Poets and Pancakes
About the Author
Asokamitran (22 September 1931-23 March 2017) was a famous Tamil writer and Sahitya Akademie, winner. He was one of the few writers who wrote fluently in both Tamil and English. In a career spanning over six decades, he wrote 8 novels, 20 novellas and hundreds of short stories, on a wide range of issues.
He spent the initial years of his career in the famous Gemini Studios of Chennai. Although he was entrusted with the clerical task of cutting and pasting newspaper articles, he learned a lot about the functioning of Gemini Studios, which he humorously depicted in his autobiographical book My Years with Boss.
About the Chapter
For nearly thirty years from 1940, the Gemini Studios of Madras (Chennai) was the most influential film-producing organization of India and its founder, the brilliant multi-faceted entrepreneur S.S. Vasan lent substance and quality to the rather fragile and unpredictable movie business. The Gemini emblem of two small boys with bugles was true to Vasan’s slogan for the Studios, ‘when the bugles blow, there is a great show,’ Gemini films entertained millions all over India and abroad.
Sahitya Akademie award-winning Tamil writer Asokamitran worked for the Gemini Studios from 1952 to 1966. A full twenty years after he ‘renounced’ films, poet-editor Pritish Nandy persuaded Asokamitran to record his reminiscences and the result was a series of articles making up My Years with Boss. The book covers only five of his fourteen years with the Studios but captures that phase of Indian movie business when the key factors of the box office were imperceptibly shifting from the studios to the stars.
My Years with Boss is one of the most unusual books to be written about the entertainment world and clearly indicates the enormous impact of the movies on virtually every aspect of life in India.
The author’s ability to capture the life and breathe of people and events, and his puckish narrative make this a brief but special book of film history.”
‘Poets and Pancakes’ fondly remembers the glorious Gemini Studios which was the hub of activity for all the people associated with films. It is a sarcastic and humorous depiction of the various people who visited the place. The extract is autobiographical in nature and subtly hints at the changes brought in by the passage of time.
The author has used an easy and conversational style to sketch the humorous image of what went on at the studio. The entire extract is marked by subtle satire, a gorgeous undercurrent of humour and an engrossing portrayal of people who thrive despite hardships. The story focuses on the many aspects of contemporary life and on human situations and tendencies.
‘Pancakes’ was the brand name of a make-up material. The Gemini Studios bought a lot of it. Many well-known dresses must have used that material. It was used by make-up men to turn decent looking players into hideous looking monsters. In fact, it was because most of the shooting of a film was done on the sets. The sets and the studios lights required that every pore of players’ faces be closed. A strict hierarchy was maintained in the make-up department to make the player look ugly. The chief make-up man made the hero and heroine ugly. His senior assistant made the second hero and heroine ugly and so forth. It was the office boy’s job to make the crowd players ugly.
The make-up department had an office boy. He was not a boy but a forty years’ old man. He had joined the studios years ago. He believed that he had a great talent and hoped to become a star actor, director, screen writer or lyrics writer. But he was frustrated. He blamed his disgrace on Gemini Studios. The make-up department was at the upstairs of the building that was said to have been Robert Clive’s stables. The make-up room looked like a hair cutting salon because it had large mirrors and lights. The lights gave out intense heat. The person who underwent make-up had a miserable experience of being scorched like that of being in a hell.
The make-up department presented a picture of national integration long before AIT began broadcasting programmes on national integration. In the beginning, the department was headed by a Bengali. He was succeeded by a Maharashtrian who was assisted by people from all parts of India.
The nature of author’s job appeared to be insignificant. He was usually seen tearing newspapers. Everybody would walk to his cubicle and want to give him some work to do. The office boy would come in to recite his poems. He Wished to impress the author by his talent and how it was going waste on account of Subbu.
The office boy was frustrated. Probably he was jealous of Subbu’s stature. Subbu was very close to Boss. When Boss had any difficulty in presenting a scene in a film, Subbu could suggest a number of practical ideas.
Subbu was a good poet too. He could write poems of high order. But he deliberately suppressed his talent to write for the masses. He was a novelist too. He had written a novel in which he recreated the mood and manner of Devadasis of early 20th century. He had created life-like characters too.
