In 1931, K. Subramaniam, albeit trained professionally as a lawyer, took to the immensely powerful medium cinema to experiment with and used it as a tool to spread social awareness. Seva Sadanam, a picture produced by him as soon he entered the field, was to be the vehicle to carry the message about the state of women and their dismal position in society. Based on a novel by Munshi Premchand, it highlighted the plight of a young girl married to an gentleman old enough to be her father. Scenes and dialogues unprecedented in this medium were posited in the film, and it propelled Subramaniam into the arena as a champion of social causes. When the freedom movement started by Gandhiji gained momentum, Subramaniam jumped into the fray and released his much-lauded movie Thyaga Bhoomi, which after a considerable run, was banned by the British government for containing objectionable messages against the state.
It was little wonder that, born to such a tycoon of Tamil Cinema and having been educated in communication skills at the best known University in the United States., Dr. S. Krishnaswamy set for himself the goal of introducing purposeful themes in his productions, though he could have become a commercially successful filmmaker by turning out films that would fetch the best financial returns — the base was readily available as his father was well-known in the film industry and had an established company. He founded his firm Krishnaswamy Associates in 1963, with documentary films as its staple fare and a motto that read, “We film to build bridges of brotherhood; we shoot to destroy walls of prejudice”.
In 1960, as a 22-year-old, Krishnaswamy joined the Columbia University in the U.S., and studied Mass Communications with special reference to documentary films. It was 60 years later in 2020, that the Government of India honoured him with the coveted Dr. V.Shantaram Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to documentary films at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). Through tedious decades of his life, he stood firm in his belief and eventually received many awards; the Honor Summus Award of the Watumull Foundation, Hawaii, the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 at the U.S. International Film & Video Festival, Los Angeles, in 1987, the Padma Shri in 2009, and several other awards including National awards for his documentaries.
He reportedly showed his grit and national spirit even as a student in the U.S. When, during an open film screening at the university, a movie from the March of Time series about India happened to portray the country in poor light, Krishnaswamy is said to have angrily strode to the podium, picked up the microphone and declared, “This is stupid. The film is nonsense!” And when a professor attempted to pacify the young Krishnaswamy and advised him to make a film that would depict the real India, he is said to have asserted: “Indeed, I will,” That was the turning point in his life. It changed the perspective, and later he kept the promise in its very spirit.
When he was writing the book Indian Film in collaboration with Professor Erik Barnouw, they had camped in Darjeeling for a few weeks where Satyajit Ray was filming his Kanchenjunga. Thus, early in his life he not only developed a great regard for the icon but also a lasting friendship with him despite the age difference and this would prove to be a great aid in the pursuit of his chosen ideology.
He shot into the limelight with his four-hour-long docu-film, Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi, which traversed 5,000 years of subcontinental history, and received high International acclaim even as Warner Brothers acquired the rights for its distribution.
This, his magnum opus, received high praise abroad and later — the work did not go uncriticised in his own country — in India too. Though the title marked out a period between two important points of history, it was misconstrued by some to be part of Indira Gandhi’s emergency propaganda, though the concept had been conceived and the title announced long before The Emergency was declared. Due to financial reasons, it could be released only in 1976, when M/s Warner Bros bought and controlled the film rights for two decades, after which the rights reverted to the producer. Among those who admired the film were L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj, then from the opposition party.
His wife, Dr. Mohana, is an internationally recognised Research Scientist who chose to leave her carreer and join Krishnaswamy in his artistic endeavours. An accomplished Hndustani musician and scholar in Hindi literature, she found it easy to assist her husband by taking up several creative and administrative responsibilities.
The journey was not through a bed of roses. She joined him in tough projects that entailed a traumatic experience, such as the time they filmed After a 1000 Days of Terror, a film that delved into the infamous Operation Blue star, analysing the events that led to this unfortunate but unavoidable army action in Amritsar Golden Temple in 1984. They had tense moments of filming some actual military operations. The film was screened abroad to explain to the global audience the circumstances in which the Indian Army had to enter a sanctified place. Dr. Mohana’s assistance came in very handy as she had a good command over Hindi and was able to assuage the concerns of those inclined to be hostile about what they intended to project in the film. Another tough project was in 1987, when a film titled Paradise Regained was made on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka for which the couple and their team interviewed leaders from both sides like Prabhakaran and Sinhalese political leaders of the day.
Mohana proved her individual worth as a filmmaker by securing the first prize from the International Federation of University Women at Helsinki for the first documentary she independently directed, How They Left Hell Behind, which was based on the status of Women in Tamil Nadu.
To quench his desire for producing a film on the social history of Tamil Nadu, Krishnaswamy wrote story, screenplay and dialogue for a 52-episode serial called Visalam (2002), which covered five matrilineal generations of a family.
His daughters too carried forward the parents’ efforts by producing documentaries of their own. When his daughter Latha’s film on the WIA was screened to an august audience, late Dr. Shanta, the spirit behind the Cancer Institute, was present, and is said to have mentioned as an aside to Central Minister Nirmala Sitaraman on the dais that Krishnaswamy was in the audience. With a spontaneity rarely seen in a VVIP, the Minister then told the audience: “Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi was the first ever authentic movie on history, and all of us benefitted by seeing it again and again. That was a great service rendered — the kind of which India has always been proud of.”
