Film producer, director and philanthropist Avichi Meiyappa Chettiar, known variously as A V Meiyappan, A V. Meiyappa Chettiar or AVM, is the founder of AVM Productions in Vadapalani, Chennai. Regarded as one of the pioneers of Tamil cinema, and one of three movie moguls of the Tamil film industry along with S S Vasan and L V Prasad, his production company AVM Productions is the only production company in the Tamil film industry to run successfully for five decades and three generations. A greenhorn when he entered film production, direction and studio maintenance, he learnt from his mistakes and emerged a winner.
He was born Avichi Meiyappa Chettiar in Karaikudi on 28 July 1907 to mother Lakshmi Achi and father Avichi Chettiar, who owned a department store called AV & Sons which sold gramophone records. The family belonged to the Nagarathar community, which was acknowledged for its expertise in the mercantile and money-lending business in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century. Foreseeing potential in the production of records as opposed to their mere sale, AVM moved to Madras with his friends K S Narayan Iyengar and Subbaiah Chettiar and set up Saraswathi Stores in 1932, which manufactured as well as sold gramophone records.
As the lure of cinema grew, the pioneering spirit of AVM saw him establish Saraswathi Sound Productions. He debuted as a producer in 1935 with the Tamil film Alli Arjuna. It was not a success; neither was his next, Ratnavali. Teaming up with cinema house owner Jayanthilal, he started a new company called Pragati Pictures Ltd. His first taste of moderate success came with Nandakumar (1938), his Tamil remake of a Marathi film on the early years of Lord Krishna. The film featured songs for the character of Devaki rendered by Lalitha Venkatarama, thus marking the film out as the first to introduce the concept of playback singing in Tamil cinema. For its shooting, AVM did not erect sets but rented the Club House in Chennai to shoot scenes for the film, thus establishing Nandakumar as one of the earliest films to be filmed on location. In 1940, the AVM-produced Telugu film Bhookailas became one of the most popular film versions of the Ramayana. More success followed for AVM with his comedies Sabapathy (1941) which became one of the greatest comedy films of the era, and another hit in En Manaivi (1942). Along the way, AVM kept setting trends. His 1943 production Satya Harischandra in Kannada was dubbed the following year into Tamil, thus becoming the first Kannada film to be dubbed into another language. He employed playback for the second time for Sri Valli (1945), when he assigned singer Periyanayaki to sing for actress Rukmini. In order to synchronise the voice with the lip movements, Pragati technicians are said to have worked round the clock to ensure flawless quality.
Buoyed by his winning streak, on 14 November, 1945, AVM established his new production company, titled AVM Productions at Santhome, Chennai. His first film under his new banner was Vedhala Ulagam (1948). A Tamil language fantasy film, it was both produced and directed by him. His Nam Iruvar (1947), which reflected the patriotic emotions of the newly free nation, became a huge success, as did Vedhala Ulagam (1948) and Vazhkai (1949). The latter introduced Vyjayanthimala, who went on to become one of the leading stars of India. Vazhkai ran in theatres for 25 weeks; it was also released as Jeevitham (1950) in Telugu, and Bahar (1950) in Hindi. The success of Vazhkai across languages, saw AVM Productions producing films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and even Sinhalese. In 1948, the location of AVM Studios was shifted to its original vast location at Kodambakkam, which had been previously chosen by AVM.
A golden period followed for the studio in the 1950s, with a series of hits being produced by AVM Productions. The 1952 Tamil film Parasakthi was an instant hit, with its message of social revolution and questioning of the authority of temple priests. Its powerful storyline and dialogues were courtesy M Karunanidhi, who would later go on to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. It starred Sivaji Ganesan, a newcomer at the time, who emerged as one of the leading starts of the Tamil film industry by the mid-1950s. AVM’s next, Andha Naal (1954) was another trend-setting attempt, becoming the first song-less film to be released in any Indian language. The narration style of this Sivaji-starrer directed by Sundaram Balachander was borrowed from Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950).
