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AVM, three letters that speak of Meyyappan’s perseverance

THE betal or vedalam is an ancient form of a ghost or ghoul in Indian mythology and folk tales.

AVM, three letters that speak of Meyyappan’s perseverance
Venkatesh Ramakrishnan (L) A collage of posters of the hit films produced by AV Meyyappan


Taking it one step further, playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar dreamt of a nether world, whose citizens were the ghouls, and created a play of the make-believe sort having the main human characters of his story venture into that world at the risk of their lives.

The play had great sets but with the coming of cinema came the chance of adding trick shots to make it really fearsome for the audience. A couple of decades later, AV Meyyappan, like any film producer of the 40s looking to theatre for theme inspiration, had decided to make a movie of it. But by then he had decided to move out of Madras Mandaveli Palace, where he had given previous hits. Nonavailability of steady power supply in the city was disrupting his shooting schedules.

Southern Devakottai in Chettinad was the second town in the State to be electrified completely, even ahead of Tiruchy. Meenakshi Sundareswarar Corporation, a joint-stock power company, had already electrified Devakottai. The company promised his studio a dedicated transformer and 50 kilowatts of power. That was very attractive to Meyyappan who started scouting for some land there.

The famed Rameshwaram boat mail did not touch Devakottai. It would stop at a place eight miles out in a station called Devakottai Rashtha or Devakottai Road.

The zamindars of Devakottai held the land adjoining the station. It even had a river – the Thenaaru (the river of honey) at one end. On it already was a huge stage erected by a Nawab Rajamanickam’s drama company and left undismantled.

Meyyappan took this land on rent agreeing to pay a rent of Rs 2,000 for the theatre and Rs 1,000 for the vast vacant site. He proceeded to construct 40 thatched sheds for rooms, toilets, messes and rehearsal rooms.

Meyyappan also made a momentous decision. Battling his partners had taken much of his creative energy till then. One set of partners had even sold a previous studio in his absence. All his movies earlier were under the Pragati banner. On Devakottai Road, he struck out alone and unfurled the AVM banner without any partners.

Vedala Ulagam was the first film he planned, but with the country fast approaching Independence, he needed a social film with patriotic messages. After Naam Iruvar he decided to make a fantasy film. Most of the directorial work was done by Pa Neelakantan but the credits were kept by AVM himself. Pa Neelakantan later had a meteoric rise in his career and directed 17 of MGR movies (including his last one) and some of the landmark Tamil movies with other heroes as well.

Since the story sequences were very repetitive in the screenplay, Meyyappan decided to spice it up with a variety. AVM also added some contemporary events to the script. A rishi in the forest even possesses an atom bomb. While the film was predominantly black and white, the last sequence was hand-tinted in colour. He decided to introduce pavalakodi drama (a play within the movie).

But of all, he concentrated on music and dance. And a dance within. He signed four dance contracts with the Travancore Sisters Lalitha and Padmini, after seeing their dance as part of Uday Shankar troupe in Museum Theatre. Their paambaatti (snake charmer) dance was an instant hit in the theatres. In addition, Kumari Kamala and Tara Choudary from Lahore danced. Remarkably, the movie, still remembered for its dances, was done without a choreographer. The choreographer was fired because he was demanding a pay packet several times larger than what Meyyappan had in mind. So the dancers were asked to perform what they are best at. And in a reverse-engineering, the steps were noted, music composed and words fitted for the songs.

Vedala Ulagam was the second movie to have Bharathiyar songs and there were three in it. Unlike the patriotic songs of his previous movie Naam Iruvar, the three were from different genres. Between the two movies, for the first time, a mass audience listened to the poet’s versatile portfolio in the nook and the corner of the Madras Presidency.

Even after the lead couple married and the actual movie ended, Meyyappan had a scene where the two sat down and watched Kumari Kamala dance ‘Theeradha vilayattu pillai...’ The song was sung by DK Pattammal, one of the leading Carnatic musicians of a later date.

The movie had posters in English as well, calling it The Demon Land. The movie was an astounding success and before the cash registers started ringing, the landlords demanded a hike in rent.

Anyway, AVM was tired of shooting the movie and sending the reels for processing to Madras by the boat mail on a daily basis. He had heard of a 10-acre evacuee property of a Muslim gentleman who had migrated to Pakistan. He picked it up and built the AVM Studio which became a landmark in Madras thereafter.

They dismantled the entire studio and brought it back to Madras by lorry and reassembled it. The shooting floor was a symbol of sentiment for AVM family for long and all new films were shot there.

—The author is a historian

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