“Flashback — An Exhibition,” opening on December 15 at the Anna University, is a tribute to cinema by students

Many years ago, a young casting assistant with Gemini studios wrote a strong recommendation note for another young bright actor after an audition. They shared not just a name but also a destiny.

This casting assistant later disguised himself as a beggar and approached producer Narayana Iyengar who was so impressed that he gave him the role in Kanavane Kankanda Deivam (1955).

The casting assistant was ‘Gemini’ Ganesan and the actor he had recommended became ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan.

“We couldn’t get our hands on the original note, but were able to verify its existence. And we got hold of the rare photograph of ‘Gemini’ Ganesan in disguise — one of the earliest photographs of his career — that will be displayed during our exhibition,” says filmmaker Venkey who is curating “Flashback — An Exhibition” from December 15 to 21 at the Anna University, CEG campus, organised jointly by the students of the Department of Media Sciences, Anna University, and the Department of Visual Communication, Ethiraj College.

Interesting nuggets

“Did you know that 39 Tamil films were produced in 1936 alone and the 100th Tamil film made was released that year? Or that the first recorded instance of an Indian film using cartoon (animation) dates back to Padmajothy in 1937? Or that Navayuvan Alladhu Geethasaaram (1937) was the first Indian film to be shot abroad (in England),” Venkey starts rattling off trivia he collected for the exhibition.

The exhibition will piece together over 150 such bits of trivia, some verified and some widely believed nuggets of history, apart from rare photographs, archival footage, documentary clips, newspaper clippings and posters.

“There was very little documentation available, so we had to read the books and biographies available and then trace back the sources to the families and their personal collection. We interviewed Manorama, Kamala Selvaraj, got a lot of information from Sivaji’s house... We approached AVM who gave us stills and posters of all their films, we got material from Prasad Studios, A.P. Nagarajan’s son gave us rare photos... We got rushes of K. Subramanyam’s banned film Thyagabhoomi from Krishnaswamy Associates,” Venkey recounts the journey of collecting material for the exhibition that will run parallel to the Chennai International Film Festival.

“Meeran Sahib Street is a lost piece of history. It was supposed to be one of the biggest trade centres for films where distributors would sit with boxes of film... Lakhs of rupees used to be traded there in cash and people would leave with films to different parts of South India.”

“The exhibition will trace the birth of world cinema from the silent era and try to document material available till the end of the black and white era... almost to the end of the Seventies,” says Venkey.

“The students have created prototypes of zoetrope and magic lanterns and we have sculptors working on models. We have made a miniature of the Chandralekha drum dance. We will be screening clips of the first films of Lumiere Brothers, and Georges Melies’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune, the original three-minute film where every frame was hand painted in colour (recreated in Scorsese’s Hugo recently). We will be playing Charlie Chaplin’s first Making a Living (1914) and Laurel and Hardy’s The Lucky Dog (1921) and the first Indian silent film Raja Harischandra.”

A team of artists from Chennai Weekend Artists have painstakingly recreated popular scenes from various classic films that will be showcased at the exhibition.

“We also have a section to honour producers. About 60 to 70 cut-outs are dedicated to details of films produced by various producers.”

The exhibition will also feature a leather puppet show.

“The Thol Pavai Koothu, using leather puppets, employed many techniques used in cinema — such as zoom in and close up — long before cinema was born. So much that when the first film footage of the train was screened, while people screamed and ran outside everywhere else in the world, in India, they just went behind the screen to see if it was like a puppet show,” notes Venkey.

Lectures on film history

“If you want to really absorb, it will take half a day to go through everything and the entry is free. We want people to know about it. We have lectures everyday on different pieces of film history,” he adds. “We don't have major support in terms of sponsors but we had to start somewhere and all that we have done is completely because of the hard work put in by the students who have now become fans of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, MGR, Sivaji, Gemini Ganesan...”