Writing fluently in both Tamil & English, Ashokamitran was a legend. It was on this day last month he passed away. As a remembrance, I got the book “Fourteen Years with Boss” published by Penguin books in 2016.
We get transported on January 4, 1951, just after independence, to the Nizam state of Hyderabad. Ashokamitran accompanies his father for a check-up in a small Railway Dispensary at Chilkalguda. His father gets prescribed a “mixture” called Carminative mixture and magsulph. I too remember my childhood days when our family doctor in Madras, used to be dispensing medicines made in his clinic, instead of today’s practice of buying everything in a pharmacy. Two days of taking the mixture didn’t help and Ashokamitran’s father gets admitted to Lalaguda Hospital, after about 10 days of treatment his dad, dies for no apparent cause. Suddenly the young Ashokamitran, aged 19, is tasked to be the head of the family shouldering the responsibility for their well-being. He manages to make a living in Secunderabad by taking tuition classes for students when suddenly he gets a condolence letter from S.S.Vasan, the boss of Gemini Studios and Editor-Publisher of Ananda Vikatan, the Tamil Magazine of repute. Sri Vasan was a friend of Ashokamitran’s father, we get to read the interesting story of how an ordinary railway employee got to know the great Businessman. That letter and later the meeting with Vasan on the 15th of November 1951 changed the life of the Author.
Today I gave this book to my dad to read, reading the introduction my dad shared this – my grandfather Sri Krishnaswamy Sarmaji (Founder of LIFCO Books in 1929) had lent Rs.7 to Sri Vasan when he was just starting Ananda Vikatan!
On the 26th of February 1952, Ashokamitran joins as the assistant to the public relations officer in the sprawling Gemini Studios which at the time had over 600 full-time employees. Even unpleasant ordeals when they get Ashokamitran’s touch they feel magical. Look at what he says happened to The Three Sons (1952) film – the R.K. Narayanan treatment was close to papyral disintegration, or when he talks of his mundane tasks at Gemini – my duty was to mutilate large numbers of newspapers … The mountains of magazines and trade journals to which Gemini Studios subscribed were not to be cut from, so I had to copy out in longhand thousands of news items, reports, articles and reviews from them. Anyway, next to the principal secretary of the prime minister, I was probably the most informed man in India and perhaps I was one better because I knew a couple of spies too.
We read about how Rajaji watched Avvaiyar (1953) film twice only to deride it in his diary jottings, and how badly ill “Venus of the Indian Screen” Madhubala was during the shooting of Bahut Din Huwe (1954). Today when we see a black and white movie we make fun of the dollop of makeup the actors were having on their faces those days. Ashokamitran writes about it “Pancake was the brand name of the makeup material that Gemini Studios bought in truckloads… Vyjayanthimala must also have used it but Rati Agnihotri may not have even heard about it. The make-up department of Gemini Studios was on the top floor of a building that was believed to have been Edward Clive’s stables.” The son of Robert Clive had lived in Madras, a whole 150 years back to the time the Author walked into that building.
We get to read about Kothamangalam Subbu, the No.2 at Gemini Studios, who is remembered even today by Tamil moviegoers for his musical comedy Thillana Mohanambal (1968). Ashokamitran says that Subbu was tailor-made for films, he was a man who could be inspired when commanded which (of course) S.S.Vasan did!. The story continues with C. Ramachandra doing music for the Hindi film Insaniyat (1955) and what Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) had to do with the Gemini film. The author captures the uncomplicated everyday life of those days when he writes “Those were the happy days of carefree air travel – no admission fee, no security check, perhaps not even tickets… At about 4.45 p.m. the car would zoom out of the studio with the actor still gloriously ugly in his make-up. On reaching the airport, both the actor and the driver would abandon the car and rush towards the aircraft. I had, on many occasions, feared that in the excitement the driver would be the one in the plane, leaving the actor on the runway, still trying to wipe off the paint on his face.”
We think of regret letters from big businesses to be cold and they are written by boatloads of lawyers for their multinational giant owners. Not really, they existed even in the days of Gemini Studios. Read this one that Ashokamitran’s PR department was sending as a reply to the bags of studio mail they received – “While being deeply grateful to you for the keen interest evinced by you, we are extremely sorry that the nature of our work does not permit requests like the one in your letter to be met in a mutually convenient manner. We trust you will appreciate our position…“.
We come to the end of the book, it is 6th June 1966, fourteen years from the time Ashokamitran joined Gemini Studios, he goes to see the boss, instead, the boss’s son is in his seat, he tells him “I am resigning“. And that’s how he moves away from Gemini Studios. Three years later, the Boss died of cancer.
What a novel! starts with the death of the author’s father and ends with the death of his Boss. The characters we see in the book, unlike Gemini Studios films are no villains or heroes, they are ordinary people who come alive and play their role assigned to them by Ashokamitran and fade away.