Pancake was the brand name of the makeup material that Gemini Studios bought in truckloads. Greta Garbo must have used it, Miss Gohar must have used it, Vyjayanthimala must also have used it but Rati Agnihotri may not have even heard of it.
The make-up room had the look of a haircutting salon with lights at all angles around half a dozen large mirrors. They were all incandescent lights, so you can imagine the fiery misery of those subjected to make-up. The make-up department was first headed by a Bengali man who became too big for a studio and left. He was succeeded by a Maharashtrian who was assisted by a Dharwar Kannadiga, an Andhrite, a Madras Indian Christian, an Anglo-Burmese and the usual local Tamils. All this shows that there was a great deal of national integration long before the AIR. and Doordarshan began broadcasting programmes on national integration. The gang of nationally integrated make-up men could turn any decent-looking person into a hideous crimson-hued monster with the help of truckloads of pancake and a number of other locally made potions and lotions.
Those were the days of mainly indoor shooting, and only 5 per cent of the film was shot outdoors. I suppose the sets and studio lights needed the girls and boys to be made to look ugly in order to look presentable in the movie. A strict hierarchy was maintained in the make-up department. The chief make-up man made the chief actors and actresses look ugly, his senior assistant the ‘second’ hero and heroine, the junior assistant the main comedian, and so forth. The players who were part of the crowd scene were the responsibility of the office boy.
In all instances of frustration, you will always find the anger directed towards a single person openly or covertly, and this man of the make-up department was convinced that all his woes, ignominy and neglect were due to Kothamangalam Subbu. Subbu was the No. 2 at Gemini Studios. He always had to work for somebody—he could never do things on his own—but his sense of loyalty made him identify himself with his principal completely and turn his entire creativity to his principal’s advantage. He was tailor-made for films. Here was a man who could be inspired when commanded. ‘The rat fights the tigress underwater and kills her but takes pity on the cubs and tends them lovingly. I don’t know how to do the scene,’ the producer would say, and Subbu would come out with four ways for the rat to pour affection on its victim’s offspring. ‘Good, but I am not sure it is effective enough,’ the producer would say, and in a minute Subbu would come out with fourteen more alternatives.
Gemini Studios was the favourite haunt of poets like S.D.S. Yogiar, Sangu Subramanyam, Krishna Sastry and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. It had an excellent mess which supplied good coffee at all times of the day and for most part of the night. Barring the office boys and a couple of clerks, everybody else at the studios radiated leisure, a prerequisite for poetry. Most of them wore khadi and worshipped Gandhiji but beyond that they had not the faintest appreciation for political thought of any kind. Naturally, they were all averse to the term ‘communism’. A communist was a godless man: he had no filial or conjugal love; he had no compunction about killing his own parents or his children; he was always out to cause and spread unrest and violence among innocent and ignorant people. Such notions that prevailed everywhere else in South India at that time, naturally, floated about vaguely among the khadi-clad poets of Gemini Studios. Evidence of it was soon to come.
When Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament Army (MRA), some 200-strong, visited Madras sometime in 1952, they could not have found a warmer host in India than Gemini Studios. Someone called the group an international circus. They weren’t very good on the trapeze and their acquaintance with animals was only at the dinner table, but they presented two plays in a most professional manner. Their Jotham Valley and The Forgotten Factor ran several shows in Madras; the Gemini family of 600 saw the plays over and over again. The message of the plays was usually plain and simple homilies, but the sets and costumes were first-rate. Madras and the Tamil drama community were terribly impressed and for some years almost all Tamil plays had a scene of sunrise and sunset in the manner of Jotham Valley, with a bare stage, a white background curtain and an accompanying tune.
A few months later, the telephone lines of the big bosses of Madras buzzed and once again we at Gemini Studios cleared a whole shooting stage to welcome another visitor. All they said was that he was a poet from England. The only poets from England the simple Gemini staff knew or heard of were Wordsworth and Tennyson; the more literate ones knew of Keats, Shelley and Byron; and one or two might have faintly come to know of someone by the name Eliot. Who was the poet visiting Gemini Studios now?
‘He is not a poet. He is an editor. That’s why the Boss is giving him a big reception.’ Vasan was also the editor of the popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan.
At last, around four in the afternoon, the poet (or the editor) arrived. He was a tall man, very English, very serious and, of course, quite unfamiliar to all of us. Battling with half a dozen pedestal fans on the shooting stage, the Boss read out a long speech. The speech was all in the most general terms but here and there it was peppered with words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Then the poet spoke. He couldn’t have addressed a more dazed and silent audience. No one knew what he was talking about and his accent defeated any attempt to understand what he was saying. The whole thing lasted about an hour; then the poet left and we all dispersed in utter bafflement. What were we doing? What was an English poet doing at a film studio that made Tamil films for the simplest sort of people? People whose lives least afforded them the possibility of cultivating a taste for English poetry?
The final encounter with Stephen Spender
The great prose writers of the world may not admit it, but my conviction grows stronger day after day that prose writing is not and cannot be the true pursuit of a genius. It is for the patient, persistent, persevering drudge with a heart so shrunken that nothing can break it; rejection slips don’t mean a thing to him; he at once sets out making a fresh copy of the long prose piece and sends it on to another editor, enclosing postage for the return of the manuscript. It was for such people that The Hindu had published a tiny announcement in an insignificant corner of an unimportant page: a short story contest organized by a British periodical by the name of Encounter. Of course, the Encounter wasn’t a known commodity among the Gemini literati. I wanted to get an idea of the periodical before I spent a considerable sum in postage in sending a manuscript to England. In those days, the British Council Library had an entrance with long-winded signboards and notices to make you feel like you were sneaking into a forbidden area. And there were copies of the Encounter lying about in various degrees of freshness, almost untouched by readers. When I read the editor’s name, I heard a bell ringing in my shrunken heart. It was the poet who had visited Gemini Studios. I felt like I had found a long lost brother and I sang as I sealed the envelope and wrote out his address. I felt that he too would be singing the same song at the same time—long lost brothers of Indian films discover each other by singing the same song in the first reel and in the final reel of the film. Stephen Spender. Stephen Spender—that was his name.
And years later, when I was out of Gemini Studios and I had lots of time but not much money, anything at a reduced price attracted my attention. On the footpath in front of the Madras Mount Road Post Office, there was a pile of brand new books for fifty paise each. I paid fifty paise and picked up a copy of the book, The God That Failed. Six eminent men of letters in six separate essays described ‘their journeys into Communism and their disillusioned return’: André Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender. Stephen Spender! Suddenly the book assumed tremendous significance. Stephen Spender, the poet who had visited Gemini Studios! In a moment I felt a dark chamber of my mind lit up by a hazy illumination. The reaction to Stephen Spender at Gemini Studios was no longer a mystery. The Boss of Gemini Studios may not have much to do with Spender’s poetry. But not at all with his god that failed.
Excerpted with permission from Still Bleeding from the Wound, Ashokamitran, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, Penguin Books India.