(The original article was published in 2009 but I am replenishing the articles with new content and making it native to Medium to popularise it)
The second movie in the series defined the word magnum opus in Tamil Cinema. Baahubali should be called the Chandralekha of the 21st century. The vision of one man SS Vasan translated into celluloid changed the way world looked at Indian cinema.
Whom do you think is the most flamboyant movie maker in Tamil Cinema? Some would say producers like AM Rathnam, Aascar Ravichandran, Kalaipuli Dhanu or the director Shankar. I can think of only one person, a man by the name S.S.Vasan.
S.S.Vasan was an entrepreneur and also one of the most extravagant film producers. Chandralekha was his magnum opus made at over Rs.30 Lakhs in the year 1948. The inflation adjusted value would be almost $29 Million in the current year (unimaginable). The movie was bilingual in both Hindi and Tamil. It was a pan-world release with 609 prints all over and was released with English Subtitles. The beauty was that the release was done solely by Gemini Pictures (production house of SS.Vasan) without any foreign collaboration. The cast includes MK Radha, TR Rajakumari, Ranjan, NS Krishnan and Madhuram. The music was made by Saluri Rajeshwara Rao, lyrics by Kotha Mangalam Subbu and Papanasam Sivan. Kamal Ghosh was the cinematographer, and AK Sekar did the art direction. The movie was directed by SS Vasan .
The story is simple. It’s the power struggle between two brothers for the country and a lady.His tyrant brother Ranjan ousts MK Radha. MK falls in love with poor village dance girl ( TR Rajakumari) while building an army to get the nation back. Ranjan falls in love with the girl too and kidnaps her for marriage. She asks for a drum dance before the wedding to help her lover MK Radha. The MK Radha’s army hides in the big drums and makes a surprise attack at the end of the dance ( Inspiration from Helen of Troy?) MK fights one on one with Ranjan to kill him and save the country and the girl.
Why is Chandralekha so special?
1. The extravagant and lavish production values make the movie unimaginable in those days. Even now, it’s absolutely impossible to bring that grandeur on screen. The Art Direction and the camera work made the movie special. The film was in production for almost five years.
2. Nobody can beat the drum dance. The music, the dance movements, the editing according to the beats of the song, the way the drums were designed and placed, the combination of long and close up shots — it was a spectacle. People thronged the theatres just to watch the dance.
3. The final fight sequence is considered to be the most prolonged sword fight in the history of cinema. The camera moves along with the two actors during the battle. Watch the climax sequence to understand how the camera work is done and it’s a lesson by itself.
4. Although there were good performances from the lead characters, especially Ranjan’s Villainy and TR Rajakunari’s graceful acting, its the making that stands out in the movie. The story is not complicated and pretty much follows the typical Prince and the betrayer format of historical fiction. It’s the screenplay and the contextual grandeur that made the movie special.
Why Chandralekha is on the list?
This movie announced the arrival of Tamil Cinema to the world. This was the first high budget movie in India and the first Indian movie to be released overseas. It showed that the Tamil movie makers would not make only emotional potboilers but they know how to make the big-budget extravaganza too. AV Meiyappa Chettiar (AVM) admitted that he started making big budgeted movies and targeted Hindi market after SS Vasan showed how it should be done.
The marketing prowess of SS Vasan showed how movies should be distributed. He made wider release by blocking a large number of theatres and made profit within short period of time. This is being adopted in every movie industry across the world.
- SS Vasan was also the person behind the success of Anandha Vikatan, the weekly in Tamil. He has this Midas touch as he buys ailing companies to make it a success. He also purchased the burnt Motion Picture Producers Combine to make the Gemini Studios. He is hailed as the Cecil B.DeMille of Indian Cinema.
- SS Vasan was born in Thirutharaipoondi in Thanjavur district and his birth name was Seenuvasan. Although he lost his father at the tender age of 4, his mother Vaalambal raised him and educated him. Vaalambal was well versed in Tamil and Sanskrit. She is the one who instigated the idea of stories in Vasan’s head. Vasan studied up to Intermediate in Pachaiyappa’s College, Chennai and started working after that due to poverty .
- Vasan started his career as an advertisement salesman for Kudiyarasu, a magazine run by Periyar. In order to make more, he started a mail order business using the goods bought in China Bazaar, Chennai. He was interested in writing too and was willing to explore bold topics. He translated an English book “Thirty three Secrets to a Successful Marriage” and published it as “இல்லற வாழ்க்கையின் ரகசியங்கள்"  and called himself a fictionist and ethnologist .
- Vasan was advertising in Anandha Vikatan that was run by Pudur Vaidhyanadha Iyer. The magazine wasn’t published for few weeks and he found that the magazine was running at a loss. So, he paid Rs.25 for each letter in the Tamil word of Anandha Vikatan and bought the magazine for Rs.200 .
