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 were his hallmark.
Born Thiruthuraipoondi Subramanya Srinivasan Iyer on March 10th, 1903, he hailed from Thiruthuraipoondi in Tamil Nadu, South India. He came to Madras (now Chennai) to study and then started an Advertising Agency. With the revenue he earned, he bought a small printing press and launched Ananda Vikatan, a popular weekly in Tamil Nadu 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 American born director Ellis R Dungan, the hero MK Radha, 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. 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 was really preparing his big post-Independence break. He entered the Hindi market with Chandralekha (1948) – also made in Tamil – a lavish costume drama. The bi-lingual film 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 and one evil, who fight over their kingdom as well as the love of the heroine. Apart from its huge mounting, some breathtaking circus sequences, and dazzling fights, its spectacular climactic drum dance is remembered even today. 603 prints of Chandralekha were made at the time and the film was even released in the United States as Chandra with English subtitles. Vasan had truly arrived and how!
In the 1950s, 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 or setting up the two best dancers of Indian cinema then, Vyjayanthimala and Padmini, in a terrific dance off against each other in Raj Tilak, one of the most memorable dance competitions in Indian cinema.
Of all his films, Mr Sampat is arguably Vasan’s best work. 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, filmstars, 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 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