Madras in Movies

I’ve liked Randor Guy’s writing ever since I read a piece that he wrote in Vikatan, about Chennai’s Kaapi Clubs. Every conceivable, olde-worlde coffee club was in it, Rathna café and everything. I fell in love with old Chennai back then.

That was what made me listen to his speech about Vintage Movies, movies that showcased Madras as it had once been.

On 25th August in the Pennathur Subramaniam High School, Madras. He began, in a raspy voice, on “Vintage Cinema: Madras in Movies,” giving competition to the rains that had suddenly decided to pay a visit to the event as well, about the first Thamizh movie that had spoken to its audience.

Before this period, you read what the characters said via subtitles, as “talkies” hadn’t become the norm yet. The first Thamizh talkie, the “Kalidas,” was actually a Tamil/Telugu/Hindi movie, as its producer, Ardeshir Irani, strengthened by the hit of his first Hindi film, “Alam Ara,” hadn’t had the courage to know if Tamil could be “heard” by the audience. Hindi had worked, yes, but Thamizh? Therefore, he put in some of Telugu, and then, not content, added Hindi as well.

Our first movie, apparently, was a trilingual production.

T.P Rajalakshmi was the heroine of the movie, and she was paraded in the tiles as “Cinema Rani.” It was enough, apparently, to ensure enough wealth and encomiums to last her a lifetime. She’d been married at a very young age (like most young girls of those times), had lost her husband, which drove her father to suicide … and mother and daughter suddenly found themselves stranded.

At which point the mother had a kind of epiphany: her daughter would act in the pictures!

Now, you’ll agree, I’m sure, that this was a humongous step to take. By a woman reared in an orthodox Brahmin family. Perhaps the mother knew something that only destiny would reveal later on; her daughter’s hidden acting talents. Or perhaps it was just sheer desperation. I rather think it was the latter. Either way, the two of them came to ‘Trichinapoli,’ to meet yesteryear movie director, Jagannatha Iyer, who auditioned the girl for a part.

There was a man sitting nearby, watching the girl act, and he pronounced that she’d become a star, as she had the makings of a great actress. The man was Sankaradas Swamigal, revered as the father of the genre of Thamizh Drama. And it came true, what he said … T.P Rajalakshmi did create history – by becoming the first woman to star in a Tamil “talkie.”

Mythological themes had always been popular with moviemakers in those early years of cinema, and they came with another advantage: you already had the scripts. It was a simple job, converting them into movie screenplays. Shooting for cinema was something of a novelty, and in Chennai, it was often done in Adyar, the wooded common. Rainy days meant a problem, as there were no lighting facilities, and actors would scurry about to act while the sun shone, and snack on their lunch when it poured. The crows of Adyar grew quite accustomed to the scraps of food they threw away and haunted the area: this was why, in the credits of those movies, you often had an Anglo-Indian, called a “Crow-Shooter” Joe, who had to shoo away crows before any scene could be filmed.

Ah, the weird and wonderful minds of our filmmakers.

Heroines of those days earned a princely sum of Rs. 30 a month – which was what the heroine of the first Thamizh hit, “Valli Thirumanam,” had been paid. Those were the days when you could buy 16 measures of rice for a rupee, and thirteen rupees bought a gold sovereign.

A windfall!

M K Thyagara Bhagavathar, with his curly hair and milk-white skin had ruled the roost, while heroes sang endless songs in movies that ran for four hours, only barely touching their heroines.

I still remember the age-old notices from the 50 year old ‘Sivaji’ magazines that I’ve saved at home: bits and pieces of paper falling to nothing, carrying strange looking photographs of men and women, dressed to look like a combination of a Goddess, crossed with, I don’t know … Bette Davis? Joan Crawford? You take one look at those posters of “Gnana Soundari,” and you’re hit with the make-up and coiffure of those old Broadway shows.

