Cinema Paradiso: A dive into the silent film history of Madras


The period was named after the famous Sangam academies of poets and scholars based in Madurai. At that time, Iyal, Isai and Natakam, or literature, music and drama, were considered the native art forms. Several centuries later, an Italian film theorist named Ricciotto Canudo around 1921 coined a term called the Seventh Art. He viewed cinema as a new art form that combined the previous six arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, and dance.

It could be said that the scholars of ancient Tamilakam might not have imagined in their wildest dreams that an art form which relied on such a degree of technology, which has its roots all the way to France, thanks to the Cinématographe of the Lumière Brothers cinematographic system, would emerge as a cultural edifice more formidable than the performing arts. Although it entered the party relatively late, cinema has become the most dominant medium of entertainment for the masses.

While many see cinema as an organic extension of the stage, the former has managed to take hold and in many ways overwhelm the vibrant theater culture that has prevailed in the region for hundreds of years. One feature that might be exclusive to Tamil Nadu and the once undivided Andhra Pradesh was the way movie stars, or more accurately heroes, were viewed not just as actors, but as a superior specimen to which one could even entrusting political power and the art of governing. . Over the past six decades, the region has witnessed movie veterans throwing their hats into the political ring on more than one occasion. Ironically, the origin story of cinema in Madras bears little resemblance to the larger-than-life phenomenon it has become today.

Madras’ very first tryst with the cinema took place in December 1896. Just before the dawn of a new century, a British photographer by the name of T Stevenson rented the famous Victoria Public Hall. Stevenson was the owner of the Madras Photographic Store, located on Mount Road and specializing in photographic equipment. He proceeded to announce three nights of splendid entertainment in the form of the “cinematograph”. He had curated a playlist of around 10 shorts and made sure to include two items that also had a local flavor.

The sequences involved horse races held at Guindy and a street scene shot at Mowbray’s Road in Alwarpet. These two regions have the honor of being the parts of Madras which were first filmed on celluloid. But alas, the Madras public was not sufficiently impressed. The Laterna Magica, an older model of image projector, which had been used for this projection, had been around for a few years. Stevenson didn’t really have any surprises up his sleeve for viewers. Additionally, a cyclone sat tenaciously near the Bay of Bengal and soaked the city to the bone. The newly constructed museum building at Egmore was also inaugurated at the same time. Free admission to the museum seemed more attractive to attendees because an overly optimistic Stevenson had priced tickets for his screening high.

Films on subjects such as Harnessing a Donkey seemed rather uninteresting for citizens to shell out a princely sum of Rs 1-3. Despite the cold reception, Stevenson continued his career as a showman in the Presidencies and the royal enclaves of Mysore and Hyderabad. However, a cinematic spark seemed to have been ignited among the locals. Other exhibitors soon began to hold screenings in tents. Swamikannu Vincent, a railway cartoonist and R Venkiah, a photographer, traveled India exhibiting imported silent shorts and in turn popularized the medium. It was not easy because the first cameras were bulky and the projector was also prone to malfunctions. The bulb inside the searchlight had the highest wattage for such a contraption. To avoid overheating, operators should space their projections sufficiently far apart.

Believe it or not, these precursors to popcorn and cola multiplex intermissions were events in themselves at the time. To keep the audience from agitating during breaks, theaters in Madras staged performances of dance, gymnastics, and even boxing matches during the intermission. The first decade of the 20th century saw the arrival of brick-and-mortar theaters, raising hopes that the industry might have a concrete future. One of the first centers of entertainment, an electric theater has now been transformed into a philatelic office on Mount Road and retains almost the same architecture. In 1911, George V (named after George Town, Madras) crowned himself Emperor of India in New Delhi. Anxious to record this moment for posterity, the British Raj sent a slew of photographers, and some of them stayed to explore the possibilities of entertaining the world’s greatest audience – with moving images.

Thus began a new era of silent films which would be produced in Madras and South India between 1916 and 1934. In 1916, R Nataraja Mudaliar, a businessman, who was in an independent spare parts industry automobiles, made the first silent film in South India. Mudaliar had met a photographer who had come to film the durbar, and had decided to make a silent film. Using a hand-cranked camera, which ate about 6,000 feet of rolls of film, he produced Keechaka Vadham (The Annihilation of Keechaka), a story from the mythological epic Mahabharata. Filming took place at a Kilpauk – India Film Company studio, although the film was developed in its laboratory in Bangalore. Five weeks were enough to complete the first Made in Madras film.

During her subsequent film career, Mudaliar could not persuade any Indian actress to play the role of the heroine. Subsequently, two of her heroines turned out to be Anglo-Indian, a phenomenon which also found an echo in the Bombay film industry. The golden age of silent cinema has just begun. Dialogue was written on title cards that appeared on screen between shots. For audiences who could not read, a human prompter stood next to the screen and read the dialogue. Gradually, this electric mode of overseas visual storytelling would engulf local art forms and change lives irrevocably.

The first films were all based on mythological tales and folklore. It was essentially a formula to circumvent the need for literacy or education to take advantage of this new mode of democratic entertainment, as opposed to the sophistication, context and even class, necessitated by other cultivated forms of the arts of scene. The trickle of silent films became a tidal wave when caste restrictions, a prerequisite for audiences in other art forms, were removed for moviegoers.

Silent films then began to reflect the machinations of modern Indian life, which included the struggle for freedom. The British government realized the impact of this mass media and introduced film censorship in 1918. In the 1920s, a silent film called Bhakta Vidur became the first Indian film to be banned. The Madras Presidency assumed that the film would arouse Indian outrage against the government and inspire them to follow the principles of non-cooperation. The reasoning was that the character Vidur wore a Gandhi cap and spun a charkha in prison.

A hundred silent films are said to have been shot in Madras in 15 years. The last one was made after the release of the first talkie or talkie titled Kalidas. The 1931 bilingual (Tamil-Telugu) film directed by HM Reddy was the first sound film in the Tamil and Telugu languages. It was also the first talkie to be made in a South Indian language. Kalidas had forever changed the rules of the game because each actor spoke in a language he or she knew. The heroine joked in Tamil, while the hero communicated in Telugu, and some others even preferred Hindi. The arrival of talkies also sounded the death knell for silent cinema.

During the wars, when the price of silver soared, most of the copies of early Madras silent films, which contained silver nitrate, were scrapped. Only one Silent Age film, made in South India, has survived – Raja Marthanda Varma, produced at Nagercoil. It would be another five decades before silent films reappeared, in the blink of an eye, and missed their appearance.

Pushpaka Vimana or Pesum Padam (in Tamil), a 1987 dark comedy written and directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, starring Kamal Haasan would prove to be a runaway success as a critical and crowd-drawing darling, and would win a national award from the best healthy Artist. Almost 20 years from now, Hollywood is experimenting with the silent format for the first hour of the animated show Wall-E, a nod to the comedic genius of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. And in 2011, French filmmaker Michel Hazanivicius would pull off a hit with his multi-Oscar-winning, half-silent, half-talkie, black-and-white film The Artist.

(L/R: R Nataraja Mudaliar, Venkatesh Ramakrishnan)


—References: The works of Theodore Baskaran and Sugeeth Krishnmurthy

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