Athirupa Manichandar on businesses that serve as a reminder of Tamil cinema’s bygone era

If clothes could spin a story, Kodambakkam would be responsible for years’ worth of romance, fight scenes and dancing around trees that south Indians have grown to love.

An unceasing stream of vehicles and pedestrians bustle down Arcot Road in Kodambakkam, and it may be difficult to go back in time to hear the clopping of horse hooves. Legend has it that years ago, Kodambakkam was part of the fiefdom of the Prince of Arcot and housed his stables. The unpaved roads were often described as a ‘garden of horses’ or ‘ghoda bagh’ and hence the name Kodambakkam.

Huge stretches of the thoroughfare are dotted with road-side shops partaking of the business that this centre of south Indian film industry has to offer. In a side-street, away from the clamour, stands Nathrang & Co. An establishment from the beginning of the last century, this costumes-on-hire business continues to attract and satisfy its clientele.

A narrow and tall modern construction from the outside, Nathrang’s quiet interiors burst with the colours of myriad props. Dilip Kumar Babu, senior partner, Nathrang & Co., talks about the shop that was started by his grandfather Nadhamani in 1900. “We began with supplying costumes for street dramas. My father and uncle expanded the business, and soon, they were supplying costumes for films.”

K. Nadhamuni & Sons is another famed name in the field. Set up in 1910 by K. Nadhamuni, the outlet in Kodambakkam provided sets for filmmakers. This establishment now operates from Sowcarpet and deals with costumes. Proprietor K.C. Udayakumar says, “The film business area is Kodambakkam. Our business has been affected to an extent, but people from the older generation still recognise our name.”

Costume hirers rode on the success of the boom that Kodambakkam experienced around the 1940s and the 50s. After the establishment of the first film studio ‘Star Combines’ by A. Ramaiah in 1946, the following decade saw the advent of many studios and a sea change in Kodambakkam, from an undeveloped area to a major centre for tinsel town.

Mohan V. Raman, actor and film historian, recalls, “By the mid 50s, there were more studios. Then the need for accessories came up. That is when wigmakers, hairdressers and costumers set up shop here.”

Back then, films were centred on characters straight out of the puranas or period films. Grand outfits, turbans, swords and a lot more were needed to embellish the mythological and royal characters on screen. Nathrang and Co. and others like it did roaring business during this period.

But a couple of decades later, there was an eclipse on mythological films and the social drama on celluloid was born. This subsequently led to a reduced need for elaborate costumes. “At present, we have no touch with the film industry. We supply for college cultural programmes, private parties, and amateur plays,” says Mr. Babu. He is, however, hopeful of resurgence. “I expect the old trends to return,” smiles Mr. Babu.

Others too have had to take their business away from the film world. “People in the industry have their own costume designers today. So they don’t have much use for us,” says Mr. Udayakumar. Mr. Raman says times have indeed changed. “I don’t think Nathrang and other costume-hirers are dependant on the film industry today. Theirs is a dying art, with the stage itself losing its importance.”

Kodambakkam has transformed over the years. With many big and small film studios having shut shop, veterans of the cine world see it in a different light. “Kodambakkam was a busy place. Now, with most of the studios gone, the charm has disappeared,” says actor V.S. Raghavan.

Some others are more optimistic. The South India Film Costumers’ Union works out of Kodambakkam. It was started around 40 years ago and today, supplies costumes for films, says union president V. Murthy. “Kodambakkam has only gotten better with time. No matter what, cinema will live on,” he says. In the sepia-toned memories of many, the charm and glitter of the original Mecca of Kollywood would stand immortalised.

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