Poets and Pancakes – Summary


This piece, Poets and Pancakes, is taken from Asokamitran’s book ‘My Years with Boss’. He was a Tamil writer, writing about his years in the company. He worked in The Gemini Studios. His duty was to cut out newspaper clipping on a wide variety of subjects and preserve them in files.

Gemini Studios was located in Madras (Chennai). Film making was its infancy in India. Asokamitran writes humorously in a rambling style. To begin with he talks of the make-up department of the studios. It was at the up-stairs of a building that was popularly supposed to have been Lord Clive’s stables. Then there are quite a few buildings which were supposed to have been Clive’s residences. Asokamitran does not believe all this to be true. Lord Clive’s stay in India was very short. He lived in Madras for still shorter time. He couldn’t have lived in all these houses.

‘Pancakes’ was a strange brand name for a make-up material. The Gemini Studios bought truckloads of this material. It was used by the make-up department. The author humorously says that it made decent looking boys and girls ugly.

Talking about the make-up department, he talks of his office boy. He was in fact a grown-up man of forty. He aspired to be a director or a top star. But he remained an office boy. He blamed his neglect on Subbu, who was considered to be No. 2 in The Gemini Studios.

Now the author tells us about Kothamangalam Subbu. He was a talented person. He was a poet, novelist, actor and film maker, all rolled into one. But he had no aspirations. He was loyal to boss.

Then he tells us of the legal advisor who was a member of the story department. He wore western clothes and looked odd among khadi-clad writers and poets, who were averse to communism. The legal advisor ruined the career of talented actress unwittingly.

Talking of communism the, author speaks of the arrival of Moral Re-armament Army at the studios. It was a sort of counter-communism movement. It presented plays in the studios. Their plays influenced Tamil dramas but their anticommunism had no effect. Later an English poet paid a visit to the studios. But nobody could understand what the poet said or what the purpose of his visit was.

The poet, which the author discovered, was the editor of the periodical, The Encounter. He wrote an essay on his disillusion with communism. His visit to the Studios had been in this connection.


An account of the events and personalities in a film company in the early days of Indian cinema.


Poets and writers in a film company environment.

Summary of Poets and Pancakes

In this piece, Asokamitran talks about Gemini Studios and all that helps to keep it in the spotlight. He starts by mentioning ‘Pancakes’, the famous make-up brand ordered in truckloads by Gemini Studios. He then discusses the plight of actors and actresses who, while getting ready in the make-up room, must carry too many lights on their face. According to him, the make-up department used heaps of make-up to turn them into ugly-looking creatures. Shockingly, he talks about the office boy from the make-up department whose task at the time of crowd-shooting is to slap paint on the faces of players. He was a poet and, in the hope of becoming an actor, screenwriter, director or a lyricist, he joined the studio. The author used to work inside a cubicle in those days and had the task of collecting cuttings from newspapers that, according to others, were insignificant. Therefore, in time, the office boy would come again to bother him with his complaints. He was well-convinced that Subbu was the reason behind his plight. Subbu had an advantage, he thought, because he was born a Brahmin.

Subbu was an ingenious man whose loyalty made him stand out. He was tailor-made for films, and it was hard to imagine film-making without him. He was very friendly and well known for his hospitality. Like many others in Gemini Studios, he also did poetry. He was working for the storey department, which also consisted of a prosecutor. Generally, people called him the opposite of a legal practitioner. He was a logical and neutral man in a room full of dreamers. Asokamitran then explains how Gemini Studios had the chance to host a group of foreign performers called the Moral Rearmament Army. Although the plots and messages were not complex, their sets and costumes were so close to perfection that, for many years, Tamil plays showed sunset and sunrise in a way inherited from ‘Jotham Valley.’ Then another guest, Stephen Spender, comes to Gemini Studios.

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People had barely heard of him, and because of linguistic barriers, they couldn’t even connect with him. It wasn’t until a few years later that Asokamitran saw his name in a book and realised who he was.