The 50s also saw AVM producing the Kannada film Jatakaphala (1953) which was dubbed into Jatakam in Tamil and Jatakaphalam in Telugu. There was more to come before the decade drew to a close, namely Bhookailas (1958) in Telugu, which commenced the golden age of Telugu cinema. Bhookailas went on to be remade in Tamil as Bhakta Ravana and in Hindi as Bhakti Mahima.
Some of AVM’s standout films in the 60s included his Telugu production Papa Pariharam (1961), which was a remake of the Tamil film Pavamanippu which released the same year. With a storyline based on World War II, both films were directed by A Bhimsingh and starred Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Savitri and Devika. His Kalathur Kannamma (1960) brought a 6-year-old Kamal Haasan to the screen for the first time, essaying a supporting role as a young orphan. A huge hit followed with Server Sundaram (1964), the Tamil film featuring then budding comedian Nagesh, and debutant Major Sundarrajan. Producing Telugu films such as Pavithra Prema (1962), Penchina Prema (1963), Naadi Aada Janme (1965), Letha Manasulu (1966) and Mooga Nomu (1969), it was Bhakta Prahalada (1967) that was AVM’s biggest success of the decade. Produced in Telugu and subsequently dubbed into Tamil and Hindi, the film was based on the legend of Prahlada, a character in Bhagavata Purana known for his devotion to the Hindu god Vishnu. Anbe Vaa (1966) was another very successful AVM film, with its song Rajavin paarvai becoming highly popular.
Making forays into Hindi films, AVM’s Bahar (1951) launched Vyjayanthimala in the Hindi film industry. It was followed by Ladki (1953), again starring Vyjayanthimala. His third Hindi film, a children’s film on national integration - Hum Panchi Ek Daal Ke (1957) hit the sweet spot. It also bagged the President’s gold medal. More success followed with Bhai Bhai (1956), Miss Mary (1957) and Bhabhi (1957). Nirupa Roy won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in AVM’s Chhaya (1961). Other key films by AVM during the 60s were Man Mauji (1962), Main Chup Rahungi (1962), Pooja Ke Phool (1964), Mehrban (1967), and Jeene Ki Arzoo (1981).
By the 70s, production at the AVM studio had decreased greatly. The studio produced a few films such as Bomma Borusa (1971), Dil Ka Raja (1972), Akka Thamudu (1972), and Jaise Ko Taisa (1973), AVM last produced Jeene Ki Arzoo, following which he devoted himself to social activities and charitable institutions he had set up, besides overseeing his enormous business empire.
Married to Alamelu Meiyappan who passed away in 1946 and Rajeswari Meiyappan, AVM had five sons and six daughters. His children with Alamelu Meiyappan were AVM Palaniappan, Lakshmi, Valli, Saraswathi Valliappan, Muthu, and Rukmani. His children with Rajeswari Meiyappan were AVM Murugan, AVM Kumaran, AVM Saravanan, AVM Balasubramanian and Meena Veerappan.
AVM passed away on 12 August, 1979 aged 72. In keeping with his last wishes, AVM Studios resumed film production in 1980 after a 7-year break, helmed by his sons AVM Kumaran and M Saravanan. Besides building a mammoth business empire which includes a production company, a cinema hall, a film studio and several educational institutions and charities, AVM remains memorable for having introduced playback singing in Tamil films, and for shooting the first Tamil film on location. Interestingly, he also had five chief ministers work in his films – C N Annadurai wrote the script for AVM's Ore Iravu, M Karunanidhi penned the dialogues for Parasakthi, M G Ramachandran essayed the lead role in Anbe Vaa, J Jayalalithaa was the leading lady in AVM's Major Chandrakanth and Akka Thamudu, and finally N T Rama Rao starred in AVM’s Jeevitham, Ramu and Bhookailas. The AVM production house now concentrates more on making teleserials and documentaries. In 2003, AVM Productions released a documentary on the life of its founder, recounting his early childhood, his entry into the film industry, and his rise to success. In commemoration of AVM's centenary year in 2006, a statue of A V Meiyappan was unveiled by CM M Karunanidhi at the campus of the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce.