The dream merchant turns 85

IT USED to be the producer's baby then. Only later did it become the director's product and then, the stars and super stars'. It was in those days that T E Vasudevan made his accidental entry into cinema production. What can a steno with the Cochin State Power and Light Corporation have to do with cinema in 1938? It was a friend who instigated him to try his luck in cinema. Today, 64 years later, the veteran has memories sweet and sour, more sweet than sour. Something solid to look back on when he celebrates his 85th birthday, on July 8. But he isn't sitting back; content to rest on his laurels. He has just finished a book on the history of Malayalam cinema and the Chalachitra Parishad is publishing it. For five long years, he went punctually to the Film Chamber, every day and did his job systematically. He still goes everyday to the Chamber after lunch. No siesta for this octogenarian.

What about a book on the early South Indian film scene? There is no one alive who knows about those days as well as him. "No, this history of Malayalam Cinema, under the auspices of the Film Chamber is enough," he remarks. Mr Vasudevan isn't very keen to let the world know of those juicy titbits about actors and actresses of yesteryears that he probably, being a producer, knows. His banners were Associated Productions, Jaimaruthi Productions and Jai Jaya Combines.

Heroines mattered much more than heroes, once upon a time. His first production was `Amma' way back in 1950 in which Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair was the hero and the heroines, Lalitha and B S Saroja. Aranmula Ponnamma was, even then, the `Amma'. This was the 18th film in Malayalam. While Thikkurissi was paid Rs 10,000, Lalitha's remuneration was Rs 50,000! Padmini was paid Rs 50,000 too, for the movie `Ashadeepam', whereas Sathyan was paid just Rs 15,000. In `Nair Pidicha Pulivalu', Ragini was also given Rs 50,000. The Lalitha-Padmini-Ragini sister triumvirate commanded the highest fee then, as dance was supreme. For the Tamil version of `Amma' Gemini Ganesan was paid only Rs 10,000. Mr Vasudevan remembers how Gemini Ganesan used to cycle to the studios for work those days. The director used to be paid Rs 30,000 then. It was only much later that the market value of the heroine tumbled and the hero's rates rose unrealistically high, like IT guys' pay packets.

The present Union Minister, Mr Murasoli Maran, also wrote a script for him for a Tamil film, `Engal Selvi', made in 1958. The movie had Nageshwara Rao as the hero, Anjali as the heroine and D Yoganand as director. It had music by K V Mahadevan and Kannadasan

Audience reactions, then and now, are unpredictable, Mr Vasudevan agrees. He began life in tinselworld by distributing a Hindi movie called `Tarzan Ki Beti'. He had distributed close to 1,000 movies and produced 50 films.

`Kavyamela' which he made on a shoestring budget of Rs 1.5 lakh has a funny story behind it. He had bought the rights of this story, originally a Kannada movie from Mr Velan for Rs 1,000. The treatment was of course different when it was produced in Malayalam. It became a super hit. Now Mr Velan toyed with the idea of making it in Tamil and bought back the rights from Mr Vasudevan. Only, he had to pay Mr Vasudevan Rs 5,000 for the story! The story does not end ther. Mr Velan went on to make the movie in Tamil, which bombed at the box office!

"Swapnangal... , the hit song from that movie is one of my favourites," says Mr Vasudevan. "Nobody has sung in my movie without rehearsals. Jesudas rehearsed well before a song was recorded. The scenes in a movie were also first rehearsed. There used to be sessions when the script would be read well by all the characters in the movie, after which it would be filmed,'' he elaborated. Perhaps that is why melodies of yore still hold the listener spellbound.

"Integrity has been my only capital which helped me to stay on for so long in the industry,'' the veteran producer cum distributor, says.

Mr Vasudevan lived in Chennai till 1983 after which he returned to Kochi. Here, he has been busy with organisational work.

Five of his movies have won national awards: `Snehaseema' (1954), `Nair Pidicha Pulival' (1956), `Puthiya Akasam Puthiya Bhumi' (1964), `Kavyamela' (1965) and `Ezhuthatha Katha' (1970).

All these were huge successes.

The recipe for a hit is still a good story, he believes. The budget is very important for Mr Vasudevan. "I used to engage only artistes who would work within my budget. If you have to pay fancy amounts, you are bound to go bankrupt,'' he reasons.

Mr Vasudevan's production unit was in fact a training ground for many directors, musicians, technicians and writers. Jagathi N K Achari, Uroob, Nagavalli R S Kurup, Ponkunnam Varkey. S L Puram Sadanandan wrote the script for 18 of his movies.

Dakshinamoorthy composed music for 33 of Mr Vasudevan's movies. And lyricist Sreekumaran Thampi worked for 19 of his films.

Director M Krishnan Nair directed 13 of his movies.

The Kerala Government presented Mr Vasudevan the first J C Daniel Award in 1993. That the Dada Phalke Award has eluded him is cause for some heartburn. " Could be because I am not a sympathiser of any party and I have no political affiliations,'' Mr Vasudevan remarks.

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