S.S Vasan’s Chandralekha – A milestone in Indian Cinema
In this week’s Friday Fundas I decided to write about a movie that is considered to be the milestone of Indian Cinema.
The movie name is Chandralekha which got released in the year 1948.
What is so special about this movie? Well this has been the most expensive movie made during its time. The movie was in production for five long years from 1943 to 1948. But the most interesting part is the perseverance, obsession and conviction of its producer / director S.S Vasan. I loved watching the latest movie Hitchcock which is based on Alfred’s Hitchcock’s filming of the Psycho. However after reading about S.S Vasan I found his story to be many folds challenging, visionary and what a true obsession of an individual could produce. Someone could make an interesting movie out of this one. Here is the summary of events (courtesy: Wikipedia)
After producing very successful movies Bala Nagamma and Mangamma Sapatham, S.S Vasan decided to produce an extravagant movie which would not have any budget constraints. He asked the story department of Gemini studios to come up with a story line but they failed to impress him with any story. Without having a story or plot ready S.S Vasan made a public announcement that his next movie would be Chandralekha which would be made on an extravagant budget. One of his story board artists Veppathur Kittoo developed a story based on a chapter from George W. M. Reynolds’ novel Robert Macaire which eventually got made as Chandralekha. During the 5 years of its production the script and cast underwent multiple changes. M.K Radha played one of the princes and Ranjan played the role of his younger brother who was also the villain of the movie. Initially the film was to be directed by Raghavachari who left the film in midway due to creative differences and S.S Vasan who was only a producer till then took up his first ever directorial venture. The film had circus scenes and the technology of zoom lenses were not available during those days to show the expression of the lead heroine Chandralekha played by T.R Rajakumari flying on a trapeze. In order to capture her expression the cinematographer Ramnoth used a crane at that height to capture her expression clearly. He took 20 shots and chose the best one.
Another interesting trivia is when they were scouting for an actor for the role of the bodyguard of the hero, a struggling stage artist Villupuram Chinniah Pillai Ganeshamurthy wanted to do the role. He also grew long hair for the role. But S.S Vasan rejected him and said he is unsuited for films and asked him to find a different profession. Villupuram Chinniah Pillai Ganeshamurthy later went on to become Sivaji Ganesan one of the best actors in Indian Cinema who won many accolades for his acting including the most prestigious award of Chevalier title from the French government. S.S Vasan had cast Seetharaman who was later known as Jawar Seetharaman for the character.
The film is also known for its extravagant dance sequence on drums which occurs during the climax of the movie. This involved 400 dancers who had practiced daily for about 6 months before they did the final performance. The production cost of the song itself was equal to production cost of a Tamil movie in those times. Here is the video of the song. You can guess the amount of effort it would have gone into this.
The movie’s production cost increased day by day and S.S Vasan had to let sell off his wealth and jewels to complete the movie. During these five years he ignored his family responsibilities as well. Finally the movie was done in Rs. 30 lakhs (3 million Rupees). This was only next to the cost of producing a Hollywood movie at that time. The movie was made in Tamil and when it got released it had a very good response from the audience but however it could not recover the production cost. So immediately S.S Vasan made a Hindi version of the movie with some minor change in the cast and released it all over India in the same year and it was a super hit. Finally the movie made a booking of Rs. 1 crore (10 million rupees). This was the first time ever someone proved movies made in one part of India can be marketed and earns more revenue by releasing it in other parts in different language.
You would find many such gem of movie makers when you read through Indian film history who were no less creative than the likes of Hitchcock, George Lucas, Kurosawa. They made movies which had set a bench mark and the Indian Cinema was never the same as before.