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Progress of Tamil Cinema

19 Mar, 2020 | Long Features by P Neelakantan
A scene from S S Vasan's unforgettable epic Chandralekha (1948)

It was exactly fifty years ago that the first full-length Tamil talkie was screened in Madras. The year was 1931 and the picture 'Kalidas', directed by H.M. Reddi. It was produced by Sagar Movietone of Bombay and featured T.P. Rajalakshmi, the then most popular actress of the Tamil stage. 

Technically, though, the first attempt at Tamil sound film was a four-reel-long short film titled 'Korathi Songs and Dances', also produced by Sagar Movietone, and also featuring actress Rajalakshmi. Perhaps, this four-reeler inspired the full length 'Kalidas'. 

Technically, though, the first attempt at Tamil sound film was a four-reel-long short film titled 'Korathi Songs and Dances', also produced by Sagar Movietone, and also featuring actress Rajalakshmi. Perhaps, this four-reeler inspired the full length 'Kalidas'. 
In the early years of the talke era. the film-makers looked to the stage for both subject matter and performers, and naturally, the early talkies were filmed versions of stageplays. The theatre, for its part, drew from the vast storehouse of mythological subjects and legends. Such plays were marked by an abundance, or rather a super-abundance of songs and a particularly bombastic and flamboyant theatrical prose. The early Tamil talkies were widely advertised as "Hundred per cent singing, talking, dancing pictures" - some of them containing no less than 60 to 70 songs!
Politically-minded stage actors involved in the Indian national movement, dressed as a Rama or Muruga or Harishchandra, would burst into inspired patriotic songs criticising and condemning the Imperialistic regime in India, while the audience called for encore upon encore.
Another characteristic of the stage then was that topics of current interest - with no relevance to the main plot - were often introduced into the stageplays. Politically-minded stage actors involved in the Indian national movement, dressed as a Rama or Muruga or Harishchandra, would burst into inspired patriotic songs criticising and condemning the Imperialistic regime in India, while the audience called for encore upon encore. And films too incorporated such fiery and nationalist songs.

All the while there were no film studios or production facilities in Madras. Along with their groups of actors, producers trekked to Bombay or Poona or Calcutta to make their films; houses were rented on monthly basis, transport was arranged to carry the artistes to and from the studios - all in strange cities. The studios supplied all the technical personnel - most of them not conversant with the Tamil language. 

The one distinct advantage of film-making at Bombay and other Northern centres was that the film could be completed in about three months at an all-inclusive cost of about Rs. 25000 per film. And most, if not all, of these films reaped box office bonanzas. 

New Trend

While films in Tamil increased in number, mythology and legend continued as the staple material for films. Songs and stagy dialogue still crowded the film soundtracks and stage actors and actresses continued to hold sway because artistes had to both sing and talk. It was against this background that a new trend - although on a minor scale - set in. For this too, the Tamil stage was largely responsible. 

