A 19-year-old youth with a sprouting moustache made his debut on the silver screen as a cop in Sathi Leelavathi, a film made in Coimbatore in 1936. The role was hardly noteworthy. However, 18 years later, he played the lead role in Malaikkallan. Produced by S.M. Sriramulu Naidu of Coimbatore’s Pakshiraja Studios, the film turned out be a blockbuster hit for the hero Marudur Gopala Ramachandran or MGR.
“Kalaignar Karunanidhi wrote the dialogues. The Telugu remake, Aggi Ramudu, had N.T. Rama Rao in the lead. All the three, who worked in the studio, went on to become Chief Ministers,” notes Rajesh Govindarajulu, historian and Coimbatore chronicler.
Between 1935 and 1960, filmmaking flourished in Coimbatore, largely led by two studios — Central and Pakshiraja. The buzz of ‘clap boards’ and ‘rolling cameras’ has fallen silent at Pakshiraja located on Puliakulam-Sungam Road. The sprawling four-acre property, with abundant greenery and many building units, has become a commercial space. A part of the studio, which had 30 rooms, each with an attached bathroom, a lab for processing films, and an in-house canteen that doled out special menus for artistes, has been converted into a hall that can be rented for weddings.
“The studios had apartment units for stars. Hindi actors, including Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari, stayed here during the making of Azaad in 1955. Some of these units are rented out as warehouses. A registrar office still functions out of one of the buildings that retains an old-world charm,” explains Rajesh.
According to him, the studio also had an in-house projection theatre, a carpentry department to make movie sets, a team of masons, a beauty salon and a mini zoo complete with a tiger (procured from a circus for a mythological movie). An installation of the studio’s logo — a snake-eagle grabbing its prey with talons as it rests on a globe — is kept intact on the premises, a reminder of a time when fleets of cars would be parked outside the studios and the place was abuzz with activity as dialogues were recorded on the sets.
Sriramulu Naidu (1910-1976) was a movie mogul who played a key role in the development of cinema in south India. His father Munuswami Naidu, who worked as station master with the South Indian Railway Limited, after retirement started Davey & Company in 1932, a bakery on leased premises on Bank Road opposite Coimbatore Railway Station. Sriramulu Naidu joined him after completing his intermediate course in college. He excelled in baking cakes, doubled up as carpenter, and was a workaholic, a quality that helped him run Pakshiraja Studios like clockwork during the later years.
In his early 20s, this young ‘baker’ joined the elite Coimbatore Cosmopolitan Club to socialise with industrialists, and later turned filmmaker. “It was a time when films were mostly made at studios in Bombay or Calcutta. He joined Premier Cinetone Studio in Coimbatore and established lifelong friendship with R.K. Ramakrishnan Chettiar (brother of independent India’s first Finance Minister R.K. Shanmukham Chetty). He, along with Sriramulu, C.N. Venkatapathy Naidu, S. Bheemiah Chetty, and P.A. Raju Chettiar, founded Central Studios in 1936 at a 17-acre property near Singanallur,” explains Rajesh.
However, their first film Bhakta Tukaram (1938), featuring Carnatic musician Musiri Subramania Iyer as the hero, opened to a lukewarm response. Sriramulu Naidu started Pakshiraja Studios in 1945. His grandson Rajiv Srihari fondly recalls how Sriramulu put MGR on the big league with Malaikallan. “The film also won the President’s award, a first. He remade the film in five languages, which was unheard of,” he adds.
Pakshiraja’s Ezhai Padum Paadu (1950), directed by K. Ramnoth, is a milestone, says S. Theodore Baskaran, film historian. “Over 6,000 films have been made in Tamil Nadu from 1931 onwards, but this film features among the top 10 great films of all times in the National Film Archives. It was a fine adaptation of the French literary masterpiece Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. N. Seetharama, a lawyer-turned-actor, who gave an impressive performance as the tough police inspector, Javert, came to be known as ‘Javert’ Seetharaman for the rest of his life. The film, set against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle, captured the period flavour effectively,” he observes.
Sriramulu Naidu used the latest technology in filmmaking. In one of his films Jagathalapradhaban, actor P.U. Chinnappa appears as five images in a single shot, a visual effects technique that was replicated by the legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan in Thiruvilayaadal after 20 years. The BNC Mitchell — one of the best cameras (it cost ₹5 lakh then and was one of the only three in India) — rolled at the studios.
“Along with Gemini and AVM (Chennai) and Modern Theatres (Salem), Coimbatore’s Pakshiraja and Central Studios feature among significant film studios of Tamil Nadu,” says C.R. Elangovan, who has authored 15 books on Coimbatore’s history.
“Pakshiraja Studios is unique as all the films that rolled here were made by Sriramulu Naidu,” says V. Jeevananthan, author of award-winning books on cinema, including Thirai Seelai and Oru Beedi Undo Sakhavey. He made 20 films, starting with Kanniga in 1945, followed by noted movies such as Pavalakodi, Maragatham, Kalyaniyin Kanavan and Sabarimalai Sree Ayyappan, one of the first mythological movies on Lord Ayyappa.
The song Kunguma Poove Konjum Puraave from Maragatham is remembered even today for Chandrababu’s singing and his extraordinary dance ‘stunts’. Kalyaniyin Kanavan (1963), starring Sivaji Ganesan and Saroja Devi, is counted among the last big films shot at Pakshiraja. Soon, as Chennai took over as the cinema hub, Sriramulu Naidu acquired the Bobbili Raja Palace in Bangalore and established Chamundeshwari Studios in 1970 and continued making films there.