The famous rotating globe with the letters ‘AVM’, at the entrance to the filming studios in Vadapalani, squeaks with each turn. A witness to the comings and goings of hundreds of men and women whose lives were defined within the campus it heralds, it continues to announce to the world, the existence of one of the oldest surviving studios in India. The story of AVM is as dramatic as the films it has produced.
Seated in a spacious office surrounded by cinema in various forms — books, awards, framed photographs — M. Saravanan, the son of AV. Meiyappan, who started it all, regales us with nuggets from AVM’s history. “I’m 77 now,” he begins. “On April 8, 1958, the chair of the executive producer at our company fell vacant and I occupied it the next day.” Saravanan delved deep into the world his father created — from booking artistes to preparing the sets, he soon merged into the goings-on at AVM.
AV. Meiyappan’s initial days were not exactly what one would call a dream run. He met with several failures. But the man was obsessed with cinema and just wouldn’t give up. Meiyappan’s first brush with cinema happened in 1934, when he started Saraswathi Sound Production. His first film, Alli Arjuna , which he filmed in Calcutta, was unsuccessful, since the hero acted with his eyes narrowed, due to the bright lights on the sets all through the film. The film makers didn’t spot this, since the technology of the time didn’t allow them the luxury of playback. “We spent eighty thousand rupees on the movie and met with a great loss,” he writes in his memoir, My Experiences in Life .
This was followed by two more unsuccessful films. Meiyappan then came up with a solution: to start a studio of his own, which would cut down on a lot of expenses and give him more freedom to work. The AVM of today existed in various forms, before it found a footing in Madras. From Pragati Pictures, Bangalore Ltd. (run with other business partners) to a company of the same name (run with second-hand equipment in Madras Vijayanagaram Palace for a rent of Rs. 250), AVM inched its way into filmdom. But trouble followed at every turn.
One of its major setbacks was power cuts in Madras during World War II. Meiyappan’s dream of starting his own studio in Madras proved more difficult than he had imagined. But he stuck to it with a stubbornness that took shape as AVM Studios in his home town of Karaikudi. “It was made of thatched roof structures and stood at Devakottai Rastha,” remembers Saravanan.
Seated firmly on the base of one man’s tough love for the movie business, AVM flourished under the shade of coconut trees in Karaikudi. Meiyappan’s memoir talks about the first film shot under its banner, Naam Iruvar , and how it went on to become a super hit.
When AVM shifted to Madras in 1949, the structures were dismantled and later erected at their 10-acre campus in Kodambakkam. “Even today, the floor that has structures from our Karaikudi days is where poojas are performed for the launch of every film,” says Saravanan. The AVM of the 50s was a clump of quaint thatched-roof kudils that were gradually replaced by concrete ones as times changed and fortunes improved.
With Parasakthi, Kalathur Kannamma , Server Sundaram, Murattu Kaalai … and their recent biggie Sivaji , AVM went on to have the dream run that eluded its founder in its early days.
Saravanan got a ringside view of all of this, and took forward the studios’ heritage after his father’s passing. Times have changed. Saravanan jokes that he feels dizzy looking at the numerous cinema ads that are plastered across newspapers. But he’s in no hurry to change AVM’s core beliefs. “We are conventional people,” he says. Be it the car which Meiyappan drove that’s parked out in front or the sound and filming equipment of the past that are preserved in glass cases at its office, AVM refuses to forget the good old days.