Unsung heroes Sound bytes

Untold story Pesaamozhi is an ode to the silent films era

Untold story Pesaamozhi is an ode to the silent films era   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: S. SIVA SARAVANAN

M. Senthamizhan’s documentary tells you who the real pioneers of Tamil cinema are

The invite had a long list of questions. Sample this: ‘Did you know that a man from your city travelled throughout the country 100 years ago to screen films? Do you know the interesting trivia surrounding Variety Hall Road? How did films initially pull in the crowds?’

Who could resist these? So, we promptly parked ourselves at Hotel Tamil Nadu for a documentary film screening organised by Naaivaal Film Movement. The film Pesaamozhi (Silent Language), directed by Chennai-based M. Senthamizhan was to provide answers to all those questions. And, it did.

The documentary traces the journey of Tamil silent movies, the masters behind them and seeks to crack riddles hitherto unexplained. It is sprinkled with interesting nuggets, interspersed with observations and opinions of experts.

In 1905, Swamikannu Vincent, a draughtsman in the Railways from Coimbatore, bought a projector from a Frenchman in Tiruchi, to become South India’s first exhibitor.

And, this was to cause a dramatic change in the entertainment arena of the nation. He set up a touring cinema that went around small towns and villages in the country. In fact, he went as far as Rangoon, Peshawar, Lahore and Mumbai with his touring cinema.


It was a hit among the public. There were no tickets. Instead, it was barter system: the audience emptied a bag of grains for viewing a show. As the films were silent, a storyteller explained them to an astonished audience. He was their god. They ensured all his requirements were met.

Unfortunately, storytellers were to wane into nothingness when the era of silent movies ended with the birth of the talking movies.

Says film historian Theodore Baskaran: “Cinema brought about a social revolution, because unlike drama, the audience were not discriminated against. Anyone with an anna or two could watch them. However, this easy access to the public brought about nonchalance among the intellects. Victoria Public Hall was close to Sudesi Mithran’s (newspaper) office. But, not one film review was written by Bharathiar in 20 years.” This is why, there is nothing left of Coimbatore’s son Vincent, except a road named after the theatre he built: Variety Hall Road.

Similar fate encountered greats from other parts of the State such as Marudhamuthu Moopanar, and Nataraja Mudaliar who produced South India’s first silent movie Keechaka Vadham (1918).

Kittusamy, who runs the Welcome Saloon opposite Delite Theatre recalls how as a seven-year-old he saw his neighbour Vincent choosing a car from an assembly lined up at his house.


Another neighbour narrates how during Vincent’s funeral, the city experienced aalankatti mazhai. Director Senthamizhan’s fine touches throughout the film command mention: Be it a naked village boy gaping at a row of bullock carts or offbeat snapshots from the film shoot itself!

Senthamizhan calls for concerted efforts for garnering all possible details about these heroes who remain unsung in the annals of the Indian film industry.

If you have details on these heroes, or want to purchase the DVD (Rs. 250), contact the director at 98412-74384.

Theodore Baskaran (Film historian)

“During the time of the touring cinemas, there were breaks between scenes, for the projector to cool a bit. To keep the audience engaged during such breaks, wrestling, comedy and concerts were introduced. These, perhaps, were the harbinger to the incongruent song, fight and comedy tracks in films today.”

Paavendhan (Researcher, Tamilology)

“Most of the records on films in the country give details on actors and directors. However, many fail to understand that theatre history, exhibitors, studios, and even the audience are very integral to the film industry. And, this is why we find very little details on these, even on the internet.”

Paamaran (Columnist)

“The recent celebration of Tamil film’s platinum jubilee took into account the first ‘talking’ movie Kalidasan (1931). This is a painful pointer to the fact that even the film industry and the Government have forgotten the doyens of the Tamil cinema, who had screened/produced silent movies since 1913.”

M. Senthamizhan (Director)

“Silent movies were ignored by the intellects in the State, who believed that a medium (silent films) that drew innumerable crowd could be of little consequence. This may be one of the chief reasons why none of the 130-odd Tamil silent movies or their documents remains today.”

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