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Poets and Pancakes – Asokamitran

Gemini Studios

Gemini Studios was one of India’s pioneer movie factories. Situated in the present day Chennai, owned by S.S Vaasan and worked by over 600 staff, the GS made movies for Tamilnadu and other southern Indian states. Pancake[TM] was the makeup material used by the GS.

Questions & Answers

  1. How was Gemini Studios connected to Robert Clive?
    The connection the Gemini Studios had with Robert Clive was that its Make-up Department was built on the upstairs of Clive’s stables.
  2. What was the fiery misery inside the make-up department of the Studios?
    The makeup room had a lot of hot bulbs always burning inside and a number of mirrors to reflect the heat. Madras, being a hot city and no cooling at that time at the studio, it was a real misery inside the makeup room.
  3. All this shows that there was a great deal of national integration long before A.I.R. and Doordarshan began broadcasting programs on national integration. Explain.
    The heads and the subordinates of the make-up department were from various parts of India. There was no preference to any state or language or religion. Anyone could be the head. Once there was a Bengali as the head of this department. He was succeeded by a Maharashtrian who was assisted by a Dharwar Kannadiga, an Andhra, a Madras Indian Christian, an Anglo-Burmese and the local Tamils.

The Office Boy

Office Boy was a grown up man in the Makeup Department of the GS. He was in charge of the crowd makeup. He applied pancake on their faces with the help of a dipped paint brush. Though his job was quite an easy one, the office boy considered him to be a greatly skilled artist.

Questions & Answers

  1. Who was the office boy? What was his duty in the make-up department? How did he appreciate himself and his profession?
    The office boy was a forty year old man who worked at the lowest rank among the makeup artists at the Gemini Studios. His duty was to apply makeup for the crowd-players for shooting. As his work required no skill and that he was not satisfied with his designation and the kind of work, the ‘Boy’ remained unsatisfied and criticized everyone he was jealous.


Asokamitran was one of the staff whose job was to collect information such as news events from newspapers and magazines and to paste them in files. The other staff considered his job out of place and most of them thought so high of themselves. Here are some of the interesting staffs of GS.

Questions & Answers

  1. How was the author’s job odd in the eyes of the other staff? How did they respond to this?
    Asokamitran’s job at the Gemini Studios was to collect information from newspapers and magazines and to paste the cuttings in files for reference. This was probably the only work odd in the Gemini Studios while every other staff was some sort of an artist. They therefore advised the author to do some better jobs other than wasting his time cutting papers in a department similar to a barber shop.
  2. Why did the author pray for crowd shooting?
    Like many of the other staff who believed that Asokamitran was doing next to nothing in the Gemini Studios the Office Boy too used to advise him for hours. When the author was tired of his unending epics, he used to pray for a crowd shooting to which the Office Boy assigned.

Kothamangalam Subbu

Kothamangalam Subbu was another clerk. He was not as educated, as fortunate and as supported by as the Office Boy, yet he reached the top of the GS. He was a man of amazing genius. He was able to direct the directors. He suggested dozens of ways to shoot a certain scene when the director failed to find one. He acted better than the heroes. He wrote incredible poems. Though he was able to write more complicated ones that could raise him to the status of a great poet, Subbu preferred writing them in simple Tamil to enlighten the majority of Tamil people. Besides, he supported his far and near relatives. But he had only enemies everywhere because he was very much close to the boss, Vaasan.

Questions & Answers

  1. Who was Kothamangalam Subbu? How did he make all the other staff hate him?
    Kothamangalam Subbu joined the Gemini Studios as a clerk and remained the same in the records. But in practice he soon acquired the status of the No.2 at the studios thanks to his amazing genius and multifaceted skills. He did any work for his boss and ignored the rest above him. This made him envied and hated by the rest of the staff.
  2. Discuss Subbu’s identity as a poet. Why was he not known as a poet?
    Apart from being an amazing director of movies, Subbu had the identity as a poet. The world of his time and later never recognized Subbu as a poet yet he was a great unknown poet. He wrote poem in the simplest Tamil language and was able to recreate the classical poems in his own style.
  3. Subbu excelled as an actor too. Discuss.
    Subbu was a good actor. He was able to act better than the lead actors yet never wished to take any lead roles in any movie.
  4. In spite of all the good qualities and readiness to be a host any time, Subbu had only enemies. Why?
    Subbu was good to everyone he came by, spoke in his niceness, fed his relatives, excelled everyone in the Gemini Studios but was hated by most of them just because he was so close to the boss of the studios. Being a clerk in the attendance register he was above all and above all the departments. Those who bore designations above Subbu felt it intolerable to obey him.

