While all major production houses of yesteryear have shut down or are running in different avatars, a notable exception is the AVM Film Company, still going strong 60 years down the line, its next film being perhaps the most eagerly awaited Indian film in recent times, Rajinikant's Sivaji, The Boss! This speaks volumes about its founder AV Meiyappan whose legacy continues to inspire so many years after his death.
Meiyappan was born in 1907 to a family of Chettiars. His father Avichi Chettiar ran a store AV & Sons that sold gramophone records. Joining his father, while still a teenager, Meiyappan decided that they must produce gramophone records rather than just market them. He joined friends and came to Madras and through Saraswathi Stores produced several records. These included drama sets mosotly mythological in nature like Ramayanam. Saraswathi Stores was also the distributor for the German Odeon label.
Meiyappan made his debut as a producer with Saraswathi Sound's Alli Arjuna (1935). However the film bombed miserably as did his next Ratnavali made with different partners under a new company, Saraswathi Talkie Producing Company. He then teamed up with Jayanthilal, a cinema house owner and promoted a new company, Pragati Pictures Ltd.
Meanwhile at Prabhat Film Company in Pune, Kehavrao Daibar (one of the famous four of Prabhat besides Damle, Fatehlal and V Shantaram) was planning a Marathi film on the boyhood of Lord Krishna and was on the lookout for a suitable collaborater in the making of a tamil version. He contacted Jayanthilal. Meiyappan took up the challenge and launched Nandakumar. Nandakumar saw the introduction of playback singing in Tamil Cinema as Lalitha Venkataraman sang for the character playing Devaki.
Meiyappan then made films like Bhukalidasa (1940), still considered to be the best-known version of the Ramayana episode, Poli Panchali (1940) and Sabhapati (1941), both comedies. Srivalli (1945), a well-known mythological folk story was another super success. Incidentally, on hearing feedback that the singing of Rukmini was not good enough in the film, Meiyappan got Periyanayaki to sing. Technicians worked round the clock to 'lip-sync' the song. Reels of the film were recalled and new ones rushed to theatres. This was something no producer ever did once the film was released! Following Srivalli's success, Meiyappan established the AVM banner and AVM sudio at Karraikudi, his hometown, where he took a drama auditorium with a large open area around it on long lease and put up a studio.
The first AVM Film Company's Production was Nam Iruvar (1947), based on Sahasranamam's stage hit. The film was a political and patriotic melodrama, replete with Nationalist symbols. The film begins with a Subramanya Bharati anniversary and ends with Gandhi's 77th birthday celebrations. In the film, the younger sister of the heroine dances on a decorated drum with national flags draped behind her to Bharati's Kottu Murase, prefiguring the famous drum dance of Chandralekha (1948). The film was a precursor to the classic DMK films made by the AVM Film Company later.
With SS Vasan having led the way with Chandralekha, the AVM film company too entered the Hindi film scenario with Bahar (1951), a remake of Vazhkai (1949), Vyjayantimala's debut film. With Bahar, Vyjayantimala was introduced to Hindi film audiences. The film was a super hit, in no small measure due to Vyjayantimala's dances and SD Burman's scintillating musical score (Saiyaan Dil Mein Aana Re, Qasoor Aapka, Bhagwan Do Ghadi Zara Insaan Banke Dekh, Sataye Hue ko Sataati Hai Duniya among others).
Perhaps the most well-known film produced by Meiyappan was Parasakthi (1952), also mega-star Sivaji Ganesan's film debut. The film is one of the most controversial films in the history of Tamil Cinema, replete with assonant monologues. It owed its success in large part to its dialogues written by Karunanidhi who used the film to express his ideas on religion, god and priesthood. The success of the film not only made Sivaji a star, but also the official icon of the DMK party for some years.
Meiyappan now began producing films steadily creating a unique production infrastructure in four languages - Tamil, Telegu, Kannada and Hindi. He was now based in Madras having shifted there in the late 1940s. AVM also pioneered the practice of dubbing productions. Popular films in Tamil include Andha Naal (1954), Kalathur Kannama (1960) which saw Kamal Hassan make his debut as a child actor, Server Sundaram (1964) and Major Chandrakanth (1966) while AVM's major Hindi Films include Ladki (1953), the Raj Kapoor - Nargis starrer Chori-Chori (1956), Bhai Bhai (1956), Bhabi (1957), Chhaya (1961), Main Chup Rahungi (1962), Pooja ke Phool (1964) and Do Kaliyaan (1968). An AVM film always signified clean wholesome family entertainement. Meiyappan realized the story was the lifeline of a good film and so paid great attention to the theme, plot and storyline of his films and knew exactly how to mix drama, comedy, music, song and dance and other elements into a well-defined script that would be appreciated by cine-goers.
By the mid 1970s, however, production activity had slowed down in the AVM Film company, the studio being quite dormant.
Meiyappan passed away on August 12, 1979. His wish was that his sons continue producing films after him and in 1980 after a long hiatus, the film AVM Film Company came back with a bang with the Rajinikanth starrer Murattu Kalai. The megahit comfirmed Rajini's superstar status while the film's hit song Podhuva En Manasu Thangam Oru Pottiynu Vandhu Vita Singam became a cult favourite, featuring prominently even in the election campaign of 1996! AVM produced other films like the Kamal Hassan starrer Sahakala Vallavan (1982) and Payam Puli (1983), continuing a steady flow of films through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1997 celebrating 50 years of the banner produced the super-hit Minsaara Kanavu (1997) starring Arvind Swamy, Prabhu Deva and Kajol. The film was also dubbed into Hindi as Sapne. Today as it turns 60, unprecedented frenzy is building up for the release of the banner's new Rajinikanth film, Sivaji, The Boss.
Among the films Meiyappan made, he is credited with the direction of Sabhapati, En Manaivi (1942) with Sundar Rao Nadkarni, Sivalli, Nam Iruvar and Vethala Ulagam (1948). He also wrote his autobiography Enadhu Vazhkai Anubhavangal (The Experiences in My Life) in 1974.