With a finger on people's pulse

HE WAS hailed as `the Cecil B. de Mille of India.' Indeed he was the first Indian movie mogul. Spectacle, grandeur and opulence, he was the first filmmaker in this part of the world, to invest the celluloid with such qualities. Like some kind of rare physician he knew the esoteric art of feeling the pulse-beat of moviegoers and learnt the exclusive and evasive skills of quickening it. He also understood that whatever might be the purpose and the value of the medium, cinema was basically a vehicle of mass entertainment and not education or elevation.

Lavishness in production, splashing money in promoting, packaging and publicising a picture, he was a pioneer in Indian Cinema and had no equals, then, and now. `Be wise and advertise!' He had a character speak in his film "Miss. Malini" (1947), giving expression to one of his personal beliefs. And he showed what one could achieve with punch-plus publicity.

Writer, journalist, adman, magazine publisher, film distributor, studio-owner, filmmaker and producer — that was S. S. Vasan. He created film history establishing trends, and breaking box-office records in many languages. He and his Gemini Studio in Madras were household names and also part and parcel of the cultural scene of South India. The familiar Gemini Twins blowing the bugles (`When the bugles blow, there's a good show!' so ran the motto) was a stamp for quality, clean, wholesome, family entertainment and money's worth.

Vasan scrapped scenes shot at enormous cost and re-shot them all merely because somebody whatever be his age, status or qualification pointed out an error. During the making of "Bahut Din Huye"(a Hindi remake of the early Telugu Gemini box-office bonanza, "Balanagamma''), a huge expensive set had been erected and scenes between the villain, a lustful magician and the chaste heroine were being filmed. A boy working on the set pointed out an error, which he told his pal and was overheard by Vasan! A vital point that went against the character of the heroine! Vasan felt that the lowly boy was right and without batting an eyelid he packed up the shooting and ordered the entire footage to be scrapped. That was not all. He told his creative men to re-do the script in the light of the boy's remark and shot it all once again. That was Vasan!

He was making a Tamil film built around capital-labour relations. The film had no title yet and was being referred as `Gemini Production Number So-and-So.' The crowded Gemini creative team could not think of a title acceptable to the `Boss'. Finally Vasan invited his employees to suggest a title for the under-production movie. An avalanche of entries poured! One office-boy sent in as many as 2,500 titles written down in a notebook! Vasan read them all and one suggestion, ``Irumbu Thirai" (Iron Curtain, 1960) met with his nod in the listed 2,500 entries! The boy was handsomely rewarded by the `Boss,' who also hosted a reception in his honour! That was Vasan.

With a finger on people's pulse

His films — ``Chandralekha" (1948, Tamil and Hindi, director, Vasan), ``Mangamma Sabatham" (1943, Tamil, director, Acharya), ``Apoorva Sahotharargal" (1949, Tamil, Acharya), "Miss Malini" (1947, Tamil, Kothamangalam Subbu), "Avvaiyar" (1953, Subbu), "Vanjikottai Valiban," (1958, Tamil, Vasan), ``Paigham" (1959, Hindi, Vasan), ``Gunghat" (1960, Ramanand Sagar), ``Gharana" (1958, Vasan), ``Grihasthi" (1964, Kishore Sahu) and others, — have left behind indelible footprints on the sands of Indian Cinema.

"Chandralekha," Vasan's first directorial venture after being producer for seven successful years is considered to be his finest work. Though many have contributed to the exuding excellence of the picture, it was Vasan who gave it the shine, sheen, shape and final form. With this film he created history at many levels and many ways. The most important of them all was his trail-blazing success in taking Hindi films made in South India to the rest of the sprawling nation. Vasan was the first South Indian filmmaker to break the fort walls of Hindi cinema and this is one of the most significant achievements of his life. Indeed he was the man who put Madras on the movie map of India.

Thiruthuraipoondi Subramania Srinivasan (alias S. S. Vasan) was born on March 10, 1903, and hailed from the culture-rich Thanjavur district and was born into a Brahmin family of very modest means. And to add to the misery of poverty his father died when Vasan was merely two years old. The lot of a Brahmin widow in the early years of the century in a small-town steeped in old-world orthodoxy, autocratic Brahminism, with its cruel rituals, was nothing short of hell on earth. But Balambal, Vasan's mother, was no ordinary woman. She was highly literate though she had undergone no schooling in accordance with the customs and social mores of the times. She was well versed in Sanskrit and Tamil classics, epics and religious lore. She instilled in her growing son a lasting love for literature, learning, and ancient Indian culture. Dreaming of a secure future, she and her son migrated to Madras. Like Dick Whittington's London the roads of Madras were not exactly paved with gold. Indeed life in the city was hard, harsh, often harrowing and the worried mother suffered misery to educate her only offspring.

(While the official records, magazines and others mention the date of Vasan's birth as March 10,1903, according to the family he was actually born on January 4, 1904! During that period many families had `advanced' the data of birth to help in school admission it was entered in the `SSLC' (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) book. So for all practical purposes it remained the official date of birth! Obviously it had happened for Vasan too!)

Vasan's mother wished her son should get a B.A. degree, the hallmark of the intellectual Brahmin community in those days. It was also a passport to land a safe and secure 10 a.m.-5 p.m. desk job in any British Indian Government department, or an equally dependable European firm. However lack of resources prevented Vasan from graduating.

With a finger on people's pulse

He realised the difficulties his mother had to undergo to educate him and he decided to enter the turbulent ocean of life and find a way to make a living. Innovative, enterprising and daring he chose a new activity — selling space. He secured advertisements for Madras-based publications and earned commission on the ad revenue he could generate. Indeed a precarious way of making one's living especially when publications were not many. However Vasan became a one-man ad agency. With his flair for writing he offered his copy to the few Tamil publications then in existence for which he also canvassed for ads. To get business he travelled widely.

Meanwhile, a relative who was working in the Madras and Southern Maratta Railway, offered to get Vasan a job. But a cash-security deposit had to be given which the family did not possess! Vasan had written a novel, which a kind publisher offered to take and give him the necessary cash. But the publisher failed to keep his promise, and out went the opportunity of Vasan working in the railways as a pen-pushing clerk!

Later in his life, in the silent hours of still nights, Vasan wondered how his life would have unfolded if he had got that job! Besides his ad business, Vasan carried another line of activity, equally novel for the day, Mail Order business.

He did fairly well and wished he could have a publication of his own. Soon he purchased a shaky humour-based monthly for Rs. 200 (Rs. 25 for each alphabet of its name!).

With a finger on people's pulse

Working hard he built it up into a weekly and soon the weekly scaled to the top and the best selling Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan is still running successfully after nearly eighty years.

That was not all. Vasan, with his penchant for taking risks, developed an interest in horse racing and soon he was a successful punter. Ere long he was flushed with funds and entered the world of movies as distributor-financier promoting his successful company `Gemini Pictures Circuit.' From distribution to production it was but a short leap ahead and in 1941 he bought a studio in the heart of the city on Mount Road, Madras, in `court auction' and he re-named it Gemini Studio. Thus it began, and rest, as the saying goes, is history...!

Since 1941 until September 1969 when he passed away, Vasan enjoyed a uniquely successful innings in Indian Cinema earning a permanent seat in its Hall of Fame.

His phenomenal success in Hindi Cinema is almost unparalleled to this day even though more than three decades have rolled over the horizon since his exit for the yonder blue...

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