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Remembering a pioneer


The first silent South Indian feature film, "Keechaka Vadham", was produced by R. Nataraja Mudaliar, who is sadly forgotten today.

KARTHIKEYA STUDIOS run by Murugadasa, K. Ramnoth and A. K. Sekhar did not last long. The three were essentially creative persons and not businessmen. Soon, they found it difficult to run the show. Besides with the success of "Grihalakshmi" (1938), which was shot at Karthikeya, B. N. Reddi, one of its producers, was eager to go on his own, parting company with H. M. Reddi, and promoted Vauhini Pictures. He made an offer to Ramnoth and Sekhar to join him, which they could not refuse. Both came from a middle-class background and were concerned about financial security. They preferred a regular monthly take-home pay packet that BN had generously offered them. Besides, they found that BN was also an idealist. Soon the threesome, Reddi-Ramnoth-Sekhar would create Telugu film history with Vauhini Pictures and play key roles in the ushering-in of the Golden Age of Telugu Cinema.

Earlier an incident at Karthikeya — which has its humorous undertones — had upset the sensitive nature of Murugadasa, Ramnoth and Sekhar. The studio had a neighbour, living in a palatial garden-house, the successful and legendary Barrister of Madras of Scottish descent, Nugent Grant. He and his wife Kay (a big name in the racing world of Madras, owning horses) complained to the studio-owners that their night film shooting disturbed their sleep, domestic peace and harmony. Grant threatened to let out his pack of ferocious high-breed dogs into the studio and also take the issue to court.

In those days, night shooting was common in city studios because the studios were not acoustically perfect, sound-recording equipment was rather primitive and external noises such as the hawkers' shouts, honks of the passing cars and above all the incessant cawing of crows, disturbed the shooting in daytime.

With Ramnoth and Sekhar joining B. N. Reddi, Karthikeya Studio went out of business. Murugadasa became a freelancer and directed a few films like "Venuganam" (1941, it had the famous Carnatic musicians, N. C. Vasanthakokilam and V. V. Satagopan in lead roles.)

Later, another studio came up on the same site in Bishops Gardens, named Pragjyothi Studio. Promoted by a Marati film technician in Madras, it was active for some years and films like "Devakanya" (1943) were produced here. With the threat of Japanese bombing of Madras city during the Second World War (1939-1945) and the consequent `evacuation' of the city for some months during 1943, film production virtually ground to a halt. Studios downed their shutters and sadly, Pragjyothi Studio closed forever.

Cut (to use a film technique term) to Purasawalkam. During the early decades of the 20th Century, this part of Madras was a hectic hive of film production. There were two studios and a cinema, which became a landmark of Purasawalkam.

Miller's Road, Purasawalkam — today, it is a congested road with heavy vehicular traffic, students' hostels, restaurants, shops, cinemas, nursing homes and `kalyana mandapams. Not an area one would associate with a movie studio. Yet some 80 plus years ago, one such studio did exist and function and it created film history. Here, the first South Indian feature film, silent of course, was produced. "Keechaka Vadham" was released in 1918 and the pioneer who created it was R. Nataraja Mudaliar, sadly forgotten today and ignored even by most film scholars.

Rangaswamy Nataraja Mudaliar was born in 1885 in Vellore where his father was a successful and respected businessman. After his high school education, Mudaliar relocated in Madras to make his way in business in the provincial capital. One of his uncles was the legendary doctor of Madras, M. R. Guruswamy Mudaliar. In the city, he set up a business in bicycles in partnership with his rich cousin, S. M. Dharmalingam Mudaliar under the name and style of `Watson & Company'. A cycle then sold at Rs. 25 was still a novelty, especially in rural areas, where it was known as `rubber vandi'. The business flourished and in 1911, the partners acquired a foreign firm, Romar, Dan & Company dealing in the import of American cars and automobile spares. At that time, Addison & Company was the only firm in the city dealing in American cars. Thus Mudaliar was the first Indian to sell American cars, which were available at Rs. 1,000 per car! Besides business, he had a lively interest in photography and the new medium of `moving pictures'.

Lord Curzon was then the Governor-General and Viceroy of India and his `durbars' and social activities were being filmed as newsreel by British cinematographers. Mudaliar established contact with one of them, Stewart Smith, who owned a cinema in Poona (now Pune) and succeeded in persuading him to teach the basics of cinematography. Armed with limited knowledge and unlimited enthusiasm, he plunged into film production and promoted India Film Company in 1917. He brought in some of his business associates and friends as investors and built a studio on Miller's Road.

A wealthy landowner of Thanjavur District, Mooppanar owned a Williamson 35mm Silent Movie camera and printer he had purchased in England. Mudaliar acquired the entire equipment from him for less than Rs. 2,000. He was now in business to make pictures!

He sought the advice of his friend, Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar, one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance of Tamil Theatre, who suggested that he should picturise the well-known story of Draupadhi and Keechaka. Interestingly, some relatives objected to it for they felt that for the first venture it was not the proper story. However, Mudaliar decided to go ahead and launched his maiden movie, `Keechaka Vadham'.

Mudaliar was no writer, so he sought the help of his close friend, C. Rangavadivelu. A lawyer by profession, Rangavadivelu was part of the famous city-based amateur drama troupe, Suguna Vilas Sabha (SVS promoted by Sambandam Mudaliar during late 19th Century). With his four-feet long dark hair and skills of playing female roles, he was the `heroine' of all the SVS-plays and was quite a draw.

Besides writing the screen story, Rangavadivelu agreed to coach artistes on sets. Mudaliar engaged a stage actor, Raju Mudaliar, to don the role of Keechaka, and a stage actress, Jeevaratnam for Draupadhi. The production ultimately would cost Rs. 35,000, which was high for the day thus revealing Mudaliar's inexperience in motion picture production.

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