When a lanky young man, who was yet to gain fame as Sivaji Ganesan, uttered the dialogues, “I created trouble in the temple. Not that I do not want temples but I do not want them to become the den of evil persons,” it shook the conscience of the Tamil society. The camera that captured the arrival of new talents in the Tamil film world — Sivaji Ganesan and M. Karunanidhi, who penned the dialogues for the iconic Parasakthi (1952) — stands silently in a corner of AVM Heritage Museum in Chennai. But it tells loudly the history of the films made in the studio, which completes 80 years.
The camera that captured Sivaji Ganesan’s powerful expressions and voice laden with modulations and emotions was an American-made Mitchell 35mm camera imported by A.V. Meiyappan, founder of AVM Studios. He did it with the help of Akbar, the managing director of the Bombay-based RCA Company, though imports were scarce during the Second World War II. The camera arrived in 1946.
Reservations about the actor
“My father had reservations about the actor, looking thin, donning the lead role. While going through the scenes of the film, my mother Rajeswari told my father that the actor was really doing well and if he was unhappy with the scenes, they could be reshot. Subsequently, around 6,000 feet of film was used to reshoot the scenes after nourishing Sivaji Ganesan with special food,” recalls A.V.M. Saravanan, managing partner of AVM Studios. Later, writing about the film, A.V. Meiyappan said Sivaji Ganesan would have emerged as a major talent even if he was not offered a role in Parasakthi. “Probably, it would have taken a few more years. If I have to speak my mind, I will say he is one of the best actors in the world. Others may disagree,” he writes.
The museum also houses a memorial at the studio where Sivaji Ganesan shot his very first scene for Parasakthi, in which he uttered the word, “Success!”. It gives every detail of the film, including the name of the director, the lyricists and the playback singers.
Placed near Mitchell 35mm is another camera from Germany, along with a propeller that was used to create thunder, storm and gusty winds in films. “My grandfather, with the help of his friend and aircraft engineer Balram, converted the engine of a mini-aircraft into a propeller,” said M.S. Guhan, son of Mr. Saravanan, while pointing out a scene from the classic film Server Sundaram for which the propeller was used. The museum, which accommodates various equipment used in the film world, captures the evolution of film technology. For anyone who is interested in the symbiotic relationship between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu, the museum offers a lot, displaying the history of the film world between 1934 and 2023. Also on display are the equipment for re-recording, mixing and editing that changed in tune with modern technology and suited the vision of A.V. Meiyappan.
He was the first studio owner who achieved post-synchronisation, when the technology was years away. With the help of audiographer V.S. Raghavan, he recorded the voice of playback singer P.A. Periyanayagi to replace the songs rendered by Kumari Rukmani, the heroine of the film Sri Valli, as she had failed to match the high-pitch of T.R. Mahalingam, the hero. His experiment proved to be a phenomenal success and Sri Valli, produced on a budget of ₹2 lakh in 1945, earned a ten-fold profit.
“Apart from the money, as producers of the film, we were overwhelmed with joy because of the response from the people of Tamil Nadu who watched the film numerous times. At Central Theatre in Madurai, it ran for 55 weeks, and it was a record run,” writes A.V. Meiyappan in his memoir Yenathu Vaazhkai Anubavangal (My Life Experiences). He is also credited with introducing some of the greatest talents of the Tamil film world, including S.S. Rajendran and Vyjayanthimala; Lalitha and Padmini in a snake-charmer song-sequence in the film Vedhala Ulagam ; Gemini Ganesan as a hero in Penn; and Kamal Haasan as a child artiste in Kalathur Kannamma. It is surprising that M.G. Ramachandran, who dominated the film world and politics, acted in just one film produced by AVM Studios: Anbe Vaa. But the car used by Saroja Devi in a song sequence in the film is still at the museum. It is a 1956 model Studebaker President. “There are 46 such vintage cars and 19 bikes from the personal collection of A.V.Meiyappan, MGR, S.S. Vasan, the owner of the now-defunct Gemini Studio, and cars used in some of the films. And 95% of the cars are in drivable condition,” said Mr. Guhan, who is also the secretary of the Madras Heritage Motoring Club (MHMC).
He was able to get two cars used by MGR. The first one is a 1957 model Dodge Kingsway presented by MGR to his wife Janaki Ammal. She had donated the car to V.R. Venkatachalam, the chancellor of the Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research. Venkatachalam, in turn, donated the car to Mr. Guhan. “I am refurbishing a Plymouth used by MGR,” Mr. Guhan said. To prove that the cars were still in drivable condition, he drove the 1886 model Benz Patent-Motorwagen run on benzene. The presence of the 1974 model Suzuki RV 90, which superstar Rajinikanth rode in Paayum Puli, and the 2009 model TVS Apache RTR 160 4V, used by Suriya in Ayan, is sure to be an attraction for movie enthusiasts and automotive aficionados alike.
New era in shooting
If Parasakthi heralded the arrival of a new era, in which dialogues played a major role, the film named after the thespian, Sivaji, with Rajinikanth donning the lead role marked the end of using film reels for shooting. “It was one of the last movies shot with reels. The film world switched to digital mode after the film. Even we shot a copy in digital for Sathyam theatres,” said Mr. Guhan, while pointing to the cans that contain the film rolls of Sivaji. From there began a new era in the film world.