75 years of Tamil film industry

These were the first ever words spoken in a movie, by actor Al Jolson in Warner Brothers’ ‘The Jazz Singer’. Four years later, the Tamil film industry carved out a niche for itself, creating a record when a Tamil film broke the silence. The first ‘talkie’ film was H M Reddy’s ‘Kalidas’.

From the ancient techniques of shadow play and story telling to speechless black and white films, the Tamil film industry had gone a very long way. But today, sitting comfortably in a cushioned chair watching those big screens at the multiplexes come alive with myriad colours and voices booming out of colossal speakers with DTS effect, the past achievements seem small. Fortunately or unfortunately, the past is very much a part and parcel of the present as is the future. We would not have probably reached this stage had the development and improvisations in the industry not been initiated such a long time ago. The Tamil film industry celebrates this year – 2007- 75 years of its impressive existence.

Speaking of the history of the Tamil film industry, the first movie in Tamil was made by Nataraja R. Mudaliar. He learned the tricks of cinematography at Pune and became the official cinematographer of Lord Curzon’s 1903 durbar. He set up a studio on Miller’s Road, Keelpakam with a second hand camera and financial help from S M Dharmalingam. He made ‘Keechaka Vadham’ inter-titled in Tamil, Hindi and English. He made ‘Draupadi Vastrapaharanam’ featuring an Anglo-Indian actress, Marian Hill, as Draupadi. In 1923, his studio was burnt down and his son died, prompting him to retire.

Then came Raja P. K. Sandow (1894-1942). A passionate gymnast, he started his career as a stunt actor in S W Patankara’s National Film. He went to Bombay and made silent movies. He became famous by the movie ‘Veer Bhemsean’. Returning to Tamil Nadu, he made many movies based on social reforms. Directing his first film, ‘Anaadhai Penn’, with R Padmanabhan, he embarked on a series of reformist social movies. He made ‘Nandhanar’, the story of an untouchable Hindu Saint. He was the first one to put actors’ names in the movie title. The Tamil Nadu government gives the ‘Raja Sandow Award’ for best movies, in memory of him.

T P Rajalakshmi was an actress, producer and the first Tamil woman director.

She learnt dance and music and made her stage debut under the tutelage of Sankaradas Swamigal, considered the father of modern Tamil theatre.

In 1936, she directed the movie ‘Miss Kamala’ (based on her first novel) and earned recognition as the first woman director of the Tamil film industry. She also acted in Sandow’s ‘Usha Sundari’ and ‘Rajeswari’.

T R Sundaram worked at Angel Films, then took it over and started the Modern Theaters Studio (1937) in Salem. He produced 98 films, including work by Duncan, C V Raman and T R Raghunath. He approached film making with a business-like attitude, importing foreign technicians for his debut ‘Sati Ahalya’ and also produced the first Malayalam sound film, ‘Balan’ (1938). He revolutionised the film industry by producing the first colour film in Tamil, ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum’, starring one of Tamil cinema’s most charismatic actors, M G Ramachandran, and in Malayalam, ‘Kandam Bacha Coat’. In memory of him, the South Indian Chambers Complex is called ‘Sundaram Avenue’.

Many a Tamil movie has set the cash counters ringing. Many have churned out ‘masala’ stuff and many others titillated an insatiable audience. But a few movies set the trend for many to follow, the impact on movie makers and the public being equally great. These trendsetters were a result of a good story line combined with brilliant direction and acting. Many such trendsetters were created not by veterans but by greenhorns, graduating from film institutes and farms! When the masses stopped flocking to the theatres, these movies pulled them in by the droves.

The first of these was, of course, ‘Haridas’ which ran for a record 768 days! Following closely was ‘Thyagabhoomi’ of 1939. Directed by K Subrahmanyan, this film was a watershed in the sense that it spoke eloquently about the prevailing social and patriotic scenario. ‘Nam Iruvar’ was screened in 1947. Even today some of the songs of in this film are standard fare on television and radio during occasions of national importance. This film comes down heavily on the evils of black marketeering and lust for money.

