Seeing the recent success of big-budget South Indian movies like Bahubali, RRR, Ponniyin Selvan and the publicity blitz surrounding them, a North Indian journalist friend messaged, "you guys, finally seem to have conquered the Hindi parts of the country".
"Finally?", I messaged him back. "What do you mean finally? The frontier was won 75 years back itself. Heard of Chandralekha, the costliest movie at that time, which was a bigger hit in Hindi than Tamil?"
It is a pity that my journo friend had not even heard of Chandralekha, which was released in 1948 and is among the biggest pan-Indian hits ever.
Chandralekha was no mere film, it was a tour de force from the legendary SS Vasan, who brooked no spending and would make today's flamboyant directors like SS Rajamouli and Sankar look conservative in comparison.
SS Vasan, who founded the illustrious Gemini Studio (now in a slightly different name and with the LV Prasad family, who was another pioneer from the South), was a man with an ambitious vision that contrasted with his humble and conservative beginnings in Thiruthuraipoondi in Thanjavur district.
Born into a family of modest means, Vasan also endured the tragedy of losing his father when he was just 2-years-old. Every-day living was a struggle for the family, and because of which Vasan could not even complete his graduation.
He tried to get into railways as some sort of clerk, but could not manage the security deposit that was needed to get the job.
But just as well. For, the enterprising and enthusiastic Vasan stumbled on to the field of advertisement space selling for publications in Madras. His aggressive and innovative approach made him successful.
He also founded a mail order business, possibly one of the first in India. A precursor to Amazon and Flipkart, if you will, as you would receive close to 32 to 144 articles, consisting of various trinkets for rupee one.
Vasan & Kalki: A slap in the face of Dravidians
Vasan also had the punter's eye for backing the right horse (no surprises that he was later a noteworthy race horse owner).
Vasan even as he was making impressive strides as an ad executive was looking for new business opportunities. And this made him pick a small-time Tamil magazine that was in strife at a cost of Rs 200 (Legend has it that he paid Rs 25 for each alphabet of its name).
He soon made the magazine flourish, and to this day it remains a top brand in the Tamil media industry — the magazine of course was Ananda Vikatan.
The things that he did with Ananda Vikatan was remarkable for his understanding of both art and business. He brought in an then obscure writer named Krishnamoorthy, who went on to become a legend in the field — of course, he became well-known with the name Kalki Krishnamoorthy (Kalki being the name of the magazine that he started after quitting Vikatan).
On the business side, Ananda Vikatan was the first Tamil magazine (and possibly the first-ever Indian publication) to be advertised in British periodicals.
The man who helped Vasan pull this coup was Sadasivam, who went on to marry M S Subbulakshmi.
Thanks to the ads in publications like Times, many British principals of Indian companies took note of this grand new title from distant Madras and issued instructions to their local managers to pay attention to Vikatan.
The stories of the likes of Vasan, Kalki and Sadasivam also, in a sense, give the lie to the Dravidian claim that the Brahmins were well educated and had a head- start.
The trio had no great education and at least two of them came from families that were even struggling to come up with one decent meal for the day.
The three succeeded because of the indomitable attitude and an ability to think positively in adversity.
The birth of Gemini Studio
Anyway, thanks to the spectacular triumphs with Vikatan, Vasan finally had money to match his buccaneer's spirit.
He soon ventured into film distribution and financing through his new company named: Gemini Pictures Circuit.
Later in 1941, when a financially struggling film studio came up for grabs through court auction, Vasan adroitly moved in and bought the studio that was on Mount Road. Thus was born the legendary Gemini Studio.
Vasan's connection to the film world began in 1936 itself when one of his serialised novels --- yes, he was adept at writing, too — was made into a film. The film was Sathi Leelavathi, which of course is now more widely known for being the movie in which a spindly M G Ramachandran debuted in the role of a police inspector.
Gemini Studio could establish itself as a name to reckon with quite early itself as its first two films — Balanagamma in Telugu (1942) and Mangamma Sabatham (1943) — were smashing hits collecting profits over Rs 4 million. Vasan was now dealing with money that was unheard of.
Buoyed by such staggering triumphs, he announced Chandralekha (its official spelling, Chandraleka or Chandralekha, continues to be a conundrum) in 1943. But it got to be made and released only in 1948.
Despite announcing the film with unheard of fanfare then, Vasan's writing team (comprising the likes of Veppatthur Kittu, Kothamangalam Subbu, K J Mahadevan) could not come up with a story that was impressive to him.
At one point, it is said, Vasan even told them that he would not hesitate to drop the projects if the writers failed to deliver what he wanted. The ultimatum, delivered in his typical no uncertain way, probably helped.
One of the assistant directors of Mangamma Sabatham, T G Raghavachari chanced upon a novel, Robert Macaire, the French Male Bandit in England (1848) written by G W M Reynolds. It involved a bandit and a dancer.
When Vasan was narrated the story, he was convinced that this was the one that he had been waiting for long. Initially, Raghavachari was vested with the responsibility of directing the film.
