One of the pioneers of cinema in South India, R Nataraja Mudaliar is referred to as the father of Tamil cinema. He was the force behind the making of the first silent film in the South Indian states, Keechaka Vadham (1916). He was involved in diverse business practices, before deciding to make films - a decision which proved to be pivotal for the development of filmmaking practices in South India.
Born in Vellore in a wealthy trader family, he shifted to Madras after finishing his studies. He initially started a bicycle company called Watson & Company in partnership with his cousin S M Dharmalingam Mudaliar. The business was a success, even leading to the acquisition of a foreign firm Romar, Dan & Company who imported cars and automobile parts. Around this time he started becoming interested in photography and the cinema.
He apprenticed under Stewart Smith, who was a cinema owner in Pune and the official cinematographer of Lord Curzon's durbar in 1903. Acquiring investments from some friends and associates, he set up a studio on Miller's Road, Madras and founded the India Film Company in 1917. In need of equipment, he purchasd a Williamson 35 mm camera and printer from Mooppanar, a rich landowner from the Thanjavur district. His friend Pambal Sambandam Mudaliar suggested that he adapt the story of Keechaka and Draupadi as his first film. The resultant film, Keechaka Vadham, was intertitled in Tamil, Hindi and English and was written with the help of C Rangavadivelu. An accomplished theatre performer, Rangavadivelu also trained the artistes acting in the film. The Tamil title cards were written byDr Guruswamy Mudaliar and Thiruvengada Mudaliar who was a college principal. Costing over Rs 35000 and over 6000 feet long, the film was nevertheless a success. This prompted Mudaliar to produce more films like Draupadi Vastrapaharanam (1917), Mayil Ravana (1918), Lavakusa (1919), Kalinga Mardanam (1920), Rukmini Kalyanam (1921), Mahi Ravana (1921) and Markandeya (1921). All of them mythologicals, the films were filmed around his hometown of Vellore. Later differences arose between him and his investors. Tragedy struck when his son died in a fire which broke out in the studio in 1923. A devastated Mudaliar closed down the film studio and left the business.
Mudaliar's achivement was hugely influential on other prospective filmmakers in South India, including the pioneer of Malayalam cinema Raghupathi Prakasha.
Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. Ed. Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998