The Tamil stage was, by and large, in the grip of freelancing professionals but there were also a few troupes or 'companies' that staged some dramas that were somewhat off the beaten track. These were plays like 'Dumbachari'. 'Ratnavali', 'Manohara' etc. (these were also later made into films). 
The major breakaway really came from what was then known as 'Boys Dramatic Troupes', which were some full-time theatrical companies, whose artistes were all teenage boys systematically coached, in 'Gurukul' fashion, and who put on a large and varied number of plays which had hitherto never been staged.
The major breakaway really came from what was then known as 'Boys Dramatic Troupes', which were some full-time theatrical companies, whose artistes were all teenage boys systematically coached, in 'Gurukul' fashion, and who put on a large and varied number of plays which had hitherto never been staged. T.K.S. Brothers, Madurai Original Boys Company, Rajamanickam Pillai and Devi Nataka Sabha were some of the prominent groups. From these troupes emerged artistes such as M.G. Ramachandran, T.K. Shanmugam, T.K. Bagawathi, T.S. Baliah, P.U. Chinnappa, N.S. Krishnan and a host of others who went on to embellish the Tamil film world. The plays with social content that were staged by these boy's troupes were then filmed, featuring the same artistes who had acted in the plays - with one important difference. On the stage, the ladies' roles were acted by the boys, while in the films, they were replaced by women. In certain instances, when no woman was willing, men had to don women's dress.
So it was that, in the year 1936, the first Tamil social was produced at Bombay, 'Menaka', by Shanmugananda Talkies. This was followed by other 'socials' (or films on contemporary themes) - 'Sathi Leelavathi', 'Chandrakantha', 'Rajambal', 'Rajamani' and many others.
On the stage, the ladies' roles were acted by the boys, while in the films, they were replaced by women.
These films did touch on certain social problems: for instance 'Rajamani' was on the evils of the dowry system and 'Chandrakantha', about hypocrites in saintly clothing. 'Menaka' was notable for being directed by Raja Sandow, a Tamilian actor-director who had established a position of prestige for himslef in the highly competitive Bombay film world. Today, in memory of this outsatnding personality, the Tamil Nadu Government awards an annual cash prize to those who have contributed to the development of Tamil cinema.

Madras-made  

Tamil talkies were turned out from Bombay and Calcutta, till 1934, a landmark year when Srinivas Cinetone Studios produced the first Tamil Talkie in Madras. It was 'Srinivasa Kalyanam'. And within just one year, 35 Tamil talkies had been produced in Madras. A flying start indeed! Production soared steadily from year to year. By the year 1937, there were nine studios in Madras. one at Salem and two at Coimbatore. 
Tamil talkies were turned out from Bombay and Calcutta, till 1934, a landmark year when Srinivas Cinetone Studios produced the first Tamil Talkie in Madras. It was 'Srinivasa Kalyanam'
Along with the founding of film studios on local soil, local people were acquiring technical skills. Vel Pictures Studios, for instance, was manned by persons of the calibre of K Ramanath, Sekar and others. Films produced here, such as 'Markendeya' and 'Pattinathar' in Tamil and 'Sita Kalyanam', 'Maya Bazaar' and 'Krishna Leela' in Telugu, were remarkable for their technical excellence at a time when equipment facilities were near minimum. 
Not only did Tamil Nadu begin to produce its own technicians, it made history by introducing the first, and perhaps only, lady sound recordist in India. She was Meena A. Narayanan, wife of A. Narayanan of Srinivas Cinetone.
Not only did Tamil Nadu begin to produce its own technicians, it made history by introducing the first, and perhaps only, lady sound recordist in India. She was Meena A. Narayanan, wife of A. Narayanan of Srinivas Cinetone. Though educated and professional men and business magnates had entered filmdom, generally speaking, filmfolk were looked down upon as riff-raff. And certainly women who dared to join the film world were suspect. True that in the year 1936, T.P. Rajalakshmi became the first lady director of Tamil Nadu with her movie 'Miss Kamala'. Men from all walks of life were drawn into films. Many financial magnates with varied business interests ranging from dyes to gramophone records took to film-making with great enthusiasm and enterprise.
In the year 1936, T.P. Rajalakshmi became the first lady director of Tamil Nadu with her movie 'Miss Kamala'
And so, year after year, Tamil films were churned out in increasing numbers: in the decade from the year of the first Tamil Talkie, i.e., 1931, 275 films were produced.

Of Saints and Society   

While mythology continued to rule as the favourite theme as far as film content was concerned, there were unmistakable signs of better - and different - things to come. In 1935, Vel Pictures, for the first time, produced the biography of a saint - 'Pattinathar'. This was  the forerunner of many such films including 'Jothi Ramalinga Swamigal' (1939) about the great saint who preached against the oppressive caste system. 'Nandanar' (1935) and 'Baktha Cheta' (1940) spoke out against untouchability, the curse of Indian society. Here, then, were the beginnings of social messages in the content of the Tamil films. While these were set against an essentially religious and semi-mythological backgorund, reformist ideas were spelt out more directly and with greater impact in some other social films, such as 'Harijana Penn' (1937) and 'Harijana Singam' (1938). 
Films like 'Thyaga Bhoomi' (1939) and 'Seva Sadan' (1939), produced by the master K. Subrahmanyam, are remembered to this day for the clarity and force with which the message of social reform was put across.
But films like 'Thyaga Bhoomi' (1939) and 'Seva Sadan' (1939), produced by the master K. Subrahmanyam, are remembered to this day for the clarity and force with which the message of social reform was put across. His 'Bala Yogini' was noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, the role of a Brahmin widow was played by a Brahmin widow - in blatant defiance of the orthodox values of the times. Secondly, a child artiste was introduced in a key role and the words of simple wisdom put into a little girl's mouth, decrying the caste system, were devastatingly effective. 'Seva Sadan' was remarkable because it starred M.S. Subbulakshmi, the Queen of Carnatic Music, in a social milieu. These films were sensational box-office hits and the message they put across were taken to heart by the spectators. Tamil talkies were beginning to break new ground. 

An all important feature of this period was that nationalism began to exert a prominent influence. Till then, the use of songs with nationalistic, patriotic ideas - sometimes covertly, sometimes openly - had been sporadic. Films like 'Pathi Bakthi', 'Valibar Sangam' (1938), 'Ananda Ashram' (1939), 'Desa Bakthi', and others in many and unmistakable ways projected the national aspirations and ideals of the people. 
The overwhelmingly favourable response from the audience reached new heights in 1947, when 'Nam Iruvar' ('We Two') was released by A.V.M. Studios.
By this time, Tamil films were recognised as a potent force in shaping the minds of audiences, socially and politically. The overwhelmingly favourable response from the audience reached new heights in 1947, when 'Nam Iruvar' ('We Two') was released by A.V.M. Studios. Introducing fiery songs from the isnpired pen of that poet-patriot, Subramania Bharathi, the film smashed all box-office records of all social films produced till then. 

Ms. Tarzan

During this decade, that is, between 1931 and 1941, other genres of film emerged as well; there were 'stunt' movies ('Madras Mail' - 1936: 'Danger Signal' - 1937; 'Punjab Kesari' - 1938 ; 'Bombay Mail' - 1939; 'Santhana Thevan' - 1939) featuring a redeemer, usually masked, of the poor and the oppressed. There were even 'Lady Robin Hoods', robbing the rich to help the poor in films like 'Minnalkodi' (1937) and 'Toofan Queen' (1940). 'Vana Mohini' (1941) featured a lady Tarzan! Times had a indeed changed from when women were reluctant to step onto the screen!
There were even 'Lady Robin Hoods', robbing the rich to help the poor in films like 'Minnalkodi' (1937) and 'Toofan Queen' (1940). 'Vana Mohini' (1941) featured a lady Tarzan!
In 1937 Gemini Pictures Circuit released an experimental film 'Sirrikkathey'. A feature-length programme of three hours, it comprised five varied comic shorts. The audience reaction to this venture was not encouraging; they preferred full-length comedies as 'Vayadi', 'Poli Panchali', 'Sabapathy' and 'My Wife' (made by A.V.M. Studios). However, not many of this kind were attempted. Moviegoers preferred a comedy track running parallel to the main plot of the film, which could be serious, weighty or melodramatic.

King of Comedy

The unchallenged and unequalled King of Comedy was the great N. S. Krishnan, an institution unto himself. His inclusion in the cast was a box-office guarantee to films in those days. He had his own group of writers, song composers, music directors and artistes and often, he scripted and wrote the songs for his comedy sub-plots, all of whcih he driected himslef. And the comedy was not all - skilfully interwoven with it was a forceful 'social' message; N.S. Krishnan was as much a reformist as he was a comedian.
 
