Monday, November 22, 2010

Chemmeen (1965)

Cast: Sathyan, Madhu, Sheela, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Adoor Bhavani, S. P. Pillai, Adoor Pankajam etc.

Cult Classic Sheela with Sathyan, left, and Madhu in the film Chemmeen
‘Chemmeen,' released in 1965, put Malayalam cinema on the national map. The film won the President's Gold Medal for the best film of the year. The film acquired cult status in the history of Malayalam cinema besides being the first South Indian film to win the coveted President's Gold Medal for the best film. The film was released commercially on August 19, 1966.

The film was based on a highly acclaimed Malayalam novel of the same title by the renowned novelist and Jnanapith winner Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. First published in 1956, the novel won the award for the best literary work from Kendra Sahitya Academy in 1957 and was the first Malayalam novel to receive the national honour.

‘Chemmeen' was translated to more than 30 languages which include major Indian languages and foreign languages. The novel was accepted as part of the UNESCO collection of Representative Works - Indian series.

In 1965 Babu Ismail produced the film version of the novel under the banner of Kanmani Films. The story of ‘Chemmeen' is set in a fisherfolk community settled in the southern belt of the coastal area of the state. The highly emotional melodrama told the tragic love story set in the backdrop of a fishing village interlinked with some ancient beliefs that exists among the community.

The Hindi film ‘Nadiya Ke Paar' (1948) produced by Filmstan under the direction of Kishore Sahu, with Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal in the lead roles, was probably the first Indian film that focussed on the life, customs, traditions and beliefs of the fishermen. The Malayalam film ‘Thirakalkkapuram,' was a sequel to ‘Chemmeen.' But this film failed badly at the box office.

‘Chemmeen' was a huge hit. It was one of the earliest colour films made in Malayalam. Besides the National award, the film won a Certificate of Merit at the Chicago Film Festival. The film was screened at the 2005 Brisbane International Film Festival as a part of the retrospective on 50 years of Malayalam Cinema.

The dialogues written by the popular playwright S. L. Puram Sadanandan closely followed the local parlance and slang of the fishermen community, as used by the novelist. Directed by Ramu Kariat, the film was canned by cameramen Marcus Bartley and U. Rajagopal. The editing was by Hrishikesh Mukherji. The superb musical score by Salil Choudhary was another major strength of the film. This was the debut Malayalam film of the composer. The film brought to Malayalam cinema playback singer Manna Dey.

The film included the top acting talents of Malayalam cinema like Sathyan, Madhu, Kottarakkara and Sheela. The theme of the film was based on a myth prevalent among the fishermen communities along oastal Kerala. The myth is about chastity. They believed that if a married fisherwoman loses her chastity while her husband is away at sea, ‘Kadalamma' or the sea goddess would consume him. This myth is perpetuated by the novelist in his novel through a tragic love story. This was adapted for the film quite impressively. Karuthamma (Sheela), the daughter of a fisherman Chembankunju (Kottarakkara) is in love with a fish trader, Pareekutty (Madhu). Chembankunju's only aim in life is to own a boat and net. Pareekutty finances Chembankunju to realise this dream. This is on a condition that the fish caught by Chembankunju will be sold only to him. Karuthamma's mother Chakki (Adoor Bhavani) comes to know about the love affair of her daughter with Pareekutty, who belongs to another religion and warns her to keep away from such a relationship. A fisherwoman has to lead a life within the boundaries of strict social traditions and an affair or marriage with a person of another religion will subject the entire community to the wrath of the sea.

Karuthamma sacrifices her love for Pareekutty and marries Palani (Sathyan), a young fisherman. Karuthamma accompanies her husband to his village. Karuthamma gives birth to a child and she has endeavoured to be a good wife and mother. But the scandal about her love affair with Pareekutty makes her family life unhappy. Although Palani accepts that Karuthamma's affair with Pareekutty did not break the barriers and slip into illegitimate relations, the village does not believe it and Palani is censured.