Subbu was an excellent actor. But he never aspired for lead roles. But whatever minor roles he played, he acted better than the main players.
Subbu loved all. Several friends and relatives stayed with him for long periods. But Subbu did not care. He never gave a thought to the money he spent to support them. But the office boy hated him. Perhaps Subbu appeared to be a sycophant.
Though Subbu was always seen with the Boss, he was a member of the story department. Besides writers and poets in the story department there was a lawyer too. Officially he was known as legal adviser. But people called him by an opposite name. Once the legal adviser unwittingly, ruined the career of a talented actress.
One day the actress, who was not seasoned in worldly wisdom, lost her temper on the sets. She spoke angrily against the producer. The legal adviser switched on the recording equipment. When she paused, he played back the record. The actress was dumb founded to hear her own voice. Though she had said nothing offensive, she never appeared on the stage again.
The legal adviser wore trousers, a shirt, and a tie. Sometimes he wore a coat too. He appeared off among khadi clad poets and writers. The poets and writers worshiped Gandhiji though they had no affiliation to his ideas. But they were averse to communism. They had a notion that a communist loved nobody. He was an anarchist.
The feelings against communism were widespread in South India. Moral Rearmament Army was a sort of anti-communism movement. It visited Gemini Studios in 1952. They were about 200 people belonging to at least 20 nationalities. They presented two plays ‘Jotham Valley’ and ‘The Forgotten Factor’ in the most professional manner. The Gemini family of 600 and the citizens of Madras were greatly impressed by their plays.
Their message was simple, but the sets and costumes were excellent. For many years, the Tamil drama imitated the sunrise and sunset scenes presented by MRA. The scenes were presented on a bare stage with white background and a tune played on the flute. But the MRA did not influence the outlook of the Gemini bosses. The enterprises continued unchanged. The staff had enjoyed hosting MRA.
A few months later, Gemini Studios received another guest. It was an Englishman. Nobody knew who he was. Some said he was a poet. But he was not one of the poets known to them. Some believed that he was an editor because the top men of The Hindu were taking the initiative. But he was not the editor of any of the newspapers which the staff of Gemini Studios had heard of.
The Englishman was welcomed by the Boss, Mr. Vasan. He read out a long speech talking of freedom and democracy. Then the Englishman spoke. Nobody could understand what he said. His accent had made it impossible. But they were baffled. They could not understand the purpose of his visit. They made Tamil films for simple people who could not be expected to have any interest in English poetry. The visit of the Englishman remained a mystery.
The author saw a notice in The Hindu. The Encounter, a British periodical, was organizing a short story contest. The author had never heard of the periodical. He wanted to send an entry. He wanted to have some information about it before he sent the entry. He visited the British Council Library. There he found copies of The Encounter. He learned that its editor was Stephen Spender, who had visited the Gemini Studios. After a few years, the author had retired. One day, he saw a pile of low-priced paperback edition of The God that Failed. He bought a copy. It contained six different essays of six different writers. They described writers’ journeys to communism and the disillusioned return. One of the writers was Stephen Spender. The whole mystery of Spender’s visit was cleared. Mr. Vasan was not interested in his Poetry but was interested on his views on communism.
Gemini Studios was one of India’s pioneer movie factories. Situated in the present-day Chennai, owned by S.S Vasan and worked by over 600 staff, the GS made movies for Tamil Nadu and other southern Indian states. Pancake was the makeup material used by the GS.
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.
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.
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, Vasan.
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.
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 Vasan’s money and time. They believed Gandhiji to be the last word of politics and had developed an aversion to Communism.
Communism and anti-communism
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 Gemini Studios in the south of India was. The team got permission from Vasan to stage their plays. Vasan was only happy to give them permission because he hoped that his staff would get inspiration from the international team. But little did Vasan know of their intentions. MRA staged their plays with hidden anti-Communist messages and went away and it was yet after some time that Vasan realized that he had been fooled.
Why should Vasan be fooled if an organization spread anti-communist messages in Chennai? It appears that Vasan 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 anti-Communist 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 anti-Communist:
If SS Vasan was an anti-Communist, 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 anti-Communist and therefore he invited 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.
Asokamitran meeting Spender-1
The lesson ends with two incidents in which Asokamitran, our author, met Spender; not face to face, but in two different ways.
