Doing this interview and writing this article feels surreal. For five years, I waited at the GD Tank bus stop in Podanur, to go to college in Peelamedu, Coimbatore, and return home. The bus stop was named after the pioneering industrialist known for his everyday innovations that made life easier for all. He had constructed a water tank to help locals during water shortage decades ago, and it still stood, lending an entire area its name. Incidentally, bus number S19 I boarded was said to be originally run by UMS, another GD Naidu enterprise. Years later, it was Conti Travels, formerly owned by the group, that ferried us to and from Chennai and Bangalore. Next to the bus stand was Gedee Medical Aids, which saw many a child growing in the suburb rush in for first aid. I went in twice — the first when I petted a caterpillar, which did not know I intended no malice and left me all itchy, and later when I did not know pottukadalai had no place inside my ear.
And so, when the National Film Awards for 2018 were announced, the heart leapt hearing the name GD Naidu again. Director K Ranjithkumar’s GD Naidu: The Edison Of India, produced by Films Division, won the Best Science and Technology Film in the non-features section. The citation read: “For its portrayal of GD Naidu’s incisive mind and extraordinary life, spotlighting the inspirational range of his scientific inventions.”
Growing up in Vilandhai village in Villupuram, Ranjithkumar heard phrases such as “Periya GD Naidu Company-nu Nenappu”, and was intrigued, wondering who the man was. Popular comedian Goundamani used a lot of references to the industrialist in his humour too. Ranjithkumar had a modest beginning. He did his Class 11 and 12 at the Choolaimedu Corporation HSS in Chennai, taking the vocational group that taught photography. He learnt film processing at the MGR Film and Television Institute and made a name for himself shooting a five-minute video within the campus on how cinema had progressed, using the song ‘Indran Vandhadhum’ from Aan Paavam. Two years of working as an assistant cameraman in serials and films later, he moved on to post-production, handling over 350 films across languages.
After joining the Films Division, he finally lent shape to a script about a person whose name he’d grown up hearing. He visited Coimbatore, met with the family, saw the expansive museum named after the legend and showcasing his vast collection of automobiles, photographs, and trivia, and saw his idea come alive. “We started the film in February 2018 and finished it in four months. We premiered it at the 16th Indian Film Festival in Stuttgart,” says Ranjithkumar.
He met GD Gopal, GD Naidu’s son and drew up a list of people to speak to. Among the nine were space scientist Mylswamy Annadurai, former CBI Director DR Karthikeyan, industrialist AV Varadarajan, GD Naidu’s relative R Jagannathan, and politician K Veeramani.
Ranjithkumar restricted the film to GD Naidu’s contribution to science and invention. “I was amazed at how an individual had managed to do so much. Not many people know he’s responsible for things we take for granted now — razor blades, electric motors, transport facilities for people, ticket printing and vending machines, a basic hospital for quick first-aid, a fully-stocked water tank to help those in need…”
The filmmaker shot inside Gopal Bagh, the expansive home-cum-factory, GD Naidu Museum and at the hospital too. The nearly-53-minute film also delves into how GD Naidu managed to escape from Stuttgart during World War 2, how he found refuge in the home of Gottlieb and Berta Stoll in Holzmaden, a suburb of Stuttgart, and how the relationship has lasted time. “He was a big name in Coimbatore, but was moved by the concern showed by the family, which fed and sheltered him for 10 days,” says Ranjithkumar. The descendants of the family also came to watch the film when it played there.
Another reason Ranjithkumar wanted to make the film was that “not many outside of Tamil Nadu know of what GD Naidu did or his legacy. He died 45 years ago. He deserves to be celebrated some more.”
The film, primarily in English with some portions in Tamil, is doing the festival circuit now. A huge plus is the wealth of photographs (nearly 45,000) that Ranjithkumar had access to. A surprise find in the family-run museum was a film can that had raw film footage (with voice) of GD Naidu at the inaugural of the Arthur Hope Polytechnic in 1945 (The place is now called Hope College!). “I brought it to Mumbai and scanned and synced the sound. It added so much value to the movie. In fact, his son said that he heard his father’s voice after 45 years.”
The film also dwells on the importance GD Naidu gave to friends – he named two halls after VV Giri and CV Raman. The film also has a four-minute illustration of his journey from Kalangal to Coimbatore, with a voiceover by Arvind Mihra.
When the award was announced, Ranjithkumar, 32, was delighted. “But, what will make me happier if people go back and read up about him. More than 65,000 people have done well in life, across the world, after learning and working in the institutions he set up. It is time this generation is re-introduced to him.”
(Main image courtesy: simplicity.in; original image from GD Naidu Museum)