Main Highlights

  1. The Gemini studio was located in Madras (Chennai).
  2. The writer recounts his years in the company.
  3. The make-up department was in the upstairs of a building that was believed to have been Robert Clive’s stables.
  4. Pancake was the brand name of the make- up the material used by the artists in Gemini Studios.
  5. The make-up room had the look of a hair -cutting salon with incandescent lights at all angles around half a dozen large mirrors, the writer speaks about the ‘fiery misery’ ‘of those subjected to make-up.
  6. There was a great deal of ‘national integration’ in the department and a strict hierarchy was maintained there.
  7. The players who played the crowd were the responsibility of the ‘office boy’ in his early forties, a frustrated person, who turned all his anger towards Kothamanagalam Subbu.
  8. The author’s job was to cut out newspaper clippings and store them in files.
  9. Most people including the ‘boy’ thought author was doing ‘next to nothing’.
  10. S S Vasan (editor of Tamil weekly Ananada Vikatan’) was the owner of the studios.
  11. Subbu was No.2. Subbu – a Brahmin, had the ability to look cheerful at all times, could be ‘inspired when commanded’, was tailor-made for films, had a separate identity as a poet and actor, had a genuine love for bothers, was charitable, always seen with The Boss, attached to Story.
  12. Department. Story Department – assembly of poets and writers wore khadi.
  13. A lawyer(legal adviser) – referred to as ‘the opposite’-caused the end of a brief and the brilliant career of a talented actress, looked ‘alone and helpless’, a man of cold logic in a crowd of dreamers, close to the Boss, wore pants, coat and a tie, attached to Story Department, lost his job when the Story Department was closed down.
  14. Gemini studios –a favourite haunt of poets, an excellent mess which supplied good coffee, Congress rule meant prohibition, almost everyone radiated leisure, wore Khadi and worshipped Gandhi, averse to Communism.
  15. Visit of MRA (a kind of counter-movement to international Communism) in 1952- presented two plays ‘The Forgotten Factor’ and ‘Jotham Valley’ in a professional manner impressed Madras and Tamil drama community.
  16. Another visitor – a poet from England, tall man, very English, addressed ‘a more dazed and silent audience’, visit remained an unexplained mystery, staff did not know whether he was a poet or an editor.
  17. Author’s conviction about prose-writers –‘prose writing is for the patient, persistent, persevering drudge’, short story contest by a British periodical ‘The Encounter’-found in the British Council Library almost untouched by readers’, discovered Stephen Spender was the editor.
  18. The author bought ‘The God That Failed’ years later –six essays describing the disillusionment of six eminent men of letters with Communism, Stephen Spender one among them, the author suddenly realized the relevance of his visit to Gemini studios.


1. How does the writer describe the make-up room of the Gemini studios?

Ans. The makeup room of the Gemini studio had incandescent lights. It also had lights at all angles, large mirrors. Those subjected to makeup had to face bright light and a lot of heat there. It was on the upper floor of the o a building that was believed to have been Robert Clive’s stables.

2. How was the make-up room a fine example of national integration?

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Ans. The makeup room was headed by a Bengali, succeeded by a Maharashtrian, assisted by a Dharwar Kannadiga, an Andhra, a Madrasi, Christian and an Anglo Burmese.

3. How did the legal advisor bring a sad end to the brief and brilliant acting career of an extremely talented in the studios?

Ans. The legal advisor (lawyer) quietly switched on the recording equipment when once she blew over on the sets against the producer. When the actress paused for breath, he played back the recording. She was struck dumb on hearing her own voice and never recovered from the shock. That was the end of the brief and brilliant career of the actress.

4. What does ‘The God That Failed’ refer to?

Ans. ‘The God That Failed’ refers to a collection of essays by six eminent literary personalities, about their journey into communism and disillusionment. Stephen Spender
was one of the authors.

Extra Short Answer Questions

Q. What does the writer mean by ‘the fiery misery’ of those subjected to make-up’?
And. The make-up room of the Gemini Studios seemed like a hair-cut salon. It had about half a dozen mirrors with incandescent lights at all angles around them. The artists would have felt the heat emanating from these lights. Thus, the writer uses the term ‘fiery misery’ to denote the uncomfortable situation of those who are subject to make-up.

Q. What is the example of national integration that the author refers to?
Ans. The Gemini Studios’ make-up division was an example of national integration. According to the author, this is because people from different regions and religious groups have worked together in the same department. The department was headed by a Bengali, who had been replaced by a Maharashtrian. Other aid workers included the Dharwar Kannadiga, the Andhra, the Madras Indian Christian, the Anglo-Burmese and the local Tamils.

Q. Why was the office boy frustrated? Who did he show his anger on?
Ans. The office boy had joined the studio years ago, hoping to become an actor or screenwriter, or a director, or a lyricist. He was frustrated by the fact that he ended up becoming none of these. According to him, “great literary talent was allowed to go to waste in a department suitable only for barbers and perverts.” He used to direct his anger at the author, even though it was meant for Kothamangalam Subbu.

