In the early sixties, in the golden era of black and white movies, one of the glossy film magazines of Bombay made a discovery. They found out that while the best films were being made in that western metropolis, the silver jubilee hits, the films that ran for months and years even, were being made elsewhere.
This was surprising because at that time Bombay films were at their peak of creativity with great producers and scripts writers and music composers and actors and tragic queens all gathered in that city. This was the time when actors and writers had come from Lahore, then called the Paris of the east, writers like Sadat Hasan Manto and KA Abbas, and actors like Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni and lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi and composers like Naushad and Husanlal. You name it and they were all there. And the films that were produced there, in black and white, were remarkable and stark and there were a hit not only across India but even in the entire Maghreb and even the Soviet Union and China.
But the editors of the magazine came to realise that while such great films were being made in Bombay and they ran for months across the Northern cities, something else was happening. They found, or their distributers informed them, that the films that were running for years were being produced elsewhere and these had hardly any big names or great music or even themes. The hero of these films, Rajendra Kumar, was also described as wooden faced, but he also came to known as ‘Jubilee Kumar’ because all his films were jubilee hits, running for months and even years.
Now the magazine’s inquisitive editors wanted to find out what was the secret of this success and deputed a veteran critic to find this out. The critic made discreet enquiries and found out, after meeting some distributers and others in the fraternity, that these hits were being made, not in Bombay, but in Hyderabad. This was surprising because Nizam’s fabled city was not particularly known for making Hindi films and even the regional films in Telugu were produced in Madras.
He made further enquires and found that the financiers of these films were the tobacco growers of Guntur in Coastal Andhra Pradesh. The plot was beginning to get thicker. He was also told that if there was a bumper tobacco crop one year that was reflected in the number of Hindi films that were produced that year. The mansions of these tobacco growers in Guntur were palatial, and had swimming pools and winding stairs from the drawing rooms and these were built on a grand scale. These were naturally used as sets for the films.
The critic also found out that the scripts for these films were being written in another place that was far south. Finally he found himself in Madras and made his way to a suburb called Thousand Lights, a bustling market place with rows of shops and on the first floor of these were lodges. It was in one of these lodges that he finally ran into the miracle workers. As he entered one of the dingy rooms, he found two persons sitting on the floor cross-legged and scribbling on foolscap paper. These were the script writers and they were CN Annadurai and Muthuvel Karunanidhi. They lived on tea and bananas and smoked beedis. After introducing himself the critic said he had been on a long journey for finding out the secret of their success. At this Karunanidhi kept his pen aside and asked the critic one question; which is the best seller in the country.
Even more puzzled, the critic just shook his head. Karunanidhi then said that the best seller, and which has always been in print, was the epic Ramayana. Coming from an avowed atheist and Dravdian champion, and who despise all the Gods of the North, and of the Aryan race that has been accused of imposing their gods and language on the South, this was the last thing he had expected. Karunanidhi went on to explain that the epic was the perfect story and that it had all the ingredients that make for great plots. There are supernatural elements, there animals of all variety, there is intrigue, family machinations and there are subaltern deviousness, palace conspiracies. All these are present in this epic. You take any one episode and weave a script out of it and you have the audiences eating out of your hand.
The jubilee wave, in any case, was too good to last. The scriptwriters became busy with governing the state, the tragic death of the Marlborough man, the cowboy on horseback that was the advertisement for cigarettes, died tragically of cancer and there was world-wide ban on tobacco. The boom period for Guntur was over. And Bombay’s film world began to look elsewhere for plots and finances. By that time the Emergency had come and with it censorship and these were turbulent times. It was during these uncertain times that another film was made and promptly got into problems with the censors. This was the film Sholay that was to become the game changer. This also heralded the arrival of the angry young man as hero. The gentle and tragic Dilip Kumar had to make way for the brash young and hungry Amitabh Bachchan. By then colour had come and the entire scene changed. The eighties were a total change from the earlier era and things seemed to pick up speed.
Karunanidhi also confounded everybody, including his admirers, with his honouring the Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, who had not been the favourite of rationalists and had been scoffed at for his penchant for materialising ash from out of thin air. Karunanidhi honoured him greatly and said any person who could provide drinking water for the people was God incarnate. Sai Baba had been instrumental in bringing the Krishna waters to Madras and he also brought the water to the parched Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh as well.