Kavignar Muthulingam rewinds to the city of the Sixties and Seventies, his early career as a journalist and how he got a break in Tamil cinema
I was born in Kadambangudi, a small village in Sivaganga District. I had just turned 23 when director T.N. Balu, a friend, wrote to me, asking me to come to Madras. I arrived in 1965 with dreams of a job in the film industry, like many of my contemporaries.
At the Government Estate, residential quarters were provided for those who served the ministers at the Coovum Illam. I stayed there for a while, working as a sub-editor for the Tamil daily Murasoli; it's office was in those days located opposite the Church Park school. When I joined, I earned a princely sum of Rs. 120 a month. This salary was more than enough, and I would even be able to save Rs. 40 from it!
The first thing I noticed during my walks around Triplicane was a railway track on the road. Curious, I made enquiries about it and learnt that it was a tramline. But following withdrawal of the services, the track was being removed.
I shifted house till I finally rented a room in Teynampet in the 1970s, right behind actor M. R. Radha's house on Raja Krishna Rao Street. The rent was Rs. 100 a month and I would often walk to work from there, or board one of the 18 series' buses. It would barely take 10 minutes to get to work.
Entertainment options were few in Madras; there was either the cinema or the beach. I've visited almost all the old theatres. It was at that time Pilot Theatre in Royapettah and Devi Theatre on Mount Road had just opened. I remember my first movie in Devi Theatre — it was the Western, ‘Mackenna's Gold'.
Another thing that took me by surprise was the language spoken in the city; I couldn't understand half the words the locals spoke. It took me a few months to decipher the Madras slang.
I came to Madras only in the 1960s, when development had already begun but I've heard from others who were here earlier that when the T. Nagar bus stand hadn't been constructed, the buses would be parked on either side of the road near the Siva-Vishnu temple. Apparently, the entire stretch of Mount Road past Teynampet comprised fields that were farmed. On the other side of town, past the Kodambakkam powerhouse, were bigger stretches of farmland and there were no houses in sight. So, when people had to get to Doraiswamy Road in T. Nagar from there, it was just a 10-minute walk.
As far as eating places go, there weren't many. Of course, Triplicane's famous messes were around but I never ventured that far. Nearest to the office was the Thousand Lights Café where we would buy food tokens for lunch and spend evenings chatting over coffee and snacks. I don't think the place exists any more.
I shifted to another paper, Alai Osai, where I worked till 1975. After this, I became a lyricist. The office was on Harley's Road, Kilpauk. Even though I continued to live in Teynampet, I would often walk all the way to work when I didn't have enough money. But, sometimes, when I felt rich, I would hire a taxi to work. The minimum fare in those days was Rs. 1.50.
My very first song was recorded in Bharani Studios for the movie ‘Ponnukku Thanga Manasu' (1973). The song was ‘Thanjavooru Seemaielay', for which Ilaiyaraaja composed the tune. He was then working as an assistant to G.K. Venkatesh, who had scored the music for the film. I, therefore, had the honour of having my first song composed by Ilaiyaraaja, even though his name wasn't mentioned.
Madras was half-city half-village. Except for a few buses, public transport facilities were yet to develop. There were no apartments, until much later. Most people walked to different places, life was simple…. Yet, it is these memories have stayed with us.