Malayalam Cinema -The Pageant and the Parade - K.V.Ramankutty
The Literary Connection / Visual Communications / Theme and Form of Traditional Cinema / The Industry
Film Societies, Film Literature and Technical standards / Children's Film and Short Films / Alternative Models
"As you are aware, the film industry is passing through a period of severe tests and crisis owing to the all round challenges posed by the large scale menace of video piracy, television, dish antennae etc..." So goes the introductory remarks of the President of the Kerala Film Chamber in the house journal of July 1989. That the Malayalam film industry is facing a grave crisis has become an all too familiar talk. Before discussing the cultural and economic aspects of present day Malayalam film industry and its future direction, it would be worthwhile to look back to its history, strength and weakness and achievements in general over the past six decades.
Soon after the Lumiere brothers held the first public screening of their films in Paris in December 1895, their one reelers were shown in Bombay too. And as early as 1897, Maharashtrian photographer Harischandra Sakharam Bhatvedekar imported a motion picture camera and began filming Indian 'topicals'-the Indian equivalent of Lumiere shorts. By early 1900s, French, American, Italian, British, German and Danish films were regularly shown in India and cinema theatres became a feature of major Indian cities. In 1913, Dada Saheb Phalke made the first Indian feature (long) film, Raja Harichandra. As early as in1907 an imported bioscope was installed by K.W. Joseph in Trissoor where Phalke's short films were shown.
By 1927, the first sound film Jazz Singer was presented by the Warner Brothers in the United States. By the 1930s, an Indian film industry consisting of films mainly in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu had been established with production centres concentrating in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. But the first silent film in Malayalam Vigata Kumaran _ written, produced and directed by J.C. Daniel _ was screened to the public only in 1930. The next year when the first Indian sound film, Alam Ara was made, Malayalam cinema presented its second silent film, Marthanda Varma based on the well-known historical novel by C.V. Raman Pillai. The producer of the film, Sunder Raj of Nagercoil, did not buy the filming rights from the publishers of the novel, M/s Kamala Book Depot and hence got into a legal hurdle. The film was never shown publicly until 1974 when the National Film Archives of India negotiated with the copyright owners and restored the print. The film combined with its staged drama, actual newsreel footage of the annual procession of the Maharajah of Tiruvitamkur. Sound films were being made regularly in Hindi and other Indian languages since 1931, but Malayalam cinema had to wait till 1938 to have its first sound feature film, Balan produced by T.R. Sundram of Modern Theatres, Salem. Many unsuccessful attempts had preceded it. Two years would pass before another film, Njanambika directed by Balan's director, S. Nottani, was made. Next year, a mythological, Prahlada was attempted. Most of these early attempts were by Tamilians "whose main inspiration was from the flourishing Tamil Cinema well set in Madras with large studios and experienced technical personnel". Naturally a Tamil atmosphere prevailed in such films.
It was only in 1948 with Kerala Talkies' Nirmala, that a company based in Kerala produced a Malayalam film. Writers like Puthezhath Raman Menon and G. Sankara Kurup collaborated in this effort. In the same year the first major studio, 'Udaya' was set up in Alappuzha by Kunchakko and others, from where a Malayalam film, Vellinakshathram was shot the next year. With studio facility now available in the state, many Keralite producers came forward to make films thereby injecting a certain amount of local writing and acting talent into Malayalam cinema. But the directors and technicians were mostly non- Malayalis trained in and used to a 'Madras-school of film making'. So even when Malayalam writers and artists were involved, the models for these early films were Tamil and Hindi films and the formulae found successful in these films were easily put to use in Malayalam films too.
Starting with Phalke's early mythologicals, Indian film makers thought that stories from our mythologies would appeal to the public. So a number of such films got made. But in Malayalam, there was an interest to touch social issues right from the early days. When Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and English films were regularly shown in those days, it was only occasionally that a Malayalam film was screened to an eager audience.