Movie clips of old films followed, where old Madras could be seen, with its shots of trams, a near-empty (and impossible to even imagine) shot of Mount Road, with one lonely car passing by, breezy avenues of Mylapore, San Thome and the Kodambakkam Railway Stations. Clips from yester-century hits such as “En Manaivi,” “Parasakthi,” “Swarga Seema,” “Vaazkkai,” and “Thyaga Bhoomi.” R Padma, the sex symbol of those days (simply because she appears as country girl, with no jacket on) dances and sings rigidly (she’s extremely conscious of the camera), about Madras’s strange buses, and “bullock-carts that fly in the air without bullocks” – she means aeroplanes.

And she mimes a pipe, to imitate the huge loudspeakers they had in the Marina Beach during the 1930s and 40s, and the Corporation Radio (as the AIR was known back then), blared out concerts of Ariyakkudi, Chemmangudi, and all those other kudis. And everyone listened, to the accompaniment of the waves crashing on the shore and the stiff, salty breezes.

There’s a movie called “Genovo” (I think), where MGR actually walks down the aisle with his bride, in complete Christian ensemble!

And there was the story of Kannamba, which was a hoot: she being a Telugu actress, they wrote out entire dialogues on apiece of blackboard during shoots, and displayed it behind the camera. And when Kannamba spoke the dialogues for the movie “Kannagi”, she ended each word with a Teluguistic “oo” sound … [“En pechoo, en moochoo…”] which ended up being a bit of a comedy to all concerned. The movie proved to a hit anyway.

“Kaithi” (Prisoner) was another movie which proved to be a hassle for its producers, Jupiter Pictures. [Or, as they’re touted in Tamil, “Jupiter Picturesaar.”] Apparently, the director wanted to call his picture “Rattham” (Blood), subtly signifying the underlying theme of the movie (which, incidentally, was the remake of a Humphrey Bogart movie, ‘Dark Passage’) … and when they tried to come up with tag-lines for advertisements, they wrote “Raththam Odukirathu…” (‘Blood’ running to full houses in theatres…) – which turned out to be something of a fiasco, ’cause, eh: Blood? Running? Rumours say that Jupiter Pictures backed off, and the director had to go back, with a heavy heart, to “Kaithi.” Which kind of spoilt his mood, but what else could be done?

That’s what I love about Randor Guy – all the wonderful anecdotes.

Those movies showed a Madras that’s hard to imagine (except perhaps, for those who actually lived in it) – with it tree-lined roads, large temples, and little clumps of villages. Kodambakkam was a suburb miles away, ’cause Mylapore was the hub of the city, and whoever would go and live in Kodambakkam, of all the outlandish, God-forsaken places (as someone says in ‘En Manaivi’?) And look at what Madras is, now.

If that isn’t a hallmark of a true Pattinam, don’t know what else is.

9 Comments so far

  1. Navneeth (unregistered) on September 21st, 2006 @ 1:05 am

    The crows of Adyar grew quite accustomed to the scraps of food they threw away and haunted the area: this was why, in the credits of those movies, you often had an Anglo-Indian, called a “Crow-Shooter” Joe, who had to shoo away crows before any scene could be filmed.

    Trivia like that would be perfect for the finals of Landmark quiz, or Odessey, or the IIT ones… :D

    I was watching May MAdam (ேம மாதம்) on TV tonight. Although I don’t think it made the its producer any richer, it’s one movie of recent times which shows many parts of old Madras (primarily along Mt.Raod) that we all know and love. Unlike these days, where it’s all Cafe Coffee Day, or Ishpahani Centre, or in front of some other uninteresting glass and steel structure, or in the worst case, a terribly made set inside Film City or AVM studios.

  2. Nancy (unregistered) on September 21st, 2006 @ 11:04 am

    Another excellent piece – you’re a heck of a note-taker! I wish crow-shooter Joe would come to my garden!