Textual Questions and Answers
Question 1. What does the writer mean by ‘the fiery misery’ of those subjected to make-up?
Answer: The writer means the misery caused by the incandescent lights that poured out intense heat. The make-up room of the Gemini Studios had bright bulbs in the room full of large mirrors that reflected the glowing lights. Under such blazing heat make-up was done.
Question 2. What is the example of national integration that the author refers to?
Answer: The make-up team and also those who came and went were from different states. It was headed by a Bengali and next in hierarchy was a Maharashtrian, assisted by an Andhraite, a Madras Indian Christian, an Anglo-Burmese and other local Tamils. It was truly a gang of nationally integrated make-up men.
Question 3. What work did the ‘office boy’ do in the Gemini Studios? Why did he join the studios? Why was he disappointed?
Answer: The office boy applied make-up to the crowds, mixing his paint in a giant vessel and slapping it on the crowd players. He had joined the studios in the hope of becoming a star actor or a top screen writer, director, or lyrics writer. He was a bit of a poet. He was disappointed as he was placed low even in the hierarchy of make-up men.
Question 4. Why did the author appear to be doing nothing at the studios?
Answer: The author’s job was to cut out newspaper clippings on a wide variety of subjects and store them in files. Many of these had to be written out in hand. Seeing him sitting at his desk and tearing up newspapers most people thought he had nothing to do at the studios.
Question 5. Why was the office boy frustrated? Who did he show his anger on?
Answer: The office boy was frustrated because his hopes of making big in the movie world failed. He vent his anger and frustration on Kothamangalam Subbu, the No. 2 in the studios, whom he held responsible for his dishonour and neglect.
Question 6. Who was Subbu’s principal?
Answer: S.S. Vasan, the founder of Gemini Studios, was the boss and Subbu’s Principal in the studios. Subbu had a great loyalty to him. This made him identify himself with his principal completely. He turned his entire creativity to his principal’s advantage.
Question 7. Subbu is described as a many-sided genius. List four of his special abilities.
Answer: Subbu was a many-sided genius. He was born a Brahmin. It is a virtue in itself as it exposed him to more affluent situations and people. Second, he had the ability to look cheerful at all times. Third, he always had work for somebody. Fourth, he had great loyalty to his principal, S.S. Vasan, the Boss.
Question 8. Why was the legal adviser referred to as the opposite by others?
Answer: The lawyer was the only one at the studios who wore pants, tie and sometimes a coat, unlike others who wore khadi dhoti and shirt. His job was to give support and advise on problems, but in fact he created problems. He brought the career of a brilliant actress to an end by terrorizing her. He was rightly called an illegal adviser.
Question 9. What made the lawyer stand out from the others at Gemini Studios?
Answer: The lawyer wore pants, a tie and sometimes a coat, while all wore khadi dhoti and white khadi shirt. He looked alone and helpless. He was a man of cold logic in a crowd of dreamers.
Question 10. Did the people at Gemini Studios have any particular political affiliations?
Answer: The people at Gemini Studios wore Khadi and worshipped Gandhi, but beyond that they had no particular political interests or understanding. They only had opinions on communism, which they loathed and looked down on communists. They considered communists as heartless atheists who are devoid of emotions. They went about letting loose anarchy in the society.
Question 11. Why was the Moral Re-Armament Army welcomed at Gemini Studios?
Answer: The Moral Re-Armament Army was invited to stage two plays, which were more like plain homilies ‘(sermons/lectures) for the Gemini family. It was discovered only later that the group was part of the movement countering international communism and Vasan had invited them under the influence of his political interests.
Question 12. Name one example to show that Gemini Studios was influenced by the plays staged by MRA?
Answer: MRA staged two plays ‘Jotham Valley’ and ‘The Forgotten Factor’. Their high-quality costumes and
well-made sets earned a lot of admiration. Their sunrise and sunset scene impressed them so much that all Tamil plays started reproducing the scene with a bare stage, a white background curtain and a tune playing on the flute.
Question 13. Who was the Boss of Gemini Studios?