One of the most popular films of the era was Jeevithanouka (1951) made by Koshy and Kunchakko productions in Udaya studio with a screenplay by Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai. The film by its phenomenal success, heralded the making of a Malayalam film industry. The film contained all the ingredients that were to form the basis for future commercial productions. The structure of the film is more akin to village festivals of Kerala than anything. The film is a mixture of various traditional art forms like music recital, dance, dance-drama, mimicry and so on. Connecting these various disparate elements was a story line which showed the triumph of the good over the evil. Many of these elements would form the commercial formula of future Malayalam productions.
By 1952, another studio 'Merryland' was established near Tiruvanthapuram from where Malayalam films were regularly shot. Although a few of these early movies can be classified as mythologicals, wild life adventure, comedy and so on, a majority of productions were social films vaguely touching aspects of society. The structure of most of these films was predictable, even though story line differed. There would invariable sub-plots or 'inner dramas' in most of the films contributing pretty little to plot development. The style was essentially theatrical with painted backdrops, abundant frontal shots, endlessly speaking characters and music and sound effects running through the entire length of the film. Screenplays were written by writers like Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai (incidentally the first Malayalam screenplay writer) Tikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, N.P. Chellappan Nair, Ponkunnam Varkey, Nagavalli R.S. Kurup, T.N. Gopinathan Nair and others. Occasionally stories were devised by the story department of the production company or adapted from other language films or from other languages. Since a dozen songs were considered necessary in a film, song writers and music directors were in great demand. Lyricists like P. Bhaskaran, Abhayadev, Tirunainarkurichi and Vayalar Rama Varma and music directors like Brother Lakshmanan, Dakshinamurthy, K. Raghavan and Baburaj had a field day.
It was in 1954 that Malayalam cinema got national attention by winning the President's silver medal for Neelakkuyil. Produced by T.K. Parekutty of Chandrathara Pictures, scripted by well-known novelist and short-story writer Uroob and dealing with the subject of untouchability, the film introduced a number of fresh talents like directors; Ramu Kariat and P. Bhaskaran, A. Vincent, cameraman, K. Raghavan, music director and others who were to establish themselves later on. Melodramatic in style and laced with songs and dances, the film was a big hit with the public. It was the team work of a number of film enthusiasts who took time off their professions to live near the banks of the Periyar river in central Kerala discussing the script and other details of the film. There was difficulty in location shooting at that time. Also studio facility was limited in Kerala. In spite of these limitations, they were bent on recreating authentic Kerala setting for the story. Props, household articles, costumes and other cultural artifacts were made and sent to Madras for aiding studio work. Most of the actors hailing from Kerala performed in front of authentically constructed sets with all the manners and mannerisms of Malayali characters found in the story. Even the lyrics were derived from local folk tradition. This was at a time when Malayalam cinema had not established its cultural identity and was hardly distinguishable from the Tamil films of the time, except for the spoken language.
Equally significant and much more unique was the next year's offering, Newspaper boy, made by Adarshakalamandir, the cultural wing of a student organization in Trissoor. It was written and directed by twenty two year old P. Ramadas, probably the youngest film director in Indian film till then.
The only experience Ramadas had in film making was the two films he made in 8 mm and the theoretical knowledge that he gathered. He was assisted by his young colleagues in Adarshakalamandir and the only veteran in the attempt was dialogue-writer Nagavalli R.S. Kurup. The film tried to portray realistically the travails of an orphaned boy, dispensing with romance, considered an essential ingredient in Malayalam film, and taking pains to evoke Kerala atmosphere throughout. It was bolder than Neelakkuyil in its rejection of the elements of the so called box-office formula.
Chandrathara Pictures followed up their first effort with Rarichan Enna Powran in 1956, this time entrusting the full directorial responsibility to P. Bhaskaran. Screenplay writer Uroob successfully adapted characters from the drama troupes of Malabar. P. Baskaran also took care in creating Kerala atmosphere throughout the film and contributed lyrics of local flavour set to music by K. Raghavan.
Chandrathara hired the co-director of Neelakkuyil, Ramu Kariat, for their next production, Mudiyanaya Puthran, an adaptation of Thoppil Bhasi's successful play. The film was remarkable for the histrionic levels reached and the extensive use of location by cameraman A. Vincent.