- SS Vasan’s tryst with cinema started with ‘Thiyaga Bhoomi’. Although his magazine series Sathi Leelavathi (MGR started his career with this movie) was made into a movie, he wasn’t interested in films or film making. Thiyaga Bhoomi is a novel written by Kalki Krishnamurthy (who was the editor of Anandha Vikatan). K Subramaniam (father of Padma Subramaniam), a prolific director (who introduced MK Thiagaraja Bagavathar) wanted to make Thiyaga Bhoomi into a movie. So they decided to publish the story as a serialised version on Anandha Vikatan while the shoot was going on. It became a huge hit (Anandha Vikatan later tried the same idea with Vikram and Swarnamukhi) and SS Vasan distributed the movie as ‘Gemini Films Circuit’ in 1939. Thiyaga Bhoomi was banned by the British Government due to the nationalistic fervour of the movie but SS Vasan and K Subramaniam showed the movie overnight for free .
- Motion Pictures Producers Combines was started by K Subramaniam and on a fateful day of Dec 21, 1940, the studio was burnt down. Due to the ban of Thiyaga Bhoomi and the loss from the burnt studio, K Subramaniam had to auction the studios and asked SS Vasan to buy it. It’s interesting to note the money he had placed inside the auction cover — Rs.80,427.19 (he had exact valuation).
- There was a myth that Gemini Studios was named after a horse as SS Vasan was fond of horse racing. He did participate in betting and bought a horse known for losing races. The horse went on to win many races but the studio was named after his wife Pattamal’s sun sign.
- SS Vasan wanted a circus sequence in the movie, and the executives of Gemini studios identified a circus troupe after an extensive search. The circus was later renamed as Gemini Circus.
- The film was supposed to be directed by Acharya (director of Mangamma Sabatham). But, due to creative differences, SS Vasan chose to direct the movie himself.
- It seems the budget exceeded the original estimation and SS Vasan was paying excessive interests on his loans. Srinivasa Iyengar, then owner of The Hindu Publications gave an interest-free loan to SS Vasan on one condition that SS Vasan should help someone in need like him. SS Vasan helped KS Gopalakrishnan when he was struggling to complete Pesum Deivam.
- Even the money from Srinivasa Iyengar didn’t help SS Vasan to finish the movie, and he had to pledge his mother’s jewels to complete the film.
- Darachand, a Hindi movie distributor loved the movie and wanted to buy the rights to the movie. But, SS Vasan had other ideas. He reshot the dialogue sequences, spent lakhs of rupees on marketing budget (huge banners, full-page advertisements in newspapers etc.,), and the movie was a huge hit. He had a re-cut version and released the film in International markets. Ranjan, who acted in the movie became so popular, and he landed with acting assignments in Hindi movies.
- TR Rajakumari hailed from Thanjavur (her grand-nephew was my brother’s friend, and we used to have conversations about her). TR Rajakumari is considered to be the first Tamil lady Superstar, and she was the first dream girl of Indian cinema. Her hits include Kacha Devayani (1941), Haridas (1944) and Chandralekha. She started her own production house RR Pictures along with her brother, TR Ramanna. They produced movies like Vazhapirandhavan (1953), Gulebagavali (1955), Periya Idathu Penn (1963), Parakkum Paavai (1966) and many more. It was said that she drew more salary than the lead actors sometimes.
- Gemini Studios was situated in the heart of the city at the junction of Nungambakkam and Mount Road. The Park, a 5 Star hotel and the Anna Flyover is built over that place now. The flyover is still popularly called Gemini Bridge ( although it was named Anna Flyover). Gemini Studios fell from grace after SS Vasan’s demise in 1968 (he died of stomach cancer). Balu (son of SS Vasan, also the director of Motor Sundaram Pillai) couldn’t manage the changes in movie making business. Movie directors were leaving the sets and going out to outside locations to make movies. Gemini Studios made 78 films in total. Employees suggested names for the films and the winning title gets a prize from SS Vasan. The last movie to be shot in Gemini studios was Raja Paarvai. Kamal wanted to shoot the final scene before the studio razed to rumbles. Ironically, it was the first scene in Raaja Parvai.
- Another example of SS Vasan’s flamboyance was when he brought Zippy the Chimpanzee from the USA to act in Insaniyat (1955). Zippy’s monthly income was around $55,000. Because Zippy was short, all the shots involving the chimp, were shot under the eye level in order to compensate the height .
16. Director Saran bought the rights for the Gemini Pictures and he is producing movies in that name with the same famous Gemini Logo. Gemini Ganesan got his name from the studios as he was working as an assistant in the studios.
I could not imagine what SS Vasan would have done if he had lived in the current era. Just imagine it for yourself
- Tamil Cinema Varalaru — Part 1 — Dinathanthi
- Kamal and Ilaiyaraaja’s conversation during Vikatan Awards 2018.
Read the entire list from this link