'Vietnam Veedu' Sundaram on a time when theatre flourished, people thronged street-corner palagara kadais, and a cosmopolitan culture prevailed in Chennai

My mother brought me to Madras from Tiruchirapalli in 1945 to see Gandhiji at Island Grounds. I moved here for good in 1955. How the city had changed by then! It seemed more crowded than before and had many facilities unheard of in the districts.

I used to stay at the T. Nagar Club House opposite the Shiva Vishnu Temple. Nagesh, Srikanth, “Vennira Aadai” Murthy and Vaali also stayed there. The room rent was Rs. 5 and the food bill worked out to Rs. 31 a month in the messes nearby. Rayars Café in Mylapore was our popular haunt.

Those days, you could sustain yourself on Rs. 90 a month — a train season pass cost just Rs. 12 — but it was difficult to earn even that amount.

Ranganathan Street used to be a lonely stretch with huge independent houses? A couple of people would sell radish and greens near the railway station.

I found a job as labourer in Dunlop and left when I had graduated to tyre inspector. I was also working as a service boy in United Amateur Artistes run by Y.G. Parthasarathy, his wife and Pattu. That kindled my interest in drama and cinema. Waiting at the ‘chinna gate' at Kodambakkam to see actors was a ritual, for the film industry in those days was a closed world and even getting into a studio was difficult.

On the other hand, theatre thrived; there were about 80 groups led by stalwarts such as R.S. Manohar, T.K. Shanmugham and K. Balachander. For months on end, special plays would be staged at the Ottrai Vaadai theatre.

Other favourite venues were Raja Annamalai Mandram, RR Sabha, Mylapore Fine Arts and The Music Academy. All of us would try and premiere our plays in Mylapore; it was believed that if you staged a play there, it would go to America. That's because the news would travel to all the local girls who had settled there!

People, however big they were, revered the arts and respected its practitioners. Rajaji called me after watching ‘Vietnam Veedu' twice. Three of my plays, ‘Vietnam Veedu', ‘Gouravam' and ‘Gnana Oli' were made into successful films one after the other.

In fact, my dear friend Rangappa (the late S. Rangarajan of The Hindu) produced the award-winning “Gouravam” and launched me as a director.

Theatre activists learnt more from experience than through formal education. That was probably the reason why I was able to write the heavy-duty ‘Vietnam Veedu' when I was just 19!

The focus of any play we wrote was to ensure that even as the curtains came down, it widened the audience's perspective.

Those who came from outside thrived in Madras because it allowed people to prosper. Also, thanks to the influx of people from various States, we got to partake of a shared culture and learn languages.

It helped that Madras was where films from various States were made!

Every area was known for something; Mylapore was full of advocates and scholars. Those days, it was a big deal to be in Mylapore; a song even went ‘Mylapore vakkilaathu maatupon aaven'.

The city was green then; in fact, the areas after Bharani Studio, Saligramam, would resemble a village!

As for Adyar, after the Theosophical Society, all you could find were big farms with houses. Only if you had a car could you live in Adyar.

Street food was very popular; You would get aapam, coconut milk and chutney in every street corner. And, then, there were the palagara kadais selling Chettinad arisi murukku and savouries from Karaikudi.

Koozh, buttermilk and curd would be sold out of earthen pots, and mor would be served with a dollop of fresh butter, like in the villages.

The ‘beach' sundal was the butt of so many jokes of our time, but it was an integral part of our lives; sadly, it just does not taste the same anymore.

The Museum Theatre was styled like the theatres in Broadway, and it was prestigious to stage shows there as the lighting, sound and seating were good.

Another hotspot was the Connemara Library. You would be judged based on whether you had a membership there. You were considered successful only if you were “Radio pugazh” or had performed in the December season.

And yes, how can I forget the water in Palavakkam; it was as sweet as kalkandu. It would be used to make peppermint and paneer soda.

(As told to Subha J Rao)