Answer: Mr. S.S. Vasan, the founder of Gemini Studios was the Boss. Apart from producing films, he was an editor of a popular Tamil weekly ‘Ananda Vikatan’. He was a great admirer of scholarly people. Subbu seemed to enjoy an intimate relationship with him. Mr. Vasan is projected as a bit of showman here.
Question 14. What caused the lack of communication between the Englishman and the people at Gemini Studios?
Answer: The Englishman’s speech was peppered with words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and the Gemini
family had no political interests, so they were dazed and a silent audience. Also, the Englishman’s accent was difficult to understand, because of which all communication had failed. He was basically a poet and that made no sense to the people whose life centred around a film studio.
Question 15. Why was the Englishman’s visit referred to as unexplained mystery?
Answer: The Englishman was a poet whose name was not familiar. In his speech he talked about the thrills and travails of an English poet, which made no sense for the simple people at Gemini Studios who had had no exposure other than films and so they were not interested. These simple people had neither taste for English poetry nor political interests. Hence, his visit is referred to as an unexplained mystery.
Question 16. Who was the English visitor to the studios?
Answer: The English visitor to the studios was poet Stephen Spender, editor of British periodical ‘The Encounter’.
Question 17. How did the author discover who the English visitor to the studio was?
Answer: The author discovered his identity by reading his name on the pages of ‘The Encounter’ in the British Council Library. He also knew about him from the paperback edition of the book The God That Failed.
Question 18. What does The God That Failed refer to?
Answer: The God That Failed refers to a book that was a compilation of six essays by six eminent men. It was a low-priced student edition released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It dealt with the author’s disillusionment with communism.
Understanding the text
Question 1. The author has used gentle humour to point out human foibles. Pick out instances of this to show how this serves to make the piece interesting?
Answer: ‘Poets and Pancakes’ has an underlying tone of humour which is satirical and has been deployed by the author to point out human foibles. It is mainly manifested in his description of the make-up room people.
The make-up room, he says, was in a building that had once been the stables of Robert Clive. He further makes fun of the make-up team that slapped make-up. Ironically, the make-up turned any normal man into a hideous monster, far from being presentable. He also refers to the fiery misery of the actors when their make-up was done under the bright bulbs, large mirrors reflecting blazing heat. His description of Subbu’s No. 2 position in Gemini Studios, the frustration of the office boy and the opposite role played by the legal adviser in the acting career of a countryside girl are humorously dealt with but effectively bring out the flaws in the set-up.
The showmanship of the boss and what influences his guest list point out human weaknesses in a light-hearted manner. The humour is at its peak in the description of the visit of Stephen Spender. S.S. Vasan’s reading a long speech in his honour but he too knew precious little about him. Spender’s accent is highly unintelligible. Then the author’s establishing long lost brother’s relationship with the English visitor is also funny and humorous. All these slight digs at human foibles tickle in us humour.
Question 2. Why was Kothamangalam Subbu considered No. 2 in Gemini Studios?
Answer: Kothamangalam Subbu was on the attendance roll with the story department and was No. 2 at Gemini Studios not by virtue of any merit, but because he was a Brahmin with affluent exposure. He was cheerful and had a sense of loyalty that placed him close to the Boss. He was quick to delegate work to others. As if tailor-made for films, sparks of his creativity showed in his suggestions on how to create shots. He composed poetry, scripted a story and a novel. He gave direction and definition to Gemini Studios during its golden years. He performed in a subsidiary role better than the main players. He had a genuine love for his relatives and near and dear ones. His extravagant hospitality was popular among his relatives and acquaintances, probably that is why he had enemies.
Question 3. How does the author describe the incongruity of an English poet addressing the audience at Gemini Studios?
Answer: The Gemini Studios witnessed a surprising visit by a tall Englishman who was proclaimed to be a poet. The welcome speech by the Boss was delivered in the most general terms, which only showed that even the Boss did not know much about him. The poet talked about the thrill and travails of an English poet which made no sense to the simple people at Gemini Studios. They had no exposure other than films and so, they were not interested. Also, words like democracy and freedom that featured in his speech held no interest for them as they had no political thought or interests. Moreover, the Englishman’s accent was difficult to understand, because of which all communications failed. He was basically a poet and that made no sense to the people whose life centred round a film studio. Therefore, his visit remained an unexplained mystery for much time.
Question 4. What do you understand about the author’s literary inclinations from the account?