N S Krishnan
 
The unchallenged and unequalled King of Comedy was the great N. S. Krishnan, an institution unto himself.
Of Stars and Sensationalism 

In 1937, producer Assandas took a unit of actors and technicians overseas to London to film 'Modern Youth', a social talkie. This created a sensation as did his payment of the then fabulous sum of one lakh of rupees to K.B, Sundarambal to play the female lead in 'Nandanar'. These could be said to be the beginnings of sensationalism and publicity build-up, glamour and star values in the Tamil film industry. Notable among the early stars and crowd-pullers was M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagawathar, whose songs were so enchantingly rendered that no sooner were his pictures released, his songs were on the lips of one and all. Films like 'Thiruneelakandar' (1933), 'Ambikapathi' (1937), 'Ashok Kumar' (1941) and 'Sivakavi' (1943) were fantastic box-office hits that steadily raised his star value till his 'Haridas' in 1944 created an all-time record by running for 110 weeks!

Thyagaraja Bhagawathar came from the stage as did P.U. Chinnappa whose pictures like 'Aryamala' (1941) 'Jagathala Prathapan' (1944) and 'Utthama Puthiran' also created box office records. Whereas Thyagaraja Bhagawathar's greatest asset was his voice, actors like P.U. Chinnappa won over audiences both by their songs and more so by their acting talent. 

Personalities from the world of classical music also become star attractions : M. S. Subbulakshmi (‘Sakuntala’- 1940 and Baktha Meera’-1945); M. M. Dhanda Nadaswaram played, T. N. Rajarathinam Pillai (Kavi Kalamegam’-1936); Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer (‘Nandanar’); Musiri Subramani Iyer (Tukaram); Papanasam Sivan (‘Baktha Chetha’ ‘Baktha Kuchela’ and ‘Kubera Kuchela’). The stigma attached to performing artists was gradually beginning to fade away and a new social respectability asserted itself.
Further evidence of this was the entry of writers and reputed journalists of the caliber of Elangovan and B.S. Ramayya into the film world. They enriched and elevated the literary content of cinema.

The mid-40s saw many changes in the Tamil film scene. With the advent of playback the ‘talking, singing’ artistes from the stage and the classically-trained musicians were gradually displaced by new entrants with good looking, photogenic faces, and high degree of histrionic talent.

From the legendary and phenomenal M.G. Ramachandran and the gifted Sivaji Ganesan and T. R. Rajakumari, Bhanumathi, Savitri, Padmini, Saroja Devi and K.R. Vijaya, to the present generation of Kamalahasan, Rajnikanth, Sivakumar, Sridevi, Sri Priya, Sujatha And Saritha, there are many numbers of stars who have enriched the Tamil Cinema-and continue to do so.

Darling of the People

Of these, the rise to fame and popularity of M.G. Ramachandaran-or as he is popularly known, M.G.R- is a phenomenon unheard of in the annals of film history in any part of the world. Though he made his film debut in a small role in the year 1936 in Sathi Leelavatji, in 1947 he was first cast as the hero in Jupiter Pictures ‘ Rajakumari’. From then on, through Jupiter’s 'Marmayogi’, Modern Theatres' ‘Ali Baba’ and ‘Forty Thieves’ and Pakshiraja’s ‘Malaikallan’, his was a stupendous ascent from success to success winning for him the titles of ‘Vasool Mannan’ (King of the Box-Office), ‘Makkal Thailakam’ (Darling of the People) and ‘Puratchi Nadigar’ (Revolutionary Actor). To millions of filmgoers, he was the savior of the downtrodden and the champion of the poor. His was no idle talk for the ideals he propagate through his films-as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he could translate them into reality.

The years of the Second World War saw another change which had far reaching consequences. Because of the difficulties in the import of raw stock, the length of feature films was restricted to 11,000 feet. It was a blessing in disguise. ‘Haridas’ for instance, the picture that created an all time box- office record, was one such film.
 
