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Monday, July 10, 2000

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The stamp of honour

Stamps and special covers featuring the doyens of South Indian cinema are being released today in the city. RANDOR GUY writes about the pioneers who are seldom remembered.

IT IS heartening to see that postage stamps and first day covers are being brought out this evening at a special function to honour seven South Indian film pioneers, R. Nataraja Mudaliar, R. Prakash, A. Narayanan, Raja Sandow, K. Subramaniam, A. V. Meiyappan and L. V. Prasad.

R. Nataraja Mudaliar (born 1885) was the first filmmaker of South India who created history when he made the first silent feature film in 1917, "Keechaka Vadham". A cycle and later car and spare parts merchant of Madras, he was drawn to the new medium inspired by the films of Dadasaheb Phalke. With limited training and unlimited enthusiasm he promoted Indian Film Company Limited with a studio on Millers Road, Purasawalkam. He was the writer, camera operator, editor, producer and director of the historic film. The 6,000 feet long "Keechaka Vadham" was a success both critically and box-office-wise. The explanatory title cards were in English and Tamil written by the noted medical wizard, Dr. Guruswamy Mudaliar, and a college principal, Thiruvengada Mudaliar. The Hindi titles were by Devdas Gandhi, Mahatma's son. Mudaliar made more films with success, "Draupadhi Vastrapaharanam" (1918), "Lava Kusa" (1919), "Rukmini Satyabhama" (1922) and "Mahi Ravana" (1923). Sadly differences between him and investors, a raging fire in the studio, and the sudden death of his only son crushed Mudaliar and he shut shop.

R. Prakash (Raghupathy Surya Prakash Rao, 1901-1956), son of the man who brought movies to Madras, Raghupathy Venkaiah, brilliant cinematographer-technician and innovative filmmaker was the first South Indian to receive training abroad at Barker's Motion Picture Studio, London. He also went to Berlin and watched masters at work at the legendary German movie monolith, 'UFA' (Universum Film Aktien-Icsetteshaft). He made silent films and talking pictures in Tamil and Telugu. His father and he promoted 'Star of the East Studio' behind Roxy cinema (also owned by them) in which prominent persons like Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyer and Gocooldoss Jumnadoss were share-holders. A highly connected aristocrat with a kind and noble heart, Prakash trained a band of men who went on to create film history on their own, Chitthajallu Pullaiah, P. V. Rao, A. Narayanan, C. V. Raman, Jiten Bannerjee, R. M. Krishnaswamy, and Y. V. Rao. Prakash made many films and worked as cameraman for his disciples' films. His famed films include "Bhishma Pratigna" (1922), "Bhaktha Nandan" (1923), "Leile, Star of Mingrelia" (1931), "Lanka Dahanam" (1935), "Anaadhai Penn" (1938), "Chandika" (1940, Telugu) and "Maya Pillai" (1951, Telugu). He was such a creative and knowledgeable technician that in "Draupadhi Vastrapaharanam" (1934) he showed five Krishnas doing five different things in a single frame! An amazing feat done by the camera. And not even an optical printer was in existence then!

Ananthanarayanan Narayanan (1900-1939) hailed from Sivaganga and worked at first in film distribution for Bombay producers. It took him to Hollywood where he hobnobbed with legends of cinema like John Barrymore, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin and stayed as the guest of the icons of cinema, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford at their fabled mansion, "Pickfair". When Barrymore was seriously afflicted with arthritis he brought him for treatment to Malabar. After training under R. Prakash, he turned filmmaker and created history by establishing the first talkie studio in South India, "Srinivasa Cinetone (also known as "Sound City") in Lawder's Gate-Vepery area. Besides making silent films he also produced Tamil pictures like "Srinivasa Kalyanam" (1934, first Tamil talkie to be produced in a Madras studio.), "Rajambal" (1935), "Meerabai" (1936), "Tenali Raman" (1938). As a staunch patriot he made a film on the Gauhati Session of the Indian National Congress in 1926 under the Presidentship of the legal legend, S. Srinivasa Ayyangar but the Government banned its screening. He also made documentaries like "Venereal Diseases", a film far ahead of its time thus proving his pioneering spirit.

Raja Sandow (1894-1944), original name, P. K. Nagalingam) is one of the colourful figures in early Indian cinema. Silent film star, filmmaker, producer and all, he, a native of Pudukottai was one of the top stars of the Bombay silent film world during 1920's. A gymnast and physiculturist, his stunning physique and amazing feats of body power gave him the pseudonym 'Raja Sandow' and won him nationwide fame which took him to movies. He directed silent, Tamil and Telugu films in Bombay and Madras. His films include "Anaadhai Penn" (1929, he directed and also played the lead role.), "Parijatha Pushpaharanam" (1932, Tamil, made in Bombay), "Menaka" (1935, milestone movie in Tamil), "Chandrakantha" (1936, a sensation in its day, still talked about), "Minor Rajamani" (1937), "Thiruneelakantar" (1939, a M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar musical bonanza), "Choodamani" (1941, Telugu, he also produced it). And, "Sivakavi" (1943, he directed a good part of the MKT. Bhagavathar hit film, before he withdrew after a misunderstanding with the producer, S. M. Sreeramulu Naidu). After a long period of neglect M. G. Ramachandran as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister revived his memory by instituting the prestigious 'Raja Sandow Award' for outstanding services to Tamil cinema.