Answer: The author, Asokamitran, was entrusted with the job of maintaining the newspaper clippings of movies and other articles. Though to others, who just saw him tearing papers, he appeared to be doing nothing, the job kept the author well informed. Also, there prevailed an intellectual environment to some extent because the poets and script writers used to hang out there in the mess that served coffee any time of the day. The author would pick up fifty paisa copies of journals from the footpath and took part in the poetry writing competition. He actually read essays ‘The God Who Failed’ to know more about the poet Stephen Spender. All these are evidence that he had some literary taste.
Short Questions and Answers
Question 1. How does the writer describe the make-up room of the Gemini Studios?
Answer: The make-up room of the Gemini Studios had incandescent lights. It also had lights at all angles around large mirrors. Those subjected to make-up had to face bright light and a lot of heat there. It was on the upper floor of the building that was believed to have been Robert Clive’s stables.
Question 2. Bring out the humour in the job of the make-up men.
Answer: The make-up men came from all corners of the country and could transform any decent-looking person into a repulsive crimson coloured fiend and made people look uglier than they were in real life. They used truckloads of pancakes and locally manufactured potions and lotions to transform the looks of the actors.
Question 3. How was the make-up room a fine example of national integration?
Answer: Transcending all the barriers of regions, religions and castes, people from all over India came to Gemini Studios for jobs. The make-up department was headed by a Bengali, succeeded by a Maharashtrian, assisted by a Dharwar Kannadiga, an Andhra, a Madrasi, Christian and an Anglo Burmese and the usual local Tamils. Hence, the writer finds in the make-up department a perfect example of national integration.
Question 4. Why did the author appear to do nothing in the studio?
Answer: The author’s job in the studio was to cut newspaper clippings of all the relevant news items and articles that appeared in different newspapers and maintain a record of the same. This tearing of newspaper gave an impression that he was free and simply whiling away his time. People used to barge in his cubicle and lectured him.
Question 5. Why was the office boy frustrated? Who did he show his anger on and how?
Answer: The office boy had joined the studio years back. He aspired to be a top film star, or top screen writer, lyricist, or director. He felt frustrated on not being able to realise his dreams and had been given a job much below his calibre and dignity. He blamed Kothamangalam Subbu for all his woes, ignominy, and neglect. He often gave vent to his frustrations in the narrator’s cubicle. The narrator yearned for relief from the never-ending babble of the office boy.
Question 6. Subbu is described as a many-sided genius. Justify.
Answer: Kothamangalam Subbu may not have had much formal education but, by virtue of his being born as a Brahmin, he had had exposure to many affluent situations and people. He had the ability to look cheerful at all times, even after a setback. He was always full of creative ideas. Above all, he was a charitable and extravagant man and hospitable to his relations. His loyalty had put him close to his boss. But he seemed to others a sycophant and a flatterer and, probably, that was the reason he had enemies.
Question 7. How did the lawyer unwittingly bring an end to a brief and brilliant career of a young actress?
Answer: A talented but very temperamental actress lost her cool on the sets. The lawyer recorded her outburst and played it back, much to her embarrassment. The actress from the countryside was so terror- struck that she retreated and never got back to films. In this way, his mischief making brought an abrupt end to the brilliant actress’ career.
Question 8. Why did the magazine, ‘The Encounter’, ring a bell in the writer’s mind?
Answer: The writer wanted to participate in a short story writing contest organized by ‘The Encounter’, a British publication. Before sending his entry, he waited, confirm the authenticity of the periodical, so he visited the British Council Library. When the author read the editor’s name, a bell rang in his mind. It was Stephen Spender, the poet who had visited the Gemini Studios.
Question 9. What was significant about the book which the author took from roadside?
Answer: ‘The God That failed’ was the name of the book which caught the attention of the author. It contained the essays of six eminent men, who described their journey into communism and their return from it after being disillusioned. It suddenly assumed great significance for the author as he discovered that one of the essays had been written by Stephen Spender, the poet, who had visited the studio. He now understood the reason for his having been invited.
Question 10. What do you understand about the author’s literary inclinations from the account?
