Kalidas - The first Tamil talkie
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
CHENNAI: The technology of the talking film was preceded by the silent movie called Oomaipadam in Tamil. During the screening, a prompter would stand near the projection screen and explain the story to the audience frame-to-frame. Though such movies could not claim affinity to a language, in 1911 Keechaka Vadham, was shot predominantly with Tamil actors in Madras and hence is celebrated as the first film shot in Tamil Nadu.
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 episodesKalidas, a poet and a playwright is believed to have been supported as a writer by the king of Ujjain. However, his detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of Kashmir and the geography of the Himalayas lead to the speculations that he may have lived elsewhere. His surviving works consist of three plays and two epic poems. His personal story, however as popular as what he wrote. The story of a person without formal education is gifted by Kali to be the greatest creative writer of an era may have been cooked up, but has remained strongly associated with Kalidasa. His story has been retold in many versions across the country in several films. That the first talkie in Tamil should be his story is strong evidence of the popularity of his tale.
Kalidas (1931), is accepted as a Tamil movie but contained sufficient dialogues in Telugu and Hindi as well. While the heroine Rajalakshmi spoke Tamil, the hero Venkatesan spoke only Telugu due to his lack of fluency in Tamil, and the additional character LV Prasad spoke only Hindi.
Why was it a multilingual? There are tales that Irani was not sure if south Indian languages could sound well on the recording. Many historians, while refusing to acknowledge it as a Tamil film, call it the first multilingual film in India.
The director of India’s first sound film, Alam Ara was produced by Khan Bahadur Ardeshir Irani. The Parsi theater had created a great cultural awareness within his community, and it was no wonder one amongst them saw the potential of talking films. Irani visited London, to study sound recording.
The introduction of sound in the movie created a whole new trend unexpectedly. Shooting was done outdoors when the sun was bright. However, the natural sounds of the urban civilisation created a cacophony in the final product. Some early Tamil films even employed a crow shooter to send the birds scurrying. Irani realised the days of outdoor shooting were over and moved indoors. Architecture to create new studios, art directors to create sets, make-up to look better in, artificial lighting, all evolved. Kalki in his review in a popular magazine, describes the proliferation of wall posters for the movie. This was a new form of advertising a movie in Madras. Heroine Rajalakshmi, who was a silent movie and theatre star, became a singing sensation. Venkatesan was the hero and sang in Telugu. LV Prasad, who had the unique distinction of acting in the first talkies of three different languages of Indian cinema- Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil, acted as the temple priest and later became a star and director, and founder of Prasad Studios. At the end of his career, he got the highest award for a lifetime contribution, the Dadasaheb Phalke award.
Kalidas was shot in Bombay on the sets of India’s first sound film, Alam Ara, and was completed in eight days. The cost of filming was Rs 7500 and the film made 10 times as much at the box office. The film was released on Diwali 1931, in Kinema central (later Murugan Talkies) in St. Xavier Street of Mint area in George Town. Having screened Alam ara recently, they were equipped for the sound revolution in theatre. The lip synchronisation and the sound quality were bad and reviewer Kalki even suggests a throat operation as a rejuvenation for Rajalakshmi’s voice.
Other than the Carnatic songs of Thyagaraja, publicity songs about freedom and songs about Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhiyin Kai Rattiname) were added. Rajalakshmi, who appeared in gaudy costumes for other scenes, appeared in sparkling white khadar for this rather thoughtfully. Kalidas could be considered the beginning of cinema being used as an instrument of political propaganda. It didn’t take long for the British to realise how big a propaganda medium cinema was and introduce censorship.
While the silent movie was never a challenge for the thriving Tamil theatre, the moment it talked, it was a competition. Also, a brain drain from theatre commenced, as stage actors realised the huge potential it could offer their career. The silent movie soon became extinct. Two or three brave producers did release their silent movies after Kalidas, rather bravely. And there were many changes as Kalki explains, “The actor is the dictator. Unlike a drama where a poor singer could be booed out of stage (which usually happened) here nothing can be done.”
With Kalidas, the talking cinema had come to stay. It would cannibalise all other forms of art, become the omnipotent face of art, influence culture, fashion, and even politics in Madras.
— The writer is a historian and an author