Dr. S. Srihari recalls the halcyon days when his father S.M. Sriramulu Naidu, a pioneer in films, called the shots in Coimbatore
It was an outdoor shoot at the sprawling tea gardens of Valparai. The BNC Mitchell— one of the best cameras (it cost a whopping Rs. 5 lakh then and was one of the only three in India), rolled. And, Dilip Kumar staged a dramatic rescue of Meena Kumari on a ropeway, in the cable car. The film was Azaad, shot in 1954. “It was the first time ever in South India when a Hindi film was produced with artistes from Mumbai,” says Dr. S. Srihari. It was at the Pakshiraja Studios in Coimbatore, owned by his father S. M. Sriramulu Naidu.
“The artistes came in three schedules of 20 days each. The film was produced in a record time of three months,” he recalls. Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari stayed at Pakshiraja Studios, which had 30 rooms, each with an attached bathroom. There was an in-house canteen that had a special menu for the main artists.
The first in Tamil Nadu to begin film production, Sriramulu Naidu set up Central Studios (1937) and later Pakshiraja Studios (1945).
Between 1937 and 1960, film production flourished around these two studios. Azaad was made in six languages — Malai Kallan (Tamil), Aggi Ramudu (Telugu) Taskara Veeran (Malayalam), Bettada Kalla (Kannada) and Surasena (Sinhalese). All of them were super hits. MGR played the hero in Tamil for which Kalaignar Karunanidhi wrote the dialogues and the Telugu version had N.T. Rama Rao in the lead (all three went on to become Chief Ministers). “Those were the days when you needed to own a studio to produce films. And, there was an understanding between the producers to time the releases so that there was no cut-throat competition. Producers dictated the terms. Artists listened to the directors, unlike now where the stars call the shots,” says Dr. Srihari.
In 1960, Sriramulu Naidu shifted operations to Bangalore to Chamundeswari Studios (later taken over by a cousin) bringing to an end the glorious chapter of films in Coimbatore. Pakshiraja Studios is now Vignesh Mahal opposite Carmel Garden School on Puliakulam Road.
“Those were the golden days,” he says, when the city used to be poor man’s Ooty. “People used to use sweaters, blankets and mufflers during the cold months that lasted from November to February. March and April were warm. In May, we’d have the showers. Rains from the South West and the North East monsoons ensured there was no shortage of water.”
Srihari mentions two people whose contributions to Coimbatore are almost forgotten. Rathna Sabapathy Mudaliar, the man who brought Siruvani water to Coimbatore in the 1920s (R.S.Puram is named after him) and Samikannu Vincent, a Railway employee, who brought films to the city in the 1917, and later electricity.
The population was about three lakhs. Horse drawn jhatkas and cycle rickshaws ferried people and one could count the number of cars. “People preferred English cars and American ones such as the Chevrolet.” Movies provided entertainment.
Post the Second World War, a boom in textiles earned the city the sobriquet “Manchester of South India”.
There was lush greenery. “Trichy Road was dotted with majestic banyans and tamarind trees. The road next to Railway Station was a quiet place, also tree lined,” he reminisces.
Hotels were limited to just J.M & Sons, Hotel Majestic (where KG Complex now stands) and Hotel Woodlands, (present Cheran Towers). His father started Hotel Davey (opposite the Railway Station) with a bar attached. It served a fixed four course meal of soup, rice and curry, a side dish and dessert. There was Davey Confectioneries and Catering too, where one could buy a dozen mutton puffs for Rs.1. “And, get back change,” says Dr Srihari, with a twinkle in his eyes.
“The bakery industry is flourishing only now. Then, bread was considered a diet for the sick.” Srihari says the way of life changed in the 70s. “Would you believe it? I could buy 10 litres of petrol for Rs.10. Now everything is in short supply. Population has increased, so has the traffic, roads are congested and we have insufficient rains. Corruption has become a way of life”, he regrets.
Dr. Srihari misses the quiet life, the sweetness of Siruvani water, the greenery, and the pollution-free air. “While studying for medicine in Chennai, I used to visit Coimbatore on a third class ticket during summer vacation. For students after concession, it cost Rs. 5. Forty to 50 of us would book an entire compartment. We would chat and play cards all the way to Coimbatore…. Those days are gone with the wind, you will never get them back,” he says.
(As told to K. JESHI)
Watching historic dramas such as Avvaiyar and Raja Raja Cholan at Royal and Shanmuga theatres. The TKS dram group used to perform once a year in the theatres for a period of one week and then travel to other places such as Trichy, Madurai and Chennai. After movies, drama was the only other form of entertainment.
Dr. S. Srihari Born in 1932, he completed his M.B.B.S. at Madras Medical College in 1960 and worked at the General Hospital there. He went to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh for his MRCP, specialised in neurology and worked in the U.K. He returned to Coimbatore in 1965 and joined the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital (right from its inception in 1969 as Government Headquarters Hospital, which later became CMCH). He served as a professor of medicine for 25 years. Dr Srihari is the first MRCP from Coimbatore and also the first FRCP, which he got in 1981. He is also Fellow of the Indian Academy of Medical Specialists. He has keen interest in Carnatic music and, but naturally, is a movie buff. Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and Cecile B De Mile’s Ten Commandments are his favourites