Thanks... for the memory!
The Hindu's coverage of Hollywood films owes a lot to the help it received from knowledgeable people in the trade and discerning readers. ANAND PARTHASARATHY acknowledges...
WHEN THAT classic war film "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was revived in 1987, 30 years after it was first made, with a new print and a digitally restored sound track, The Hindu marked the occasion with a nostalgic piece on the Friday entertainment page then part of the main newspaper. The idea was to carry stills from the film as well as photographs that described how the film was made by David Lean in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known in those days.
This rare photograph dating back to 1958 brings together three stalwarts of the foreign film scene in Chennai P. R. V. Iyer of MGM (extreme left), N. Naganathan of Warner Bros. (extreme right) and S. M. Narvekar of 20th Century Fox (in a suit), flanked by the garlanded Japanese filmmaker Shiro Kido and A. V. Meiyappan of AVM Studios.
With the assignment to do this story and a week in which to do it, I turned to the only person who could help: P. S. Kannan, Agent for Columbia Films in Chennai and a man with an almost photographic memory for cinema stills that had passed through his hands.
"I am almost sure we had a few production stills of the film," he told me. Together, we went to the Columbia godown in the Devi theatre complex where Kannan moved hundreds of dusty packets of publicity material.
It took over two hours but Kannan's recollection proved dead right: he located the parcel wrapped in a torn `one sheet' poster of the film and inside, we found a precious set of the original lobby cards - as well as a few rare photos of William Holden shaving in the open air; Alec Guinness and David Lean taking a very English tea on that Sri Lanka location... The Hindu splashed a few of the photos with the write-up and once more we could offer a compelling piece of cinematic nostalgia.
Kannan belonged to a breed of foreign film distributors that has almost vanished lovers of cinema first, and sellers later, they were each, authorities on the products of the companies they represented, with encyclopaedic knowledge of every film (actor and director included), they distributed. He came to Chennai after half a lifetime in Kolkata where he represented the now defunct Rank Film Organization.
"The Guns of Navarone", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Mackenna's Gold"... he had a story to tell about every Columbia hit over a span of half a century and when The Hindu brought out a special `Folio' supplement on Cinema, I was privileged to retell some of his reminiscences. He died earlier this year (on March 14) at the age of 72. And those infallible eyes? They were donated to the Rotary Rajan Eye Bank in Chennai.
Kannan's generation of foreign film distributors in the South included veterans like the late P. R. V. Iyer of MGM, N. Naganathan of Warner Brothers and S. M. Narvekar of 20th Century Fox, who came south to set up regional offices here in the pre-Independence days. Narvekar, who passed away in 1985, served Fox for over 45 years till he retired in 1976.
Today his son Sunil carries on the family tradition of informed handling of Cinema products he is in charge of the Chennai Warner Bros office. He took over from another seasoned lover of Cinema: S. N. Netravali, now enjoying retirement in Mumbai.
After Narvekar Senior, Fox was headed here by two other firm friends of The Hindu : T. C. Krishnan and D. Rangarajan.
Krishnan's tenure was a period when Fox represented many other Hollywood studios in India, including Paramount, MGM, United Artists and Disney. We knew him as `same hour Krishnan' call him with a request for any information or material about one of his films and the item reached the desk in The Hindu by a bicycle messenger within the hour. He completed a half-century with Fox before he retired in 1992.
M. Rangarajan, his deputy who took over, was a worthy successor. When a new James Bond Timothy Dalton came on the scene in 1987 this paper carried a front page picture feature in the Sunday Magazine. Thanks to Rangarajan, who made available stills and notes for every single Bond film and every actor who ever played 007, starting with "Dr No". Those were days before Internet and there was no quick way to access information about old Hollywood classics. Stalwarts like the late Kannan; as well as Rangarajan, Krishnan and Sunil Narvekar, who are happily still around in Chennai, were our live data bases and many a Hindu cinema story depended on their egoless and anonymous cooperation.
Shortly after Rangarajan demitted his office, Fox wound up its 60 year-old office in Chennai. A new generation of hard-nosed management-degree-waving distributors has taken over. Surely those simple minded cinema `premis' of an earlier era would have been out of place in the new scheme of things.
Away from the main distribution centres like Chennai, The Hindu in its many printing centres over the decades, was also to draw upon the knowledge and resources of enlightened exhibitors who shared a common love of English language cinema and saw in the newspaper a means of bonding with the larger audience of Hollywood fans.
They had theatres to run as viable commercial enterprises; but by assuring that at least one outlet in major towns exclusively exhibited English films no matter how thin the audience at times, they served at least two generations of Indian filmgoers.
When "Chariots of Fire" won the Best Film Oscar and three other Academy Awards in 1981, there was keen interest among Indian cinema fans to see the film. But many exhibitors gave the film a miss because of its poor ``box office potential."
Srinivasa Shenoy, managing partner of the Shenoys group of theatres in Ernakulam had his doubts too. But he agreed with his nephew, Gopalakrishna Shenoy ("Raju") that the group could not live with the reputation of turning down an Oscar Best Film.
They had a large theatre Sridar which was Kerala's first air-conditioned theatre when it opened in 1964 and which has always featured English films since then. But the group also owned a mini theatre in the Shenoys Vistarama complex and duly scheduled "Chariots... " for a week. As Shenoy Sr., feared, it attracted hardly any crowd. When this writer went to see the film in mid-week, there were just five of us in the hall outnumbered by the projectionist and the gate staff. But the film was run as charted.
