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The textile engineer who took Tamil film industry to new heights
In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes
When they sent the young boy to Leeds University, London, the plan was to train him to run the family’s textile business in Coimbatore. But spinning tales and weaving screenplays were not what his family bargained for. Nor was returning with a British wife part of the plan. Once back home, Thiruchengode Ramalingam Sundaram went about setting up Modern Theatres Limited, a joint stock company, and changed the fortune of film industry – much before Madras became the nerve centre of cinema.
Modern Theatres was literally a filmmaking machine, churning out 118 films in less than 50 years. These included not just Tamil but also Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and Sinhalese films. They even made an English film, The Jungle, in partnership with an American producer and had well-known Hollywood stars, Rod Cameron, Caesar Romero and Marie Windsor.
It not only produced voluminously but in great shades of variety. Balan, produced in 1938, was the first Malayalam film. The first Tamil colour film was theirs – Ali Baba and 40 Thieves.
Sundaram created facilities required for production, including shooting floors, recording theatre, film processing laboratory, post-production facilities, vast costume and prop department, under one roof. Always immaculately dressed in a suit and bowtie, and bowler hat in public, he also ran it with a factory-like precision. He was not just a nominal proprietor, but was involved in every foot of film shot there, even directing most of them.
The company worked on tight budgets and schedules, announcing the release date in advance and ensuring to adhere to it. Dealing with an erratic industry, Sundaram believed in the safety of numbers and spread the risk by choosing stories from a wide assortment of genres. No two Modern films were ever alike.
Sundaram was accused of behaving like a medieval feudal lord. All were woken up at 4.30 am, given coffee and asked to pray. Work started at dawn and went on till 4 pm, with breaks for food. There would be only one chair in the entire hall for the boss, everyone else would have to stand before him. He was known to replace actors who came late to work. But in spite of all that, writers, technicians, and actors came to work on monthly salaries and they were provided steady work in return.
He was a talent-scout and reinvigorated men of talent who had lost their confidence. When PU Chinnappa, one of the superstars of Tamil talkies, faced a series of failures and returned home contemplating to be an ascetic, Sundaram offered him Utthama Puthiran, one of the first films in India that had the hero playing double role.
So many prospective writers and actors, many of them who later became super stars, found their footing in Modern Theatres.
Kannadasan, who became the most sought after lyricist in the Tamil film industry, and M Karunanidhi, the acclaimed scriptwriter, cut their teeth here. Ellis R Duncan, the American director, set the tone for much of cinematic conventions in Tamil cinema and introduced many innovations like the trolley and scientific makeup in Modern studio.
When the government limited film length to 11,000 feet during the World War, other movie moguls threw up their hands in exasperation. But not Sundaram. Not only did he comply with the 11,000 feet rule but also made propaganda films for the war effort. In one such film, Burma Rani, sportive Sundaram acted as Colonel Bakinja, a cruel Japanese general with a Hitler moustache.
One thing was predictable in a film it produced: entertainment for the common man. Racy screenplays and straight-forward narrations with great poetry posing as songs supported by melodious music, rich dances and a great humour track defined its films. Tamil cinema owes much to Modern Theatres for spearheading its development.
—The author is a historian