When one looks at these early developments, one finds that Malayalam cinema had no time to evolve on its own from its silent days. Much of the visual expression in International cinema was possible because silent film had enough time to germinate and grow. But in the case of Malayalam film, sound arrived soon after the two silent films and there was no need for makers to think of communicating through visual means. Everything could be spelt out through dialogues and the artists who came mostly from the stage translated their stage experience into films. Another aspect to be mentioned here is the lack of exposure to international cinema. No matter how sincere and competent the script writer and director were, the ultimate product ended up as photographed drama staged within studio sets (much later in 1967 a stage performance of Indulekha was filmed as it is). In early days, there was a minimum of camera movement. Different episodes were self-contained and they made social comment, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, while attempting to entertain. There were parallel streams of story line going on. All these traits could be found even in films like Neelakkuyil. It appears that there was not much pressure from the audience for a tight narrative. An unhurried, leisurely pace was acceptable for the viewers who enjoyed individual moments of the film more than a satisfying whole, although story was of primary importance. This was understandable especially when cinema was seeking to displace the pastimes of an agrarian society and the best way to do it was by maintaining a close equation to village fairs and festivals.
Collaborative Cinema of the SixtiesThe best thing that happened to Malayalam cinema in the sixties was the active participation of well-known writers in film projects. Thoppil Bhasi and Ramu Kariat in Mudiyanaya Puthran, Vaikom Mohammed Basheer and A. Vincent in Bhargavi Nilayam, M.T. Vasudevan Nair and A. Vincent in Murappennu are some of the best examples of such collaborative work. The first two films were produced by the ever adventurous Chandrathara Pictures and the third by Roopavani films. Bhargavi Nilayam veined away from the realistic streak and moved to the world of fantasy and horror for a change.
1965 marked the entry of short story writer and novelist M.T. Vasudevan Nair whose writing by nature had a visual orientation. M.T. Vasudevan Nair was exposed to cinema when he began scripting. Films based on his screenplay maintained a visual quality unmatched in the rest of Malayalam films of the time. M.T. Vasudevan Nair's screenplay was effectively used by cameraman turned director, A. Vincent in Murappennu. Though still theatrical and melodramatic Murappennu had the advantage of being shot extensively on location. When actors and actresses were placed in real locations like river banks, matriarchal family-abodes, gravel paths and paddy fields, they came out with an acting style freed from the theatricality inherent in studio-filming.
A landmark in collaborative effort happened in 1966 with Chemmeen which won the President's gold medal for the first time for a south Indian film. Based on Thakazhy Sivasankara Pillai's widely-read novel, the film had screen play by S.L. Puram Sadanandan, camera work by Marcus Bartley, editing by Hrishikesh Mukherji and music by Salil Chaudhury, all established names in the Indian film industry. All these contributed immensely to the overall technical quality of the film. But its aspirations right from the title shots were strictly aimed at the box office. Ramu Kariat, its director, had a tendency to work on epic proportions often missing the finer elements. Chemmeen looked at the fishermen of Kerala from a distance and all the established actors looked separated from the rest of the fishing community and their environments. Its characters very often appeared before the camera in frontal shots, their faces fully lit though set in fishermen's thatched dwellings, in the theatrical style of the earlier decade. It's music was unrelated to the cultural milieu though the songs tuned to the score originally done for non- Malayalam films were lilting and pleasing. Its high calibre publicity greatly aided by the gold medal secured before its commercial release and its technical flourish made a great impact on the audience in Kerala and outside. Ramu Kariat got national attention with this effort.
A major landmark in Malayalam cinema was to come in the next year with Iruttinte Atmavu. With a detailed screenplay by M.T. Vasudevan Nair, P. Bhaskaran could make one of the best films of his career and also provide Malayalam cinema with a new direction; that of the low budget film. One could see a lot of the pre-occupations of the scenarist, who carried the touches of human relationships through all of his subsequent films whether as screenplay writer or director. In spite of its large number of studio shots and overall theatricality, the film was so culturally rich that many of the episodes would become archetypes for future Malayalam film makers dealing with family drama. It depicted the story of an imbecile (finely portrayed by the late Prem Nazir) in a joint family with remarkable sensitivity and seriousness of purpose.
