Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Crown's First Show!

'Vinod, you are a palakkad iyer, right?', my friend recently asked me. Surprised, i asked back 'why ask?' 'Tell me', he pushed and i answered in the affirmative. 'Its surprising' he said, 'most iyers from palakkad went into teaching or government jobs. Wonder how you guys got into business - that too Cinema!'.

He was right. Think of it or look around - you'd find most palakkad iyers teaching, lecturing or in a cushy government job.

Well, it was a question none had asked me before. Guess thats why i'd never thought of it too. That he asked, i thought and that took me back in time to the day when my father gave me the 'flashback'!

Circa 1910 : My father, Radhakrishna Iyer, the elder of the two brothers who scripted 'The Crown' story, is in the midst of Railway porters somewhere in Andhra Pradesh. My dad (hardly a year old) is with his father, a Station Master with the Indian Railways. One of the porters playfully throws my dad up in the air but fails to catch! The fall results in an injured right arm with which he has to live for the rest of his life.

Excelling in Public relations, he grew up to be known as "The 'saami' with the debilitated right arm". In fact, most patrons thought him to be the sole proprietor of The Crown. And he lived his life to the fullest for 80 eventful years!

But the real hero of 'The Crown Success story' was his younger brother, Ramamoorthy - Handsome, energetic, a man with great business acumen and most importantly, someone who loved cinema!

But for him, i'm sure we'd never have been in showbiz!

The two brothers growing up with their Grandmother in Palakkad attend the local school. They enjoy every bit of the rustic life in their village, Kottayi. While my father is notorious for his 'single-handed' juvenile pranks, the younger brat is famous for absconding for hours togehther.

Later in life, he revealed that those 'absconding' hours were actually spent in the nearest (read five to seven miles) touring cinema!

His silent passion for cinema does not stop with the long 'absconding' hours. Anything related to cinema, that could be carried, found its way to his pocket. And it is a piece of paper from this collection that opens to him an aperture to the World of Cinema.

The piece, a cutting from an old newspaper, is in fact an advertisment of a portable 'chimney projector'. The company, based in Chennai, boasts of high quality projection equiment at a price of 'Rs.8 and change'.

Rs.8 and change... a paltry sum now. But then, those days... it was a 'hefty' figure!

He imagines of how he'd entertain the people of his village with movies; how they'd all flock to see their favourite stars. But where would he get that kind of money? Grandma would shriek at the very 'thought' of buying such an equiment, leave alone entertaining people! He buries the idea well within himself.

What lays buried pops out one day while he and the brat pack are on the treetop plucking tender mangoes! On hearing his 'buried' passion, the reaction, in chorus is, "your 'idea', you idiot, is a 'dream' to many! What the hell are you waiting for?". Inspired by the unexpected support from his peers, he sets out to do what no other in his little village has ever done - Screen a 'movie' in 'kottayi'!

He begs, borrows & saves 'nayapaisa' by 'nayapaisa'. And it takes him 4 months to reach that magic figure.

Though my father claimed to have contributed a lot, i later learnt that all he did was talk to relatives and folks of his kid brother's 'brilliant' idea.

Early summer - the precious equipment arrives in 'Kottayi'. The grand lady of the house is surprised when the postman announces, 'a parcel for A.K.Ramamoorthy'! My uncle dashes to get hold of the parcel before anyone set eyes on it. It takes him two days to convince his grandmother that he has 'rightfully' purchased the projector. And it takes him another three to convince her of his entrepreneurial intentions.

Green signal!

My uncle, ecstatic, carefully follows the instruction manual and assembles the projector. My dad chips in with his 'left' arm! The projector assembled, and two little 'show reels' in a can, all thats needed now is a 'hall with a wall'!!

Remember, we're talking of the 1920s and those days, there weren't any halls in 'kottayi' gramam. The only one that resembled a hall was the school building, and that too when the classroom partitions were removed.

My dad is assigned the task of securing the principal's permission. Taking advantage of the kindess with which people treat him(obviuosly because of his impairment) and with the god given gift of smooth talk, he gets the nod with ease and that too 'free of cost'.

Even before the hand written 'flyers' announcing the 'first' movie in Kottayi are out, the word spreads. 'Ramamoorthy & Radha are bringing the movie to our village!' And everyone who meets dad or uncle have only one question to ask, "When is the 'first show'?"

D-day! Kottayi gramam school is abuzz with kids and grown ups alike. Long before the announced showtime, they are lined up outside kottayi school.

The Box office opens an hour before the show. It takes them an hour to get the crowd in, after collecting the price of admission.

And the price of admission - 1 paisa!

The crowd, close to a hundred and fifty, settle as the chief operator (my uncle) walks in. The expectant crowd urges him to start the show. After all, they've been waiting for a couple of hours.

After ensuring that everything in the equipment is in order, he lights the projection lamp. And as he'd seen & heard in the touring cinemas, he stands up & announces to his audience, "The first show of 'There is many a slip between the cup & the lip' begins........ now!"

He rolls the film reel and opens the shutter! There is a hush... and then the hall is filled with the sounds of the excitement - Kottayi's first 'movie' is on. Silent, Black & White and all of 16mm!

The titles are brief and then walks in the Hero (on screen, i mean). The hall is abuzz with the 'ooohs', 'aaahs' and mumurs of seeing a tall & handsome 'sayip' (read white man). Seating himself in front of a table, he studies the table... A steaming pot of coffee, a cup of sugar, cream, a cup & saucer and of course, a news paper. He takes the cup and pours the steaming coffee into it. Two spoons of sugar and some cream added he stirs the contents of the cup.

He sits back, relaxed, and opens the news paper. Engrossed in some article on the open page he reaches out for his cup of coffee.

He takes the cup in his hand and as he brings it close to his lips, a cat, a white furball, jumps across, scaring the hero, spilling the contents of the cup!

Well... Thats it!

The End!!

Someone in the crowd asks 'Movie over?', 'So soon?'

Well, the brat pack swings into action and bellows 'What more did you expect for 1 paisa?'

Grudginly, yet with a sense of satisfaction (of having seen kottayi's first movie) the crowd move out.

That was Ramamoorthy's & Radha's first show! In fact, The Crown's (the name they'd thought of for the cinema house they'd own some day) First show!!

It took them 20 years, several failed business ventures and a chance meeting (with a splendid young man named Venugopal) to manage and eventually own The Crown.

Now, that my friends, is another story...