Lights, camera, politics

Book: Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema Author: Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai Publisher: Sage India Price: ₹1250

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How the Dravidian movement is linked to the AVM Studio and, especially, to the smash hit of yore — ‘Parasakthi’

When AV Meiyappan was busy with the production of Vazhkai in 1949, the DMK was formed, and its activists were particularly busy as writers and playwrights. In February 1949, two films written by Annadurai, the leader of DMK, were released and both elicited strong reactions from the people and the press: Annadurai’s play Velaikkari, written for his friend and fellow party member KR Ramasami, was made into a successful film by Jupiter Pictures, a major producer of Tamil films in the 1940s and 1950s, and Annadurai also wrote the screenplay and dialogue for Nallathambi, adapted from Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), for the actor-producer NS Krishnan.

Meiyappan, looking for a subject for his next venture, came to know about Annadurai’s successful play Ore Iravu (One Night), which was staged successfully in Thanjavur for more than 100 days by KR Ramasami; Meiyappan saw the play and decided to adapt it for his next film. Annadurai charged ₹10,000 to adapt his play for the screen and came to the AVM Studios and wrote the screenplay of 300 pages in one night: Ore Iravu, though invoking Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), was far removed from the Capra film due to its focus on a thief who unexpectedly meets his father, who had abandoned him a long time back, when he goes to steal.

Tamil tradition

However, in Ore Iravu, the Dravidian rhetoric of equality and rationality of his earlier scripts was missing as the focus was on entertainment.

But for one song, the film used a poem by Puratchi Kavignar (Revolutionary Poet) Bharatidasan, Thunbam Nergaiayil Nee Yalheduththu Nee (When you’re sad, won’t you play the Yal/ lute), which extolled the Tamil tradition, and invoked ‘Tamil God’ Thiruvalluvar to provide clarity during confusion, and advocated playing the ancient Tamil string instrument in times of profound sorrow.

However, Ore Iravu, released on July 14, 1950, was not as successful on screen as on stage. It was at this juncture that PA Perumal, who had earlier distributed Meiyappan’s Naam Iruvar, Vazhkai, and Vethaala Ulagam wanted to produce a film in collaboration with AVM Studios.

Meiyappan and Perumal saw the play Parasakthi, written by MS Balasundaram of Dravidar Kazhagam (Dravidian Front) — the original party from which the DMK was born — and staged by KN Rathinam’s Boys Company.

When Meiyappan and Perumal saw the play, they were highly impressed. Perumal, a staunch Dravidian movement activist, wanted M Karunanidhi, the writer of the hit film Manthiri Kumari (Modern Theatres, 1950), to write the dialogues.

So following his leader Annadurai, the Dravidian ideologue Karunanidhi was also frequenting the AVM Studios in the early 1950s writing the dialogues for the film to be adapted from Balasundaram’s play.

When it came to casting, Meiyappan wanted to cast the then popular star KR Ramasami, who was the hero of his earlier film Ore Iravu, and the highly successful Nallathambi, which had dialogues by Annadurai.

However, Perumal insisted on casting new theatre artist Sivaji Ganesan, whom he had seen in a female role in the play Noor Jahan, staged by Sakthi Nataka Sabha run by Sakthi Krishnaswamy. Though Meiyappan went and saw the play, he had his doubts but finally caved in to Perumal’s insistence: Meiyappan was wondering whether a thin young man known for his female impersonations could carry the burden of playing the lead in a big film: VC Ganesan, who started his career in theatre at the age of 10, was well known for his female impersonations; his role of Sita in Ramayanam catapulted him to a celebrity status.

Later in Noor Jahan, Ganesan, now popular as Sivaji Ganesan, played the main role of Noor Jahan, and had grown long hair to look more natural in the role.

Perumal, however, was keen that Sivaji Ganesan should play the role of Gunasekaran, the protagonist of Parasakthi, and Meiyappan, who normally bet on successful plays and their tested themes, though impressed by the narrative of Parasakthi, was not fully convinced, yet he reluctantly agreed to the choice of Sivaji Ganesan as the hero, as the film was his studio’s collaboration with an outside producer.

According to Tamil cinema scholar Venkatesh Chakravarthy, this was the first instance of a Madras studio offering its facilities to an outside producer: Perumal as an outside producer could only have his share of the profits after AVM Productions, which had paid for the story rights and held the negative and distribution rights for the film, subtracted all its expenses, including the payments for artists and technicians and the rent for its production facilities, from the box-office collections.

Studio culture

On the other hand, if the film were to fail at the box office, Perumal as the producer would be fully responsible for the loss. For the studio, such an arrangement enabled its facilities and personnel to be continuously utilised; for instance, the legendary cameraman Maruthi Rao, who was the cinematographer of Parasakthi, started his career with AVM as a still photographer and moved on to become the cinematographer in Ore Iravu.

Similarly, the gifted music director of Parasakthi, R Sudharsanam, responsible for many of the hits of early AVM films, was on the studio payroll along with his team of eminent singers like MS Rajeshwari.

On the other hand, for Perumal, this arrangement offered him an opportunity, given his experience in distribution, to produce a film that was driven by his particular interest in the Dravidian agenda and to cast the actors he was interested in, though the financial equation was loaded against him. Parasakthi, which went onto become a watershed in the history of the Dravidian movement and the Tamil cinema, thus exemplifies the vision of an independent producer who was willing to take an enormous financial risk for his passion.

Political discouse

Parasakthi was released on Deepavali Day — October 17, 1952. It ran for a minimum of 50 days in all the 62 centres it was released, and in Ceylon it ran at the Mailan Theatre for almost 40 weeks. The huge success of Parasakthi attains significance in the context of the stiff competition Tamil films faced from Hollywood, Hindi, and Telugu films in the 1950s.

The controversies surrounding its release contributed to the initial interest of the audience; MSS Pandian’s detailed essay on Parasakthi analyses the film in the context of its status as a transgressive DMK film in the cultural milieu of the social élites who were generally Congress Party sympathisers.

His astute analysis of the Dravidian politics-driven text points to its anti-Brahminical, anti-Congress, and pro-Tamil nationalistic character, and he focuses on the controversies surrounding the release and reception of the film in 1952 to underscore the film as prefiguring the coming days of consensual politics of the DMK in Tamil Nadu.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai is an assistant professor at Michigan State University. He is a graduate of FTII, Pune and is an accomplished documentarian whose films include Thangam, The Indian National Army, and Villu. His recent documentaries are Unfinished Journey (2012) and Migrations of Islam (2014)

Extracted from the chapter, ‘AVM and Gemini Studios: The Dravidian Movement and the Competing Narratives’. With permission from Sage India

Published on April 05, 2015