1942 started a ruinous stint for the nascent talkie industry of Madras.
Wartime evacuations of both audience and producers (AVM moved to Devakottai Rastha) and restriction of post dusk shows had already hit the industry hard.
Then came the next jolt. German film technology (AGFA film mainly) had sustained Indian cinema with negative raw stock all along. But with the factory now in enemy hands, films became scarce.
The Defence of India act (1939) was exercised, to announce in May 1942 that “no person shall produce any cinematograph film the length of which exceeds 11,000 feet”. In addition this was also the limit for the aggregate film for any one show (to hamper cinema theatres from cunningly clubbing two split parts of a film).
It was joked that the government had used its censoring powers by cutting off an entire half of the show. Unfortunately the wizards of the Tamil cinema were caught unawares. Most had graduated from the stage , playing all night dramas till it dawned and lacked the dexterity of concisely narrating a story, let alone in half its schedule.
Most movies were musicals and 40 songs were routine. Songs were important for the publicity of the movie as well, with the gramophone records taking news of it to every nook and corner.
And so film production dwindled considerably in Madras- From 39 films in 1940 to 14 in 1943.
There was a battle of editorials. ”The tempo of the storytelling would speed up,” commented Kalki Krishnamurthy- one of the staunchest critics of British rule who unpredictably welcomed the restriction. Reviewing the first length restricted movie, he wrote “The length curb is the most constructive amongst the wartime tenets”. He even added, “watching a cinema for more than 2 hours could be detrimental to the health of the audience”!
His previous boss, Gemini studio’s SS Vasan was in the other camp, being the head of the Film Chamber of commerce. He labelled the decree as ruthless and fought tooth and nail to increase limits to atleast 14000 feet. To garner support for his cause, he held a tea party for news editors of Madras and explained to them his side of the story. Swadesamitran and Dinamani came out with supportive articles the next day. Vasan also had an article entitled“Emergency in cinema” in his own magazine, Ananda Vikadan.
Kalki not a man to ignore a gauntlet, geared up for a fight. He assumed a new pseudonym (one amongst his 10-12) Tamilmagan-. Son of Tamil and wrote “Is Gandhi in jail? Let him be. Are citizens hungry? Let them be. There is no imperativeness or time for all that now. Cinema footage is the weightiest issue in the homeland today. We need to agitate for another 3000 feet. Otherwise there is peril for the nation” he commented caustically.
It was not just personal animosity with Vasan that triggered Kalki to write so. He sincerely thought movies would improve because needless and lewd scenes would become tougher to append.
The government didn’t budge and further ordered that major studios make one war propaganda film for every two commercial ones they produced. Movies like Burma Rani (which had a coloured dance sequence (done by hand and perhaps the first colour movie in India) even lampooned distant Hitler with the villain having a similar moustache.
But besides statistics, there was a human angle too in this restrictive period. Star-crossed artists seeking roles during those days faced a dearth of them. Most actually missed their prime, got dejected and deserted their passions.
But persistent actors stuck on, no role being too demeaning to play ,for the duration of the war. One of them-MGR spent his first decade working in two bit roles and finally got his chance as a hero only in 1946.
By the time the constraints were lifted, the prominence of songs had waned in the audience preferences. Actors who could ejaculate fiery monologues were in demand and so were script writers to pen them. Annadurai and Karunanidhi got their chances as script makers.
And thus this film scarcity projected three chief ministers of state, shaping its history for a long time to come.