In the early years of sound cinema, when recording technology was in its early stage, actors used to sing songs while filming their scenes and musicians played instruments live on the stage. Both the songs and the music were recorded live using only one microphone which was kept away from the frame.
Those were the times when drama artistes adept in music and dance were naturally drawn to the newfound celluloid medium. However, very little is known about the films made during this period.
Tirupur Akila Vijayakumar’s new book Tamil Cinema Ulagam- Part 1 (1931-1940) (Tamil Cinema World – Part 1) is a treasure trove for cinema lovers, as it takes a dive into the early years of the industry, documenting the silver screen world in detail. With details on films, songs and lyrics apart from the artistes, the book delves into the tiny details about Tamil movies — several of which were unheard of.
Vijayakumar travelled about 15,000-odd kilometres from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu to Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh and Palakkad in Kerala and Puducherry for over a decade to research on the topic. When he completed documenting about two-third of the films made during the period, he had already completed over 400 pages of the book.
“I wanted to do the complete exercise because I thought the future generation should have a reference for the earlier works. Being a music buff, old songs have always fascinated me. The book is an extension of that interest,” he says.
The first volume comprises songs, posters, lists of the actors and actresses, music composers and lyrics. “I have also put together details about the different kinds of movie advertisements in Tamil and English,” he says.
As many as 238 films released during that time and about 100 of them were silent films. The films were largely commentaries on society or were based on mythology and history. Interestingly, in certain instances during this period, two separate production houses used to make films on the same storyline with different titles. At least 16 such movies have been made during that time, like the ones on literary figures like poet and dramatist Kalidas, which was also the first sound film in Tamil-Telugu and Bhakta Prahalad, and historical films like Sarangadhara, et al.
With a lot of emphasis on music, about 6,000 songs were composed in total during that period but only 400 found a place in the films. “A film on an average had about 50-60 songs, but only 10 of them were picturised. My work is an attempt to document all the songs,” he says. He also notes that every record label had a distinct feature — be it HMV or Columbia — and has presented the pictures of these in the book.
The period, which also saw the advent of talkies after the silent era, witnessed the entry of some legends. He says, “The debut film of MKT Bagavathar, Pavalakkodi (1934) was actually based on a drama by Sankardas Swamigal. It had songs written by Papanasam Sivan. I have tried to distinguish between their contributions by identifying them and attributing it specifically to them.”
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A good part of the plays by stalwarts like Swamigal and Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar were like a movie screenplay, so it was no wonder that they were sought after to be made into films during those times, notes Vijayakumar. He believes that the movie will be immensely useful for researchers.
The book has been published by Manivasagar Pathippagam. Other volumes on Tamil films till the 1990s will be published separately by the writer soon.