How old is Tamil cinema? When was it born?
An automobile spare part dealer, Nataraja Mudaliar, was so fascinated by moving pictures when he watched them in Madras that he decided to make films himself. He traveled to Pune, sought and met Steward Smith, a cinematographer of the British Government and learnt film making. It took only a few days to learn to handle the primitive camera operated by hand cranking. Returning to Chennai he set up a studio, India Film Company in Kilpauk and made Keechakavatham/The Destruction of Keechaka the first Tamil film in 1916. The characters spoke Tamil: However, sound in film had not been invented yet, so what they spoke was written in cards that appeared on the screen between shots: The viewers, instead of hearing, read the dialogue. For the benefit of those who could not read, a man stood near the screen and read the dialogue aloud. Soon a few other studios were set up in Madras. In the following eighteen years, nearly 110 Tamil silent films were produced.
In Madras, there were at least three studios regularly producing films. The leading company was General Pictures Corporation, known as GPC, founded by A Narayanan. It was here that many of the later directors and actors of the talkie era had their initial training. It was a school for filmmakers. Many films were based on stories from the Puranas, like Machavataram (1927). There were also films from folk lore such as Peyum Pennum/The Devil and the Damsel (1930). Some were from the epics, like the film Kovalan (1929). A few socials also came out:the film version of Vai. Mu. Kothainayaki Ammal’s novel Anadhai Penn/Orphan Girl (1931) was directed by the legendary Raja Sandow. These films were reviewed in contemporary Tamil magazines.
No cinema in the world disowns its silent era. That is where the roots of any cinema lie. Every cinema in the world, be it French or German, glorifies its silent films and count its own history from the silent era. Much of Charlie Chaplin’s films, including the classic, The Gold Rush, a silent film are part of American film history. Russian filmmaker Eisenstein’s unforgettable silent film Battleship Potemkin is almost a symbol of Russian cinema. The rules of film grammar were formed during the silent era. It is alike a childhood of a human being.
There were some pioneers in Tamil Nadu who had made ‘short’ films, even before Nataraja Mudaliar’s Keechakavatham. Marudamuthu Moopanar, a land lord from Thanjavur, filmed the coronation of King George V in 1911 in London and screened it in Chennai. When the first airplane landed in Island grounds, he filmed it.
To say that Tamil cinema is 75 years old is not only a mistake but it disowns a precious heritage of the industry. It was the pioneers of the silent era, like Nataraja Mudaliyar, and A Narayanan who laid the foundation for Tamil cinema. Hopefully, when we celebrate the centenary of Tamil cinema in 2016, we will remember these pioneers.