Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Modern Threaters, Salem’s erstwhile dream factory

MK Kamalam, the heroine of the first Malayalam talkie film ‘Balan’ died on the 20th of this month. She was 87. The report about her demise mentioned that ‘Balan’ was produced at Modern Theaters Ltd., Salem in 1938.

That reminded me of two things. One was of driving past the studio long ago on the way to visit my children who were studying at Sacred Hearts, Yercaud (SHY). The other was an old photo of my brother-in-law P Thomas Abraham and some of his Montfort School friends with three Hollywood stars. It was taken at Salem in 1952.

The actors, Rod Cameron, Cesar Romero and Marie Windsor who had come down for shooting the movie ‘The Jungle’. It was a joint venture by TR Sundaram, Voltaire Productions Inc., and Robert M. Lippert. The distributors were Lippert Pictures, Inc.

Thomas was kind enough to search out the photo and send it to me. It is reproduced below.

(Click to enlarge. Copyright reserved.)

The story thread of ‘The Jungle’ went something like this: There were several wild animal stampedes in an Indian jungle in which several people in the nearby villages died. The local princess took a great white hunter into the forest to investigate the incidents. They discovered that some prehistoric mammoths caused terror among the wild animals. The great white hunter handles the situation.

‘The Jungle’, directed by William Berke, was released on August 1, 1952. It was a success internationally but did not do too well in India.

Probably that was the only English movie shot at Modern Theaters Ltd., Salem. But the studio produced several pictures in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and Sinhalese. Most of them were hits.

The man of vision who created Modern Theatres was Thiruchengodu Ramalingam Sundaram (TRS). He was born in a family of yarn merchants and textile mill owners, in 1907. He was sent to Leeds, UK, to study textile engineering. He met and married a British girl, Gladys there.

Back home TRS worked for some time in the family business and then followed his own dream. He turned to the cinema field and started Angel Films in Salem which produced a few movies at Calcutta studios. Then TRS decided to establish his own production facilities.

Thus Modern Theaters Ltd. was born. That, I think, was South India’s first film studio. It was not just a cinema shooting place but a full fledged facility with a modern studio which had equipments for talkie making, a laboratory, and recording arrangements.

The first film to roll out of the new studio was `Sathi Ahalya' in 1937. The dream run continued for 45 years and ended in 1982 with `Vetri Namathe'. Many of the 117 films (some sources say over 150) produced there were hits. They covered many genres. Mythology was there of course. Other themes included folklore, comedies, classics, mysteries and original stories.

As the name suggests, Modern Theaters Ltd was a Joint Stock Company and was operated on modern business lines by TRS. There was an efficient production schedule covering two or three movies a year and tight budget controls. This resulted in new attractive products being supplied to the market at regular intervals.

TR Sundaram who had an eye for talent operated the studio on the old Hollywood system of having actors, writers and technicians on payroll. Those attached to Modern Theaters included M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, M. Karunanidhi, Kannadasan, Manohar, Ramasamy, Thangavelu. Jayalalitha, VN Janaki, Manorama, and MN Nambiar have acted in movies made there.

Those introduced by TRS include MR Radha, SV Ranga Rao and Anjali Devi. Mention must also be made of the American, Ellis R. Duncan who successfully directed several films made at Modern Theatres. TRS paid all his people well and without delay.

The first South Indian colour film ‘Alibabavam 40 Thirudargalum’ (1955) was made at Modern Theatres. The MG Ramachandran and P Bhanumathi movie was a big hit. In Malayalam also the first colour film ‘Kandam Becha Coat’ (1961) came out of this Salem institution.

TR Sundaram died in 1963.

By then Madras (now Chennai) was fast becoming the capital of South Indian movie industry. But his son, R. Sundaram took over the management of the great institution the father had started. He did well, concentrating mainly on James Bond-like pictures starring Jai Shankar.

But tragedy struck the family again. A few years later R. Sundaram also died prematurely. With that activities at Modern Theaters ground to a halt. Later the property changed hands. It is now a prestigious housing area.

I wonder how many people are there in the history of world cinema industry comparable to TR Sundaram. He was a one man institution – studio owner, producer, director, financier, company chief, talent scout, inspirational presence. He is a cinema legend that India can be proud of.

Perhaps the present crop of producers who complain so vehemently about high cost of cinema making can possibly learn a thing or two by studying the operational techniques of TR Sundaram.

Also see:

Star wars in Kerala

Malayalam Cinema: Going, going, gone?


Anand Antony said...

Absolutely astounding information. These and others should be compiled in book form.

Maddy said...

i enjoyed reading this - so salem was on the movie map too - would have been called soliwood or something if it existed today. reminded me of a brigadier story by malayatoor...

harimohan said...

very intresting Mr Tharakan


Loved reading this - such a wealth of information.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Anand Antony, Maddy, Harimohan, Raji, sorry for the delay in responding. Thank you for your comments.

Daniel said...

Really Nice information. My Home town also Salem, But now only I knew about Modern theaters history. Thanks Lot!!!

Abraham Tharakan said...

Daniel, I'm glad you liked it.

richi said...


My name is karthi.
T.r.sundaram he is my grand father.If need any thing about his histry mail me to

richi said...


Am karthik .T.R.Sundaram is my grand father .If u need any thing about him mail me to

richi said...


My name is karthi.
T.r.sundaram he is my grand father.If need any thing about his histry mail me to

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you, Karthik.