K. Subramaniam (1904-1971), lawyer-turned-filmmaker, is one of the sadly neglected pioneers of Indian cinema, and his contribution is outstanding. A Gandhian, ardent patriot and social activist he used cinema as tool of social protest and change. He attacked the evils in society during 1930-1940's in his films and never hesitated to kick at sacred cows of the obnoxious orthodoxy, middle class hypocrisy, demon of the dowry menace and ill-treatment of women. His films of such genre hailed as classic are "Balayogini" (1936, it introduced his niece, 'Baby' Saroja and her charisma and performance were so impressive she came to be hailed as the "Shirley Temple of India"), "Seva Sadan" (1938, it was the movie debut of the living legend and international celebrity, M. S. Subbulakshmi) and "Thyaga Bhoomi" (1939, his greatest achievement and much discussed and still remembered milestone movie was banned by the British Indian rulers as anti-British and pro-Indian Freedom Movement tract because of the heroine joining the Movement in the last reels!), "Kacha Devayani" (1939, the film which catapulted T. R. Rajakumari to stardom). He was also responsible for the establishment of South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce, and was associated with many organizations like 'UNESCO'.

A. V. Meiyappan (1907-1979) is one of the trio of South Indians who achieved Indian movie moguldom. The other two are S. S. Vasan and L. V. Prasad. Hailing from the then sleepy backwoods small town, Karaikudi and with little formal education but with plenty of dash and dynamism, creative fire and capacity to take risks, he fought his way against many odds to scrape the skies of phenomenal success. Gramophone records, film production in many languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Bengali and Sinhala, film direction, and other connected activities, Meiyappan blazed many new trails and created history by introducing playback-singing in South Indian Cinema ("Nandakumar", 1938, Tamil), and producing the first 'dubbed' film ("Harishchandra", 1943 from Kannada to Tamil). Besides Vasan he was the second Madras filmmaker to conquer the Hindi film world and establish the AVM-banner and image for clean wholesome, theme-rich, family-oriented movies. Besides directing, he produced many hits. The glittering gems are too many but mention should be made of some of them. "Bhookailas" (1939), "Sabapathi" (1941), "Sri Valli" (1945), "Nam Iruvar" (1947), "Vazhkai" (1949, it introduced Vyjayanthimala to movies), "Andha Naal" (1954, the first song-dance-less film of South India), "Bahar" (1951), "Chori Chori" (1956), "Bhai Bhai" (1956), "Bhabhi" (1957), "Kalathur Kannamma" (1960, the debut of Kamal Hasan), "Annai" (1962), "Server Sundaram" (1964, K. Balachander's debut as writer) and "Anbe Vaa" (1964). The man may be gone but the AVM banner flies high to this day...

L. V. Prasad (Akkineni Lakshmi Vara Prasada Rao, 1908-1994) was another Indian movie mogul of Madras who made his way up the ladder from the bottom to build an empire by sheer toil, tears, talent and toughened perseverance. Enormously successful film producer and a director in many languages like Tamil, Telugu and Hindi and owner of studios and film laboratories in more than one city in India. Prasad had the historic, unique and proud honour of being associated with and having acted in the maiden talking pictures in Hindi ("Alam Ara"), Tamil ("Kalidas") and Telugu ("Bhaktha Prahalada") in 1931 when sound came to Indian cinema. He played the lead role in many Telugu films and blossomed into a top multi-lingual filmmaker. He gave breaks to many artistes like N. T. Rama Rao, S. V. Ranga Rao, "Sowcar" Janaki and filmmakers Tatineni Prakasha Rao, K. Pratyagatma, Adurthi Subba Rao, and Yoganand. Films he directed and produced in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi are many. And include "Grahapravesam" (1946), "Drohi" (1948, the only film to be censored thrice for its alleged communistic propaganda content), "Mana Desam" (1949, it introduced N. T. Rama Rao in a supporting role as a Police officer), "Sahukaru" (1950, it introduced 'Sowcar' Janaki as heroine), "Samsaram" (1950), "Pelli Chesi Choodu" (1952), "Manohara" (1954), "Choti Behen" (1959), and "Bidaai" (1974). An icon and one man institution of Indian cinema.

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