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From Naam Iruvar to Sivaji

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The evolution of Tamil films… from black-and-white family dramas to special-effects and blockbusters.

M. Saravanan of AVM Productions.
M. Saravanan of AVM Productions.

The actors realise that we are now doing business only because of them, and so demand higher payment.

R. Balaji
N. Ramakrishnan

Framed black and white photographs from films produced by them line a wall on the ground floor of AVM Productions’ office building, in Chennai. On another wall, pictures from the latest blockbuster Sivaji – the Boss, scream for attention. We are ushered into M. Saravanan’s office. More film memorabilia greet you as you enter his spacious office. Clad in his trademark white trousers and shirt, Saravanan of AVM Productions is courteous as ever. He calls for coffee and as we tell him the purpose of our visit — an insider’s view on what the entertainment industry was like at the time of Independence and the changes since then — Saravanan opens up. He acknowledges that he was a school-going boy then. He entered AVM — started by his late father A.V. Meiyappan 60 years ago — shortly after writing his school final examination. “I joined as a production executive. I will complete 50 years in the business next April,” says Saravanan, the third son of A.V. Meiyappan.

The first film produced under the AVM banner — before that Meiyappan had produced a few films under a different banner — was

Naam Iruvar

(We Two), which featured songs by the nationalist poet Subramania Bharathi. The film, released in January 1947, was a “thundering success.”

“Films then were targeted at women,” says Saravanan. The logic being that a woman would bring the entire family with her to the cinema. Now the challenge is to attract youth and the working class. This is the most significant change in films, apart of course from technology and astronomical budgets.

Excerpts:

What was is it like to make films in those days?

The pattern of making pictures has changed a lot. My father started his studio in Karaikudi. We recorded in real sound. We’d take people by train from Madras. The studio was near the station at Devakottai Road. All the material had to be unloaded from the train, which halted there for barely one minute. So M.V. Raman, Assistant Director to my father, would go to the guard, take the green flag, and give it back only after the artistes had got down and the material was unloaded. This would take two-three minutes. Father was running the studio on rented land. We had temporary sheds where we would rerd the audio too. There were thatched sheds for everyone, except the lead artiste, to stay.

We would write all the dialogues, rehearse during the day and shoot only at night so that the noise from the road did not get recorded.

For another movie, we created a huge cave in a shed. We did not have trolleys so we used our Baby Austin car, removed the seats and put a tripod in it and used it as a trolley. We had a hand lab where we’d develop the film immediately and see if it has come out well. It was all live sound, no dubbing at all.

Naam Iruvar

took six months to complete, mainly because we had to travel from Madras to Karaikudi and back. At that time, we used to have a boom mike for recording audio. There would always be a clash between the cameraman and the person doing the sound recording. The latter would move the boom down because sound was not clear and the cameraman would object and want it moved away as it came within the field of shooting. There is no such problem now, as the audio is dubbed in the studio.

Now actors from other languages are acting in Tamil films. So, we go for dubbing. Except for a handful of actors, we have only dubbing artistes for all others. The voices are all similar; if you go for a movie and close your eyes, you won’t know which actor is speaking. Those days, Padmini had a distinct voice, Savitri had a distinct voice… That is not the case now. There is a set of dubbing artistes who lend their voices to all the actors now.

What is the difference in experience between

Naam Iruvar

and

Sivaji

?

Earlier, we would perfect the script first. It would even take six-seven months. Production would be completed in three-four months. Everything would be timed to the second — how long a dialogue or movement takes. Now editing itself is different. They view six to eight frames before deciding which one is better. The gimmicks are the ones that attract audiences. For

Sivaji

, the total production time was 19 months.

If a full film requires 15,000 ft, we would shoot about 500 ft extra or 200-250 ft less. Now we don’t have a budget for completing a film. For

Sivaji

we did not have a budget at all. Earlier, we would fix the budget, even finalise the release date and the halls in which it will be released. As far as

Sivaji

was concerned, the director, Shankar, said the release date could be decided only after he has completed it. We did not fix a budget, the release date or finalise the theatre. All that was done in the last 15 days. Technology has improved because of which there are advantages, but the cost of production has also increased. There is a lot of computer graphics involved now.

Earlier, the budget would be fixed and monitored. There could be a 10-15 per cent variation. But nowadays if you control too much, directors are not willing to work with you. They want a free hand.

What was the budget for

Naam Iruvar

?

Can’t say exactly, but it was not even in lakhs. For

Samsaram Adhu Minsaram

(produced in 1986), the production cost was only Rs 15 lakh. As modern technology was adopted, production costs started soaring. Film length would at most be two times or three times – 24,000-36,000 for a film 12,000 ft long. But for

Sivaji,

3.25 lakh ft was exposed for a movie that was 17,000 ft long finally. On

Samsaram Adhu Minsaram

, they worked for 35 days and exposed 34,000 ft of film. However, modern technology gives us the richness as in

Sivaji

and we are able to release it on a global scale.

How were films funded then?

We mostly used our own resources and borrowed from friends. After one successful film, distributors were prepared to fund the next one’s production. I started producing films from the 1980s after my father’s death and only recently have we started borrowing from banks. We used to get money from the distributors, they had faith in me. We never had any problem. Because the cost of production is a little high, we have started taking bank finance. When I announced a film and said I have finalised the details, distributors would be ready to fund me.

Between then and now, what would you consider are the landmark changes?

First, sound. Then there are lot of changes in camera. First was the black and white era. Then colour, cinemascope, DTS and computer graphics. Earlier, indoor shooting required lighting that occupied so much space. Now even small lights provide good illumination. Thanks to high-speed films, we are able to get the impact with lesser light. These are the major changes. When it was in black and white, for a house, we would create a set. We need to actually show a house now. Earlier we had paper flowers for a garden, but these will show up in colour. We have to go to the actual location. The theatres are posh and the rate of admission has gone up. Then the highest was Rs 2.50 and the lowest was 4¾ of an

anna

(less than 30 paise). We would wonder whether the lowest-class ticket buyers would like the movie. That was the benchmark then. If they didn’t like a movie, they discouraged others waiting in queue from watching the film. What that class says is what mattered. Keeping them satisfied was important. Women viewers too were important then, and we had to satisfy them. Now, we are not concentrating on them at all as they are glued to the small screen. The emphasis is on attracting youth and working classes. In those days, if a woman liked a movie, she would bring her entire family with her.

Then, we would finalise the story and decide on the artiste. Now, we see which actor gives us a call sheet and then get the appropriate story ready.

Until the 1960s, 35-40 prints was considered good. Now we need a minimum of 100 prints, because of piracy and alternative entertainment. For some films, the producers did not even release the song records. They said if they want to listen to the songs, let them come to the theatre. After 1975, changes have taken place and in the 1990s, after satellite television came, things have undergone an even bigger change.

What are the challenges?

The cost of production is going up. The actors realise that we are now doing business only because of them, and so demand higher payment. Wages are increasing. Cost of production is ballooning and recovering that cost is a problem. About 15 per cent of the cost went towards artistes then. Shooting expenses and films accounted for bulk of the expenses. Now 60-65 per cent goes towards artistes and technicians. Now they talk in crores.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 15, 2007)
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