Legal Advisor

The legal advisor worked in the Story Department. He was a lawyer and provided legal advices to the writers yet he was known as the illegal advisor. The following incident is one reason that gave him that name. Once a shooting was under progress. The heroine, a highly emotional girl, got angry with the director and producer. While the whole set stood stunned at this, the legal advisor recorded her voice without her permission and made her listen to the playback, thus resulting the end of a rising actress.

Questions & Answers

  1. How did the legal advisor behave illegally in the instance of the actress.
    The legal advisor was, of course, an advocate, yet was known as an illegal advisor. Once he recorded the voice of an actress who shouted at the producer and director while in the shooting sets. The legal advisor’s behavior turned out to be illegal because he did it without the actress’ permission.
  2. In what context did Congress rule mean Prohibition and how was it for the staff of Gemini Studios meeting over a cup of coffee a rather satisfying entertainment?
    Congress being the ruling party, made the public’s life horrible by imposing curfew and emergency in the initial years of Independent India. Citizens were not allowed to gather and hold meetings. While the whole of the nations struggled under emergencies, the six hundred Gemini staff enjoyed freedom inside the studios as their freedom was not restricted.
  3. How did Subbu surpass the office boy despite his limitations?
    The office boy in the makeup department was always ahead of Subbu in the beginning, especially in education, having influential people to support. But he ended up where he began while Subbu ascended the steps to the maximum height and surpassed the Boy.
  4. The staff of the Gemini Studios attributed Subbu’s success to his being a Brahmin. Why?
    Most of the staff of the Gemini studios was unhappy with Subbu. His amazing influence on the Boss and the consequent privileges he enjoyed made them feel jealous of him. So, instead of accepting his talents, they consoled themselves by attributing his fortunes to be a Brahmin.

Poets and writers

Gemini Studios had some great poets like Harindranath Chatopadhyaya and a few others. Most of the insignificant poets considered so great of themselves. They had no great talent, no great creativity, no political views yet they assumed the airs of the greatest poets, wasting Vaasan’s money and time. They believed Gandhiji to be the last word of politics and had developed an aversion to Communism.

Questions & Answers

  1. How was the Gemini Studios a perfect place of nationally integrated Indians?
    Situated in Tamilnadu’s capital Madras, the Gemini Studios was an amazement for a number of reasons, one of them being the selection of its department heads and other staff from all over India. For instance, the makeup department was for some time headed by a Bengali though he was later removed from the post. His follower in the department was from Maharashtra and his assistant was Dharwar Kannadiga, an Andra, a Madras Indian Christian, an Anglo Burmese and even the usual Tamilians. The presence of any talented person from any part of India shows that Gemini Studios was a perfect example of unity.
  2. How are poets and prose writers different according to Asokamitran? What personal experience makes him say that?
    Asokamitran believes in the qualitative difference between prose writers and poem writers. A poem can be written in no time if the poet is a genius while prose such as a novel can be written by a person who has a lot of patience and perseverance. The prose writer’s mind should be so shrunken that no rejection can disappoint him but he will be encouraged from failures and rejections.

Communism and MRA

Communism was a new political order that was spreading throughout the world, especially in Asian countries. Communism preached equality of people and abolition of poverty and class divisions while it discouraged private ownership. But Communism won a negative impression due the Capitalist countries such as America.

MRA or Moral Rearmament Army was an international team of actors and actresses that spread anti Communist feelings throughout the world. The MRA came to Chennai and saw how influential was Gemini Studios in the south of India. The team got permission from Vaasan to stage their plays. Vaasan was only happy to give them permission because he hoped that his staff would get inspiration from the international team. But little did Vaasan know of their intentions. MRA staged their plays with hidden anticommunist messages and went away and it was yet after some time that Vaasan realized that he had been fooled.

