When there is air traffic congestion near the Coimbatore airport, the plane usually flies over the Palakkad Gap and bottle green villages with red titled roofs. Those lucky enough to have a window seat would get a glimpse of wind energy installations that have come up in villages that are close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. It was in this area that N Vasudeva (Vasu) Menon was born in 1910 to a family that depended on the bounty of the fertile land.
Like many children born in the village of Elappully in Palakkad district, Menon was enrolled in a school in the nearby town of Chittoor, where he completed his higher secondary education, before moving to Madurai for a pre-degree course in The American College. While he gained proficiency in the English language there, his family could no longer afford to support his further education. He had 14 siblings, at a time when agricultural living demanded large families. It was after his pre-degree studies in Madurai that Menon was about to embark on an extraordinary life journey.
Affiliation with AVM Studios
After leaving Madurai, he got a job at Saraswathy Stores, Karaikudi, which was owned by A V Meiyappa Chettiar (also known as A V Meiyappan). “Saraswathy Stores used to sell radios, gramophones and gramophone records,” says Menon’s son Haridas. “His job was to write the address of retail traders in English and send it by railway parcel. By his hard work he rose to the position of a salesman, and used to roam around the streets of Karaikudi, with a man carrying a head-load of radios.”
Meiyappan was so impressed with Menon’s dedication and hard work that he made him the manager of the store, and then when the former decided to open a film studio in what was then Madras, Menon was put in charge of construction of the shooting floors. He would work with Meiyappan for more than 30 years, eventually becoming the studio manager of AVM Productions.
Menon would leave the studio over a salary dispute, and his resignation led to film director K Shankar, cameraman Thambu, art director K Balu, film editor K Narayanan and music director Govardhanam all following suit. This entire set of colleagues wanted him to apply to become a film producer. “At that time you had to apply to the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce to become a film producer, and a committee consisting of five members would take a call on the application,” says Haridas. “Vasu Menon got four votes with AVM being the lone dissenter.”
But he would get support from then-actor and later Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran and who said ‘If Vasu Menon cannot become a film producer, who can!” Hence Vasu Films was born.
Success with Tamil films
Meiyappan remained a stumbling block for Menon. “They decided to produce a Tamil film, but unfortunately all the studio owners refused to give the studios for shooting as they did not want to antagonise Sri AVM,” says Haridas.
“Finally, S S Vasan of Gemini Studios called Vasu Menon and allotted one full floor for the shooting. The muhurat day was fixed, shooting set was erected and the story and dialogues of the film was to be written by K M Balasubramaniam, a famous film dialogue writer. As the shooting was to start the next day, Vasu Menon sent his manager to collect the script from the writer. To his shock, the writer said that the story had been purchased by Meiyappan the previous night, and that he did not have any other story.”
Menon had to rush to one of his friends, Jawar Sitaraman, who was also a famous writer and asked him to finalise a story and he would commence the shooting with the song he has already recorded. He changed the title of the film to Ore Vazhi and completed the entire shooting in 26 days. The film was a commercial success and so impressed was Vasan with the way Menon and his team produced the film, he gave Menon Rs 1 lakh as a ‘Guru Daskshina.’ With that money and with the financial help of Gunarathnam, a Sri Lankan industrialist, Menon started his second film Kairasi, starring Gemini Ganesan and B Saroja Devi. The film was a major hit and ran for 108 days at the Casino Theatre in Madras.
Building on the success of his Tamil films, Menon shifted his attention to the Hindi film world. He remade Kairasi in Hindi, starring Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala. Menon continued to work with the big names of Bollywood, producing Bharosa, which featured Guru Dutt and Asha Parekh.
His biggest success came with the blockbuster titled Khandaan, starring Sunil Dutt, Nutan, Pran, Om Prakash and Lalita Pawar. The film was one of the biggest hits of 1965, and although the Filmfare magazine gave it a “poor” rating, it won four Filmfare Awards that year. It is now best known for a song sung by Lata Mangeshkar titled Tumhi Meri Manzil, Tumhi Meri Pooja. The commercial success of Khandaan helped Menon buy a studio in Madras, which was named Vasu Studios.
The Bollywood film fraternity remembers him for producing films such as Nai Roshni, Waris, Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi and Maalik.
Menon produced several Malayalam and Telugu hits as well. The better known among the Malayalam films were Tharavattamma, Pareeksha and Manaswini. Legendary singer K J Yesudas lists the song Oru Pushpam Mathram from the film Pareeksha as one of his favourites.
A combination of overwork and smoking would finally catch up with Menon. “On July 1, 1977, he finished his work at the studios and when he came out from his room, he saw one of the art directors had come to erect a set in the floor,” Haridas says. “He told him, ‘My work with this studio is over. You have to support my sons in future as you have cooperated for all these days.’ He went to a friend’s house and as he was talking to him, he vomited blood and fell unconscious. He was taken to Royapettah Government Hospital and there he breathed his last.” The doctors treating him said he had intestinal cancer.
When flying over the Palakkad Gap region on a sunny day, many an illuminated small pond appears to glisten like a hidden treasure. The village of Elappully produced one such jewel whose light shined brightly well and beyond the frontiers of Kerala.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island')