Madras Studios – A Review

There is a certain curiosity that arises in any child from the 90s upon hearing about the kind of films her father or grandmother boast of having watched. It is not simple reminiscence that takes place when they recall watching Sivaji Ganesan’s first film Parasakthi about 17 times in the ‘tents’. It is, in every case normal for similar records to be held for Naya Daur(Hindi), Harishchandra(Kannada) or Maya Bazar (Telugu). This natural way of crossing language and region to watch films, sing those songs and repeat dialogues without any knowledge of that other language is a subject of interest. How did such ease come about? Did it have solely to do with an obsession for films when tickets were cheap and the distribution was done well? Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai’s book Madras Studios gives the answer to any such questions, especially those a 90s kid may have as she obstinately traces the root to the multilingualism brought about by films in members of generations before hers (pardon the exclusive depiction of age). The considerable amount of research already done in the field, along with film magazines that were in circulation from the 40s like Kumudam, Guntoosi, Cinema Ulagam, AadalPaadal, Ananda Vikatan and many others become sources for the book.

Starting with the introduction, the author gives the key to multilingualism in filmgoers at the time – the culture of studios, and the role played by most of them located in Madras. While Bombay functioned as the capital for film production for Bollywood, or Hindi films, in all of what was termed the North, Madras established itself as the Southern capital. Every film made from the 40s to 70s was associated in some or every way to a studio based in what was then called Madras. The book traces the history of the major studios – Modern Theatres, AVM, Gemini and Vijaya Vauhini. Discussing the founding stories, major films, associated stars and styles adopted by each studio, it gives an outline of the vast history of Tamil cinema. As history without the present loses form, the book also analyses its effect on shaping new Tamil cinema produced in the past two decades. The changes, along with the persisting cinema patterns from then to now add to the review this book thoroughly succeeds in.

A T.R Sundaram (TRS) venture in 1935, Modern Theatres became the first major studio. As one who went abroad to pursue a degree in engineering, TRS turned into a cinephile, influenced by early Hitchcock films and Douglas Fairbanks performances. Upon returning, he abandoned the family’s textile business and used his financial advantage to open a studio and produce films. Tamil cinema then had two major influences – Hollywood and the travel drama format. TRS grew successful from combining the two in his films and himself. Described as a ‘combination of the feudal and capitalist drivers of studio owners in India’, the book traces his meticulousness, disciplinarian attitude and the uncompromising drive to get the best talent. The strict attitude exercised also spread to the careful selection of themes covered in his films. After all, Modern Theatres is credited as the pioneer of inculcating the sociocultural context into films as they depicted the progressing freedom struggle, Second World War, and the difficulties associated both from and through it. For example, the new censorship laws and curtailment of film length caused trouble in the making and release of Burma Rani. War meant the impossibility of importing the usual Agfa film from Germany, which introduced Kodak. Alongside all this, there was the tendency to popularise and nationalise Tamil using poems by important Tamil poets such as Thiruvallur, Subramaniya Bharathi and others in the films. This tendency was successfully established when Karunanidhi, who would later become a major face in DMK and shape Tamil politics was brought in to write the dialogues for films as Ponmudi, Manthiri Kumari and Aaravalli. The Dravidian ideology introduced and popularised by Modern Theatres is seen in each of these films challenging religious beliefs, criticising superstitions and gender inequalities, and depicting Tamil as the origin of all Dravidian languages.

The history of AVM, which refers to the studio and man who founded it once worked in the gramophone industry. It is this origin that allowed Meiyappan to see the importance of songs and enter the recording industry. He grew popular by releasing album records of film soundtracks, both creating and feeding demand. The same also influenced an interest in dubbing, and thus producing the first dubbed film in Tamil – Harishchandra from Kannada. Pillai traces Meiyappan’s excellent business acumen with the example of him choosing popular, tried and tested themes for his films. However, when it came to choosing between producing Vethaala Ulagam (based on a popular folktale) and Naam Iruvar (based on a play by P Neelakantan depicting social reality), he put his faith on the latter, playing well within the tension of the freedom struggle. The trademark of his films was the usage of songs to critique social reality following the Dravidian ideology.

S.S Vasan from Gemini Studios started as the editor of popular magazine Ananda Vikatan. His landmark film Avvaiyar, a biography of the famous native poet of the same name goes against the trend of films following Dravidian ideology. It depends on the power of religion and poetry to invoke the audience in its songs. While the film won the audience, the book records a critique by Kumudam as one ‘that appreciates Avvaiyar except for its “one defect”: By showcasing Avvaiyar as performing acts beyond what is humanly possible, a woman’s history has been misrepresented as mythology.’

