S.P. Muthuraman on life-like sets, reel-sharing between theatres and the magic of yesteryear cinema

The craze for films, and Madras, took root when I watched T.K. Shanmugam's troupe perform in my town, Karaikudi. And, “Parasakthi” fuelled that craze. I came here in 1953, when I was 18.

My father arranged for me to stay with Annan (poet Kannadasan), who was running the Thendral weekly, in Shanmuga Mudali Street in Royapettah. What a gurukulam it was! I knew nothing about the world; he taught me everything. He had a dilapidated Rover, and the driver Chittibabu took me around the city when Annan was not in town.

Madras Tamizh is infamous. It used to be worse earlier, and all of us from the districts would cringe when we heard it. Horse cart drivers and their families would live near the Royapettah Hospital, the Kodambakkam Railway Station and Vadapalani. When they fought, the choicest expletives would fly!

After Vadapalani, the road used to be lined with tamarind trees. And, people would be terrified to travel after dark, as they could be waylaid and their belongings snatched. The jatka ride from Kodambakkam railway station to AVM studio would cost 50 paise a person, and the jatkawallah would cram in as many people as he could.

When I joined AVM in 1956 as an editing apprentice, sync sound was in vogue. The Mitchell camera made no noise when it was cranked; and so, we could record in sync sound. Once the noisy Arriflex camera came, we had to resort to dubbing.

Most of the shooting would take place inside the studio. Our company used to erect huge sets (of offices, homes, hospitals, etc) and A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar was particular that the sets, made of wood and cloth, should be realistic. They would be painted thrice, and even if there was a single wrinkle, the whole thing would be dismantled. Even gardens and trees would be recreated. It helped that such details would not show up in black and white. Also, technicians used light in such a way that it looked rich and had depth.

Theatres within the city limits would be good; after that, you could not be assured of the quality of screening. In fact, the famous villain S.A. Asokan would mouth his dialogues loudly, saying: ‘They can't see me after Madras, let them at least hear me.'

Among the good theatres in the city were Wellington, Roxy, Maharani, Shanthi, Odeon, New Globe, Plaza, New Elphinstone and Minerva (a 100-seater that screened only English movies.) And, the canteens would stock murukku, verkadalai and bottle soda.

We would make very few prints, and some theatres would have a reel-sharing agreement. One theatre would start screening the film, and the second would start it 15 minutes later. A person would take the reels and dash to the second theatre in a cycle-rickshaw or auto. Sometimes, he would get stuck, and chaos would ensue.

We rarely shot outdoors. When we did, the favourite locations were My Ladye's Garden, the beach, Moore Market and Parry's Corner market. We could shoot in the Egmore and Central Stations, with help from the police. And yes, we would pan to the Egmore, Central Station or LIC when we needed to show Madras.

Vijaya Gardens, where Vijaya Health Centre now stands, was a lovely place to shoot. So was VGP Golden Beach. V.G. Paneerdas was a visionary; people criticised him when he built Golden Beach on the outskirts, but he insisted its time would come. K. Balachander and I have had many discussions, and shot films there. It had everything we needed — a hotel, beach, garden and huts.

I moved to the area near AVM studios after Chettiar bought a huge tract of land, and promoted AVM Nagar and AVM Colony to ensure his employees stayed nearby. In the initial days after moving there, we had to cross fields to reach home. There would be snakes, scorpions, crabs and the like.

Outside studios, there would be a huge crowd waiting to see the stars. The number would shoot up during summer holidays, with people using recommendation to get inside. But, we stopped letting people in after a while. Even MGR felt that if people saw how a film was made, it would take away from the magic of cinema.