NOSTALGIA V.S. Raghavan on a time when the city resembled a village, Tamil theatre flourished, and the magic of tinseltown
I spent most of my childhood in a village, but for the three years I lived in Mylapore, I studied my third, fourth and fifth forms in P.S. High School. Then, I moved to St. Columba's in Chengalpet to finish SSLC and my first and second intermediate in Madras Christian College, Tambaram.
In those days, it was an accepted norm that if you studied in St. Columba's you would get a seat in MCC. My father passed away when I finished my schooling. So, my mother and I packed our bags from my native Venbakkam, a village outside Chennai, and moved here to Vellala Street in Purasaiwalkam, where my sister lived.
My journey to Purasaiwalkam is a memorable story. My sister had given me her address and asked me to take a rickshaw from Egmore station. Only after hiring a rickshaw did I realise I had lost the address slip. I remembered the street, but not the door number. There were at least 200 houses on the street, and I told the rickshaw to keep pedalling up and down the street till we spotted her standing outside.
In 1942, when I reached Madras, I was all of 17 and raring to settle in a career. At that time, this city was like a big village. I started my career as a sub-editor for the magazine Malathi, run by humourist Thumilan (N. Ramaswamy). When it closed down, I joined a printing press. This was sometime around Independence, when the Hindi movement was gaining momentum. So, I learnt Hindi and staged a few Hindi plays at functions — my career as a dramatist had begun.
In 1954, I started the INA (Indian National Artists) with four other friends. K. Balachander was part of our troupe too; he acted and wrote scripts. We used to put up plays at Museum Theatre, Mylapore Fine Arts Club, Kartik Fine Arts, Krishna Gana Sabha and other sabhas. They were all patrons of arts. There used to be a good crowd for theatre then, since there was no other form of entertainment.
I also used to act for the YMIA (Young Men's Indian Association), started by Annie Besant. It still works out of Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. We staged ‘Vaira Maalai', which was later made into a film. I was called to play the same role I did in the play, and made my entry into films.
The price of tickets used to be very low. For what you pay for a movie ticket now, you could have run a family for an entire month then.
After this, I quit my job in the press and juggled theatre and cinema. Back then, everyone was into drama. Cho Ramaswamy, Mouli, Visu, Komal Swaminathan, Y.G Mahendra and Chitralaya Gopu — all had flourishing drama clubs. The 1960s and 1970s were a golden period for Tamil theatre.
In those days, films would be shot only in studios. AVM, Gemini, Majestic, Vauhini, Prasad, Golden, Neptune, Satya were the places I kept shuttling to. Most of them were in Kodambakkam, and so, many actors lived in that area too. There wasn't much traffic except for the level crossing at the station, where cars had to wait. Eventually, a bridge came up, and that was solved too.
Also, back then, all films had live sound. A microphone would follow the characters as they spoke. Today, with technology, nobody bothers about external noise. Shootings take place amidst a lot of chaos, whereas back then, there was absolute silence in the studio. But the biggest difference is that in the good old days, you only needed a few thousands to make a movie; nowadays, one only talks in lakhs and crores.
After every drama show, we used to be paid about Rs. 300 or Rs. 350. After distributing the money to everybody, there would be an excess of Rs.10 or so. A group of us would go to Mint Street, and eat poori for dinner. After that, we would walk to Purasaiwalkam, talking about the show. I don't think you can do anything with a 10-rupee note now.
V.S. Raghavan Born in 1925 in Venbakkam, he began his career as a dramatist and started the INA in 1954. The same year, they staged ‘Engirindho Vandhaal', their first play, scripted by Ma. Ramachandran and directed by GBS. Following this, the troupe put up many successful shows, till it closed down a decade later. Raghavan entered cinema with “Vaira Maalai” when he was 30 and has always starred in supporting roles. He has acted in Sridhar's “Kadhalika Neramillai” and “Nenjil Oar Aalaiyam”, “Sumai Thaangi” and “Nenjirukkum Varai”. He has also been a regular in many MGR movies. Recently, he's been seen Chimbudevan's films — “Imsai Arasan 23aam Pulikesi”, “Arai Enn 305-il Kadavul” and “Irumbu Kottai Murattu Singam”. He currently acts in tele-serials.