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Stickler for discipline


To movie moghul T.R. Sundaram, whose birth centenary just passed.

End of an era: The Modern Theatres complex in neglect and (right) T. R. Sundaram, the founder.

Modern Theatres, one of the most successful film establishments, has produced over 40-odd years nearly 200 movies in various languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Sinhalese and even English. An impressive record indeed.

Out of this studio (which had its own recording theatre and laboratory) rolled the first Malayalam movie, ‘Balan,’ also the first Gevacolor film in Tamil, ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum.’ Run like a disciplined factory, Modern Theatres, was the work of T.R. Sundaram.

Thiruchengode Ramalingam Sundaram (TRS) was from a wealthy, land-owning family and was born at Thiruchengode on July 16, 1907. After his B.A. degree, he proceeded to England to study textile engineering as his family owned textile mills. He passed out of Leeds University with a B.Sc. While in England, he met Gladys, who became his wife.

Tamil cinema

In the early 1930s, TRS stepped into the world of Tamil cinema as a partner of a Salem-based film company, Angel Films. He was involved in productions such as ‘Draupadi Vastrapaharanam’ (1934), ‘Dhruva’ (1935) and ‘Nalla Thangal’ (1935). Then he decided to go solo and promoted his own company, Modern Theatres Limited. He realised that to make film making a business, it had to be organised and systematic following certain norms and principles. So he decided to have his own studio in Salem with all the necessary facilities. He also planned a schedule of producing films on a tight budget (two or three a year), so that the market and consumers were regularly and continually fed with his product. When films were made so regularly, the law of averages and safety in numbers would surely work out to the advantage of the producer. This was the secret of his success.

The maiden production of Modern Theatres, directed by TRS, was ‘Sathi Ahalya.’ This mythological tale was released in 1937. Sundaram promoted Modern Theatres as a joint stock company and built a studio on a vast stretch of land on the outskirts of Salem town. The hundred films that came from his studio covered a wide spectrum — mythology, comedy and original screenplays to adaptation of classic works of literature and murder mysteries. It is, however, the James Bond style of films starring Jayashankar that are almost synonymous with the banner.

Some mention-worthy films are ‘Arundathi’ (1943), ‘ Sulochana’ (1947), ‘Utthama Puthiran’ (1940), Manonmani’ (1942), ‘Aayiram Thalaivangi Apoorva Chintamani’ (1947), ‘Adithan Kanavu’ (1948), ‘Digambara Samiyar’ (1950), ‘Manthiri Kumari’ (1950, a major hit and cult film written by Mu. Karunanidhi), ‘Ponmudi’ (1950), ‘Valayaapathi’ (1952), ‘Sarvadhikari’ (1951), ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Thirudargalum’ (1956), and ‘Pasa Valai’ (1956). Following the Hollywood studio system, TRS had on his rolls writers, technicians, actors and so on. They had to follow a rigid code of conduct. None was pampered. Once a top star reported late for work, Sundaram shut the studio gate and kept him waiting outside for hours. He paid generously and promptly, a rarity in the film circle. On the sets, there was only one chair — for him — and the rest had to stand. After their shot was over, the artists were not allowed to linger inside to indulge in small talk and gossip. He did not encourage visitors either. It was through Uthama Puthiran that P.U. Chinnappa became a star.

Writers of merit

TRS gave breaks to many writers of merit, the most famous of them all, Mu. Karunanidhi. And there were others, such as writer Kannadasan who became a legend in his lifetime, rebel poet Bharathidasan, who became the top screenwriter of his day, D.V. Chari, a politician, A.V.P. Asai Thambi, Ko.Dha.Sa. (well known writer and editor of Dina Thanthi), E.V.R. Jalakandaapuram Kannan and so on.

TRS hired many talented persons to work for him under contract, such as the famed Telugu filmmaker Adurthi Subba Rao, editor-director G. Viswanathan, cinematographer-producer and director R.M. Krishnaswami (RMK), Masthan and E.N. Balakrishnan, cinematographers both, among others.Two of his assistants, who later reached the top of their profession, are filmmakers Muktha V. Srinivasan and K.S. Sethumadhavan.

Then, some music composers who worked for him such as Papanasam Sivan, M.S. Viswanathan-T.K. Ramamurthy, Veda, K.V. Mahadevan and G. Ramanathan.

Almost all the top stars have acted for Sundaram except the legend M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. American filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan also worked for him. He directed ‘Manthiri Kumari,’ and ‘Ponmudi.’

TRS took active interest in the affairs of the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce (SIFCC), Madras, and served as its president. During his innings as president, TRS succeeded in finding the SIFCC a home on Mount Road in the HMV building. In deference to his work, the street adjoining the Chamber building was named T.R. Sundaram Avenue. Immaculately dressed, he was western in several ways. And he appeared in a few films too.

A typical Modern Theatres production had these features — racy on- screen narration, slick presentation , fast-paced action, story told in a straight forward manner, melodious music, dance, comedy scenes and so on.

TRS passed away suddenly in 1963 and his son Rama Sundaram, an engineer took over. In keeping with the Sundaram tradition, Ramappa (as he was affectionately called) made ‘Bondish’ films featuring Jai Shankar. The racy films with titles built around the Tamil word, ‘Vallavan,’ proved successful and were remade in Telugu with equal success.

Tragedy struck the family again when Ramappa passed away suddenly a few years ago. Property changed hand and the banner folded up.

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