Krishnan-Panju-directed ‘Parasakthi’ of 1952 was a controversial and dialogue-laden film that spoke of rationalism. The film showed the hero as a rationalist, having great affection for his sister, almost murdering a priest who tries to molest her inside the precincts of a temple. Like ‘Nam Iruvar’, this film too depicts the rampant black marketeering of the time. M Karunanidhi, the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, penned the dialogues for this film, which were later released as an audio record. This film stressed the importance of dialogues for a film, and their delivery in an impassioned manner, epitomised by Sivaji Ganesan. It is to be noted that this was Sivaji’s first film, after several encore performances in stage dramas.

‘Devdas’ in 1953 introduced the concept of tragedy in movies, with the movie doing well in Hindi and Telugu which were filmed after the success of the Tamil version. In 1959, the Kollywood-produced film ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman’ won the “Best Movie” award at that year’s Afro-Asian Festival.

‘Kalyana Parisu’ (1959), director C V Sridhar’s debut, introduced a parallel comedy track that sent the audience guffawing. It set a trend by its brand of humour. Shobha’s stellar performance in the Durai directed film ‘Pasi’ (1979) won her a national award for Best Actress. She plays Kuppamma, a rag-picker, mouthing an almost separate dialect of Tamil, contemptuously called ‘Madras Tamil’.

Mani Ratnam’s ‘Nayagan’ (1987) tells the tale of an underworld don in Mumbai. This film is noteworthy for the way it was crafted Cinematographer P C Sriram and Art director Thotta Tharani added a new dimension to their respective fields. Kamal Haasan’s screen portrayal of the ruthless don won him the country’s best actor award and P C Sriram won the national award for cinematography and Thotta Tharani, for art direction.

In the technological aspect, the first film to have used the Dolby system was Kamal Haasan’s ‘Kurudhipunal’. Similarly, the first Indian film to have adopted DTS system was Abavanan’s ‘Karuppu Roja’. These are just two examples to show the advancements and accomplishments of Tamil films in Indian cinema.

The invention of L D Forrest, Movie tone helped record the sound on the edge of the film. In the recently introduced Super 35 mm technology, sound will be recorded on the image itself. This way, not only will the image have superior clarity, but the sound too would be crystal clear. Selvaraghavan’s ‘Pudupettai’ and Kamal’s ‘Vettaiyadu Vilayadu’ adopted this Super 35 mm technology.

The laurels the industry has won is too many to list.

‘Malli’, released in 1998, won the Golden Pyramid Best Film award at that year’s Cairo International Film Festival, and ‘The Terrorist’ won the same award in 1999. In 2004, ‘Virumandi’ won the Best Asian Movie award.

The 2005 release ‘Raam’ won both Best Musical Score and Best Actor awards at the 2006 Cyprus International Film Festival, and another 2005 release, ‘Navarasa’, won the Angel Independent Spirit Award and Best Supporting Actor awards at the Monaco International Film Festival. Now we have ‘Sivaji’ rocking theatres around the world!

Other memorable movies that made a mark were Rajnikant-starrer ‘Padaiyappa’ which ran for 200 days, grossing Rs 40 crore.

‘Ramana’, slated to be Vijaykanth’s best performed movie.

Mani Ratnam’s ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’, ‘Ghajini’ starring Suriya, Rajnikant’s ‘Chandramukhi’, Vikram’s ‘Anniyan,’ Kamal’s ‘Vettaiyadu Vilayadu’, K S Ravikumar’s directorial venture and Ajith-starrer ‘Varalaru’, ‘Guru’ by Mani Ratnam and now ‘Sivaji’, starring Rajnikant were all big budget movies that kept the audience glued to the screens.

The average annual film output in the Tamil film industry has risen steadily in the 20th century. The Tamil film industry accounts for approximately 1 per cent of the gross domestic product of Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, the Tamil Nadu government has made provision for entertainment tax exemption for Tamil movies having pure Tamil word(s) in the title.

This is in accordance with Government Order 72 passed on July 22, 2006. The first film to be released after the new order was ‘Unnakkum Ennakum’. The original title had been ‘Something, Something Unakkum, Ennakkum’, a half-English and a-half-Tamil title.

Tamil cinema’s glorious 75 years of existence is being celebrated in a gala manner all over the world with star nights and award functions in Singapore, Malaysia, the UK, US, Japan and many more countries all through this year. The fete kick started on August 6, 2007, in the hometown of the Tamil film industry, Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. With cultural events, competitions, celebrity performances, debates and discussions, star nights and award ceremonies, it would be a year to remember…