we imbibed it. Mr. Meiyappan was sentimentally attached to things. Can you believe that when we shifted the studios from Devakottai Road to Chennai, he had it dismantled and brought over here? It was set up as the third floor of the studio. Even today all AVM projects have their puja here,” he says. So though Arjunan was into publicity full time at AVM, preserving all that was possible was also a part of the training.
“We never knew what he would ask for and when. It could range from the most trivial details about a film’s release to vital matters. So meticulous maintaining records of all and sundry was imperative,” recalls Arjunan, who still attends office everyday. Sitting amidst shelves stacked with files, and computers clicking away, he is able to lay his hands on any piece of information pertaining to AVM, in a matter of minutes.
AVM’s love for antiquity doesn’t stop with objects -- it includes its employees too! “We never retire our employees. And none leaves us till it’s inevitable. We settle their dues but they continue to remain on our pay roll. And invariably their sons and grandsons join us. Such is the bonding with our staff,” explains Saravanan. Rangaswamy Iyengar who had been with them for decades is one such. “He’s very old now. We have given him a phone line and he calls me up whenever possible. Be it T.P. Balu, Lena, T. Muthusamy, M. Veerappan, K. Viswanathan or S. Kannan, who’ve all trained under father, the company’s interest has always been their foremost concern. It’s not just wealth but a host of sincere employees that father has bequeathed to us,” he adds.
Arjunan takes me on a guided tour of the floors. Scenes from each of the 174 films made by AVM, neatly framed and put up on the walls running from end to end catch my attention. “That was my son Guhan’s idea,” smiles Saravanan, who walks along with us. Interestingly, the panels of large, full page ads of AVM films with titles translated into English (‘Vedhala Ulagam,’ for example, was ‘Demon Land’) adorning the walls throw light on the promo campaigns of the era. “Father was a visionary and knew how to promote products. We are now archiving all functions organised by AVM over the years. And soon Arjunan will have those details too on his finger tips,” laughs Saravanan.
But shouldn’t such collections be opened for public view? “Space is the only constraint. We have many more rare pieces waiting to be showcased, such as the costume MGR used for ‘Anbe Vaa’ and the wigs and clothes Rajinikanth used in ‘Murattukkalai,’” he says.
As I walk out of the treasure trove I notice a sparkling Vauxhall car, a 1938 machine, parked at the portico. “It was S.S. Vasan’s car. When the family decided to give it away I bought it and it’s been here since. It takes part in vintage car rallies,” says Saravanan.
Another example of AVM’s penchant for the ancient!