Answer: The author was very knowledgeable young man whose job required him to pour over the newspaper all day long. His interest in creative writing and participating in story writing contests indicates his interest in literature. This interest was so keen that he read books on varied subjects and went about buying them even when he was short of money.
Question 11. What kind of people, according to the author, are meant for prose writing?
Answer: According to the author, prose writing is not the pursuit of a genius. It is for the patient, persistent and persevering drudge whose heart can take rejections and whose spirit to keep trying does not get killed so easily.
Question 12. Why was Gemini Studios a favourite haunt of poets?
Answer: Gemini Studios was a favourite haunt of poets as it had an excellent mess which supplied good coffee at all times of the day and for most part of the night. Meeting there was a satisfying entertainment. Moreover, Mr. Vasan was a great admirer of scholarly people.
Question 13. ‘Prose writing is not and cannot be the true pursuit of a genius’, says the author. Explain the statement.
Answer: In this statement, the author says that prose writing cannot be the true pursuit of a genius because it is always rejected. A genius is not that is accepted everywhere. The author states all this with criticism that prose writing is actually meant for rejection. Prose writers are patient, persistent and persevering drudges. They cannot be downplayed by rejection slips. Every time he gets a rejection slip for his manuscript, he starts making a fresh copy and sends it to another publisher with return postage.
Question 14. ‘Suddenly the book assumed tremendous significance.’ Explain the statement.
Answer: The author bought one copy of the book ‘The God That Failed’ from the footpath. Six eminent men of letters in six separate essays describe their journey into communism and their disillusioned return. Among them one was Stephen Spender. The author at once recollected that Stephen Spender had visited Gemini Studios. He knew about the mystery of his visit now. So, the book assumed tremendous significance for him.
Question 15. Explain the appropriateness of the title ‘Poets and Pancakes’?
Answer: The chapter describes Gemini Studios and its functioning very clearly. Its employees are little unrecognized poets. Though they work in a film studio, the focus is on the author’s station in the Studios as a make-up boy using pancakes on crowd players, and how he failed as a poet. So, the title is appropriate.
Question 16. How humorously does the author describe Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament Army?
Answer: The author humorously calls the Moral Re-Armament Army after someone as ‘an international circus’. Then he states that they were not very good on the trapeze. Their acquaintance with animals should have been much as animals play tricks in a circus. “But the group ate animals”, says the author their acquaintance with animals was only at the dining table.
Question 17. What was thought of a communist by the studio’s people?
Answer: According to these people, a communist was a godless man. He had no filial or conjugal love. He had compunction about killing his own parents and children. He was always out to cause and spread unrest and violence among the innocent and ignorant people.
Long Questions and Answers
Question 1. How does the author come to know about the periodical ‘The Encounter’?
Answer: The Hindu published an advertisement about a short story contest organized by ‘The Encounter’. The author wanted to know about it before he spent a lot of money on postage sending his manuscript to England. So, he visited the British Council Library. There he saw many untouched copies of ‘The Encounter’. When he read the editor’s name, he felt like he had found a long-lost brother. He sang as he sealed the envelope and felt that the editor would also be singing the same song when he would open the envelope. Actually, the editor was the same Englishman, Stephen Spender who visited Gemini Studios long time ago.
Question 2. ‘Poets and Pancakes’ is a beautiful example of humour in its chatty and rambling style’. Comment.
Answer: ‘Poets and Pancakes’ is an account of Asokamitran’s experiences at the Gemini Studios. Asokamitran deals with a wide variety of ideas where despite one thought leading to another, the thematic coherence is never lost. The author has adopted a chatty and rambling style. The style has a flow and the reader glides smoothly with the flow of the narrative. Asokamitran highlights human foibles and unusual behaviour with the help of subtle humour. All the characters are so lifelike that the reader seems to come across in real life. The subtle humour is neither superimposed nor superfluous.
Throughout the chapter humour seems to be spontaneous and interwoven. Even the choice of the title shows that Asokamitran has a flair for natural humour. He ridicules without hurting and the entire account becomes very interesting. Throughout the chapter the reader does not find even the slightest trace of malice. But every now and then the author speaks with his tongue-in-cheek way and pays left-handed compliments to different characters to the great amusement of the readers.
Question 3. What was the opinion of most of the people at the studios regarding communism?