Chembankunju becomes more greedy and heartless. His dishonesty drives Pareekutty to bankruptcy. Chakki dies of illness and Chembankunju marries Paappikunju (C. R. Rajakumari). On the arrival of her stepmother, Panchami (Lata), Chembankunju's younger daughter leaves home and joins Karuthamma. Chembankunju's savings is manipulated by his second wife. The setbacks in life turns Chembankunju mad. Palani's friends ostracise him and refuse to take him with them for fishing.

One night Karuthamma and Pareekutty meet each other by a stroke of fate and their love is awakened. Palani is alone at the sea and baiting a shark. Caught in a huge whirlpool Palani is swallowed by the sea. The film ends with Pareekutty and Karuthamma found dead, holding their hands, their bodies washed ashore. At a distance lies a baited, dead shark.

The film was dubbed to major Indian languages. Timeless music created by the Vayalar-Salil Choudhary combination was a highpoint. All the four songs became super hits. It is said that Salil Choudhary composed the tunes first and lyrics added in. Manna Dey sang his first Malayalam song, ‘Maanasa mainey varoo...' which was an instant hit. The solo by K. J. Yesudas, ‘Kadalinakkre ponore...' was based on an improvised tune of a very popular Bengali folk song composed by Salil Choudhary ‘Hai hai ki hayrilam...' The chorus led by P. Leela and Yesudas, ‘Pennale pennale ...,' based on a folk tune also became very popular.

Will be remembered: As the first South Indian film to receive the President's Gold Medal. As the debut Malayalam film of music director Salil Choudhary and playback singer Manna Dey.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kodungallooramma (1968)

Prem Nazir, S. P. Pillai, Adoor Bhasi, K. R. Vijaya, Jyothilakshmi etc

Epic story P. Kannamba as Kannagi in the Tamil version of the epic

The Malayalam film ‘Kodungallooramma' was an adaptation of the legend of Kannagi, a character from the Tamil-Jain epic and morality tale ‘Chilappathikaram' written by ancient Tamil poet Ilango Adigal during 1st century AD. The story is about the revenge of Kannagi against the injustice inflicted to her husband Kovalan by the ruler of the Pandya kingdom.

The legend of Kannagi was staged as musical operas throughout South India.

The first known musical opera based on the epic was ‘Kovalan Charitham' (1914) written by the Tamil poet and dramatist K. V. Udayara Pillai The musical opera was staged successfully throughout South India. This was perhaps the earliest Tamil musical opera to be staged in Kerala. The popular playwrights of Malayalam musical opera P. K. Velu Pillai and K. R. Neelakanta Pillai came up with Malayalam versions of this legend in 1921 and 1924 respectively. Both the stage plays were performed by prominent troupes very successfully.

In 1928 Guarantee Film Corporation produced a silent film ‘Kovalan,' directed by R. S. Prakash. This is probably the first film version of the ancient Tamil epic. The very next year General Pictures Corporation came up with a silent version of the story titled ‘Kovalan' or ‘The Fatal Anklet,' directed by A. Narayanan. The Tamil film produced by Imperial Film Corporation in 1933 with Leela and Narasimha Rao in the lead roles was the first sound film based on the epic story.

