Coimbatore produced some memorable movies in the 30s, 40s and 50s. M. ALLIRAJAN traces the rise and fall of filmmaking in the city.
GUESS WHERE the super hit Malaikallan starring M G Ramachandran and Banumathi was shot? Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai?
"You think of all these cities. But, it was shot in this very Coimbatore," recalls an old-timer with a sense of nostalgia.
Once the bastion of Tamil cinema, Coimbatore saw the likes P U Chinnappa, M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (MKT), T R Mahalingam and M G Ramachandran staying in the city and shooting for movies.
Most of their initial movies were produced in studios based in Coimbatore, one among the first places in the country to boast of film industry.
"They all used to reside here. The former Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, came to our studio for writing the dialogues," reminisces Dr S Srihari, son of Sriramulu Naidu, who founded studios.
One needs to rewind over 60 years, 1936 to be precise, to know how the film industry flourished. Long before Coimbatore earned a name as an industrial city, there was a `mini Kollywood' here, led by two studios -- Central and Pakshiraja. Movies were then shot largely in studios. Outdoor shoots were virtually unknown. There was a reason for confining shooting to the studios. "The cameras and equipment were too big to be carried. So, 90 per cent of the movie was shot in the studio. You had to be a studio owner to produce movies in those days." S M Sriramulu Naidu started Central studios in 1936 at Uppilipalayam, near Singanallur. Says Dr. Srihari: "My grandfather wanted him to become a lawyer. But, he discontinued his studies and went into the hotel business. The contacts developed there helped him start these studios."
Filmmaking was then a relatively new concept and a lot of money went into setting up a studio. Nothing could be hired; everything had to be bought, including the costumes. Also, studio owners had to be all-rounders. In most cases, they were the directors and producers and also looked after editing and saw through the rushes.
The Central studio was a partnership venture with R K Ramakrishnan Chetti (brother of India's first Finance Minister R K Shanmugham Chetti). Sriramulu was the working partner. The studio also had a music department headed by S M Subbiah Naidu. It's BNC Mitchell camera cost a whopping Rs. 5 lakhs and all the artistes were paid monthly salary. In those days, a person was signed on for the lead role only if he or she knew singing, and diction was paramount.
Sriramulu encountered problems even with his maiden venture Thukkaram. The film, with Musiri Subramaniya Iyer playing the lead role, was released in 1937 to a lukewarm response. The partners decided to go their own ways, but Sriramulu ran the show by borrowing. The Second World War brought its own share of trouble for the fledgling studio. The sound engineers and cameramen were all Germans and were arrested after the outbreak of hostilities. Luckily, their assistants took charge.
"Vasan visited our studio and then set up Gemini studios in Chennai," Dr Srihari recalls proudly. Central continued producing movies, which included box-office hits like Sivakavi with MKT playing the lead and Jagadhala Pradhapan featuring P U Chinnappa and Arya Mala. In 1944, Sriramulu moved out of Central and started Pakshiraja studios at Puliakulam in 1945. One of the major ventures of Pakshiraja studios was the multi-lingual movie it made in the mid-50s, cutting across language and geographical boundaries. The studio produced Malaikallan, featuring the star pair of MGR and Banumathi, in Tamil, Aggiramudu in Telugu with N T Rama Rao and Banumathi, Azaad in Hindi with Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari, Tushkaraveeran in Malayalam, Bettadalli kalla in Kannada and Surasena in Sinhala.
Azaad, the first Hindi movie to be made in the region, was shot in just three months in three schedules lasting 20 days each.
Leading stars MGR and Banumathi were paid a princely sum of Rs. 20,000 each. For the Sinhala version, the artistes came in from Ceylon (as it was known then).
How viable was filmmaking in the good old days? "There was no cutthroat competition. Studio owners timed the release of movies in such a way that it did not affect others' prospects. Everyone did not try to release the films on Deepavali and other festive occasions," Dr. Srihari recalls.
The glorious days did not last long. Soon, Chennai overtook Coimbatore when it came to making films. "Most of the artistes were from Chennai. As studios were opened in their own city, they found it difficult to travel to Coimbatore for shoots. The dates also clashed and soon Chennai became the hub of cinema," he explains.
The Gemini studio, which opened in Chennai in 1939, started the trend. AVM too shifted its base from Karaikudi to Chennai. With the establishment of Vahini studios in Chennai, the concept of studio-owners producing movies changed. The floors of the studio were rented out and even those who did not own studios made films.
However, Sriramulu turned into the vanguard of Coimbatore's studios, making films off and on. Finally, bowing to the diktat of the times, he transferred his equipment to the newly built Chamundeswari studio in Bangalore in 1968, which was also owned by him. With this, the glorious chapter of studios and filmmaking in the city came to an end.
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