The first film on a temple in Kerala was made in Tamil, K. Subramaniam’sAnanthasayanam (1942) that told the story of Lord Padmanabha, the presiding deity of the famous Padmanabhaswami Temple, in the erstwhile Travancore.
Sreeramulu Naidu’s Sabarimala Ayyappan (1961) was the first Malayalam film on the famous hill temple probably the first in the language on a Kerala temple. Producer and director P. Subramaniam, popular for his big-budget mythological films, some of them on the stories of temples, went on to make films in this genre like Sree Guruvayoorappan (1972) and Devi Kanyakumari (1974).
Swami Ayyappan, released on August 17, 1975, was produced by Subramaniam Religious Trust and shot at Merryland Studios and around the Sabarimala Temple. Directed by P Subramaniam, the dialogues were by Sreekumaran Thampi.
The film went on to win State awards in various categories like Best Cinematography (Masthan), Best Lyricist (Vayalar Rama Varma), Best Child Actor (Master Raghu) and Best Film with Popular Appeal and Aesthetic Value.
Subramaniam donated the proceeds from this super-hit film to the development of Sabarimala and to improve the facilities for pilgrims there.
Produced simultaneously in Malayalam and Tamil, popular stars from both languages were included in the star cast. Master Shekhar, Gemini Ganeshan, AVM Rajan, K. Balaji, V.K. Ramaswami, Manohar and others from Tamil, Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, P.K. Abraham, Hari, S.P. Pillai, Bahadur, Sreevidya, Unni Mary, Rani Chandra and others from Malayalam were part of this film.
The film was later dubbed in to other South Indian languages.
The myth behind the Sabarimala Temple is narrated to pilgrims assembled to witness theMakaravilakku by a devotee (Kedamangalam Sadanandan). The popular stories are shown in a flashback. Manikantan’s birth, adoption by the king of Pandalam, slaying of the demoness Mahishi by Manikantan, expedition to the jungle to get tiger’s milk to treat his mother, are all narrated with effective use of special effects.
Master Shekhar impressed in his role as Manikantan (Lord Ayyappa). Gemini Ganeshan (King of Pandalam), Sreevidya (Queen), P.K. Abraham (crooked minister), Balaji (Vavar), Thikkurissi (Manikantan’s Guru), Hari (Narada), AVM Rajan (Lord Shiva), Unni Mary (Mahishi), Lakshmi (Mohini) did justice to their roles.
The film opens with a song sequence with a visual of the pilgrims trekking the hills to the Sabarimala Temple.
After narrating the myths the film goes on to record some of the miracles that happened in the lives of some devotees.
The old and weak Sanku Pillai (S.P. Pillai) who is helped by a divine power to climb the mountain and complete his pilgrimage, Prabhakaran (Raghavan), a military officer, who, on his way home to begin his pilgrimage to the temple, is saved from a road accident, a little girl (Baby Sumathi), who, while travelling with her father (Vanchiyoor Madhavan Nair), to the temple is saved from a poisonous snake, the atheist Sankaralingam Mudaliyar (V.K. Ramaswami) of Madurai who is cured of his stomach ailment by the sacred ash from the temple are some of the side stories that make up the film.
A musical hit, the songs tuned by G. Devarajan turned huge hits.
Lyrics were by Vayalar Rama Varma and Sreekumaran Thampi. Harivarasanam…. (K.J. Yesudas) written by Kambakkudi Kulathoor Sreenivasa Iyer, composed in Madhyamavathi by Devarajan for this film, has now become part of the regular temple routine. This version is today sung when the temple is closed for the day. Paalazhi kadanjeduthoru….(P. Madhuri), Thedi varum kannukalil… (Ambili),Mannilum vinnilum… (Yesudas-Chorus), Kailasa shailadi natha,…(Sreekanth- P. Leela),Sabarimalayil thanka sooryodayam… (Yesudas), Swami saranam…(P. Jayachandran-Chorus) and the comic number Thummiyal therikkunna… (Jayachandran-Chorus) are all popular even today.
Will be remembered: As a good mythological film, for the many State awards the film won, and for the music.