Diversifying into production of TV serials in the 1980s, Krishnaswamy Associates deliberately chose its themes and canvas without losing its core ideology. Starting with serials based on Jayakanthan’s novels and short stories, over the years, they have made serials based on several popular Tamil authors. Merging the Tamil twin epics, Silappathigaram and Manimegalai, the couple made Hindi serial Upasana in 1992. Dr. Ma.Po. Sivagnanam, an authority on the epics, observed: “I am thrilled with the manner in which this serial projects the culture of Tamil Nadu to the rest of India. Dr. Krishnaswamy and Dr. Mohana deserve the highest praise from a grateful Tamilnadu for this contribution.”
Latha and Gita, both acclaimed dancers, blossomed into successful tele-film producers with their early serials directed by the parents. The firm produced two serials of Indian dance for a television channel in Singapore totalling 33 episodes, featuring over 150 artistes from all genres of Indian classical dance as well as folk dances. Directed by Latha and Gita, the serial won the Certificate of Creative Excellence at the U.S. International Film and Video Festival. Yet again, the firm received another prestigious international Award for the dance interpretation of Aurobindo’s Savitri, written by Krishnaswamy and choreographed and performed by his daughters.
Many of the over 250 documentaries that Krishnaswamy has been connected with have won accolades, starting with one of his earliest I which was an experimental one that won, in addition to praise from former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, the Special National Award to mark the Silver Jubilee of Independence as the best short film of 25 years. Unknown Freedom Fighters was another bold production for which Krishnaswamy interviewed forgotten participants in the freedom struggle from across India, including those who had represented or taken part in various struggles between 1915 and 1946.
Other notable films by him include When the Waves Came, which is about the 18th century Indian Renaissance and Four Ideals, on different phases of the struggle, a study of the Indian film industry in Through a Different Lens on the subconscious role of Indian Cinema in the colonial era, and Ezhu Thalaimurai Ezhuchi (7 generations of strife), a docu-drama TV serial on the role of the Tamils in the Freedom Struggle. The latter did come in for some criticism — it was even made into a court case by some political leaders only to be cleared by the Madras High Court. The proof of the pudding was when The Hindu wrote about the serial as “A panoramic montage […] exceptionally well-done, always lucid, with a touch of poetry at need [….] while the values it stresses are the kind that need loud reiteration”.
In the 1990s, he produced Jaya Jaya Sankara, a 30-minute documentary on the history of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, from Adi Shankara to the 68th pontif Paramacharya Chandrashekharendra Saraswati, and a 4-part docu-serial India-5555 on five millennia of civilisational values, five centuries of history, five decades of democracy and five years of a new economic policy, which won the viewership of world leaders (including Bill Clinton) and praise from celebrities. Another one that won appreciation was Reality Behind Religion, a motivational film for religious harmony, for which over a dozen revered icons were interviewed, including the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Acharya Tulsi, Swami Ranganathananda (Head of Ramakrishna Math) and Zakir Husain (former Vice President of India).
It is to his credit that he made biographical documentaries on Rajaji, Kamaraj, Ramana Maharishi, R. Venkatraman, C. Subramaniam, MGR, and his own father Director K Subrahmanyam. Of course, the crowning glory of this was the 52-episode Tamil, docu-drama Swami Vivekananda featuring over 150 artistes, telecast in 2013-14, scripted by Krishnaswamy and directed by his daughter Gita.
His oeuvre was of great variety; in fact, he left no stone unturned as he produced industrial, agricultural, educational, social and motivational films, besides some promotional films. In fact, the first National Award he received in 1968 was for his production of an industrial film on Neyveli Lignite. He, however, remembers with great pride and satisfaction, one particular serial, which has remained deeply etched in the filmmaker’s psyche as his most important contributions — the set of films on South East Asia tracing the impact of the ancient Indian civilisation on Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. That was the 18-episode serial titled Indian Imprints (2007) and a feature-length documentary titled A Different Pilgrimage (2009), which was first screened at the Indian Pavilion of the Cannes International Film Festival in 2010.
Of the mentioned above, Indian Imprints was commissioned by Doordarshan while the individual films on countries were commissioned by the Ministry of External Affairs.
As the firm celebrates its 58th year in existence, he is, along with the family members, contemplating making a film on Subramania Bharati in Hindi.
He is happy that the spirit of the family is maintained by his daughters; Latha directed a documentary titled 5000 Years in 50 Minutes for the Films Division which received international acclaim. Three more recent films, written and directed by her, are strong indications that she will lead the company to the next level. Her film, A Different Language, about the Dr. MGR Home and Higher Secondary School for the Speech and Hearing Impaired, won the prestigious international Cannes Corporate and Media Award in 2018 and her Ancient Future on revival of ancient arts and culture, with special reference to Vasthu Shastra is critically acclaimed. Her film Vedic GPS was screened at the Esoteric International Film Festival, Moscow in February 2021.
A relaxed Krishnaswamy now remembers a pioneer explorer of the Arctic region, whose frozen body was recovered almost a decade after he died from the depths of snow. In his handwritten pocket diary, which was found intact, he had scribbled: ‘The joy is in the exploration more than in the applause which may follow.’
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