The innovative film-maker


TRENDSETTER Av. Meiyappan  


The release of a stamp the other day commemorating Avichi (Av.) Meiyappan marked the sixtieth anniversary of AVM Studios which produced one Tamil hit after another and, from the 1950s, Hindi successes too. He was a legend in the Indian film industry as much for the winners his studio turned out as for the innovations he introduced in the films he made. Playback singing in Sri Valli (1945), dubbing films - starting with Harischandra (1943) that he had helped to make in Kannada - shooting on location (c.1940 at the old Madras Club on Club House Road), and making a songless, danceless film, Andha Naal (1954) were some of the bold steps he took where others hesitated. Much of this he did before he founded AVM Productions and set up AVM Studios in Karaikudi, his hometown. Before he got there, he had moved from the family's general store in Karaikudi, AV & Sons, to set up Saraswathi Stores on Mount Road in Madras, first to distribute records, then also make them. And then, as the age of the talkies began to put down roots in India, he entered the film industry. He launched Saraswathi Sound Productions and made Alli Arjuna, not the greatest of successes when it was released in 1935. Then followed joint ventures, Saraswathi Talkies Producing Company and Pragati Pictures, the latter leasing the Maharaja of Vizianagaram's Admiralty House in Mandaveli as its studio. Neither made particularly successful films. The threat to Madras posed by the Japanese in 1942 made him change this approach: he decided to move to Karaikudi and make films on his own. When he made Alli Arjuna, AVM took a stage play and virtually `shot' it as a staged production. In Karaikudi, he took another successful play, Naam Iruvar, introduced numerous extraneous elements and made it a successful film. Gauging the mood of a nation where the cry for Independence was still stirring nationalistic and patriotic passions, he introduced mass spinning of the charkha, the Gandhi cap for the hero and heroine, the statue of Mahatma Gandhi wherever possible, people greeting each other with `Jai Hind', and song and dance numbers by Baby Kamala that featured the patriotic lyrics of Subramania Bharati as well as songs about Mahatma Gandhi. As film historian Randor Guy says, " Naam Iruvar's story had nothing to do with the freedom movement, but it had everything to do with perceptively capturing the spirit of the times, making it a hit and elevating AVM into the big time. It also ushered in the AVM era in the film industry." That era was to see him a major player in both the Tamil and Hindi film industries. In the late 1940s, Av. Meiyappan moved AVM Studios from Karaikudi to Kodambakkam. And there it still flourishes, a memorial to AVM who passed away in 1979. It was here that he made his first made-in-Madras hit, Vazhkai (Life), in 1949. The musical comedy introduced a slim beauty who sang and danced, Vyjayanthimala. When the film was re-made by AVM in Hindi as Bahar, Vyjayanthimala was on her way to stardom. She was just one of many AVM launched to success in different areas of the film world. By then he himself had come a long way from the thatched huts of the studio in Karaikudi that were responsible for it being described as the "straw-and-rope" studio.

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