Behind the scenes of Tamil cinema

FLASHBACK ‘Film News’ Anandan in a cameo in “Bommai”

FLASHBACK ‘Film News’ Anandan in a cameo in “Bommai”  

Before the 1930s, there were only silent movies. So it’s difficult to say which was the first Tamil silent movie. Nataraja Mudaliar was the first Tamilian to make a silent movie — “Keechaka Vadham”. A few films were made between 1931 and 1936, but they were all mythologicals. Till the mid-1930s, there was no studio in the South. People used to shoot on sets in Bombay or Calcutta.

The first studio in Madras, Srinivasa Cinetone, was established in 1934 by ‘Sound City’ Narayanan. Srinivasa Cinetone made the first talkie, “Srinivasa Kalyanam”, entirely in Madras.

The first Tamil talkie was by a North Indian Company (Sagar Film). It was called “Kalidas” (1931). T.P. Rajalakshmi, who was a very good singer, was the first heroine, and she later went on to become a director too. Whenever there was a political meeting with Rajaji or Satyamurthy, there were posters that would mention that K.B. Sundarambal and Rajalakshmi would sing before the meeting. People would show up just to hear these singers. So, even at that time, film stars were used by politicians to draw crowds.

Vauhini, started by B.N. Reddy, was among the first studios in Kodambakkam. Kodambakkam used to be a forest that extended till Porur. It was ideal because studios needed about 100 acres to accommodate labs, recording studios and sets.

Then came Vel Pictures in Guindy and Pragati in Mandaveli. After Gemini Studios came up in the early 1940s, people stopped going to Bombay for shooting. A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar established Pragati with partners, and produced the film “Sri Valli”, which ran for 52 weeks. They also produced gramophone records of non-film songs. Soon, he decided to start his own studio in Thanjavur — AVM didn’t actually start in Madras. He took artistes from here, and made two big films — “Naam Iruvar” and “Vedhala Ulagam” — in Devakottai. Then, he bought land in Kodambakkam and slowly expanded.

It was Kamal Haasan and R.C. Sakti who first decided to shoot inside a house. That’s how “Unarchigal” was shot inside Kamal’s house. After that Bharathirajaa came up with “16 Vayathinile”, which ran for a year and made people believe that films could be shot entirely outdoors.

All South Indian films — whether Telugu or Malayalam — used to be made only in Madras. It became the biggest industry and among the most profitable. Telugu actors used to speak in Tamil confidently and their movies would still run because the audience was not too finicky about the accent. Actors such as N.T. Rama Rao were popular. After some years, collections for such films went down and Vijaya Pictures decided to cast Gemini Ganesan for the Tamil version of “Missiamma”, which was one of the first bilinguals.

Singers were our idols, everybody enjoyed singing. My sister and I used to sing every evening. Just by listening to the radio we learnt the basics of Carnatic music. I soon got into theatre because of my father’s encouragement. I was fascinated with the camera and discovered how to take a “double role” image in the same frame. All I had to do was cover one side of the lens and click, and then without winding the camera, I had to cover the other side of the lens and click again after asking the subject to come up with a different pose on the other side of the frame.

Once, I saw an old man sitting in Newton Studios and asked him if I could take his picture. It turned out to be Sivaji Ganesan in costume. I was surprised when he, who I heard had never gone to school, spoke in English: “Of course, you can take it,” he said. Since everybody wanted working stills of films for publicity, they would let me take photographs.

Later, I happened to meet one of my classmates, and it turned out that his father ran the popular film journal, Film News. Seeing my working stills of films, he asked me to contribute and carried my byline as ‘Film News’ Anandan. In 1954, I was asked by the Film Chamber to maintain a record of films since I had so much material. I took it up quite seriously and updated records since 1931. Today, I have a detailed filmography of every film made in Tamil — about 6,000. Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources to digitise them.


`Film News' Anandan Born in 1928, Anandan is a veteran journalist, film historian and a one-man movie database who continues to update his records of every single film made in Tamil and Telugu.

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