1967 also witnessed the first film of a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune; P.M. Abdul Aseez's Aval. Two years later another graduate John Sankaramangalam made Janmabhoomi, the first Malayalam film with the support of Film Finance Corporation (now the National Film Development Corporation). Shot in Wayanad, on the western Ghats, a pristine location for film shooting, the film told the unexplored subject of assimilation of a migrant community and the theme of religious co-existence. Though marred by over-statement, the film won a Presidential Award for the best film on national integration.
By the end of the sixties, the traditional Malayalam cinema had produced a number of good work, most of them based on reputed literary work by authors like Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Parappurath, K.T. Mohammed, Thakazhy Sivasankara Pillai, Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, P. Kesava Dev and Thoppil Bhasi. The directors who need special mention include P. Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat,
A. Vincent and K.S. Sethumadhavan. The film makers of the sixties however, turned out to be mere translators than true authors of their films. This was evident in the uneven quality of their productions.
In the mid sixties efforts were on to create conditions conducive to the survival of artistic cinema in Kerala. A group of film enthusiasts had already formed a film society, Chitralekha, in Tiruvananthapuram, a trend setter in the state. It conducted seminars and discussion on films apart from screening international classics. It encouraged the formation of other film societies throughout the state. As an off-shoot of this society came the Chitralekha Film Co-operative Society, the first of its kind in the country formed by a group of trained technicians with the intention of making artistic films. After a period of practice through documentary film-making, the co-operative attempted their first feature, Swayamvaram in 1972 with Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair as executive producer and Adoor Gopalakrishnan as director. Technically superb, the film dispensed with the cliches of traditional cinema particularly songs till then considered as essential ingredient in feature film. Although built on a weak narrative, the film was much ahead of the Malayalam film of the time in its cinematic qualities and won four national awards including that of best film. It launched a major film maker in Malayalam.
The next year M.T. Vasudevan Nair, who had been writing screenplays for many a directors, came up with his own directional venture, Nirmalyam. M.T was hesitant to shed all the existing conventions but all the same produced a brilliant first work. Although still coming to grips with the medium, he was sure of his characters and their relationships. Much of his pre-occupation with family and societal relationships found earlier in his screenplay was evident here too. Nirmalyam brought the President's best film award to Kerala for the second consecutive year.
In 1974 well-known cartoonist G. Aravindan, who had established himself as the most intellectual cartoonist in Malayalam with his work 'Small men and the big world' in Mathrubhoomi weekly, made his first film Utharayanam. Aravindan had no formal training in film making although he was well exposed to other visual arts. He had also got exposure to international cinema through the film societies. Aravindan demonstrated an extraordinary sense of visual expression and composition in his very first attempt. He was greatly aided by scenarist Thikkodiyan, art director Namboodiri and cameraman Mankada Ravi Varma. The film fetched a national award comemorating the silver jubilee of Indian independence.
John Abraham, the `enfant terrible' of Malayalam cinema, who set himself the untouched path of subversive cinema in his first Tamil film, Agraharathile Kazhuthai, continued in the same vein in his Malayalam films. Abraham could be credited with demystifying cinema's long evolved conventions and he succeeded really well in blending the theme and form with wry humour. His unexpected demise in 1987 caused a set-back to the kind of film-making that John propounded. A number of promising newcomers made their first features in the seventies and eighties who include Azad, K.G. George, K.R. Mohanan, G.S. Panicker, V.R.Gopinath, K.N. Sasidharan and Shaji N. Karun, all alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune and others like Madhu, Bharathan, K.P. Kumaran, P.A. Backer, C. Radhakrishnan, Padmarajan, Mankada Ravi Varma, Lenin Rajendran, Ravindran, Rajeev Nath and Pavithran.
During the last two decades, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan consolidated their positions in not only Malayalam cinema but in Indian cinema as well. Adoor made six significant films, Swayamvaram, Kotiyettam, Elippathayam, Mukhamukham, Anantharam and Mathilukal. Aravindan directed Utharayanam, Kanchana Sita, Thampu, Kummatty, Esthappan, Pokkuveyil, Chidambaram, Oridathu, Unny and Marattam. Most of these films won laurels from India and abroad and merited screenings at International film festivals.