    I can never forget the time in the mid-70s, when I was standing on the beach in Thiruvanmiyur and a whole monkey army arrived, with blue plastic maces and tails, to shoot a scene from the Ramayana. Rama was a huge fat man with a big wig — possibly NTR, though I didn’t know anything at that time — it was completely surreal, like a Fellini movie.

  3. Ravi (unregistered) on September 21st, 2006 @ 4:21 pm

    Wow Pavithra! beautiful post. Me too a great fan of Randor Guy and for the same reason as you are – for his priceless anecdotes. Infact many of his posts were on a site but that site is now down. Don’t know where else I can find them.
    Here’s one :

    People watching one of MKT’s movie gasped in disbelief in the movie halls for “bold scenes”. Wondering what that would be? The hero winked at the heroine.

  4. suppamani (unregistered) on September 21st, 2006 @ 7:17 pm

    I think, Filmnews Mr.Anandan, the Film Journalist cum Photographer of yester years can throw more light on this subject with lovely pictures of thosedays.

  5. suppamani (unregistered) on September 21st, 2006 @ 7:21 pm

    I think, Filmnews Mr.Anandan, the Film Journalist cum Photographer of yester years can throw more light on this subject with lovely pictures of thosedays.He is having a library on this subject and was presented with a purse by the Tamilnadu Government for his noble services for this field.

  6. phantom363 (unregistered) on September 22nd, 2006 @ 4:43 am

    great posting. once upon a time, madras was the epicentre of all filming done in the south. i hear now the biggest studio is in hyderabad. :(

    the golden age of gemini, vijaya/vauhini, neptune, sathya etc may have gone. but thanks to the films buffs, randor guy and such like, we are preserving a glorious past. :) good stuff :)

  7. Pavithra (unregistered) on September 22nd, 2006 @ 6:18 pm

    NAVNEETH : True. Today’s movies do focus on ‘posh’ outlets – the kind places which I don’t really frequent, so maybe only a few people are able to identify with them. Perhaps that proves to be enough. I’m not sure. I don’t relate much to them, actually, though they too, are Madras. May Maadam was a nice movie – I liked the songs in particular. And yes, it showed a side of Madras that isn’t usually focused upon, so much.
    Lol about the trivia. :-)
    NANCY: Thanks. I wish I could send you a crow-shooter. :-) I shall, if I come across him. I do work in Adyar, after all. Though I’m yet to see wooded commons, much. Just sewage canals.
    NTR could be the fat guy – there was time when he was positively over flowing. And yet, somehow, on screen, I don’t know – I suppose he was one of those rare people who somehow could carry it off. Not the social movies though. As Krishna, he blew my mind.
    Yup, I took extensive notes. I tried using a tape recorder (I carry one around – you never know when you may have to tape something), but I find that my fingers work faster with a pen. It’s been years since I’ve been in school… but I’m still not free of pens and papers. :)
    RAVI: Glad you liked. The website info is news to me … that would have been a goldmine. I also believe, though, that it’s as important to preserve something in the way you enjoy the experience – in a way that has the fun intact. Don’t you think so?
    Loved the MKT trivia. Sort of things that sets you laughing. Though, people didn’t make any bones about stuff in those days. I’ve watched quite a few movies that made me go agape.
    SUPPAMANI: I have heard of Filmnews Anandan and his extensive collection. Imagine how thrilling it would be, to get to see it. That’s some task.
    PHANTOM363: Thanks :)
    Hyderabad, Gah. Madras rules. Always. Like you say, the age of the studios may have tapered off … but we still rule. :D

  8. Lavanya (unregistered) on September 23rd, 2006 @ 11:44 am

    Wonderful post Pavithra. How did you remember so much from that talk? Wow!

    And I’d love to see those bits from the Sivaji magazine :)

  9. Pavithra (unregistered) on September 26th, 2006 @ 11:25 pm

    Thanks, Lavanya. :) I’m an inveterate notes-taker.

    And I’ll see if I can post some bits (literally) from that old magazine.

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