CHENNAI : In the early 40s, the sound of bugles played on screen meant only one thing — a movie produced by the famous Gemini Studios. Founded by Subramaniam Srinivasan, known by the screen moniker SS Vasan, the film studio has produced several films including the epic Chandralekha (1948) and Avvaiyar (1953). In a talk about ‘the boss’ of Tamil cinema, historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan gives us a peek into the life of the man who was hailed as the ‘Cecil B De Mille of India’, by film historian Randor Guy.
Before entering films, Vasan set up a flourishing mail order business, possibly one of the first in India. “It was like the Flipkart of today. For `1, you would receive close to 32 to 144 articles, consisting of various trinkets,” he says.
In the late 1920s, he purchased the Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan from Pudhoor Vaidyanadhaiyar and relaunched it. It went on to become one of the leading magazines in the Madras Presidency. “He revamped the magazine and introduced crossword puzzles and serial stories in it. Vasan also started an English humour magazine called The Merry Magazine,” says the author-cum-historian.
“He followed a rigorous marketing strategy which eventually saw the emergence of the magazine as the best selling Tamil magazine of the time, with a readership of close to 30,000,” he shares. About seven years after the relaunch, Ananda Vikatan became the first Tamil magazine to be advertised in British periodicals.
Among Vasan’s several qualities was his ability to spot and nurture talent. One of his most popular finds was Kalki Krishnamurthy, who not only went on to become one of Ananta Vikatan’s assets but also a doyen in the literary world. “He and Vasan created history and remained very close friends. Kalki later left Vikatan to take part in the freedom struggle,” shares Venkatesh.
Vasan stepped into films when his novel Sathi Leelavathi was made into a movie in 1936. “Though Vasan was a late entrant, he made his mark in films,” he asserts. AV Meiyappan, SS Vasan and B Nagi Reddy were the three giants who ruled the roost. “Gemini studios used to work on three shifts and 24 hours a day. S Radhakrishnan stayed in a house opposite to Vasan’s. He says that he used to hear the car leave Vasan’s house in odd hours. Vasan used to work 22 hours a day!” he exclaims.
Talking about the production’s Magnum opus Chandralekha, he says that Vasan decided to add circus scenes in the movie to make it more engaging. “This was decided when the movie production was midway. Horses, lions, tigers and elephants were all over the set and about 100 elephants were hired for a specific scene,” he shares. It was one of the most expensive films to be made in India.Vasan believed that films were meant to entertain people and he strived till his end to deliver it. “He introduced film marketing to the cine world and never compromised on the entertainment value of his films. He is a man who reflects the 1920-1970 period,” he adds.