Sometimes there would be simultaneous release of devotional/mythological and other films with identical theme produced by different studios. The same sets and properties were put to effective use for different films. No matter what the genre is, the formula reigned supreme and for that reason the attributes of a genre was not clearly discernible in these films. Many of these films had only the semblance of a genre. There would be songs and sentiments in Vadakkanpattu _ based action films like Unniarcha (with twenty three songs!) and even in wild life films. Formula elements would be found in political films and comic scenes in devotionals. Attention to pace seemed to be absent due to compulsions of including comic scenes, songs and dance numbers, sub-plots and dramas. Song scenes were considered a must till the seventies and the average number of songs in a film ranged from a dozen in the fifties to about half of it in the seventies. In fact the very first sound film Balan had twenty three songs; probably T.R. Sundaram took the cue from the Tamil and Hindi films of the time. Historical films paid very little attention to period recreation and behaviour patterns of the time. Similarly dialects of different regions were conveniently ignored except for comic effects. The written style of the Tiruvitamkur region was the most acceptable form of language so that the widest cross section of people understood a film. Also, most of the early script writers were from the south. In social films, the milieu was not properly established. These two factors sometimes made jarring note in films like Kandam Becha Kottu (a muslim social supposedly taking place in the Kozhikode region) and Unniarcha based on the legends of north Malabar. In the sixties, a number of films dealing with the labour movements were made absorbing the political ferment of the time.
Late seventies witnessed an emphazis on sex in Malayalam film. Sex began to be treated in a more open way which encouraged distributors to promote such films outside the state as soft-porn films. The presentation of every day life and its problems itself without any new insight or psycho-social analysis became the goal of many film makers. The audience also seemed content with such banality, judging from the popularity of such films. Sex was now treated indirectly more at a subliminal level in many of these films with a realistic exterior. The eighties saw a boom in pulp literature in the state and films made out of serialized stories of these journals found a ready market. A number of such adaptations set in the middle class families which cleverly mixed melo-drama and violence on the home front succeeded well at the box office. Such films had a pronounced sexist bias and gender use became offensive to women. The money accumulated in private investment companies which sprouted along the length and breadth of the state, then began to be diverted for film-making of this nature. Monopolistic tendencies began to be felt in production and distribution and with huge investment without any regard to the returns made the commercial viability of an average film at stake. On the other side of the commercial spectrum, film makers like I.V. Sasi and Hariharan who were making sex and violence-oriented films in the seventies, changed their course by making family dramas based on screenplays by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and Padmarajan. This ensured commercial success of a film. Both were prolific in their output. Films based on their screenplays maintain a certain standard well above that of the commercial productions in the rest of the country. Although a sizeable majority of popular film dealt with predictable themes, a few of them explored alternative subjects like tribal life, pollution, Gulf migration, performing arts, biography, women's issues and film-making itself.
Permanent and semi-permanent cinema houses have mushroomed throughout the state thanks to the Gulf remittence. Movie-going has became more frequent due to the increased wages prevailing in villages and the proximity of theatres, even though television and video have made inroads into urban and rural areas.
In the mid seventies, infrastructure facilities for film making in the state were augmented with the setting up of the Chitralekha studio in the co-operative sector and the Chitranjali studio of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation in the government sector. The latter is now equipped with all facilities for film-making. Aided by the subsidy scheme of the government from 1977 onwards and the inflow of 'Gulf money' into film making, more films began to be made in Kerala. Location shooting became more popular and the emphasis on realism even in commercial productions was evident. More local artists, technicians and writers contributed to the distinct Malayali flavour of many films. The state government with the limited resources at its disposal introduced a few well meaning schemes like the annual film awards (from 1969), tax exemption, subsidy and package scheme, all of which contributed to the growth of film making in the state.
Unlike the Kannada cinema of the seventies and the Bengali cinema of the eighties, Malayalam cinema does not seem to be very favourable to a younger generation of film-makers. While commercial producers are surprisingly willing to take chances by financing younger and inexperienced directors, finance for the emerging film makers with training and competence appear unavailable. The National Film Development Corporation engaged in financing and promoting projects of promise did not produce Malayalam films till recently although it produce a number of Hindi films every year which are more expensive to make and tougher to exhibit. In recent years, the Corporation has advanced loans to a few Malayalam film makers. It has also co-produced a few films recently with Doordarsan.
