October 31 2011 was a memorable day for Tamil cinema. But, it was not perhaps observed in a fitting manner. The 80th anniversary of a landmark event is definitely worth celebration; most of you would agree on that. And, no one can deny that the release of the first ever Tamil talkie film is a landmark event. Yes, it is on 31st October 1931 that the first Tamil talkie movie released. Now, you might be more convinced of the reason that the 31st October of 2011 was definitely a date that deserved at least a nominal commemoration of such a momentous event.
It is 80 years since Tamil was first spoken on the silver screen. We have been born into a world where Tamil booms off the silver screen aided by Dolby, DTS and other world class technologies, where there is no shortage of avenues to watch a Tamil feature film on the big screen. So, it does take some time and a vivid imagination to fully understand what the first Tamil talkie film, Kalidas, would have meant to the Tamils of the 1930s who had up to that point only been treated only to silent cinema; and in some very rare cases, silent cinema accompanied by live and synchronized performances by musicians and the animated descriptions of professional narrators.
Yes, sitting in front of a computer screen in 2011, it is indeed difficult to imagine the era where cinema did not speak. That is all the more reason we appreciate the pioneering efforts of Ardeshir M Irani and HM Reddy; producer and director of Kalidas respectively. On October 31 1931, the boxes carrying the reels of the first ever Tamil talkie film arrived at the Madras port and it was escorted to the Liberty Theater in Parrys by a huge procession replete with bands and garlands. Unlike the processions of today which are mostly in celebration of a film’s star, this one was for the sheer joy of the fact that cinema would actually speak Tamil for the first time. The film had a mind boggling 50 songs.
But, October 31 is not just a day to remember this landmark event in Tamil cinema. It is also a chance to commemorate some of the other pioneers and their pioneering achievements which were instrumental in making Tamil cinema one of the biggest forces in the Indian film industry.
After bringing sound to the screen, what else? The fact remained that Kalidas was not a fully Tamil talkie film; many characters spoke different languages in the film, of which Telugu was a major part. Therefore, the 1932 film Galava directed by P.P. Rangachari is recognized as the first full length Tamil talkie film. That was a period when mythology was the biggest source of stories for film making; no wonder then there were multiple films based on some of the favorite mythological stories. Amongst this was the 1933 flick Seethakalyanam which had S. Rajam playing Rama and Jayalakshmi playing Seetha. The catch here being that Jayalakshmi was the real life sister of S. Rajam. Now, one is led to wonder about how such a casting decision would have been received in our times. We are currently passing through a phase when even the slightest suggestion about caste, community or religion is beginning to stir a lot of ‘feelings’. The example of Seethakalyanam shows us that perhaps people in the 1930s were very broad minded; seeing cinema as nothing but a medium of entertainment, not taking on screen things too seriously. In comparison, we seem to have regressed in our way of thinking. Or perhaps there is the fact that the people of the 30s had far more important issues like the freedom struggle and they left such smaller matters alone!
There are many more such examples which show that the earliest film makers of the Tamil film industry were daringly experimental, sometimes even more than the current makers. Part of that is the 1935 film Nandhanar which had K.B.Sundarambal play the hero! Yes, a lady played the hero of the film. Think of it, turning a 60 year old Rajnikanth to a 30 something youngster is hailed as a feat in make up even now. With the kind of facilities available those days, this was truly a great achievement. And, she was paid a monstrous Rs. 1 lakh for the role. To give you an exact idea about the huge nature of this remuneration you have to know the fact that Kalidas was made on a lavish budget of Rs. 8000! If you adjust the Rs.1 lakh for inflation to 2011, one can be pretty sure that she will be the highest paid actor ever in India.
1936 was an eventful year in Tamil cinema with the debut of director Ellis R Duncan; a British directing Tamil movies! But, the year is most remembered for the debuts of T.S. Baliah and the iconic M.G.Ramachandran in Sati Leelavati. An often forgotten fact however is that the year also marked the debut of the first lady director of Indian cinema, T.P. Rajalakshmi through Miss Kamala. Even in 2011, a lady director is a rarity in Tamil cinema; they are considered path breakers into a male bastion. So, we can only imagine the sheer magnitude of T.P. Rajalakshmi’s achievement.
