SS Vasan was a true showman in every sense and a true believer in the spectacle of cinema. Vasan believed that films were meant to entertain and were meant to be catered to the ordinary man. Colossal production values, huge sets, mammoth dances, thousands of extras, unusual ‘items’ were hallmarks of his films.
Born Thiruthuraipoondi Subramanya Srinivasan Iyer on March 10th, 1903, he hailed from Thiruthuraipoondi in Tamil Nadu, South India. Following the death of his father when he was very young, his mother, a Sanskrit scholar, relocated from Narimanam village back to the place of his birth. To fulfil her ambitions for him, he came to Madras (now Chennai) to study at Pachaiyappa’s College. However, he discontinued his studies before graduation and then started an Advertising Agency, one of the first to be started by an Indian. With the revenue he earned, he bought a small printing press and launched Ananda Vikatan, a popular weekly in Tamil Nadu that continues to be printed even even today.
Vasan got involved with films when his serialized novel, Sathi Leelavathi, was made into a film in 1936. Sathi Leelavathi was the first film of not just Vasan but also other legends of Tamil cinema like the American born director, Ellis R Dungan, the hero, MK Radha, character actor, TS Balaiah, and of course, the great MGR! The film ran into legal issues when another film, Pathi Bhakthi, released the same year also had the same story. Ultimately, it was found that both films looking at the hero being tempted into the world of vices were based on Mrs Henry Wood’s story Danesbury House!
In 1938, Vasan took over distribution of films of the Madras United Artists Corporation. Three years later in 1941, he made good use of opportunity when there was a fire in the studio of the Motion Picture Producers Combine in 1940. Like most studios in India it was uninsured because no insurance company would take the risk. The partners, by now at odds with each other, decided to sell the charred premises. Vasan bought the land, did some rebuilding, and launched the production company, Gemini Studios. During the war and the years after, the firm dabbled in a variety of films including a mythological, a stunt film and even a love story or two as it came out with films like Mangamma Sapatham (1943), Kannamma En Kadhali (1945), Miss Malini (1947) and Apoorva Sahodarargal (1949).
However, Vasan’s big break was when he entered the Hindi market with Chandralekha (1948), also made in Tamil as Chandraleka. The bilingual film, a lavish costume drama, marked Vasan’s directorial debut and and was one of the most expensive films of its time. The film looked at two warring brothers, one good (MK Radha) and one evil (Ranjan), who fight over their kingdom as well as the love of the heroine, Chandra (TR Rajakumari). Apart from its huge mounting, some breathtaking circus sequences (added midway into the film’s making), and dazzling sword fights, its spectacular pre-climactic drum dance is remembered even today. 603 prints of Chandralekha were made at the time and was even released in the United States as Chandra with English subtitles. The film, its two versions costing over 30 lakhs in those days with an incredible amount of over 12 lakhs thrown in for its publicity, smashed box-office records earning a total gross figure of 1.55 crores! Vasan had truly arrived and how!
Following Chandralekha, in the late 1940s and ’50s, Gemini Pictures came out with films both in Tamil and Hindi. His well-known Hindi films include Mr. Sampat (1952), Insaniyat (1955), Raj Tilak (1958) and Paigham (1959). While Insaniyat was a remake of the Telugu hit, Palletoori Pilla (1950), Raj Tilak and Paigham had their Tamil counterparts in Vanjikottai Valiban (1958) and Irumbu Thirai (1960), both also produced and directed by Vasan.
Vasan also managed some unique casting coups in his time such as Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand acting together in Insaniyat. Not satisfied with getting India’s two mega stars in one film, he also imported a star chimpanzee from Hollywood, Zippy, for the film at a huge cost. Incredible publicity was done around Zippy, the comedy track of the film was increased to make maximum use of him. The film suffered with this change in the script but the two superstars and Zippy brought in the crowds in spite of mixed reviews from critics, who did feel though that more than the humans, it was Zippy who stole the show. But then Vasan never minded tweaking his films, no matter what stage of production it was in, if he felt there was a fresh thrill or ‘item’ he could add to better it. In Raj Tilak/Vanjikottai Valiban, yet another swashbuckling costume drama, he managed another coup getting Indian cinema’s two best dancers and bitter rivals, Vyjayanthimala and Padmini, dance off against each other, one of the most memorable dance competitions in Indian cinema.
Of all his films, Mr Sampat is arguably Vasan’s best work qualitatively. The film is based on RK Narayan’s book Mr Sampat: The Printer of Malgudi, which came out in 1949. Vasan turned it into a broad burlesque film and used it successfully to lampoon politicians, ex-princes, journalists, film stars, religious zealots and bogus philanthropists. To his credit, Vasan handles the satirical elements of the film extremely well, making the film delightfully irrelevant and thoroughly amusing. The film also saw a delightful performance by Motilal as the fast talking conman.
In 1958, expanding his business, Vasan established Gemini Colour Laboratories and believed in establishing the Film Trade on professional lines. As a filmmaker, post 1960, his films were largely family melodramas (Gharana (1961), Grahasti (1963), Aurat (1967) and Teen Bahuraniyan (1968)) though his last film, Shatranj (1969), starring Rajendra Kumar and Waheeda Rehman was primarily, closer to his older films, an escapist entertainer.
Vasan was the President of the Film Federation of India for two terms and was even nominated to the Rajya Sabha. He was the given the Padma Bhusan by the Government of India in 1969, the year of his death – he passed away on August 26th, 1969. Gemini Pictures declined in the 1970s although it remained successful as a studio and in the equipment rental business.
Header photograph courtesy Mohan V Raman