In the late 1940s, even as film production was underway at Udaya, in Cochin Artist P.J. Cherian put his money and efforts into film production. Cherian was fully involved in theatre and also owned Royal Photo Studio in Ernakulam.
Cherian spearheaded Sanmargaposhini Nataka Sabha and devoted all his efforts in the growth of this theatre group. Their play, Mishiha Charitham was extremely popular in Cochin and Travancore. In fact, this landmark play had a record 320 staging in a year. The play also brought in revenue for Cherian enabling him to dream of making a film.
After Njanambika for a rather long interval there were hardly any Malayalam films. Theatres began screening Tamil films during this time. It was at this juncture that Cherian decided to take the plunge into making a Malayalam movie. As advised by his friends and well-wishers he decided to make a family film that would bring back the audiences that had gradually begun to keep away from the movie halls.
Cherian’s studio became a hub for cinema discussion every evening. As a first step, Cherian floated a company called ‘Kerala Talkies’. Chevalier C.P. Lonappan, Ismael Haji Eesa Sett (grandfather of Kanmani Babu, producer of Chemmeen), Padmanabha Shenoy (owner of Shenoys group of theatres), Dr.Usman Khan, C.A. Ouseph, P.V.Kurian, Dr.Abraham Mampally, Muhammed Quasim, Abdul Sathar Sett, Kochu Pareeth were the other shareholders of Kerala Talkies. They raised a working capital of nearly two lakh rupees.
The company decided to complete and release the film Nirmala in four months. Cherian also planned to make at least three films every year. The story was by M.S. Jacob and P.V. Krishnan was contracted as director. Puthezhathu Raman Menon, a renowned writer and Chief Secretary of the erstwhile Cochin State, agreed to pen the script. P.K. Warrier and P.S. Divakar composed 12 songs written by G.Sankara Kurup. Modern Studio, Salem, was the venue for the shoot.
Nirmala was the first Malayalam film to introduce playback singing. T.K. Govinda Rao, C. Sarojini Menon and P. Leela were the singers. G.Rangarajan cranked the camera, editing was by Balu, costumes by Manikam, sound recording by S. Padmanabhan and K.S. Mani. The key roles were played by Cherian’s eldest son Joseph and Joseph's wife Baby. Cherthala Vasudeva Kurup, Mathappan, Bhaskaran Nair, Raghavan, N.R. Panchanathan, P.J. Varkey, Anthappan, S.J. Dev, Kumari Radha, Achamma, Kuttiyamma, Thresiamma, Kamalamma, Vimalamma, Gracy and Gouri Santhi completed the cast.
The recording was done at Modern Theatres, Salem. Work on many films was on at the studio at the same time and Cherian had to wait for months for his turn. He was forced to sell some his property and even pawned his studio to complete his film. The distribution rights were given to a film industrialist K.V. Koshy. In November 1947 Cherian lost his wife. In February 1948, Nirmala was released.
The film flopped at the box office. Though the film got a mixed response it ran into rough weather because of the huge expenditure that went into the making of the film. One reason for this was the cost involved in the payment to the cast and crew for the few years of the production. The expenses of running the company and shooting for more than two years, interests on the loan that Cherian had taken caused a huge hole in his finances.
Cherian was the first person from the State to produce a film, the first to cast his own son and daughter-in-law in the main roles and the first to introduce playback singing in Malayalam cinema.
(Saju Chelangad is a film columnist.)