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Updated: June 27, 2013 16:03 IST

Between gossip and history

Meena T. Pillai
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Malayacinemayile Vaanavarum Veenavarum
Special Arrangement Malayacinemayile Vaanavarum Veenavarum

Chelangattu Gopalakrishnan’s Malayala Cinemayile Vaanavarum Veenavarum is a tenuous book that straddles the boundaries between gossip and history. Yet, it illustrates the sorry plight of film scholarship in Kerala, which most often has nothing else more authentic or tenable to bank upon than such books, when attempting to narrate the history of Malayalam cinema. Thus, more than anything else, it points a finger at our own profound ignorance and neglect of history and the unpardonable sin of the lack of archiving, both in the film industry in Kerala and film reviewing and criticism in Malayalam.

It also underlines the fact that during its nascent years, the art of cinema was never taken too seriously and no worthwhile attempts were made to either study or document the entry and growing popularity of this emergent discourse. One has to place this book and this kind of writing in the context of a growing interest in popular culture, cinema’s slow inculcation of star system into our society, the gradual rise of the celebrity cult and the entailing interest in the lives of the rich and the famous.

Though endorsing the dismantling of the air tight compartmentalisation of the elite and popular discourses of cinema, one is nevertheless forced to point out that such writing as in Vaanavarum Veenavarum hardly contributes to the understanding of cinema as an art or generates a critique of its socio-cultural and economic impact on Kerala society.

The book begins with a brief preface where the author reveals that to write about those who reigned in and were ruined by Malayalam cinema, was a passion he had harboured for many years. However, no rationale is offered for this passion other than an obsessive interest in ruined fortunes.

The two examples cited in the first page, of J.C. Daniel and a minor woman artiste who subsequently made it big, are couched in a language that is both objectionable in tone and hints at rather vituperative and misogynist biases.

The statement that the world of Malayalam cinema is as accursed as that of the liquor barons clips the horizon of expectations and clinches the reader’s perception regarding what this book could offer to the student of cinema or to the more serious film buff.

With no historical documents or evidences to corroborate his arguments, many of the life sketches incorporated in this book lack balance, accuracy, ethics and fairness. The stories on Aleppey Vincent, Jayan, Prem Nazir, Sathyan, Salil Choudhary, Soman, G. Aravindan, Hari Pothen, and Jayabharathi, among numerous references to others in the film field, border on tabloid journalism.

While it is heartening to have fascinating vignettes that reveal the contributions, and trials and tribulations of some of the pioneers in the field of acting, music, direction and scripting in Malayalam cinema, it is indeed sad that such sketches often degenerate into mud slinging exercises, sometimes amounting to defamation, character assassination or even libel.

This is all the more alarming in view of the fact that many of the people referred to in the book are not alive, either to defend themselves or to vindicate the rights of their fellow travellers in this profession.

This is a book that practices a style of journalistic writing where truth is as obscured as it is revealed, thus feeding and fuelling the appetites of those who love to read just such stories. It is the kind of literature that aims to shock a public which wants to be shocked in order to be convinced of its own virtue. Such books therefore bank more on the universal love of scandal than of cinema.

However it needs to be pointed out that today it is universally accepted that gossip is a mode of inquiry that informs many disciplines including ethnography and anthropology.

Therefore, it can be proposed safely that discerning readers, film scholars and culture critics can seek to place the trite, the scandalous and the mundane stories of Chelangattu in the larger context of social politics and cultural dynamics in Kerala society, in the process unravelling many of the inherent biases, latent hypocrisies, institutionalised misogyny and hegemonic practices so intrinsic to our society.

Chelangattu’s narrative which weaves fact, fiction and gossip, nevertheless offer some interesting data on early Malayalam cinema and the complexities of its social and ideological contexts.

It warrants a rather complicated reading of history, revealing the dominant stereotypes and ideological moorings of Malayalam Cinema through highly subjective and personal interpretations of the people and events in it. But then the personal is indeed political.

Malayalacinemayile Vaanavarum Veenavarum

Chelangattu Gopalakrishnan, DC Books, Rs. 160

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