A slim compilation of B Nagi Reddi’s memories is a welcome addition to the increasing number of books on Indian cinema.
In the introduction to Many Shades Make a Rainbow: Reminiscences of B Nagi Reddi, the publisher (and Nagi Reddi’s son), Viswam, lays out what the book is about. He says that his father’s birth centenary year (1912-1913) coincided with the centenary of Indian cinema. “Father’s recollection of several veterans of that world – of artists, as well as entrepreneurs – is a tribute to them.” The book is also a tribute to Reddi. In the preface, Prof. Manoj Das describes how, on the eve of India stepping into “the light of freedom,” Reddi and his friend Chakrapani, “based in the city of Madras (now Chennai), were thinking about the future, to be more precise, the future of the present-day children of India as well as of the children of tomorrow. Ours was a nation with a difference. We were so many States with so many cultures and languages, but most certainly bound by and united at a sublime plane – our common heritage. The children must be made aware of it.”
The two friends decided to bring out a magazine that would speak to the children of India in the children’s own mother tongues and reveal to them the glories of their motherland, in the form of stories, pictorial serialisation of the epics, and the treasures of the Panchatantra (the world’s first collection of fables), the Katha-sarit-sagara (the first collection of fiction), and the Jatakas (the world’s first collection of parables and didactic tales). The monthly publication began in three languages and slowly expanded to twelve and, for a while, even more – including Sanskrit and Braille. It became Asia’s largest circulated children’s magazine. It was called Chandamama.
That, in itself, would warrant a full-length book on Reddi, but he also founded Vijaya Vauhini, which was, at one point, Southeast Asia’s largest film studio. And he established the Vijaya Medical & Educational Trust, which runs the Vijaya group of hospitals and health centres. Das writes, “There is no dearth of entrepreneurs; there were and are so many commercially far more successful persons than Reddi-ji. The subtle difference between such a successful entrepreneur and Reddi-ji is that whatever the latter launched had a purpose above commerce. Chandamama was for uniting the young readers of the nation under a common umbrella; each of the films he produced had a sound social message; then there was the Vijaya group of hospitals with the obvious ideal of welfare.”
Hearing about a book on Reddi, therefore, one would expect an encyclopaedic tome. But Many Shades Make a Rainbow is a slim volume, what Das calls a “tiny work of Reddi’s reminiscences,” a combination of what Reddi casually narrated and what he said on being prodded by those close to him. This is, in some ways, not the kind of book you’d get from a major publisher, one that would be stocked on the shelves of major bookstores throughout the country. It’s more like something produced for a small group of intimates – family and friends. (There’s even a family tree.) I don’t know if Viswam tried approaching a major publisher, but even if he had, he may not have found much encouragement. He may have been told, “This book won’t sell.”
I tried pitching a book about K Balachander once, after he won Indian cinema’s highest honour, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for the year 2010. This was the man who launched Rajinikanth’s career and shepherded a child actor named Kamal Haasan into adult roles. He was probably Tamil cinema’s first auteur, leaving his unmistakable stamp all over his creations. In the first five minutes, you could see that this was “a K Balachander film.” I felt he deserved documenting. But publishers felt differently. They said that not many, up north, have heard of him, and as the population that reads is less than the population that watches non-Hindi cinema, the book was simply not viable. I pointed out that mainstream publishers had brought out excellent books on Helen and Leela Naidu, who were not exactly household names in the South. So why the hesitation when it came to books about those who may not be household names in the North? There were no clear answers.
So in the something-is-better-than-nothing tradition, a slim compilation of Reddi’s memories is a welcome addition to the increasing number of books on Indian cinema. The early chapters paint a quiet picture of life in a village in pre-Independence India and of Reddi’s participation in the freedom movement. “By now, I decided to wear only khadi clothes… Like Gandhiji, I began walking barefoot. Small wonder, the villagers began to call me ‘Little Gandhi’.” Then we move to the publications – Andhra Jyothi, Chandamama –and then to the films. Reddi remembers Enga Veettu Pillai and its success, and, later, MGR telling him that he wanted to make a film to find out how people would react to his entry into politics. Reddi suggested remaking the Telugu hit, Kathanayakudu, which featured NT Rama Rao. MGR agreed. Nam Naadu was made.
“When it was released, we both went to Mekala Theatre to watch the reaction of the viewers. Except for the manager, no one was aware of our presence. It was a pleasant evening and the doors had been kept wide open. MGR stood leaning on one side of the door and I was leaning on the other. There was a scene in which Jayalalitha, the heroine of the movie, appeared singing the song Vaangaiya Vaathiyaraiah while welcoming MGR after his victory in the elections. The audience rose as one man, cheering, clapping, whistling. There were cries: ‘We want to see the scene again! Repeat the scene!’ We advised the manager to oblige the audience. The reel was rewound and the sequence was shown again. I turned to MGR. His eyes were filled with tears of joy. He hugged me. ‘O Reddiar! I have received the people’s acceptance.’ ” What reader would not ask for more?
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.