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Those Were The Days: How a Tamilian ‘Cecil B DeMille’ straddled the worlds of magazines and film production
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
SUBRAMANIAM Srinivasan (January 4, 1904 – August 26, 1969), fondly known by his screen name SS Vasan, has the distinction of being known as one of the first movie moguls in India. He was the founder of the Tamil vernacular magazine Ananda Vikatan and the film production company Gemini Studios, Gemini Film Laboratories and Gemini Picture Circuit. During his celebrated career, the multi-hyphenate had donned the roles of a journalist, writer, advertiser, film producer, director and business tycoon. He was also a Rajya Sabha MP from 1964 and served his term until his passing.
Vasan was renowned for his penchant for lavish production values, big budget sets, top-draw ensemble star casts and the introduction of innovative filmmaking techniques. Imagine the tenacity of a man in post-independence India, in the nascent age of cinema, who could pull off a sequence with as many as 2,000 extras, house two circuses for a period of two years in his studio or even introduce a chimpanzee in a film because he thought Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand didn’t endow the script with the necessary tempo? He has rightfully been described by the film historian Randor Guy as the Cecil B DeMille of India.
Before Vasan could enjoy the fruits of his labour, he had to start right at the bottom of the pyramid, as a mail order salesman. Vasan had arrived in Madras with his widowed mother from Thiruthuraipoondi to study in Pachaiyappa’s college. An aggressive salesman, he discontinued his studies to start his own business even before he was twenty.
As one of the pioneers of the mail order business in India, Vasan’s business model involved importing over 32-odd products for a rupee. These wares included bobby pins, soaps, combs, toys and dolls, cosmetics and accessories that arrived in India by sea from newly mechanised factories in Europe and Japan. Soon enough, Vasan found he was good at this business.
During the 1920s, when the freedom struggle had begun gaining momentum in India, the nation was beset by several tragedies, thanks to Britain’s occupational policies. Man-made famines and plagues had wiped out significant chunks of our population. Amidst all the doom and gloom, a gentleman named Budalur Vaidyanadhaiyar attempted to infuse some much needed mirth into Tamil society, through the publication of a monthly vernacular satirical publication in 1926. The magazine was called Ananda Vikatan (literally translated as a jovial jester) and its annual subscription was priced at just Rs 2.
Luck did not favour Vaidyanadhaiyar, as many of his potential subscribers who evinced an interest in a year-long subscription changed their minds when the postman stood at their gates with the very first copy of the magazine. Something was lost in translation, but Vaidyanadhaiyar stood his ground and called out the ‘treacherous’ subscribers by publishing their names in the next issue of the magazine. Financial woes finally caught up with the publisher who was now being berated by those who had paid for advertisements in the magazine. One of those advertisers, who also doubled up as an ad agent and collected advertisements in journals, was the young and enterprising Vasan. He had paid fully for an advertisement in Ananda Vikatan for the issue dated December 1927, but was surprised that the publication had not hit the news-stand even after a month. When a visibly perturbed Vasan visited the publication’s office to enquire, Vaidyanadhaiyar said he had run into financial trouble and was clueless on taking the magazine forward.
And while Vasan attempted to offer some direction to Vaidyanadhaiyar to help salvage the situation, the latter had already made up his mind to employ Vasan under his wing and help with the marketing of the magazine. When Vasan made it clear that he would never work under someone, Vaidyanadhaiyar changed the course of his negotiation and offered to sell the magazine to Vasan.
In January 1928, Vasan acquired the rights of the publication from Vaidyanadhaiyar and relaunched the publication a month later in a revamped format. He paid the publisher Rs 200 (equivalent to Rs 39,000 or $510 in 2020): at the rate of Rs 25 per alphabet of the Tamil language name of the publication. Vasan moved his office to a grander location on Mint Street and purchased printing equipment as well. He cut the subscription rates by half, pushed the magazine as a weekly and sales soon rose. Vasan introduced interactive components like crossword and mathematical puzzles for which prizes were awarded.
Vasan got one of his big literary breaks in the early 1930s he formed a kinship with a new writer named Kalki Krishnamurthy in whose works he saw great potential. Realising that quality of humour in the magazine could be improved upon, he reached out to Krishnamurthy, who was writing part-time from the Gandhi ashram at Tiruchengode. Krishnamurthy was also yearning for an outlet for his creative energies. The collaboration of these two unique thinkers opened up the floodgates of a renaissance, and the tidal wave swept up Ananda Vikatan to the echelons of literary space. It was said that at one point, Krishnamurthy was the highest paid sub-editor in India and perhaps the only one who had been provided a car for commuting by a publication.
Vasan also was an assured writer of episodic novels, although he once admitted that he drew heavily from western novels. His novel Sathi Leelavathi was picked up by a film company for Rs 200. Released in 1936, the film, directed by a débutante Ellis Dungan, was a commercial success and it would be known as the debut feature film of to-be-Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. Buoyed by this success, in 1940, Vasan subsequently purchased a film studio called Motion Picture Producers Combine and christened it Gemini Studios. The company made several successful films in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi from 1940 to 1969, including one of the most expensive films of the black and white era – Chandralekha.
On the literary front, Vasan would also go on to translate a risqué English marriage manual, titled Thirty Three Secrets to a Successful Marriage into Tamil. The publication couldn’t really be termed salacious by any stretch of imagination, since it even contained pointers on having a smooth relationship with the mother-in-law. However, when he sought out a leading editor named Ra Chokalinga to review the book, the latter outrightly refused it on account of the obscene nature of the book. Vasan in turn directed Chokalinga to say exactly the same in his review, knowing fully well that it would boost the sales.
In 1933, a short-lived English version of his Tamil publication was launched under the title The Merry Magazine and it employed the likes of RK Narayan. As Vasan found himself entrenched in the world of publishing, he began flexing his clout and began hiring some of the best of writers in the business. Over 90 years later, and with several magazines in its kitty, the publication house has mentored hundreds of renowned writers, artistes and media personalities in South India.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to admit that Vasan heralded a new phase in the worlds of vernacular publishing and Kollywood as we know it today. One might even consider it ironic that the literary periodicals promoted by him have survived the internet era while his dream factory, the film studios have been subsumed by the sands of time. But it is worth remembering that India would have been robbed of the prolific output of Vasan, had it not been for an advertisement for a mail order despatch that failed to make it to the pages of a magazine.