Nothing remains of Ajantha Studio today. K. Pradeep discovers the story behind the country’s first cooperative studio which was the dream of two men, Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan and Alleppey Vincent

Ask for Ajantha Studio at Keezhmadu, on the Aluva-Perumbavoor route, and you are likely to draw a blank. Probe further and some ‘old timers’ remember the ‘cinema factory’ on sprawling, picturesque grounds, a steep climb that led to a building which housed a studio floor. Today, instead of the studio stands the Model Residential Higher Secondary School. There is no trace of this once bustling studio.

Ajantha Studio, set up in 1957-58, was the first-ever studio in the cooperative sector in the country. The men behind this venture were erstwhile actor Alleppey Vincent, who acted in Malayalam’s first talkie Balan and Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan, journalist-film historian. It was their dream project; a dream that later turned sour.

Source of sorrow

Ajantha Studio remained a source of sorrow for both of them till the end of their lives. They even refused to talk about it. Gopalakrishnan, who wrote extensively about Malayalam cinema and had a priceless collection of cinema memorabilia, seemed to have consciously removed anything associated with this project.

“I don’t know why every time we asked about the studio he withdrew into a shell. He has not taken us, his children or his wife, there. He seems to have deliberately avoided keeping any photographs of the place in his collection. And for someone who has written so much about Malayalam cinema there is very little about this place. I have always felt that he was consciously trying to delete this from his memory,” feels Radhakrishnan (Saju), Gopalakrishnan’s son.

How did Vincent and Gopalakrishnan get into this project? And what really happened to the studio? Answers reveal an unfortunate tale of how people experimented with their lives and assets, experiments that ended in tragedies.

Vincent was a close friend of the late T. V. Thomas, Communist leader and minister in the first EMS ministry. “They had started a film production company, Udaya Pictures, which Kunchacko took over and renamed as Udaya Studio. Vincent even acted in the first film that rolled out from here, Vellinakshtram. Eased out of the Udaya, Vincent’s career was at the crossroads,” says Dr. Sebastian Paul, former Member of Parliament, who has written a biography of Alleppey Vincent titled Alleppey Vincent: Malayala Cinemayude Snapakan.

Sebastian Paul had made numerous visits to the studio when he was editor of ‘Chitrapournami’, a cinema weekly and has met Vincent several times at his small house near the studio. “The first Communist ministry in the State came to power. Thomas became a minister. Vincent shared his studio dream with Thomas. Together they met the then Revenue Minister, Gowri Amma. She was reluctant at first, but later conceded to their demand. What clinched the issue in Vincent’s favour was that it was going to be a cooperative society undertaking,” says Sebastian Paul.

The land was located by Vincent with the help of his friend N. K. Karunakaran Pillai (producer of the film Rakthabandham) who stayed in Alwaye. Pillai was manager of Pankajam Motors and also Pankajam Touring Talkies. They found the property by a hillock, close to the Periyar, at Keezhmadu. This land was leased out by the government for the studio. The Kerala Cooperative Cine Society Limited, Alwaye, No. 3555 was registered. Vincent and Gopalakrishnan were its first president and secretary respectively. “Shares worth Rs.10 to Rs. 100 were sold. Artistes, writers and people from all walks of life bought shares. Equipment, the latest ones, was bought on a hire purchase scheme. They allocated a sum of Rs. 13, 90,000 for the studio and named it Ajantha Studio,” informs Radhakrishnan.

An actor remembers

The start was good. Many films were shot here. “Yes, I do remember the studio. It was not a full-fledged film studio. There was a thatched ‘floor’ where the sets were created. There was no accommodation , only Vincent stayed in a house close to the studio. I don’t think a whole film was made here. For Olavum Theeravum we did a bit of ‘patchwork’ here. It did not have a lab and this was a deterrent. But it was a lovely place,” remembers noted actor Madhu.

With majority of Malayalam films still being made in Madras and with films moving outdoors, the going got tough for Ajantha Studio. “Vincent and Gopalakrishnan pledged their assets on a government loan. The studio could not repay this amount and there was this mortgage threat. An Alleppey-based businessman took the pledged land and repaid the loan. Both of them lost their property and the studio plunged into crisis,” says Sebastian Paul.

Gopalakrishnan distanced himself completely from the studio, while Vincent made a last-ditch effort to revive it with help from a group of people, which also failed.

“The studio functioned for about 10 years or so. I remember going there for the shoot of P. J. Antony’s Periyar. Many celebrated directors made films here, at least parts of it. One of Vincent’s notebooks shows that they invested Rs. 64 lakh. The seven-year lease period on the property was extended, a new committee took charge. I came to know that the members sold everything there, even the trees. Vincent spent his last days in the house close to the studio, a mute witness. And Gopalakrishnan died a sad man,” rounds off Sebastian Paul.