This period can also be remembered for the debut of some of the most influential personalities of Tamil cinema. Kalaivaanar N.S. Krishnan who was perhaps the first person to make comedy staple to Tamil cinema and one of the biggest pillars of Tamil cinema A V Meiyappa Chettiyar became fully active in cinema during this time.
This was also perhaps the period during which marketing techniques started to come to the fore in Tamil cinema. S.S. Vasan’s film Nandanar showed the way by organizing a contest wherein audiences had to nominate the best song in the picture, with attractive prizes being given away to winners. There are also instances of producers getting really smart and releasing the same movie twice under different names! Well, that technique would not work today. AVM introduced dubbed cinema to Tamil through Harischandra, dubbed form Kannada.
The mid 1940s produced the biggest hit ever in Tamil cinema! Yes, we could say so, not on terms of collection, but by the sheer number of days it occupied theaters. Haridas, starring M K Thyagaraja Bhagavadar (the first superstar of Tamil cinema) released on Diwali 1944 and remained in theaters for 3 consecutive Diwalis; no mean achievement; unparalleled to date.
The daring of Tamil film makers with themes even during World War periods can be gauged by Burma Rani (1945). Inspired by the happenings of the war, the film follows a plot that would be considered path breaking in Tamil cinema, if attempted even today. It involves 3 soldiers of the Indian Airmen landing up in Burma and joining hands with the Indian resistance to free it from the clutches of Japan, an Indian girl named Rani helps them in this quest; a truly international subject made in Tamil, before independence.
Immediately after independence, Tamil cinema produced what one may call the first on screen wonder through Chandralekha; the most expensive Tamil movie of its times, at a budget of Rs. 30 lakhs. It is remembered as the first Tamil film to become an all India phenomenon and for its mind boggling art work and production values; the drum dance in particular is still talked about.
The period from 1945-1950 can also be marked as the one where dialogues rose in prominence in Tamil cinema. Yes, talkie cinema had come to Tamil in the 1930s, but it took the advent of literary geniuses like Annadurai and M.Karunanidhi to take cinema dialogues to new and great heights. It is also worth noting that in the film Mandiri Kumari (1950), the heroine’s character is depicted as a free thinking and independently acting warrior princess; something that would be considered a brave move even in contemporary cinema. The 1950s were also a period during which politics and social reform became dominant presences in Tamil cinema, mostly through dialogues.
From 1950 onwards the technical milestones for Tamil cinema started coming very regularly. The first color film (Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum) and later moving on to cinemascope through Raja Raja Cholan etc. Now, we are in a period where technical advances are made at a rapid pace, be it digital photography, digital projection, live sound or CGI.
But, the point to be pondered over more carefully is whether Tamil cinema has regressed in terms of the themes and liberality of outlook. Some of the examples of daring and out of the box themes have been mentioned above. That was a period during which censors never unduly cut into a film maker’s space, except when the British objected to political content. That was also a period when actresses/heroines where given roles of substance and not used as fillers and glamour dolls. We can also see some highly experimental themes in the form of films like Andha Naal (1954). In the 1950s, one could say that the average number of songs in a film was around 10. But, here was a team that went against all norms and produced one without any songs at all. Nearly 60 years later, making a Tamil movie with no songs or even one song is still considered path breaking. While the 10 roles of Kamal in Dasavatharam were celebrated as a great achievement, we perhaps forgot that more than 40 years ago, Sivaji Ganesan did 9 roles in a single film, Navarathri. It goes to show that even though technique has progressed in leaps and bounds, the will to experiment has not grown proportionally.
Finally, as we remember the great architects who laid the foundations of Tamil cinema and thank them for what they did, we can also remind ourselves of the tribute that we can pay them. We can start by reiterating the fact that no print of Kalidas, the first Tamil talkie film, is known to exist. And, the same can be said of almost all the films of that period; yes, there are exceptions. In contrast, look at Hollywood archives, a 1930s film can still be downloaded on the net. Perhaps as a token of respect to these legends, we could preserve their works better.
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