Answer: The people at the Gemini Studios wore Khadi dhoti and a clumsily tailored white khadi shirt. It was a crowd of dreamers and an assembly of Gandhiites and khadiites. The Congress rule meant prohibition and most employees worshipped Gandhiji but beyond that they had no admiration for political thought of any kind. They hated the term ‘communism’ as to them a communist was a godless man, incapable of love and always out to spread unrest and violence among the innocent and ignorant people.
When Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament Army visited the Gemini Studios in 1952, they gave them a warm reception. Later they learnt that MRA was a counter movement to international communism and the big bosses of Madras like Mr. Vasan simply played into their hands. Later, the mystery of the visit of Stephen Spender was resolved and the writer came to know the reason of his visit and that the Boss of Gemini Studios had not been interested in Spender’s poetry but in communism. But the khadi-clad poets of Gemini Studios fell the same aversion for communism.
Question 4. The English poet who visited Gemini Studios was as baffled as the audience. Why was that?
Answer: When Gemini Studios prepared to welcome Stephen Spender, they did not know the identity of the visitor. All they knew was that he was a poet from England. However, he was not one of the poets from England that they had heard of. Later they heard that he was an editor. But again, he was not the editor of any of the known British publications. When the gentleman arrived, the mystery’ of his identity deepened.
The Englishman left the audience dazed and silent as no one knew what he was talking about. The people of Gemini Studios led lives that least offered them the possibilities of cultivating a taste for English poetry. The English man talked of the thrills and problems of an English poet. His British accent defeated any attempt to understand what he was saying. His lecture lasted an hour, but it left the people confused. The poet himself was equally baffled. He too must have felt the strangeness of his talk. His visit remained an unexplained mystery for a long time.
Question 5. Explain the statement ‘Subbu is tailor-made for films.’
Answer: Kothamangalam Subbu has many qualities of head and heart with a great fund of humaneness. He has the ability’ to look cheerful at all times. His loyalty to his principal is complete. He is always ready to say nice things about everything. He is resourceful. He has an inventive brain as he can create new ways and means to dramatize some difficult propositions in films. Filmmaking goes very easy with him. He is a poet also and has written a novel titled Thillana Mchanambal He successfully recreated the mood and manner of the Devadasis of the early 20thcentury.
He is an amazing actor and has performed better than the supposed main players. Above all. he has a heart of gold for his relatives and near and dear ones. His house is a permanent residence for them. In fact, he is tailor-made for films. He gave direction and definition to Gemini Studios during its golden years. His success in films overshadowed and dwarfed his literary achievements. He is a poet, an actor, and a creative assistant.
Question 6. What idea do you get about the narrator from the chapter ‘Poets and Pancakes’?
Answer: Asokamitran used to work in a cubicle tearing up newspapers all the time. Most of the people thought that he did nothing. So, anyone who felt so would enter his cubicle and deliver an extended lecture. He never tried to say anything in his defence. He kept himself busy with his work, without poking his nose into anyone’s affairs but he was wide awake and highly observant. He very well knew what was going on around him. He had a deep psychological insight into the human mind.
He could see through Subbu’s sycophancy, the lawyer’s smartness, and the office boy’s frustration. He was very fond of books and bought books all the time even when there was paucity of money. His description of S.S. Vasan’s battling with half a dozen pedestal fans while reading his welcome address and an account of Stephen Spender’s accent are examples of his brilliant sense of humour. He was a man of cool temperament who never jumped to conclusions or pounced upon opportunities rashly. On the whole, he emerges as a responsible and conscientious man.
Question 7. Describe Stephen Spender’s visit to Gemini Studios.
Answer: There was a lot of speculation about Spender’s visit. Initially, everyone thought he was a poet but later they heard that he was an editor. The author describes him as a tall, very English and a serious person. It was evident from Boss’ speech that he knew very little about the visitor. When Spender addressed the gathering, they were all dazed as they could not understand his accent and did not understand what he was talking about.
Even Spender must have sensed the incongruity of being called to talk about the travails of an English poet in a film studio making simple Tamil films. His visit remained an unexpected mystery. It was only much later that Asokamitran learnt that the reason why the boss had invited Spender. Spender was disillusioned with communism and had contributed an essay in a book on communism called ‘The God That Failed’.