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Sepia stories at 60

B.V. SHIVA SHANKAR

Mahatma Pictures, one of the earliest banners in Kannada is all set to celebrate its diamond jubilee this year. The banner has come a long way since it was brought into existence by S.V. Shankar Singh and Vittalacharya in 1946



PIONEERING EFFORT On the sets of a Mahatma Pictures film

Mysore is still a sleepy city. Even with the real estate boom of recent times, it retains its paradise status for pensioners.

It is not the capital of cinema industry either. Based in such a city, if a production house has been able to make 100 Kannada films, it is not only a daunting task but also an accomplishment for the banner. The banner boasting such an accomplishment is Mahatma Pictures which has stepped into its 60th year, come June. With 97 films in its kitty it is all set to hit the century mark this year.

Launch pad



The banner was spawned by the efforts of D. Shankar Singh (left) and B. Vitalacharya in 1946, and was a launching pad for many legends

It is not all. Mahatma Pictures, spawned by the efforts of D. Shankar Singh and B. Vitalacharya in 1946, had been a launching pad for many legends. Dr. Rajkumar, doyen of Kannada cinema, made his début under this banner. In 1952 he was given a small roll in "Srinivasa Kalyana", directed by B. Vittalacharya. It was much earlier than "Bedara Kannappa". Even before Dr. Raj, his younger brother Varadaraj and sister Sharadamma acted in the film "Krishna Leela", released in 1947. "Krishna Leela", was the first film of Mahatma Pictures and Varadaraj was applauded as a comedian in Makaranda's roll. Acclaimed singer P. Kalingarao, melody duo Rajan-Nagendra, versatile comedian T.N. Balakrishna, lyricist-director Hunsur Krishnamurthy, South Indian super star Arjun Sarja are among others to start their career through Mahatma Pictures. The banner was a trendsetter in various counts. It has to its credit glamorising the silver screen. When Harini appeared in swimsuit in "Jaganmohini", it was a shocker. Jayashri set the screen ablaze with her glamour in Nagakannika's role. These two instances, in the Forties, when the society was still traditional, were seen as revolutionary. But this gave an impetus to Kannada cinema and enable it to face the challenges posed by other language films. "Jaganmohini" and "Nagakannika" were runaway success and "Jaganmohini" was the first Kannada film to run for hundred days.

"These films", says S.V. Rajendra Singh Babu, Shankar Singh's son, "showed economics to the Kannada film industry and instilled confidence into it." His mother Prathima Devi herself was a glamorous star of those days.

Breaking convention was not the only achievement of Mahatma Pictures, it was also known for experimenting. Vittalacharya strived to include graphic effects and trick shots in mythological and folklore films. These efforts not only gave Mahatma Pictures a pioneer status but also helped Kannada films compete with the reining Tamil industry.

In those days, Tamil cinema was the priority for even Kannada viewers. Shankar Singh, a proud Kannadiga that he was, was determined establish the Kannada film industry in Karnataka. He never went to Chennai (then Madras) for a film production, even when every activity took place there.



Prathima Devi, wife of Shankar Singh was also the leading star of the times

All his films were made in Mysore's Navajyothi Studio. Thanks to his efforts, Kannada pictures started getting Government subsidy.

In 1962, he prevailed upon the then Chief Minister S. Nijalingappa to extend patronage to Kannada films. The Government took his point and levied a surcharge of a rupee on a ticket to fund the development of industry. And he was the one who explored shooting locations in Karnataka.

Grand locations like Ooty, Mekedaatu, Chikmagalur are his discovery. Shankar Singh and Vitalacharya started their venture as exhibitors in 1942. Interest in cinema brought Shankar Singh, an employee of Brooke Bond Tea, and Vitalacharya, a hotelier, close to each other.

They formed two touring talkies units. Shankar Singh, who happened to be a freedom fighter and staunch follower of Gandhi, named them after Gandhi and Nehru, Mahatma Touring Talkies and Jawahar Touring Talkies respectively. Later they came into production and formed Mahatma Pictures in 1946. They began with "Krishna Leela" and there has been no looking back since then. Since then there was no looking back for the duo and it was a saga of success.

Torchbearer

S.V. Rajendra Singh Babu, director of many blockbusters, is carrying his father Shankar Singh's aspirations forward.

His mother Prathima Devi and actor-producer sister Vijayalakshmi Singh are there with him. Actor son Aditya is the representative of the third generation. Now the family is set to celebrate Diamond Jubilee of the banner. "We will have the celebrations in June," explains Babu. "We hope to have all the legends who worked with us." The list includes Dilip Kumar, Rekha, Hema Malini, Mohan Lal, Nagarjuna, Harini, B. Saroja Devi, Vishnuvardhan, and Ambarish.

Thespian Dr. Rajkumar's absence is a big vacuum, he laments. However, the actor's family members, who are very close to Mahatma Pictures, will be present.



Rajendra Singh Babu, Shankar Singh's son receiving an award

To mark the event, Babu has planned to launch three films this year. This will take the banner to its 100th production. Among these three films one is a children's film. The other is a historical. If things work the way they are planned, Mahatma pictures will reach its century mark.

Are they looking for Government help? "No," says Babu, though he desires that there should be a Government award instituted in the name of his father, Shankar Singh. An effort to this effect was there when the late actor Vadiraj was the chairman of juries three years ago. But, he says, it fell on deaf ears, which is not a surprise.

If only the Government responds this time, it will be a befitting honour to a great man in the Diamond Jubilee year of his very Kannada production house.

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