M G Ramachandran
 
Of these, the rise to fame and popularity of M.G. Ramachandaran-or as he is popularly known, M.G.R- is a phenomenon unheard of in the annals of film history in any part of the world.
Content-wise too, new trends could be seen. The first attempt at biographies was made in 1957 with Padmini Picture's ‘Veerapandia Kattabomman', featuring Sivaji Ganesan. This was followed by 'Kappalotiya Thamizhan', a biography of the great patriot V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, also starring Sivaji Ganesan.

In 1954, A.V.M. produced ‘Andha Naal’. It was the first picture made in Tamil without a single song or dance and which in spite of these breakaway features, was a box- office success.

Turning Point

The most significant event of this period, however was the entry of C.N. Annadurai- the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party - into the film world. Though the first picture written by him was N.S.K. films’ ‘Nallathambi’ (1949), it was Jupiter Pictures’ ‘Velaikkari’ (1949) that was the turning point in the history of Tamil Cinema. It was revolutionary. C.N. Annadurai was an orator of great eloquence and realizing the potential of film as a medium of mass communication, he preached rationalist and reformist ideas to the people, attacking ignorance and blind beliefs with vehemence and vigor. There was an unheard of awakening in the minds of the people. ‘Velaikkari’ was followed by A.V.M.’s ‘Or Iravu’ (One Night) ‘Swargavasal’ and a number of other films, which swept Annadurai and his party, on a wave of mass support, to the seat of power. After Annadurai, the next two Chief Ministers Karunanidhi and MGR are both film world stalwarts.
 
Shivaji Ganesan
 
The most significant event of this period, however was the entry of C.N. Annadurai- the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party - into the film world.
In the ongoing progress of Tamil film-making, it must be mentioned that the Reddys made a vital contribution. B.N. Reddy founded Vauhini Pictures during 1938 and produced and directed a number of masterpieces such as ‘Devata’, ‘Sumangli’, 'Swargaseema’, ‘Malleswari’, etc. K.V. Reddy had ‘Yogi Vemanna’, ‘Gunasundari Katha’ and other films to his credit. These films were made in Telugu, but the technical finesse achieved by craftsmen like Ramnoth and Marcus Bartley, Srinivasa Raghwan And A. Krishnan made an indelible impact on Tamil films.

In 1947, B.N. Reddy founded Vauhini Studio, which was later taken over by B. Nagi Reddy, a man of immense vision, who developed the Studio into the best-planned and best-laid out studio in the whole of the East.

Singular Event

The year 1948 was of momentous importance in the history of Tamil Cinema. A single person and a singular event shook up not only the Tamil film industry but the entire country as well. The person was S.S. Vasan and the event, the release of his spectacular and stupendous ‘Chandralekha’. ‘Chandralekha’, made in Tamil and Hindi, raised the prestige of the Tamil film industry sky high and Vasan followed it up with other films like ‘Mangamma Sabatham’, ‘Dasi Abaranji’, ‘Apoorva Sagotharargal’, ‘Vanji Kottai Valiban' and 'Avvaiyar'. Vasan and ‘Chandralekha’ transformed the entire concept of entertainment in Indian films. His was the first real assault on the Hindi film market and he captured it with a masterly ease. Thus began a series of Hindi films from the South made under the banners of A.V.M., Vauhini, Prasad and Devar.
Vasan was hailed the Cecil B. Demille of India. Vasan and 'Chandralekha' transformed the entire concept of entertainment in Indian films.


Vasan also pioneered colour processing in the South by starting the Gemini colour lab in the year 1958. The credit for having made the first full length colour picture in Tamil, however, goes to T.R. Sundrama of Modern Theatres, Salem, who made ‘Ali Baba and Forty Thieves’, featuring M.G.R as the hero, in 1956.

By now, production values, technical excellence and directorial skills played as important a part in the making of films as stars and stories and songs. People began to realize that was more to films than mere talking and singing. Films had indeed come a long way from the early “100% singing, talking, dancing pictures.”

This article is a reproduction of the original published in Fifty Years of Indian Talkies (1931-1981) published by Indian Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Bombay.

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About the Author

P Neelakantan was the Principal of the Film Institute in Madras.