Q. Subbu is described as a many-sided genius. List four of his special abilities.

Ans. Subbu was a multi-disciplinarian. He had many exceptional qualities. He could provide solutions to problems and remain cheerful all the time. He was an actor, a poet and a novelist.

Q. Did the people at Gemini Studios have any particular political affiliations?

Ans. The people at Gemini Studios had no specific political affiliations. The common political notions of the day were able to influence them, but this was limited to wearing Khadi and admiring Gandhi’s philosophy. They were opposed to the term ‘communism,’ but had only an incorrect understanding of the concept.

Q. Why was the Moral Re-Armament army welcomed at the studio?

Ans. The Moral Re-Armament Army of Frank Buchman was welcomed at the studio mainly because of their political association. The people at the Gemini Studios were opposed to Communism, and therefore ready to host the MRA. Apart from that, the people in the studio had hardly any occupation and were bored. The MRA came to the studio as a welcome change to their monotonous days.


Q. 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.

Ans. The author Asokamitran, in his extract ‘Poets and Pancakes,’ recalled the years he spent at the Gemini Studios owned by S.S. Vasan in Chennai. In his subtle and gentle manner, humour has been used as an effective method to point out human foibles.

He sets the tone of laughter in his usual rambling style in his narration. He said that there was a great deal of national integration in the Gemini Studios even before A.I.R and Doordarshan began broadcasting programmes on national integration. He uses exaggerations to suggest that any decent looking human could be turned into a monster with the help of a truck-load of pancakes and ‘locally made potions and lotions.’ Ironically, it is used to invoke humour stating that boys and girls were made to look ugly in order to look presentable in the film. The paint was mixed up in the studio in a huge vessel and slapped it on the faces of the audience. In the course of applying make-up, every pore on the surface of the face has been closed.

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Humour is used by the protagonist in cases where he acknowledges that people assumed he didn’t do something because he saw frequent newspaper tears. The literary talent was wasted in a department only suited to barbers and perverts.

The author uses humour to expose people to authority. The storey department was closed, and this was the only instance in human history where a lawyer lost his job because the most amusing circumstance occurs when the definition of Communism is described. ‘A godless man without filial or conjugal love.’ The workers of Gemini rejected the idea and became Gandhiites and Khadiites. Ironically, there is the ‘God Who Lost’ collection of Communism and their disillusioned return.

Q.Write a brief character sketch of Kothamangalam Subbu.

Ans. Kothamangalam Subbu was granted a lot of importance in the essay ‘Poets and Pancakes’ by Asokamitran. He was presented as a man who was held in high regard at Gemini Studios. He was born Brahmin and may have risen to the position of No. 2 in Gemini Studios because of this virtue. He had contact with wealthy citizens. He was cool, calm and collected, and even a flop film he was involved in, never made him depressed or unhappy. He was looking happy all the time. He was very loyal to his boss, and that made him dear to the boss. He was a man who could be motivated when commanded.

He was creative and showed this skill when, effortlessly, he could give fourteen alternative ways of handling a particular scene. Subbu was a calibre poet and had a distinct identity as a poet. His success in film overshadowed his achievements in literacy. He composed truly original ‘storey poems’ and wrote a novel called ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ with a lot of characters. It re-created the mood and manner of the Devadasis of the early 20th century. He was an amazing actor, yet he never aspired to play leading roles. He loved all of them genuinely and unselfishly.

He was charitable and imprudent, yet he probably had enemies because of his closeness to the Boss. The author Asokamitran portrayed him as an extremely talented, creative and lovable human being.

Q. How does the author describe the incongruity of an English poet addressing the audience at Gemini Studios?

Ans. The audience at the Gemini Studios was not sufficiently knowledgeable to understand the thrills and works of the English poet, about whom the visitor, the poet-editor, spoke, in his speech. The studio produced films for simple people whose limited resources did not give them the opportunity to develop a taste in English poetry. The audience failed to understand anything the poet had said, all the more so because of the accent of the latter. The poet-editor, in turn, looked bewildered to realise that the utter inappropriateness of his speech was directed at such an audience.

Q. What do you understand about the author’s literary inclinations from the account?

Ans. Although the author had a very tiresome and unchallenged job in the studios, his interest in literature and writing is evident in his willingness to take part in the short storey contest organised by the British newspaper ‘The Encounter.’ In addition, the author seems to be a keen reader visiting libraries and buying books on a wide range of topics whenever he can afford them. The narrative also shows that the author was one of the most knowledgeable people in Gemini Studios. His idea of how prose writing was meant not for geniuses but for those with patience and perseverance, underscores his profound thoughts on literature and creative writing.

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