AVM, the adventurer
A tribute to cinema's pioneer and innovator, A.V.Meiyappan.
VIGNETTES: Each film of AVM was a landmark.
Among South India's movie moguls whose contribution to Indian cinema has been immense, A.V. Meiyappan stands tall. A far-sighted entrepreneur and filmmaker with dash and dynamism, he had a finger on the pulse of the moviegoer.
Entering the world of movies soon after it began to talk in India in 1931, for nearly half a century he worked incessantly, producing pictures of many kinds in many languages. He was venturesome by nature and an innovator in film production techniques.
A man with great foresight, he faced much adversity early in his career but like a true pioneer fought relentlessly and made it to the top.
A talent scout, he opened the doors of opportunity and success to many performing artistes and technicians.
Born on July 28, 1907, Avichi Meiyappan hailed from a Nattukottai Nagarathar family of Karaikkudi in Tamil Nadu. How celluloid became family business is an interesting story.
Avichi Chettiar ran a mini-department store, named AV & Sons. It sold gramophone records. Meiyappan, who joined his father's shop even as a teenager, decided to produce gramophone records instead of merely marketing them. He came to Madras where along with friends K.S.Narayana Iyengar, Subbaiah Chettiar and others promoted Saraswathi Stores (closed only some years ago). He found excellent support in K.P.Varadachari, its manager, and his lawyer friend Thoothukudi Govindachari Raghavachari. Responding to his ideas Meiyappan produced many records.
The dawn of the talkie era (1931) inspired Meiyappan to start Saraswathi Sound Productions and he launched his maiden movie venture, `Alli Arjuna,' a mythological. The film was shot in Calcutta and proved a disaster. ``Ratnavali" that followed next also bombed. At this point, an aspiring amateur actor and college graduate A.T.Krishnaswamy joined the unit as assistant director. ATK, as he was known, was associated with Meiyappan for nearly a decade and wrote and directed the early AVM productions.
The reverses forced Meiyappan to lie low but only for a while. In association with Jayanthilal, a cinema house owner based in Bangalore, he promoted a new company Pragati Pictures Limited. Grabbing an opportunity that came his way, AVM made `Nanda Kumar,' Tamil version of a Marati film launching it as a Pragati production. The highlight was the entry of T.R.Mahalingam as Krishna.
The film was a landmark because for the first time playback singing was tried, with Lalitha Venkatraman singing for the actor who played Devaki.
Meiyappan took the sprawling Club House off Mount Road on lease and shot scenes without going to studios and erecting sets. (The lead in this direction was given by K. Subramaniam in 1938.) Thus Meiyappan had anticipated location shooting by almost 30 years. Soon he shifted his unit to another sprawling edifice known as Admiralty House in Adyar. The threat of bombforced Meiyappan to move to Karaikkudi in 1942.
In 1940, Meiyappan produced `Bhoo Kailas,' a mythological which created history. The film was made in Telugu, its lead players were from Kannada cinema and it was directed by Sundar Rao Nadkarni, a Mangalorean who had his training in Bombay. The film turned out to be a big hit and also won critical acclaim!
Meiyappan struck gold with comedy. `Sabapathy,' (1941) with the saucer-eyed T.R.Ramachandran in the lead, Kali N.Ratnam and K.Sarangapani was a run away success. This was followed by `En Manaivi.'
A milestone was crossed in 1943 with the making of `Harishchandra,' dubbed from Kannada to Tamil. ATK wrote the dialogue to match the lip movements of the actors.
`Sri Valli,' a folk mythology, the favourite story of Tamils, hit the bull's eye. A revolution of sorts happened at this time. On hearing feedback that the singing of Rukmini lacked pep, Meiyappan made a bold move and roped in Periyanayaki to sing playback. Pragati technicians worked round the clock to synchronise voice and lip. Reels were recalled and new ones rushed to theatres in cars and trains. AVM had done something no producer would dare to do after the release of a film. After this film Meiyappan closed shop in Madras and moved back to Karaikkudi.
In the outskirts he took a drama auditorium with a large open area around it on long lease and put up a studio. Thus was born AVM Productions with AVM Studios. Meiyappan was indeed a monarch of all he surveyed. `Nam Iruvar' (1947), a hit play based on patriotism, was well adapted and it was a roaring success. The film ushered in the AVM era. AVM moved back to Madras where, in Kodambakkam, he built a studio, which grew into a humming hive of hectic filmmaking activity and continues to be so to this day. Films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi have rolled out of this stable steadily. An AVM motion picture became synonymous with clean wholesome family-oriented entertainment. Meiyappan realised that the story was the thing for making a narrative film and he bestowed great attention on the theme and storyline. Anything offensive or vaguely vulgar or in low taste was eschewed.
Ever an enterprising entrepreneur Meiyappan produced a songless-danceless Tamil film `Andha Naal' (1954), with Sivaji Ganesan playing the anti-hero. Meiyappan showed yet another proof of his versatility when he made a children's film with national integration as its basic theme. `Hum Panchi Ek Daal Ke' (1957) won high acclaim and a National Award.
Widely travelled, Meiyappan was devout and deeply religious and donated to several causes including education. He also founded schools.
Meiyappan passed away on August 12,1979, and after his demise his sons took over the mantle. The AVM saga continues, its glory undiminished.
While other studios have closed the AVM has continued. What is the magic? AVM Saravanan, whose quiet dignity and amiability have made him a popular figure in the Madras social and business circles, recalls, ``I had just returned from Bombay by a late flight and reached home around midnight... my wife said my father wished to see me. He was in bed and my mother and brother were with him. He told me that we should commence film production again and should never stop. All our businesses were doing well and where was the need to go into production again? Appachi, pointing at the logo `AVM,' said, `behind the banner is 50 years of hard work. Keep it alive as long as you can.' There was no argument and the AVM unit went to work. His blessings have sustained us and will continue to do so, I'm sure."
What made him special
AVM was a perfectionist. He would explain things until his instructions were understood. In turn he would expect you to repeat if he did not get something quite clear.
Time was precious to him and deadlines were meant to be kept.
He was a great listener. Discussions were open house affairs where everyone had a say.
For him friendship was sacred. ``A friend is someone in whom you can confide and share your joys and sorrows. But choose your friends carefully," was his dictum.
``If you think someone deserves help, give it without delay," he would say. And he did.
He gave politics a wide berth and did not identify himself with any party. His vote was a well-guarded secret.
He did not believe in auspicious time or astrology. Hard work and honesty formed his mantra.
He was a voracious reader. It was amazing how he learnt English just by reading the newspaper, everyday, with a dictionary by his side. He always chose actors for the story, never the other way around.
The banner is known for huge sets. Each set would be erected after sketches were prepared and seen by AVM. Shooting would begin only after AVM approved the costumes and accessories.
S. R. ASHOK KUMAR
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