Questions & Answers

  1. What is Communism? What ideas about the communism gathered popularity in India?
    Communism is a political order that believes in the equality of citizens and abolition of private ownership. The state or nation is the owner and caretaker of each citizen. Citizen’s welfare is nation’s prime concern. It sometimes resorts to armed revolution to establish social and political equality.
  2. What was MRA? Why did it tour the world? 
    MRA, short for Moral Rearmament Army was an anti-Communist organization that toured the world informing the world of the evil side of Communism that was spreading throughout Asia and some parts of Europe. Headed by Frank Buchman, the MRA believed that Communism was evil and it would wipe out democracy in the world.
  3. How did the MRA spread its anti-Communist ideas in South India?
    Moral Rearmament Army believed that Communism was evil and therefore wanted to wipe it out of the world. This group of 200 men and women from twenty different nations spread anti communist messages with the help of their stage performances such as dramas.
  4. How was Vasan played into the hands of the MRA?
    There is no clear indication that Vasan, the owner of the Gemini Studios, was a Communist or not yet there are very clear hints that he was a prominent Communist of Chennai. The MRA spread its anti-Communist messages through their stage programs and made the poets and writers of the South India hate Communism which was a great achievement. Vasan, who knew nothing of their intentions, was indeed fooled by MRA at his cost.

Stephen Spender

Anyway, Stephen Spender, who was once a prominent communist editor and poet from England, came to the studio and gave his speech. His lecture was about Communism on one side and about his struggles to establish as a poet on the other. Whatever he spoke was great, hot, exciting and inspiring, but what use, his accent was such terrible one that none of the Gemini staff could clearly understand what Spender had spoken. They fell into shame for not being able to understand the poet and wished not to meet him again.

Questions & Answers

  1. Why was Stephen Spender invited to the Gemini Studios? Who wanted him there?
    Stephen Spender was a great poet with Communist inclinations. SS Vasan, the owner of the Gemini Studios, wanted Spender give a speech on the greatness of Communism to his staff.
  2. Spender’s Speech was a shock for him and a matter of utter shame for the literati of the Gemini Studios. Explain.
    Stephen Spender was specially invited to the Gemini Studios to enlighten the staff there with communist ideas. When Spender began his speech he was amazed to see the way he was being listened to. But soon, when he realized that his audience didn’t follow him the least due to his accent, Spender’s amazement turned to utter shock and embarrassment and he stopped his speech in the middle.
  3. How are poets and prose writers different according to Asokamitran? What personal experience makes him say that?
    Asokamitran says poems can be written by any genius while prose writing is the true pursuit of a really determined person who has suffered a lot of rejections and is ready for any further disappointments with more perseverance to pursue his mission of writing a long prose.
  4. Spender’s Speech was a shock for him and a matter of utter shame for the literati of the Gemini Studios?
    Stephen Spender was called to the Gemini Studios to talk to the staff there about Communism but what he spoke was of his struggles as a poet. Whatever he spoke, his talk was not followed by practically anyone. When Spender realized that his audience didn’t follow his talk, he stopped in utter shame to have made a talk to a deaf audience while the Gemini staff got dispersed in great humiliation because Spender’s accent failed them.


Why should Vaasan be fooled if an organization spread anti communist messages in Chennai? It appears that Vaasan himself was a Communist! Or, he too had an experience of a disillusioned abandoning of Communism. The author has not given us a hint about this and therefore we have to different opinions:

  • Vasan as a Communist: If so, Vasan felt terribly bad for being played into the hands of the MRA that left a deep anticommunist impression upon his staff. He therefore decided to bring back the Communist atmosphere in his studio and for this he invited a communist poet to deliver a speech on how great Communism was.
  • Vasan as an anticommunist: If SS Vasan was an anticommunist, he was the one who invited the MRA to the Gemini Studios. Later, when he saw that MRA had successfully spread anticommunism among his staff, he wanted to strengthen the new notions in them by inviting another anticommunist and therefore he invited Spender.