But Vasan wasn't happy with how some of the scenes were mounted, so he took charge himself. His dream project needed somebody at the helm who could think big and pull them off too in shooting, too. It needed Vasan.
Chandralekha: Its extravaganza is unmatched
Chandralekha's production scale was never ever before attempted in India — imposing phantasmagoric sets of palaces, a moat and draw-bridge strong enough to withstand the weight of horses, riders, crowds and all. Under the eagle-eyed art Director A K Sekhar, Vasan got up what he wanted.
And for the drum dance, the piece de resistance of the film, the first of its kind in Indian Cinema, Vasan had choreographer Jayashankar compose something that was eye-popping for its grandeur and style.
It is said Vasan had nearly 400 dancers on monthly salary and they had daily rehearsals for six months. That single dance sequence cost Vasan Rs 5 lakh in the 1940s.
M K Radha, who was on the regular payrolls of Gemini studio was chosen to play one of the male leads. Ranjan (his real name was Venkataramana Sarma) was picked to don the role of the villainous younger brother to Radha.
The original choice of the heroine was KLV Vasantha. But since she was shifting her allegiance to the rival Modern Studios, Vasan opted for T R Rajakumari --- who became Tamil cinema's first ever dream girl.
Interestingly, one person who auditioned for the nondescript role of the hero's bodyguard was rejected by Vasan on the grounds of him being unsuitable for films. The man who was rebuffed was none other than V C Ganeshamurthy who later became a legend as Sivaji Ganesan.
How Vasan failed to spot the actor in Sivaji will forever remain an astonishing event in Tamil cinema.
Anyway, Vasan also roped in the comedy pair of N S Krishnan (who had just been out of jail in the infamous Lakshmikanthan murder case) and his wife Mathuram to add comic zeal to the proceedings.
The film also had two music composers, M D Parthasarathy and S Rajeswara Rao, who came out with songs that were a happy potpourri of Carnatic, Hindustani and Western.
During the shoot, Vasan felt the need to add a circus as part of the film and the screenplay was tweaked accordingly. The circus scenes, shot by that wizard K Ramnoth (Kamal Ghosh was the other cameraman for the film), became a talking point of the film as it was brilliant and breath-taking.
In his book, Starlight, Starbright, the historian Randor Guy writes: "One night, while Chandralekha is performing on the flying trapeze, she notices the villain's henchman in the front row. She is on her perch high up and he is seated in a ringside chair. Shock hits her and to convey the shock the camera zooms fast from her to the man. Today, with a fast zoom shot it can be done very easily, but there was no such lens forty years ago. Ramnoth did it using the crane. He planned it well and rehearsed the shot for long. He took the shot 20 times and selected the best 'take'. It was amazing!"
Horses, lions, tigers and elephants were all over the set and about 100 elephants were hired for that specific scene.
The writer Kothamangalam Subbu is reported to have said: "During the film’s making our studio looked like a small kingdom…horses, elephants, lions, tigers in one corner, palaces here and there, over there a German lady training nearly a hundred dancers on one studio floor, a shapely Sinhalese lady teaching another group of dancers on real marble steps adjoining a palace, a studio worker making weapons, another making period furniture using expensive rosewood, others set props, headgear, and costumes, Ranjan undergoing fencing practice with our fight composer ‘Stunt’ Somu, our music directors composing and rehearsing songs in a building…there were so many activities going on simultaneously round-the-clock in the same place".
Vasan opened the doors for the Hindi market
Vasan did not stop with spending lakhs of rupees on the film's production. He unleashed a publicity blitz to match the richness of his film.
According to film scholar and archivist PK Nair Chandralekha was the first film to put out a full-page newspaper ad. Vasan also backed with multi-hued posters, lavishly created song books and other pamphlets.
But Vasan's binge spending, however, had its repercussions. The film's production overshot its budget and Vasan, ever the risk-taker, did not hesitate to pledge his entire life earnings and savings (including the Gemini Studio), to get the film out.
Chandralekha released in April 1948 in 120 towns across South India — the norm for most films then was to release in 10 or 20 towns. Vasa, as ever, went for the jugular.
Though the film had a positive response, the film did not make the kind of money to match its gargantuan expenses. But Vasan was adroit in both his thinking and action. He felt that the film could do well in Hindi and quickly remade and released it in September in the same year.
Such celerity in film remakes was unheard of then. But Vasan, when he saw an opportunity, never let it go. The Hindi version of Chandralekha was a spectacular success, and got Vasan and Gemini Studio the returns they were hoping for.
The scale of Chandralekha's success is still unmatched, according to historians. Chandralekha also opened the doors for Tamil and by extension South Indian movies to make North India as a viable and remunerative market.
Vasan did not stop at that. He got the film dubbed in Japanese and released it there. He also had a shorter version of Chandralekha in English, and had it screened in the US and Europe in the 1950s.
Chandralekha's success became a legend, and the man who was very nearly pushed to the roads in the making of the film, celebrated the film's success by paying a handsome bonus to his studio employees.
Vasan had a big heart for living as well as giving.
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