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Studios — the scene of action

Several memorable films were shot in the studios of yesteryear in the city. Here is the history of some of the well-known production companies and their owners.

T.R.Rajakumari in "Krishna Bhakthi".

THE FIRST movie studio came up on Greenways Road on the northern side of the Adayar River. Its genesis is interesting. C.V. Raman, a lawyer by profession — he always styled himself as `C.V. Raman, B.A. LL.B' — was the brother of the sadly forgotten pioneer, A. Narayanan. Both hailed from the zamindary town, Sivaganga and entered films even during the silent film period. They underwent training under the pioneer Raghupathy Prakash and soon Raman went ahead on his own as a producer-director.

He promoted many film companies. Obviously he was a firm believer of the dictum, "Enterprise with caution!" and made good use of his legal knowledge to promote joint stock companies with limited liability. Indeed his close pals made wisecracks that this was the only instance where his knowledge of law was put to use! Besides promoting film companies he wished to have a studio of his own, as was the practice among producers in those days.

Raman floated `Lalitha Cinetone' as a limited company with Kasi Chettiar as his main money-backer. Some friends like R. Prakash also contributed to the kitty in a small measure. He acquired a large tract of land of 25-odd acres on lease with some superstructures in Adayar with Greenways road on the north and the Adayar River on the south. The historic edifice, Broody Castle was one of the borders. The property belonged to the Nawab of Arcot and the monthly rental was Rs.150! Thus it came into existence, the studio that had a chequered history facing many changes of ownership and vicissitudes over half-a-century and more before it finally became `Satya Studio' and passed into the ownership of the MGR family. Many memorable movies were made on this historic lot.

C.V. Raman however did not produce any film after he had established his studio at Adayar. Soon Lalitha Cinetone sank into a crisis and drowned fast without a trace. Never at a loss over setbacks, Raman at once promoted another movie company, `National Theaters Limited' and transferred his studio to this new venture. With much difficulty he produced a silent film `Vishnu Leela' (1932) here, after movies began to talk Thamizh in 1931. It was directed by R. Prakash and produced by Raman.

NTL too plunged into problems and went the way of all flesh but the unfazed Raman created another company — `Meenakshi Cinetone'. Some of his rich Nattukottai Nagarathar friends in Chettinad helped him with funds. One of them was AL. RM. Alagappa Chettiar who had a deep interest in the business side of cinema and experience as a distributor.

When movies began to talk Tamil in 1931 with H.M. Reddi's `Kalidas' Alagappa Chettiar and his pals made plans to enter to enter production. Al. RM. AL. had a partner, SM. Letchumanan Chettiar who hailed from Managiri in Chettinad.

(Popularly known as `Lena' in the movie world he was a powerful person in the South Indian film arena and during a particular period wielded much clout and influence in Madras. He was a drama contractor in Chettinad and also dealt in second-hand cars. He was the first man to print and distribute handbills about his cars for sale in Tamil. It was an innovation for the day and pleased his rich customers who could not read English.

He became a successful producer and made many hits during the 1940s-1950s in Tamil and Telugu like `Krishna Bhakthi' (1948). However, he faded away and his later years were spent in distress and oblivion. His son-in-law, Thirupathy Chettiar is a noted Malayalam film producer and well-known person in the South Indian movie world today.

It was at Meenakshi Cinetone that AL. AR and his partners, including C.V. Raman, produced the hit of 1934, "Pavalakodi". This film marked the debut of M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the first superstar of South India. It was also the debut of the sadly neglected Indian film pioneer lawyer-turned-filmmaker, K. Subramaniam as director, and the star-actress, S.D. Subbulakshmi. The making of this successful movie has some interesting sidelights...

T.R.Rajakumari and T.E.Varadan in a scene from the 1934 hit "Pavalakodi".

One of the partners felt disappointed by the treatment meted out to him by the seniors and thought of a novel plan to register his protest.

The studio did not have a compound wall and he would park his car on the adjoining road. As soon as shooting began and K. Subramaniam shouted "Action!" he would start honking the car bulb-horn with glee to glory! The harsh sounds spoiled the "take" and the shot had to be taken again.

Again he would begin his honking! Thus it went on for some days. Soon the other partners realised that the only way he could be silenced was to buy his share in the partnership on his terms and get rid of him with his car, bulb horn and all! That's exactly what AL.RM and his colleagues did!

The studio floor had no ceiling and shooting had to be done, courtesy, the Sun God! That was the period when electric lights were not used in the few studios of Madras.

The other interesting sidelight was `the crow-shooter', an important member of the studio technical crew. Adayar was then a much-wooded country and the studio had many tall, age-old trees where crows gathered in large numbers.

The leftover food carelessly thrown away by the actors and crew and others at work attracted the crows and their happy and vociferous cawing disturbed the shooting. The crow-shooter armed with an air gun would shoot in the air two or three times scaring the crows off the trees and as soon as the birds flew away the cameras would roll!

As shooting was done with sunlight there were no fixed time slots for breakfast, lunch or tea. Whenever clouds hid the sun all would rush to eat and when the sun re-appeared all would rush back leaving the half-eaten food behind! Stars, small fry, the crew and the bosses and the guests and the entire king's men and women ate the same food. There was no special and preferential food for a chosen few, as is the fashion today.

(A Telugu actress asked for `mineral' water to bathe in after she did a scene in a muddy pond in the early 1990s!The stunned top producer had no option but to send for dozens of cases from a town many miles away!)


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