Malayalam film celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1988 when the state also hosted the Filmostav 1988. Due to a variety of factors, the Malayalam cinema is now in a state of flux. The number of productions is showing a decline from an average of one hundred and fifteen in the beginning of the eighties to about eighty towards the nineties. With the expansion of television network in the state and the beaming of Malayalam programmes, a sizeable section of the audience, particularly women and children in urban areas, have been lured away from the theatres. Added to that the large scale popularity of video and the rampant video piracy have affected the box office returns considerably as evident from the statements of film industry spokesmen. Films are increasingly being made to appeal a male and teenage auidence. With the easy availability of foreign films on video, adaptation of foreign films became common place. Music style has changed to western pop style and editing methods have resorted to a forced fast pace. Violence on the screen is on the increase songs and comic situations have become indispensible. Anything new is immediately replicated and trivialized. Simultaneous with the polarisation in film making approaches seems to be taking place. Big budget spectacles have made a come back along with the low budget artistic types. Low budget pronographic films have also made a come back towards the close of the decade catering to an increasingly repressed male auidence. Their makers seem to take their lessons from the success of low budget foreign porno films coming in the guise of N.R.I films. Auidence tastes differ in urban and rural areas. Television is increasingly influencing the film making process and creating paradoxes for the medium itself. With theatrical outlet becoming tough for artistic endeavours, its producers have come to depend on television for its returns. Unfortunately such films are made without any consideration for the television medium and end up in a fiasco on the small screen because of the long stretches of inactive time, frequent long shots and paucity of the spoken word observed in such films. Whatever impact such films would have made on the big screen is completely lost in this process further alienating the audience.
Films are being commissioned by television stations where the film makers are conscious of the nature of viewing and can adjust their styles to suit the medium. K. G. George and G. Aravindan have made such films. George has followed a journey in his Yathrayude Andyam retaining the present tense quality. Aravindan's Maarattam is a live performance with the story told in a ballad form with acting as a supplement to the dance and movement. With more artists making films for television, (like Adoor with Mathilukal) film making styles are bound to change to suit the nature of the television medium although practitioners in film are at present a bit reluctant to change. With the consumption of more films by television, oral communication is bound to take precedence over visual communication. Family dramas and small group interaction are likely to be probed often. Moments in film will have to be more ephemeral to sustain itself on television. A further check on sex and violence could be anticipated in made-for T.V. movies which means film makers may rely more on subliminal images as already resorted to by some popular film makers.
The growing recognition that Malayalam film makers is getting in recent years is evident from the number of films featuring in the Indian Panorama section of our International film festivals. Every year our films win national awards and occasionally international awards too. It has produced fine histrionic talents like P.J. Antony, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Sathyan, Sharada, Gopi, Premji and others. Retrospective of Malayalam film makers have been held at India's International film festivals and abroad.
Although efforts to imbibe regional culture in Malayalam films were there right from the fifties, attempts to evolve indigenous narration and expression became more vigorous in the seventies and eighties. Coming to terms with a technological medium imported from the west by continuous practice and by absorbing the rich performing art tradition of the state, film makers have become more at ease in creating native forms of cinema. Narrative methods of kathakali have been skillfully adapted in Kotiyettam for example. Films like Kotiyettam and Thambu point to the possibility of a native visual language for malayalam cinema. Kotiyettam has proved that such films, if made absorbingly and true to the soil, can gain wide acceptance by the public. With the reassurance of such acceptance, one may hope that the energies of our film makers will be directed at uncovering local truths and thus universal truth.
No matter what the apprehension of the film industry, film is here to stay co-existing with television, video and other technological image-making devices. Film is likely to contribute its rich visual heritage and language to the electronic medium and may in turn make use of the newer technologies for furtherance of finer expression. Such a give and take may turn out to be a blessing for the image-maker in his pursuit of excellence and for all of us who are used to watching image and listening to stories. q