The Tamil film ‘Kannagi' (1942) produced by Jupiter Pictures and directed by R. S. Mani is considered as the best film adaptation of the epic. The performance of the singing star of early Tamil and Telugu cinema, Pasupaleti Kannamba as Kannagi remains her best and perhaps one of the best in the history of Tamil cinema. The character of Kannagi is figured in popular legends in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka and was subjected to various mutations down the centuries in poetry and theatre. But as an icon, Kannagi came to be identified with P. Kannamba's image after the tremendous success of the 1942 film. Even some of the statues of Kannagi that adorn junctions and public places in Tamil Nadu seems to have been modelled on Kannamba. In 1964 Kannagi's story was remade in Tamil as ‘Poompuhar' with M. Karunanidhi's script and dialogues. However, the performance of Vijayakumari as Kannagi did not impress. The film flopped. The impressive dialogues written by Karunanidhi for the film is reflected in those written by Jagathi N. K. Achari for the Malayalam film ‘Kodungallooramma'. The film was directed by M. Kunchacko.
The story of the Malayalam film deviates from the Tamil epic ‘Chilappathikaram' and the various film and stage versions in certain aspects. In some of the film versions Kannagi is portrayed as the incarnation of goddess Parvathi who was made to descend to the earth following a curse by Lord Shiva. There is no such mention in the Malayalam film. Further, the Malayalam film co-relates the epic story with the history of the famous temple at Kodungalloor where the presiding deity is Bhagavathi. The special effects scenes in which the city of Madurai is set to fire failed to impress. The music composed by K. Raghavan (Raghunath in the title cards) was the highpoint of the film.

The film opens with a scene where devotees are seen worshipping the goddess at the famous Kodungalloor Bhagavathi Temple. The story of Kannagi follows as the flash back. Kovalan (Prem Nazir), the son of a wealthy merchant (Thikkurissi) of Kaverippoompattanam in the Chola kingdom marries Kannagi (K. R.Vijaya), a woman of legendary beauty. The young couple live happily until Kovalan meets a dancer Madhavi (Jyothilakshmi) and falls in love with her. In his infatuation for the dancer Kovalan forgets his wife and gradually spends all his wealth on Madhavi.

K. R. Vijaya as Kannagi in the Malayalam version

Kovalan becomes penniless and is expelled from Madhavi's house. Kannagi, the loyal wife, receives her husband. They leave their hometown and reach the neighbouring Pandya kingdom. The only asset left with them is Kannagi's anklets filled with precious stones. Kannagi offers to sell one of her anklets to help Kovalan start his business.

The anklet of the Pandya Queen is stolen. Kannagi's anklet, which Kovalan attempts to sell, is mistaken to be that of the Queen's. Kovalan is arrested and brought before the royal court. Kovalan is beheaded by royal command. Kannagi avenges herself by proving the king was mistaken. While the Queen's anklet was filled with pearls Kannagi's anklet was filled with rubies. The king and the queen die of remorse. Kannagi in her anger sets the entire Pandyan capital town of Madurai to fire. She leaves the Pandya kingdom and reaches the neighbouring Chera kingdom. King Chenkuttavan, of the Chera kingdom, worships Kannagi and builds a temple for her at Kodungalloor. The film ends with a scene showing Kannagi as the presiding deity in the temple.

The Kodungalloor episode in the legend of Kannagi, as shown in the Malayalam film, has no reference in the Tamil epic or in any historical document. It remains just an ancient belief. There is no similar reference in any of the earlier stage or screen versions of the epic.

K. R. Vijaya's performance as Kannagi was impressive, but of course, was no match to the classic performance of P. Kannamba. The comedy scenes involving Adoor Bhasi, S. P. Pillai, Adoor Pankajam etc. adversely affected the highly charged and sentimental theme of the film. And all these scenes were just repetitions from earlier films. The climax, where Madurai town is shown engulfed in flames was not effective. The film was released on November 22, 1968, to coincide with the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage season. Despite all this the film did not really click.

The seven songs written by Vayalar Rama Varma were set to music by K. Raghavan. All the songs turned hits. The romantic number "Manju bhashini ..' (K. J. Yesudas), the soulful solo ‘Bhadradeepam ...' (S. Janaki) and the group song led by M. Balamuralikrishna ‘Kodungallooramme ...' became very popular. The other hits include ‘Rithukanyakayude...' (P. Susheela), ‘Kaveri poompattanathil...' (Balamuralikrishna-Susheela ),
‘Udayasthamanangale...' (Yesudas) and ‘Narthaki nisha narthaki...' (Yesudas-P. Leela).
Will be remembered: As the Malayalam film on the history of the Kodungalloor temple. And for its timeless music.