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Vol. XXVII No. 22, March 1-15, 2018

Studying the output of Madras studios

by Partab Ramchand

StudiosAccording to eminent film historians Theodore Baskaran and ‘Film News’ Anandan, the total number of Tamil films starting from the first Tamil talkie, Kalidas, released in 1931 (the same year as Alam Ara), predictably runs into four figures. Such a phenomenal output spread over so many years called for its rich and complex history to be well documented. However, a sustained and scholarly study of such a history has not seen the light of day due to the enormity of the task and the challenges associated with data collection and the availability of archival material.

A book that comes reasonably close, Madras Studios – Narrative, Genre and Ideology in Tamil Cinema, written by Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai and brought out by Sage Publications, is now available. The author’s primary objective is to fill the void and study the most eventful period in the history of the Madras studios when they produced their landmark and seminal films. An understanding of the history of the studios, and a detailed description of their major films, sheds light on the complex intersection of the cultural, economic and political factors which shaped the studios and their owners and the type of productions they were interested in.

After careful consideration of the studio productions in Madras, with regard to their critical and box office reception and their lasting impact on the Tamil film industry – both in terms of their significance as essential links to an earlier history of Tamil cinema and as prototypes which prefigure the specifics of Tamil cinema in later decades – the author has defined the period from 1937 to 1957 as the most significant one. Historically too these two decades are crucial, since they enable a consideration of Tamil cinema during British rule, World War II and in earlier independent India.

The contribution of the Tamil film industry to the growth, development and popularity of Indian cinema is well-known. The huge output of popular and highly acclaimed films in the Tamil language is inarguably the most influential after Hindi, in terms of scale of production and reception. Indeed, many leading Hindi film stars have spoken about the high level of professionalism in film-making in Madras (now Chennai) and have readily come over to appear in movies made in the city. Numerous box office hits and highly acclaimed Hindi films have been produced in the southern metropolis.

Much of this lofty reputation stems from the studio system in Madras which modeled itself on the famed studio system of Hollywood in the 1930s to 1950s. The five major studios were Modern Theatres, AVM, Gemini, Prasad and Vijay-Vauhini. Through the years, some of the most commercially popular and critically acclaimed films have been made in these studios.

Pillai is well qualified to write this book. An assistant professor in English and the media and information departments at Michigan State University, he is a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India and an accomplished documentarian. His research areas include the history, theory and production of documentaries and experimental films and specifically Tamil cinema and its complex relationship with Hollywood,

Given this background, it comes as no surprise that Madras Studios comes across as a well-researched work. It is also full of interesting details, anecdotes and quotes of all those involved, from studio heads to actors, from screen writers to technicians. For example not many may know that Sivaji Ganesan was paid a meagre Rs 250 a month for his famous role in Parasakthi or that S.S. Vasan, showing rare enterprise as a boy, commenced his career through the VPP – Value Payable by Post – business.

In the course of detailing the working of the five major studios, Pillai focuses on some major classics and so we have long but fascinating chapters on Uthama Puthiran, Manthiri Kumari, Parasakthi, Avvaiyar, Pathala Bhairavi and Missiamma besides interesting notes on Andha Naal, Chandralekha, Uyarndha Manithan and Soodhu Kavvum, the biggest hit of 2013. Yes, in his concluding chapters Pillai notes that traces of the studio system and its continuing influence in terms of narratives and genres can still be seen in Tamil cinema of today, particularly in the films made during the last decade. Thus there are many references to the movies made even in the 21st Century, making the book up-to-date. Many rare and well produced pictures add immense value to the book.

The close relationship between politics and cinema in Madras has been well documented and Pillai takes care not only to mention this but also give fresh details, particularly with reference to the Dravidian movement and its influence on Tamil cinema. The major roles played in diverse ways by the likes of C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi and M.G. Ramachandran make for compelling reading.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book centres in the stories of the studio heads and how they came about establishing their businesses after initial struggles. T.R. Sundaram of Modern Theatres, S.S. Vasan of Gemini Studios, A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar of AVM studios, L.V. Prasad of Prasad Studios and Nagi Reddy of Vijaya-Vauhini are all portrayed as larger than life figures but with a human touch. There are some dull passages because of the author’s emphasis on facts and figures, but the interesting bits more than make up for this.

Overall, Madras Studios is a must read for anyone associated with or interested in Tamil films.

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