It was around 1950 that I first came to Madras as an apprentice clerk in the Accountant General’s office. I have been living in Madras since. I am unable to call it Chennai. Old habits die hard.
In those days, we were used to talking only in English. Even today, when we try to slip into Tamil, it is very difficult to cut short the usage of English words.
Madras has played a tremendous role in my career. It gave me a platform. I used to participate in skits, cultural programmes and the farewell parties at the AG’s office.
Major Chandrakant was done in English because the AG was from Bengal. I myself did the role of the Major.
Later on, I developed it into a two-hour play for the Sabhas and Sunderrajan did the Major’s role. All his life he was called only Major Sunderrajan.
It played at Mylapore Fine Arts Club. People like Cho and other oldsters in theatre owe our allegiance to Mr.Rajagopal of the Club who used to encourage drama and theatre.
The rivalry was between professionals and non-professionals. The professionals at that time included TK Shanmugham, S.Ve.Sahasranamam and Sivaji Ganesan too had a troupe. But our troupes made of non-professionals were called amateur dramatic troupes.
The response was excellent, there was no disturbance from cable TV or satellite. Though it was not profitable, it was satisfying.
We used to put 50 rupees each and make a play. We would’ve spent about 600-700 rupees to make Major Chandrakant. We would receive about 200 rupees from the sabha after a lot of bargaining. But the thrill kept us going.
The film business was as disorganised as it was as it is today. We had more discipline then. The producers those days were sound producers – take SS Vasan, AVM, Nagi Reddy or L.V.Prasad… Jupiter Movies, Modern Theatres had their own studios, they were sound producers. Today, people who have call sheet of stars become producers overnight.
Opportunity came in the shape of MGR who wanted me to write. He had Hindi film with him, and we had to make changes because it was MGR. MGR is a phenomenon, you can afford to make a mistake with MGR. If you have to make a film for him, you have to write it like it was MGR’s dialogue not like a character’s dialogue. Today, every star wants that.
Even Sivaji did not dictate terms to anybody. Once he has accepted the story, he would simply obey the director. I did one film with him. He was very co-operative. With MGR, I would have to buckle. It was difficult for me. So later on, when I was asked to do an MGR film, I wriggled out of it giving some silly reason. MGR knew that.
I had decided to be independent and have my own identity. I thought I will take the cause of women and have my own identity and it was something not explored by any director. I would sit in a small room in my rented house and discuss it with my friends at the beach.
As a bachelor, I lived in Mambalam and then, in Triplicane and after getting married, I shifted to Gopalapuram third street, one street away from the CM’s house. Even then, Kalaignar was a big hero for me. I used to pass that way just to see him.
The Gopalapuram playground was a popular hangout after six p.m. Otherwise, we would spend time with friends by the Marina or Elliots Beach. We never went to restaurants or cafes because it was a question of money. Minerva was the only small AC theatre around showing English films. I saw most of the black and white classics at the Elphinstone Theatre.
Our social lives revolved around discussing theatre.
No, I did not have a girlfriend. Romance or love was not discussed. It was not our cup of tea. It is something which is divine and I could not afford to have it.
On today’s roads, everybody seems to be a romantic. Those days, it was possible only among a certain group of boys and girls. You can only see them, write about them and imagine how they feel but we couldn’t do it ourselves.
Of course, when I was in college, we used to pine for girls but that was not love. Just a sneaky glance and that’s where it ended.
Nobody ever knew who was loving who. Affairs were always kept a secret and there were few and far between.
Divorces too were rare and women rarely stepped outside the family system which is why some believe I was ahead of my time in dealing with stories like ‘Arangetram.’
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Born in 1930, the veteran filmmaker came to Madras in 1950 from a small hamlet near Tanjore. Though theatre started as a hobby, he was all consumed by his passion for storytelling and emerged as the critically acclaimed auteur who gave Tamil Cinema two of its biggest stars – Rajnikant and Kamal Hassan.
His banner ‘Kavithalaya’ continues to churn out blockbusters till date as the man himself has taken over the small screen over the past decade.
In the night, if I spotted a policeman, I would get off and walk along my bicycle. My cycle didn’t have a dynamo. It was costly.
I would get back on the seat only when he’s out of sight.
One day, the policeman laughed at me.
Out of habit, I had got off even during daytime.