The sombre melody of a clarinet is accompanied by the drone of a tanpura in the background, as the bold letters ‘AVM’ on the word ‘Productions’ slowly come into close-up on the screen. This music has been a staple in the households of many in Tamil Nadu since the advent of television in the 1990s, particularly among middle and upper-middle class families.
Wherever and whenever this signature music is heard, one can immediately identify it with AVM Productions. The company, which was founded in 1945, eventually became an iconic presence in the South Indian film industry. AVM earned a reputation for producing films that appeal to audiences of all ages and are considered family-friendly. While it may have slowed down in producing films in its fourth generation, as compared to earlier times, it still remains a highly desirable brand under which many filmmakers crave to create their films.
It was AV Meiyappan Chettiar’s business acumen that led to the establishment of the production house. While many may recognize the AVM brand solely as a film production company, its entrepreneurial origin story has remained largely untold. The newly opened heritage museum in Chennai, situated on the premises of AVM Studios in Vadapalani, aims to provide visitors with insight into the entrepreneurial struggles Chettiar faced prior to entering the film industry.
A provisional store less ordinary
The origins of the AVM brand can be traced back to ‘AV & Sons Stores’, which was established by Avichi Chettiar, the father of Meiyappan. This store was not the typical kind of provision store one can find even today in rural areas, which are mostly owned by the Nadar community. Running a provision store was seen as a deviation by the friends and foes of the Chettiars or Nagarathars, as they were and still are mostly identified as a banking community.
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Avichi’s store was a precursor to modern-day departmental stores. In addition to household essentials, the store sold cycle spare parts, film rolls, car batteries, car tires, distilled water, and more. The store’s popularity was such that it even gave calendars to customers free of cost as early as 1917. As time passed, the store expanded its offerings to include Baby Austin cars and gramophones sourced from Karaikudi, a small village at the time.
Selling gramophone records
Following his father’s footsteps, Meiyappan ventured into new types of business. He was the first to introduce tube lights and rolling shutters in Karaikudi, with the shutters being imported from Germany. Accompanying his father whenever he came to Chennai to purchase materials for their stores, Meiyappan established contacts with various business houses in the city, particularly with recording companies.
“In those days, the gramophone record industry was dominated by HMV and Columbia. The AV & Sons had bought the distributing rights from these companies to sell their records in Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Trichy, Tirunelveli and Pudukkottai districts. However, Chettiar had the idea to not just sell these records, but to produce their own. This motivated him to move to Chennai,” writes author Rani Mainthan in his 2002 book Appachi, a biography of Meiyappan.
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He, along with his partners KS Narayana Iyengar and Sivan Chettiar, who both valued the arts, founded Saraswathi Stores on Mount Road (now Anna Salai), Chennai, in 1932. Through this venture, they signed an agreement with the German-based Odeon Recording Company and produced their own records, which included not only film songs but also film dialogues. A set of film dialogue records was called the ‘Drama Set’, and many rich and upper-middle-class families owned records like ‘Kovalan Drama Set’, ‘Ramayana Drama Set’, etc., which were considered status symbols at the time. Some of these records can still be found in the museum.
Meiyappan’s Gandhi connection
As a serial entrepreneur, Meiyappan’s business ventures extended beyond the film and recording industry. He was also involved in the car business. In September 1930, he entered into an agreement with Ford Motor Company to serve as its dealer for Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram districts.
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It was around this time Mahatma Gandhi paid a visit to Karaikudi and Meiyappan offered him a brand new Ford car from his office for the former’s use. “Yes, he gave Mahatma Gandhi a brand new car for travelling when the latter was in Karaikudi. But we don’t know whether my great grandfather had actually met Gandhi. Unfortunately, we don’t have the photos of that car either,” Aruna Guhan tells The Federal.
Meiyappan seemed to have a special affinity for cars. When he founded AVM Productions in his hometown Karaikudi, he repurposed an Austin car as a trolley for film shoots. He removed the doors and seats for filming purposes and then reassembled the parts to use the car as intended once the shooting was completed.
Though the museum does not have those cars in its collection, it does have a smorgasbord of other cars that were used by celebrities such as MGR and SS Vasan of Gemini Studios, as well as cars used by Meiyappan himself and in films produced by AVM. Additionally, the museum features posters of some of the earliest films produced by AVM and film instruments such as cameras, recording units, and editing machines.