Celluloid is film director Kamal’s tribute to J.C. Daniel, now acknowledged as the father of Malayalam cinema. Prithviraj essays the role of Daniel.

It is the inaugural of the first show of Vighathakumaran, which opened Malayalam cinema’s account in the new media. J.C. Daniel, director, producer and lead actor of the film, nattily dressed in a suit, is busy welcoming patrons to Capitol Theatre Hall, where it is being screened. Even as he welcomes distinguished guests to the first show of the silent movie, a young girl and her companion watch the proceedings, despair writ large on their faces. As the entourage sweeps into the theatre, with a pensive Indrans (holding a megaphone almost as big as him) bringing up the rear, veteran filmmaker Kamal calls for a retake as he is not happy with the way some of those among the viewers trooped into the theatre. The usually soft spoken filmmaker appears quite done in by the heat and the crowd milling around the set.

The location for the day of Celluloid, Kamal’s film on J.C. Daniel, is the University Men’s Hostel at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram. Art director Suresh Kollam has transformed a ground on the campus into a street of the twenties, complete with old-world shops, bullock carts, hand-drawn carts and so on. Several actors in dhotis and joobas, sporting hair styles appropriate to another era, hang around the sets, to give the frame a realistic backdrop. A red and black jalopy in mint condition adds a dash of colour to the muted colours of the set. Director of cinematography Venu checks the frame and the camera starts rolling again and the scene is repeated four or five times before Kamal okays the shot.

Suresh shows off the theatre and old-world projector he has painstakingly recreated. He says it took him some amount of research to try and get the right ambience for the film. Copies of black and white posters were obtained from collectors and recreated. “It is always a challenge to work on a period movie,” says Suresh who had assisted in Kutty Srank.

As Prithviraj rushes away to catch his flight to Mumbai after saying that he feels great playing the lead role of the multifaceted Daniel in the film, the crew members take a break to plan the next shot. That is when Kamal talks about the movie that is perhaps his offering to Malayalam cinema in his silver jubilee year as a film director.

“My curiosity was piqued by Vinu Abraham’s book, Nashta Nayika, on Rosy, the heroine of Vighathakumaran. But I felt that the focus should be on Daniel, now acknowledged as the father of Malayalam cinema. I thought this is one film that ought to be made to remind us of our history. Present-day Kerala is in a hurry to forget its past but it is essential to remember such people to understand our cinema and the dedicated people who worked behind the scenes,” says Kamal. He points out how in the seventies and eighties Malayalam cinema thrived on nostalgia but now the trend is to discard or forget anything and anyone that is old and ancient “It is precisely because new-generation films are the trend, that I wanted to make a period film like this. We hardly have any respect for history,” muses Kamal.

As an example, Kamal points out how Sharada Vilasam, a house at Pattom in the capital city, where Daniel did the post-production work of Vighathakumaran, was demolished recently despite the efforts of a few to preserve the building as a museum. Kamal plans to shoot those portions of the film in Mysore. He adds that through the film, the history of Malayalam cinema will also be traced.

Writer Vinu says that his efforts to trace Rosy, a native of the capital city, motivated him to write the book. It was the late mediaperson Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan who gave him the material for the research on his book.

Sreenivasan enacts the role of Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan who worked and lobbied tirelessly to give Daniel his due in Kerala.

Mamta, Sreenivasan and Chandni play lead roles in the film that will be shot in Mumbai, Mysore and Kanyakumari. In her first period film, Mamta essays the character of Janet, Daniel’s wife.

Debutante Chandni, who was one of the participants of a music-based reality show on Mazhavil Manorama, says she is enjoying the experience of working with a veteran like Kamal. The Kollam-based youngster adds that music remains her first love. Music director is M. Jayachandran. Still photographer is Jayaprakash Payyannur.

Tracing the pioneers

“Rosy ‘s father worked in LMS church in Thiruvananthapuram. She had acquired some fame as a theatre actor and that is what led her to Daniel’s film. However, the first heroine of Malayalam cinema had to bear the brunt of the orthodoxy’s ire and leave town after her home was set on fire by caste fanatics,” says Vinu.

Still photographer R. Gopalakrishnan who has made a documentary The Lost Life on the life and times of Daniel says that he is delighted that finally a movie is being made on this legend.