Fifty years now, Chemmeen — the book — is still a sensation. The movie that came later went on to become a classic.C. Sarat Chandran
2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the English edition of the iconic Malayalam novel Chemmeen. Half a century on, the novel and the film that came three years later, continue to mesmerise the Malayalee mind. The novel written by the Malayalam literary legend, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, fictionalises the life of fishermen in coastal Kerala and its central theme revolves round the myths and beliefs that underpin the relationship between the fishing community and the sea.
There were many interesting sidelights to the publication of Chemmeen in Malayalam and English. The original Malayalam edition was published in 1956. On the first day of sale, a long winding queue appeared outside the National Book Stall in Thiruvananthapuram. The queue stretched a furlong long and was often seen obstructing the traffic in the city's main thoroughfare. No other Malayalam literary work before or after has seen such a long line of book lovers expectantly waiting for the shop to open. In a language where the sale of 1,000 copies in a year will make a book a best-seller, almost the same number was sold on the very first day. Since then Chemmeen has seen a new edition every succeeding year.
The English version was translated by Dr.V.K. Narayana Menon and was brought to the West in 1962 by two internationally known publishers, Victor Gollancz in London and Harper & Row in New York. I was a student at the London School of Economics in those years and could watch from close range the overwhelming reception Chemmeen got in English. The image of copies of Chemmeen on display behind the glass facades of several W.H. Smith outlets in London is still fresh in my mind. Foyles, on Charing Cross Road, which claims to be the largest bookstore in the world stocked several copies in the section “Indian Authors”. The price per copy, I recall, was 18 Shillings.
The novel appeared in the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks. Orville Prescott, the resident reviewer of New York Times, gave a three-column review for Chemmeen and described Thakazhi as “a major talent the West is discovering in India after Rabindranath Tagore”.
I also recall a book launch organised by Victor Gollancz in London. The event was held at the Mahatma Gandhi auditorium in Fitzroy Square in Central London. K.M. Panikkar, the distinguished diplomat and historian, himself a known literary figure in Malayalam presided over the meeting. Panikkar observed that Malayalam literature “is now on an intense moment of creativity and, besides Thakazhi, there are six or seven writers in Kerala whom the West should know”.
Abu Abraham who was the resident cartoonist of Observer, London, in a tongue-in-cheek speech irrelevantly titled “Communism, Cartoonism and Character Assassination” said that iconoclasm is an essential quality of Malayalees and not surprisingly they make many of the leading cartoonists in India.
In New York
Thakazhi visited New York a year after the book was released and Orville Prescott in his autobiography The Five Dollar Gold Piece shares some interesting moments he had with the writer. “He breezed into my office one afternoon as if the place was very familiar to him. Santha Rama Rau had telephoned me earlier that Thakazhi was in town and he would like to meet me. He seemed distinctly uncomfortable in Western clothes. He, however, spoke faultless English and mentioned that he was a lawyer by profession.”
“Chemmeen” the film was released in 1965 and turned out to be as much a sensation as the literary work was. Ramu Kariat, its celebrated director, negotiated the film rights from Thakazhi for a princely sum of Rs. 8,000.
The film was shot in the Nattika beach, 25 km from Thrissur town. Kerala Tourism proclaims now in a billboard at Thrissur “Come to Nattika beach where the legendary film was created”. “Chemmeen” was one of the early Malayalam films to be made in colour. It won the President's gold medal for the best film in India in 1965. It was also the first South Indian film to win the President's gold medal. Babu Sait, producer of the film, received the award from Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was the Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Lal Bahadur Shastri government.
On this 50th anniversary, many of those associated with the creation of this classic are no more with us. Thakazhi, the novelist, Babu Sait who produced the film, Ramu Kariat who directed it and Satyan who played the hero in the film have all passed away. The novel and the film, however, live on evoking nostalgic memories.