Scholar and film director, Venkatesh Chakravarthy, is currently the dean of Ramanaidu Film School in Hyderabad. He was the regional director and the head of the department of direction at L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy. He has also worked as a scriptwriter, analyst and consultant for Tamil, Telugu and Hindi films, directed and edited documentaries on Chennai and shows for Tamil and Telugu television.
In this interview, Chakravarthy speaks about the difficulties of writing the history of film studios and laboratories. He says Tamil Nadu’s love for cinema doesn’t make documenting its studios any easier. He also suggests how to work around the lack of organised resources, recounts the history of the neighbourhood where the Chennai (Madras) studio system flourished, and reflects on the technological shifts within the cinema industry during the studio period and its impact on existing labour, professions and skillsets of celluloid cinema.
Following is an edited transcript of excerpts from a series of telephonic interviews with Venkatesh Chakravarthy conducted by Senjuti Mukherjee through January–February 2019.
Senjuti Mukherjee: What roles have the Chennai film studios and associated film laboratories played in your film writing and teaching career?
Venkatesh Chakravarthy: Having grown up in the studio industry, where my father was a film producer, the history of Chennai cinema ran parallel to my personal history. At the age of nine, I was finding my way around editing and recording rooms in studios. But in my writing and academic work about cinema, I could do very little to investigate the history of studios and the celluloid medium. I have written extensively in Tamil, and a little in English too. While working on a film called Naam Iruvaar, I began researching on AVM Studios. A fragment of this was published in Cinemas of India, edited by Lalitha Gopalan, but being dissatisfied with the larger research, I have not yet published the rest.
SM: What, according to you, are the problems faced by film historians and material culture researchers while writing the history of the studio system in Chennai?
VC: I do not think enough research has happened in the field of Tamil cinema to comprehensively understand this system. For the longest time, Chennai was the centre of four film industries—Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada—and there is an incredible amount of history. We do not have an organised archive one can access or a platform for researchers working on the topic and disseminating information in a coordinated and sustained way. The South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce (SIFCC) has failed to work on maintaining archival records properly. I have managed to access primary records through the support of the Chennai Institute of Development Studies for a Tamil cinema seminar. Some useful resources are available on the pad.ma website, and among these the three-volume set of reports by the Indian Cinematograph Committee has thoroughly documented many productions, but this is from a very early period [1927–28] as the committee was set up in 1927.
However, the Chennai Record Office (now known as Tamil Nadu Archives) should be a great resource. Some old film magazines are well preserved at Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai. I am also certain that archival material is available with the families of studio owners; researchers have to access these personal and possibly uncatalogued archives and organise the information meticulously.
SM: One of the problems that I have faced during my research is not being able to get a sense of the exact number of studios functioning during the period I was examining. What do you think is the cause of these differing approximate figures?
VC: In the absence of documentary evidence, many scholars have had to reconstruct this history based on oral narratives and their memories and experiences. For clarity in this research one must access government records as studios could not have functioned without a government license. It is unbelievable that in Tamil Nadu, where many chief ministers have hailed from the field of cinema, the maintenance and accessibility of government archives remain so atrocious.
The confusion regarding the number of studios lies in the fact that the definition of what constitutes a studio has never been very clear. Big studios such as AVM, Gemini and Vauhini had shooting floors, recording rooms, editing rooms and film processing laboratories, and they were self-sufficient in the film production process. Other smaller studios sometimes ranged from having a sound stage to a couple of shooting floors that were rented to producers.
SM: Can you recount a little about the neighbourhood, Kodambakkam, where the studio system in Chennai seems to have been concentrated?
VC: Cheap land and a gradual convergence of cinema-related industries made Kodambakkam the locus of the Chennai studio system. The history of present-day Kodambakkam goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries: the neighbourhood served as horse stables for the Nawab of the Carnatic. The word Kodambakkam is believed to have been derived from the Urdu words ghoda bagh, a garden for horses. AVM Studios bought their land at a government auction after the Muslim owner had to migrate to Pakistan during Partition. Soon after, there came up a huge and thriving studio community. Many studios, including AVM, Vijaya-Vauhini, Golden, Majestic, Bharani and Vasu, were functioning out of this neighbourhood.
