TR Sundaram was the founder of one of the biggest studios in South India - Modern Theatres at Salem, Tamil Nadu. At its peak Modern Theatres averaged at least three film productions a year and not just in Tamil but also in Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and Sinhalese. He also made the first ever colour film in South India, the MGR - P Bhanumathi swashbuckler, Alibabavam 40 Thirudargalum (1955) as well as the first ever colour film in Malayalam, Kandam Becha Court (1961).
Tiruchengodu Ramalinga Sundaram was born in 1907 into a wealthy family of yarn merchants. He went to England and studied Textile Engineering at Leeds. Back in India, he continued in the textile business for a while till the film bug bit him. Along with SS Velayudham Pillai, Sundaram set up Angel Pictures at Salem. The duo made two films in Calcutta. With the money earned from these films, he set up his own studio at Salem, Modern Theatres. His first film at Modern was Sathi Ahalya (1937). The following year, he produced the first ever Malayalam talkie, Balan.
A product of the studio system, Sundaram organized Modern Theatres more on the lines of a factory. There were about 250 employees. Modern Theatres film was unabashedly and primarily aimed at entertaining the public, without pretence of any sort of social or political issues. The public lapped up these films. At Modern, Sundaram introduced actors who would go to become some of the most famous stars of Tamil cinema - MR Radha, SV Ranga Rao and Anjali Devi.
Sundaram, along with Ellis R Dungan set the tone for much of narrative conventions in Tamil cinema. Both, in fact, worked together in one of MGR's early hits, Manthiri Kumari (1950). In the film, Parthiban (SA Natarajan), son of the royal priest, is crestfallen at not being made the army commandant. To get at the new commandant, Veeramohan (MG Ramachandran), he takes to crime, looting and robbing. The imbecile king has no control of the situation. His daughter Jeeva (G Shakuntala) loves Veeramohan. Meanhwhile the minister's daughter, Amudavalli (Madhuri Devi) grows fond of Parthiban not knowing about his evil side. When she finds out, she tries to reform him. To get rid of her, parthiban takes her to a mountain peak and threatens to push her down. However, she outwits him and kills him instead. She announces his death in the court, only to be killed by the royal priest.The film was much lauded for Madhuri Devi's assertive and strong woman who could handle a sword with skill!
Some of Sundaram's other well-known films include Burma Rani (1944), Sulochana (1946), Athithan Kanavu (1948), Mayavathi (1949), Digambara Samiyar (1950), Sarvadhikari (1951), Vallayapathi (1952) and Baghdad Thirudan (1960) apart from Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum. Among these special mention must be made of Burma Rani, Vallayapathi and Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum.
Burma Rani was a war film where three Indian airmen are forced to land in Burma. Rani, an Indian girl, helps the airmen free the country from Japanese occupation aided by an Indian resistence movement.
Vallayapathi was an adaptation of a well-known legend in Tamil Nadu. The rich childless merchant Vallayapathi (G Muthukrishnan) is married to Sundari (TA Rajalakshmi). He takes a second wife Sathyavathy (Sowcar Janaki). Distressed by the turn of the events, when Sathyavathy becomes pregnant, Sundari feigns pregnancy and makes Valayapathi believes that Sathyavathy's child is not his. Valayapathi rejects Sathyavathy. Sathyavathy seeks refuge with an old man and gives birth to a son Uttaman who grows up to be a brave, intelligent young man (Ramakrishnan). Sundari meanwhile passes off her brother's lover's loutish son Azhgan as hers. Uttaman and Azhgan are rival students. A tattoo is found on Azhgan's body betraying his low cast origins but Sundari manages to hide the mark from Vallayapathi who persecutes Uttaman. Uttaman learns about his parentage and sues his father. Finally after a long court battle as the truth comes out, Sundari commits suicide while Vallayapathi, Sathyavathy and Uttam live happily ever after.
Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum is one of the most popular films ever in the history of Tamil cinema. Based on the famous Arabian folk tale, the film was replete with chart-busting songs, group, several dueling scenes, chases and a cliff hanger finale. Besides MGR as the swashbuckling hero and Bhanumathi as the beautiful heroine, the film boasts of a memorable villainous turn by PS Veerappa as the heartless Abu Hussain. Incientally, Waheeda Rehman, made one of her earliest appearance on film in this film in a dance number.
Sundaram made various types of films but was known for his swashbucklers that later developed into the MGR - Karunanidhi filmic and political signatures.
Besides filmmaking, Sundaram was also the president of the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce from 1949 - 50 and 1956 - 59. It was he who acquired the land on which the building stands presently. He also ran a film magazine, Chandamarutham, with well-known lyricist Kannadasan as its editor.
TR Sundaram passed away in 1963.