Earlier this year Sridar was reconstructed reducing the seating by half and turning the released space into a food court.
Shenoy's son Suresh who joined Raju to launch the Shenoys Cinemax distribution business seven years ago, is determined to keep alive Ernakulam's only exclusive cinema hall even if it means subsidising it with restaurants and take-aways.
Residents of the twin cities of Secunderabad and Hyderabad, have to thank `Dolly' Misra of Sangeeth and Faiz of Skyline respectively for keeping the foreign film tradition alive through good days and bad. The demography around Skyline in what was once the `royal' quarter of Basheerbagh changed with the years, but it remained the only place to see great Columbia fare. Misra had a similar arrangement with Fox and Paramount and extended the reach of the films he exhibited by leasing additional halls across the twin cities.
Great family films were invariably preceded by a free preview for schools and their teachers and the entire Misra family was on hand to greet their guests and hand out refreshments to the children.
In the Andhra heartland, it has been the Poorna group that ensured the availability of English films in places like Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Tenali.
While the Ramamurthy family (currently A. R. Prakash is in charge) made sure that Kozhikode got Malabar's first 70 mm theatre system at Crown and never lacked for `first run' English films, it was `Maryland' Subramaniam who kept at least one theatre in Thiruvananthapuram's Sree Kumar/Sree Visakh complex always available for Hollywood fare.
In Bangalore, the Plaza with its prime location across the Army parade ground on what is today MG Road was a theatre for the English speaking elite ever since the brothers A. S. Krishnamoorthy and A.S. Rajamanickam Velu built it in 1936, after visiting Britain to see what a classy cinema palace should look like.
After Krishnamoorthy passed away in 1964, his son A. K. Anantha Narrain and other family partners continue to preserve Plaza's heritage look even as they upgrade the technology. Rex, round the corner on Brigade Road, is another well loved destination, one on which Kamal Kapur lavished attention for decades as it showed some of the biggest films from Warners, Fox and Columbia.
When Chennai's Anand theatre was opened in 1964 by G. Umapathy, K. Kamaraj was the chief guest. The theatre made film history on many occasions it screened "Enter The Dragon" for 54 weeks.
A few years ago, the theatre was converted into a kalyana mandapam, but rising like a phoenix on August 15 this year, it is once more a cinema theatre, for the 21st century.
Delhiwallahs for decades had only one option if they wanted to see an English film go to Chanakya in the middle of the diplomatic enclave. It boasted of one of the finest theatre systems of its day and people thought nothing of travelling 50 km to and fro to see a Hollywood blockbuster. Then the Bijli family put Priya on the English cinema map and lately created a whole new audience by morphing into the multiplex business.
If the paper over the years was supported by hitherto anonymous stalwarts like these, it received support of a different kind from its readers.
One instance spanning decades deserves to be recalled in The Hindu's 125th year. It was in the early 1980s that this correspondent received the first of many letters from a reader K. Viswanathan. It pointed out a mistake in one of my Friday pieces: It was not James Stewart in Hitchcock's "North By North West" and Cary Grant in "Vertigo" but the other way around, the letter pointed out. When the letter to the Editor was forwarded to me for my comments, I acknowledged the error and also wrote a personal note to the reader. It was to launch a correspondence that flourished for the next 20 years.
Viswanathan had apparently seen every single Hollywood talkie film ever made. His letters commented on every single piece I wrote on the Hollywood classics and often my judgment was politely questioned. But almost every letter ended with a line that Bob Hope immortalised: "Thanks for the memory."
In the late 1990s, Viswanathan wrote less frequently he had little taste for the more recent `blockbuster' cinema. But whenever we carried a tribute to a star of yesteryear, he had his recollections to share.
K. Viswanathan ... personifying reader's loyalty.
In early July this year, I came to Chennai for a day's work with The Hindu. That evening, I decided to try and look up my faithful correspondent if I could. For 10 years his address had been Sumathy Flats, New Boag Road, T Nagar.
I found the place and Viswanathan's flat was on the top most floor. I had no need to ask for him: the door was open and he was asleep on a cot in the front room, a shrivelled old man covered with a thin sheet. But hearing the sound of my coming, he opened his eyes and the old Viswanathan I knew from a hundred letters was there. Hearing me announce my name to his sister-in law who tended him, he stretched out his arms and took my face in his hands. He could hardly see but wanted to "feel' the guy who had shared his love of Hollywood all these years.
He became bedridden four months ago and was then off all medication. I told him that Bob Hope had crossed 100 (he died a week later) and Katherine Hepburn had died. He has not been able to read his The Hindu for six months now, I was told. But his razor sharp mind was intact. We exchanged memories of Hepburn classics till the effort of talking tired him. I left after a half hour barely able to keep back my tears, promising to come back.
P. S. Kannan ... a cinema lover and distributor.
Two days after I left Chennai, Viswanathan died in his sleep. I read the brief notice in the obituary section of The Hindu of July 8. He was 91 when he passed away a day earlier. It is from the notice that I learnt that he was a retired Bench Clerk of the Madras High Court.
I only knew him as the most knowledgeable person on English Cinema I have ever met and a man whose contributions by way of countless letters to the paper enriched my own knowledge and indirectly what The Hindu carried over the years.
Thanks for the memories and all the help given over the years.
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