Production gradually became easier, as all the subsidiary industries, such as caterers, costume-makers, prop-sellers, transport vendors and make-up artists started setting up around the area. Everything required for a film’s production was available within a 4–5 km radius. Calcutta may have had a similar concentration of film-related industries in the Tollygunge area but there was no such neighbourhood serving as a locus for the Bombay film industry.
SM: What are some of the technological shifts that you think contributed to the fall of the studio system?
VC: Financial capital and technology are common requisites of cinema across the world. Technology in India tended to lag behind. The digital era brought an end to this, with everything being marketed around the world simultaneously. But during the studio era, each shift in technology led to a reshaping of the film production process. One thing to consider is the changes in camera technology. Cinematographers worked with very difficult and heavy gear almost until the 1970s. Arriflex 35 II C, a lightweight camera designed to shoot on location [it was used to capture World War II German documentation and propaganda footage], came to India in the late 1960s. Once introduced in the Chennai film industry, this camera was used for occasional outdoor shooting while the bulky American Mitchell camera remained the principal device. By the 1970s, low- and medium-budget Malayalam films opted for Arriflex, and their success soon made its use widespread in Madras. With location-shooting becoming the norm, the studio system started crumbling.
SM: What are the shifts in sound that affected the studio system and, eventually, the sound recording studios?
VC: In the late 1960s, dubbing technology was becoming quite popular. This was due to the gradual decline of the silent Mitchell camera, which was ideal for studio-sound-stage shooting, and the steady rise in the use of the loud and noisy Arriflex on location. After the shoot shifted outdoors, a different string of complications appeared. For the longest time, the film crew did not have the technology to do sound on location properly. Sound-rigging techniques and services were not fashionable then, and consequently outdoor shoots abandoned sound recording and opted for post-synchronisation.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sound department witnessed a shift from optically printed tracks to magnetic tracks. The former worked with two or four channel input mixers. With magnetic sound, this went up to 12 and, eventually, to 24-line input mixers. It was used for recording dialogues, background scores, dubbing and songs. The producers no longer had to fit an entire orchestra in a small hall (since musicians could record sound independently), causing the decline of large sound recording studios.
With the import of new technology today, Indian producers are keen to record sound on location again.
SM: Which films produced by the Chennai film industry moved out of studio confines for the first time?
VC: Devaraj-Mohan, the director duo of Tamil films, shot Annakili entirely on location in Thengumarada, near Sathyamangalam, in 1976. This film was followed by P. Bharathiraja’s 16 Vayathinile in 1977. The latter was popularly celebrated as the first Tamil film to be entirely shot outdoors. This film achieved cult status for leaving the studio confines and portraying the realistic life of people in rural landscapes in cheap Orwo colour negative. The phenomenal success of these films was followed by an exodus of producers and directors, moving out of the studio space to outdoor locations. Due to this shift, the studio shooting floors were abandoned, and some of them started renting out the floors as warehouses. The post-production work of sound and film processing was still happening in studios.
SM: There was a brief interlude in the 1980s when the shooting floors were in use again. Can you explain this development?
VC: The decline in the popularity of the big stars like Sivaji (Sivaji Ganesan) and MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) led to stagnation in the star system. They continued acting in films, but those were not doing so well. In the late 1970s to mid-1980s, when outdoor films were very popular, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth starred in several of these and acquired stardom. Some of the studio floors were then used again as it was more convenient for a star to be in one place, working with several producers, rather than travelling around with one producer.
SM: What role do you think the commercial real-estate sector played in the repurposing of the studio complexes?
VC: Economic liberalisation in 1991 encouraged real estate, including retail, healthcare, multifamily housing and other commercial establishments to flourish. Since the studio complex was always a commercial space and the population of the city was shooting up, the land and buildings had to be repurposed into hospitals, shopping malls, wedding halls and apartments. AVM Studios managed to convert one floor into a cinema theatre called AVM Rajeshwari, but the rest of it has gradually been taken over by real estate, including one high-rise apartment building and a wedding venue. The sprawling Vijaya-Vauhini complex was split into a wedding hall, Vijaya Hospital, Vijaya Gardens, Green Park Hotel, Forum Vijaya Mall, etc.
