Challenges of researching /writing about the ‘Silent film era’ in South India

In the early 80’s S.Theodore Baskaran wrote and published ‘THE MESSAGE BEARERS’. Close to 40 years later, this book continues to possibly be the only thoroughly researched book that speaks of the cultural space that existed in Tamilnadu ( all regions and presidencies/individual princely states that encompasses Tamil speaking folk in the pre-Independence era). The two other books that are also generally referred to are the ones – ‘STAR LIGHT – STAR BRIGHT’ by Randor Guy, and ‘Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai’ written by Aranthai Narayanan (Narayanan touches the whole history of Tamil cinema, and also includes a chapter touching upon the Silent Film Era). These latter two books although largely informative and equally recommendable, however do not have much of ‘index based Footnotes/primary source reference’ to specific views claimed by the author and therefore the reliability of the printed text, is therefore questionable. Hundreds of books have probably been written on Thamizh cinema since then, but most, if not all – begin from the period of the Talkies, onward. Kalidas is the starting point, for most of these books.
With the debate of the 100th year of Tamil cinema continuing, very recently, Prof.Vel Murugan has written a book, focussing almost exclusively on the Silent Film Era. Titled ‘Tamil Thiraipada Nootrandu 2018’, Vel Murugan makes the claim that ‘Keechaka Vatham’ was not released in the year 2016. Murugan has also worked on ‘THE HINDU’ Archives (This author has also had the privilege of working with the same) , and picks out and reproduces several rare print articles that touch upon various films which include ‘Nataraja Mudaliar’s articles’, ‘Balan – The First Malayalam talkie Film’, JC Daniel’s Vigathakumaran, the copyright case surrounding the only surviving silent film made in South India – Raja Marthanda Varma etc. It is a truely commendable job, and most definitely warrants a read. ( I have now started reading this book, and it looks very interesting. I don’t seem to find any direct documents that support Vel Murugan’s claim of ‘Keechaka Vatham’ releasing in the year 1918. Maybe, by the time, I finish the book, I would have a better understanding.)
A few months ago, film maker – Ajayan Bala, also has told me, that he is also currently written a book on the ‘Silent Film Era’, which is due for release, quite soon.
Off course, the work of scholar – Stephen Hughes in this space is legendary, and unmatched. But then, who else? Film Producer G.Dhananjayan, winner of two national awards, and author of two books, too starts only from “Kalidas 1931”.

TIMES OF INDIA’ Database not available for Individual Researchers. Institutions can license it for 4,000 dollars to 25,000 dollars, onward.

So, what makes research around the ‘Silent Film Era’ in Tamilnadu so challenging? Considering that millions of copies of (100-200) Rupee books pour out each year on various facets of Tamil cinema along the ages, why is so little work done on this very interesting space of ‘The Silents’? Based on the little time that i have spent and been compiling information in this zone, here are some of my views.
  1. Lack of information –¬†There is a sheer paucity of ‘film related¬†information’ which was printed even then in that era (1900-1930), because it was not considered as a break through and socially balancing form of entertainment by the intelligentsia of its time. More over, it was considered a morally degradable form of entertainment at that time.
  2. Survivability : Most of the print institutions which issued advertisements or wrote articles in the early 1900’s to the 1930’s have shut down. Millions of articles printed back then, have not withstood the sands of time.¬†A substantial amount of film advertisements were issued on disposable ‘paper pamphlets’, and since there is no centralized organization to store/tag these documents, they have been lost.
  3. Priorities: Most importantly, the concept of ‘Preservation/Archiving’ was never and allocation of resources to that goal, has never been given the priority by either the governments of the past, or the present.
  4. Lack of access –
    1. Even with whatever information of that period that has survived, it continues to be difficult to access. Digital copies of ‘The Madras Mail’/’The Times of India’ can be accessed by students of specific universities ( Universities buy subscriptions, which translate into money). Freelance writers are denied access to these Digital Databases, on the grounds that they are not university students, irrespective of their interests in this space. The ‘access fee’ to such databases is also obscenely expensive. For e.g. Access to ‘THE TIMES OF INDIA’ archives can be availed for 25,000 dollars.
    2. ‘THE HINDU’, Madras is much better in this regard. If you sent a formal email to the HINDU Library, and mail them, the requirement, researchers can avail some sort of ‘restricted access’, through Digital Technology and OCR. The library Staff at the Hindu, run your ‘search words’ through their computers, and pull out results that appears, and provide them to you, in a separate computer. But OCR can miss many searches which can be found through manual search. For eg. The O.C.R at The Hindu Archives did not pick up two advertisements of the ‘General Pictures Corporation’ (1930)¬† and M.U.A.C (1938 – Talkie Era) ads). Researchers if provided ‘direct access’, can manually scour through nook and corner of the paper, but direct access to the archives is currently denied. In the circumstances, this is a very useful bet for researchers.
  5. Cost of access – The cost of access is exorbitantly expensive. (Hindu Archives licensing cost / TOI online database etc). There is no mass scale market for writers that can justify such huge access costs and therfore this can only lead to substandard forms of research, because the researchers wishes to carefully use the funds allocated to them. In case for freelance writers / writers who wish to publish under Creative Commons etc, the chances of obtaining access to such info is virtually null.
  6. Naming terminology – Since Silent films were made in different languages, different names were used. Mapping the local name to the other language names and filtering them out is a very difficult task. For eg.
    1. There is an article of 1920, discovered by this author, which speaks of ‘India Film company’ of Madras showing a film called ‘Keechak Badh’. From our available information, we can understand that this was Tamil cinema’s first film ‘Keechaka Vatham’, which was retitled (possibly in Bengali / Hindi /English) and screened in Calcutta a few years later.
    2. Associated Films made a film called ‘Virgin Valley’, this can be easily translated into the popular¬†colloquial story ‘Kanni Theevu’, which would likely have been the original Tamil name, for the film. It also made another film called ‘Untouchability’. Is this film ‘Nandhanaar’? We can’t ve sure, since there may have been some other colloquial social story based on a similar theme. More over, in the list provided by Theodore Baskaran in his book, Baskaran provided another English name for ‘Nandhanaar’ as (Nandanaar or elevation of the downtrodden). So how does one verify what the actual Tamil name of the film ‘Untouchability’ was?
  7. No sources to cross verify information – Unlike info of the talkie era, which can be cross verified, it is difficult to cross verify any new information, if any which is found on silent era, the reason being that even primary sources themselves make mistakes. For.
    1. Eg in 1921, the Hindu speaks of a film called ‘Mahabharatha’ which was banned in Madura, without mentioning the name of the film’s ‘Director’ or the ‘Studio/production company’ which made the film. However in reading the details of the¬†article, discussions ( with Bhaskarendra Ramineni) and matching the dates, we realise that the film was not titled ‘Mahabharatha’, but the film ‘Bhaktha Vidur’ made by Kanji bhai rathod. (Or alternatively, ‘Bhaktha Vidur’ could have been renamed as ‘Mahabharatha’ when it was shown in Madura).
    2. If we found an image from the Silent film era  and someone claimed it was of a particular film, there is very little chance of cross verifying that information, because obtaining a secondary source article to match that primary article is indeed very difficult.

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