While the first few studios were founded by comparatively affluent members, L.V Prasad from Vijaya Vauhini tells the rags to riches tale. Born into a poor agricultural family, he is known to have eloped to Bombay and worked his way up to produce Tamil films that fought Tamil itself. That is, while Madras was the centre, it was neither built exclusively by Tamil speaking natives or Tamil films. Prasad was among the first to realise this hegemony of Tamil and the start the ‘Madras Manade’ (Madras is Ours) movement by Telugu speakers. It is the critique of the narrative that Madras was built by Tamils, when reality showed a significant contribution by Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam speaking professionals. “Most of the iconic Tamil actresses were from the adjacent states—Savithri was from Guntur (Madras Presidency/Andhra Pradesh), Padmini from Thiruvanathapuram (Travancore/Kerala), and Pandari Bai from Bhatkal (Uttara Kannada/Karnataka)”, disallowing legitimacy to the existing Tamil hegemony. The book records Pathala Bhairavi as Prasad’s attempt to capture the Telugu spirit in a Tamil film using strong Telugu accent by the actors. His own style came to be the use of humour to depict dark social realities in films like Missiamma, which comically portrays serious themes such as unemployment, erasure of identity and the need for pragmatism. He also used Sanskrit in place of Tamil as the origin language, challenging the so-called purity of Tamil shown in other films.

As any reader may have realised the pure male dominance in Tamil film industry as it was everywhere at the time, the book also covers T.P Rajalakshmi as the first woman director, Meenakshi as the first woman technician and an article by KothanayakiAmmal, a popular critic and journalist from Aadal Paadal. It also discusses the strong female roles played by actresses like Madhuri Devi in Manthiri Kumari and G Varalakshmi in Aaravalli, something absent in today’s Tamil cinema. The fact that men continue to be lyricised, while women are only mediated is the bitter truth. Even in films surrounding the female, the woman plays second fiddle, remaining an attraction. The book also points out persisting tendencies – like using multiple roles to play out the good-evil binary and invoking Tamil culture wherever possible. It uses examples of contemporary directors like Shankar (whose films Indian, Jeans, Anniyan and Enthiran all have multiple roles) and Mani Ratnam collaborating with popular composer A.R Rahman for songs celebrating Tamil language and land (like in Roja), the book summarises what popular Tamil cinema is made up of.

However, the book continues from the history where the studio produced films to a new range of Tamil films that can be made within or without a big banner – each representing a fight in some sense or the other. Starting with films by national award winning director Bala (Paradesi, Naan Kadavul, Pithamagan), they reject the dominant image of Tamil history shaped by Dravidian ideology. They criticise the notion of films playing into state politics and inaction regarding the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Films like Pizza, NaduvalaKonjamPakkanthaKaanom and SoodhuKavvum support the same movement using distorted memory as the key to portray a dark, broken social reality. With no big stars, produced on small budgets using digital technology, they break the complete dominance of studio culture. Here, there comes a point of criticism over what the book breezes past. To give the history of studios and skip to new style in Tamil cinema is a major leap that ignores the challenges associated with it. While the book acknowledges the history of stars like Sivaji Ganesan and Rajinikanth who start off their careers as rebels, they succumb to making pure commercial cinema that celebrates and promotes their stardom. Films like these, regularly made with big budget, promotion and ultimately given all the theatres at release dates affect the reception of these new age films that heavily depend on turnover to make their next film. Even without going into pure economics, hegemony of big-banner films and its impact, the challenges become significant, especially when these effects are borne exclusively by these new, but small range films.

However, the hope within this dystopian range of new Tamil films lies in its reception itself. That is, aside from the commercial film success, Tamil cinema audience constantly makes room for films that move past melodrama and good endings to use dark humour, irony and extreme violence to give a new meaning to Tamil. It is neither the mother nor the Dravidian land, but a power-hungry, ready to fool anyone space that is patriarchal in nature and inadequate in addressing any kind of gender politics. This new style, in opposition to popular culture, politics and commercial production is mirrored in the inclusion of Anurag Kashyap, director of Gangs of Wasseypur, paying homage to Tamil cinema while critiquing the Bollywood film culture in pure pursuit of an audience that is pan-Indian, English speaking and following the multiplex culture.

In this line, the book marks a culture unique to Tamil cinema in comparison to other languages. What it calls an inversion of Dravidian utopia to dystopia can be derived as something lacking in other industries that find it hard to break from popular culture. While there are efforts from everywhere, the amount of films made in Tamil critiquing globalisation, inequalities and the erasure of the local is both surprising and natural. What started out as a studio culture that united the four major southern language cinema now sees a culture where films can accept or reject the studiosystem. The effect this holds on the content, style and reception is drastic when we take an example case of Visaranai and Baahubali: The Beginning, both released in 2015 but received well in opposite ways. That popular culture has always faced an opposition goes back to the fight between Dravidianism and religionism, Tamil and other southern languages, and the trends we see today. Madras Studios traces these movements exhaustively, and thus makes for a necessary read to understand Tamil, Southern and Indian cinema itself.



About the Writer

Archana studies literature at MCPH. She was interested in films but wasn’t sure if it was just fun to watch them or more. She then worked with Suchitra film society that organizes the Bangalore International Film Festival. And then found out she loved the mad mad films, the odd people who make them and the weird people who love to break them. As she knows that these people admire different films and films differently, she is ever-ready to let a new one drive her a little crazy.