SM: What was the human impact of technological shifts? Which professions and skillsets were the most affected, and which became obsolete?
VC: Film processing laboratories, such as AVM Cine Lab, Gemini Colour Lab, Prasad Labs, Vijaya-Vauhini Lab, were rendered obsolete.
Most workers came to grips with the technological shifts that happened within the celluloid domain. The shift from black-and-white to colour was not a difficult one for the chemists at the laboratory; after all they were working with the same medium. With the arrival of digital technology, all laboratories closed, creating large-scale unemployment. The chief chemist or laboratory head lost his position because chemistry was no longer required for the new technology. Workers were not required for developing and printing films. Nobody needed to blend chemicals in the right proportions and prepare various chemical baths in tanks for washing film negatives and release prints. All the assistants, who moved things around in the lab, packed films for distribution purpose in cans and sent out these cans to different exhibitionists, became ineffectual.
Prasad had colour laboratories in Madras, Bangalore, Trivandrum, Bhubaneshwar and Bombay. They had to shut down five laboratories, and made huge losses. Producers used to make 300 to 400 release prints at a time. Print labs made money not by developing negatives but by providing release prints to the industry.
SM: The shift to digital is often celebrated as a democratic move, but, as a consequence, how have the revenues changed, redistributed or multiplied?
VC: Curiously, it was the distributors who were the keenest on this shift. They used to pay approximately Rs 75,000 for a print of a colour film whereas a digital print is somewhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000. The change enabled distributors to save a lot and make more prints and money. Since the transformation came so quickly in the distribution and exhibition sector, it put a lot of pressure on the production system to revamp.
SM: With AVM Cine Lab shut now, do you know of any other laboratory that still maintains a chemical bath?
VC: Prasad Studios still maintains a chemical bath, but they can hardly afford to use it. Once a bath is prepared, at least 50,000 feet of film must be developed. Unless that much film has been exposed, the lab would not use the bath as it is too expensive to import these chemicals for washing the film.
SM: Which professions suffered at a production level?
VC: Although boom (nagara) operators still work during pilot sound recording on location, it is no longer one of the most crucial jobs. The pilot track catches camera and ambient noises alongside dialogues and the portable nagaras serve the purpose. But back in time, there were some excellent boom operators as this was one of the central aspects of the production process. The boom operators of the studio floors lost their jobs.
SM: How did these people repurpose their lives?
VC: Often these people became security personnel in big apartments, salesmen in supermarkets or departmental stores. Many of them became lower-rung staff of commercial establishments that sprang up during the economic liberalisation.
SM: Having been closely associated with Prasad Labs, can you tell me how it repurposed and managed to survive the digital transformation by focusing on digital restoration work and infrastructure building?
VC: Business is difficult for Prasad now since the cinema laboratory was their key revenue-building element. Prasad might be one of the very few established names in digital restoration work but in terms of VFX, there are many other competitors in Bombay. Since now there is a demand for air-conditioned shooting floors, Prasad converted their floors to cater to the needs of the film industry. Besides, they are into film education and have been expanding their academy. According to the wishes of their founder L.V. Prasad that that piece of land would always have to be used for cinema or related purposes, they cannot, unlike others, sell out to real estate and will continue to explore within the field.
SM: As a scholar, teacher and cinephile, what role do you think material culture should play in the discipline of film history? Do you think preservation and conservation of celluloid reels, obsolete machines and studio paraphernalia are crucial to building a regional cinematic narrative and heritage?
VC: While I was with Prasad, a colleague, Arun Kumar Bose, was trying to salvage filmmaking equipment that was being junked. There should be a museum for this material. To a small extent this has been accomplished by the National Museum of Indian Cinema under Films Division, Bombay, but it requires more work. A journalist, film historian and photographer, Film News Anandan had the largest personal archive of Chennai cinema, but we are not sure how to access that information since he passed away in 2016.
Not enough work has been done about the Chennai film industry and films. Many different elements of the industry require consideration, and there needs to be a meticulous study of the material culture by a specialised team. Primary resources need to be built, and evidences and testimonies need to be collated, interpreted and researched. There are not even enough film studies courses in our universities, even though film studies go beyond a study of arts, cultures, aesthetics, and are relevant to sociological surveys as well.