Questions & Answers

  1. The Boss of the Gemini Studios may not have much to do with Spender’s poetry. But not with his god that failed.’ Explain.
    Stephen Spender was invited to the Gemini Studios to enlighten the staff with great ideals of Communism but what Spender spoke was about his thrills and struggles to establish himself as a poet. The bosses of the studio like S. S. Vasan were interested in Spender as a Communist, not as a poet.
  2. How did MRA impress the staff of Gemini Studios and the Tamil drama community?

Asokamitran’s meeting Spender

The lesson ends with two incidents in which Asokamitran, our author, met Spender; not face to face, but in two different ways. While attempting to send his short story to England to participate in a contest, Asokamitran happened to read The Encounter, a magazine that had Stephen Spender as its editor. On another occasion he happened to read the book, the God that Failed, an article of which was written by Spender.

Questions & Answers

  1. How did the magazine ‘The Encounter’ become important in Asokamitran’s life?
    The Encounter was a British Communist magazine. When Stephen Spender was its editor, this magazine organized a short story competition for writers from all over the world.
  2. How does the book, ‘The God That Failed’ deserve its title? OR Justify the title, ‘The God That Failed.’
    The ‘God That Failed’ was written by six eminent writers who were attracted to Communism and abandoned it because they hated it later on. Communism was in its beginning, a God because it stood for equality and removal of class systems and poverty. While the Gods or incarnations before it achieved their goals, Communism failed in attaining its goals as it was a failure in itself.
  3. What made Asokamitran hope Stephen Spender too would be singing the same song at the same time when he sealed the envelop of his manuscript?
    Asokamitran had been struggling to establish as a writer when he came across the magazine, The Encounter. When he saw that the editor of The Encounter was Stephen Spender, the same poet who came to Gemini Studios and talked about his struggles to become a poet, Asokamitran felt as if he had found a long lost brother.
  4. ‘In a moment I felt a dark chamber of my mind lit up by a hazy illumination.’ What was the dark chamber? What did light up the darkness?
    Due to Spender’s British accent the normally educated staff like could not understand his speech and therefore his speech remained an unsolved mystery for the staff including Asokamitran. This mystery was the dark chamber of his mind. When Asokamitran saw that Spender was the editor of The Encounter, he understood that Spender’s speech was all about stories and poems and suddenly he related this to his speech he made years ago the Gemini Studios.
  5. Taking a careful reading, one sees the tremendous struggle that Asokamitran underwent to surface as a writer par excellence. Discuss.
    For Asokamitran training himself as a writer was passion. He had a nickname, barber, when he was working at Gemini Studios because he did a lot of cutting newspaper clips and magazine as he was a news record keeper. Even though he was laughed at by the rest of the staff and was advised by some to seek a profession that fitted him, Asokamitran had a drudge that nothing could weaken – he was determined to rise in the world of people of his kind: writers.Among those members of the Gemini staff who was embarrassed and confused at Stephen Spender’s lost speech was there none as embarrassed and confused as Asokamitran. It was all because of his literary ambitions that he was able to know more about Spender and his literary traits and political views as well as the unknown communist inclinations of the boss of one of India’s foremost movie factories. Asokamitran’s language that we read in the extract, Poets and Pancakes, is amazing as an India author is concerned and there is no doubt that he acquired it as part of his quest for perfection as a writer. He quite poignantly narrates his participating in a short story contest organized by the Encounter for which he spent considerable time and money. On reading the name of the editor, Stephen Spender, he feels like getting his lost brother back.

Terms to Remember

Gemini Studios – S.S Vasan – Pancake – Asokamitran – Barber – Office Boy – Crowd makeup – Legal Adviser – “Illegal Adviser” – Actress – Temperamental – Tirade on Producer – Kothamangalam Subbu – Thillana Mohanambal – MRA – Moral Rearmament Army – Frank Buchman – 200 artists – “Jotham Valley” Forgotten Factor” Stephen Spender – Speech – A speech that failed – The Encounter – “The God that Failed” (Andre Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone – Arthur Koestler – Louis Fischer – Stephen Spender)

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