The Malayalam film ‘Kodungallooramma' was an adaptation of the legend of Kannagi, a character from the Tamil-Jain epic and morality tale ‘Chilappathikaram' written by ancient Tamil poet Ilango Adigal during 1st century AD. The story is about the revenge of Kannagi against the injustice inflicted to her husband Kovalan by the ruler of the Pandya kingdom. The legend of Kannagi was staged as musical operas throughout South India.
The first known musical opera based on the epic was ‘Kovalan Charitham' (1914) written by the Tamil poet and dramatist K. V. Udayara Pillai The musical opera was staged successfully throughout South India. This was perhaps the earliest Tamil musical opera to be staged in Kerala. The popular playwrights of Malayalam musical opera P. K. Velu Pillai and K. R. Neelakanta Pillai came up with Malayalam versions of this legend in 1921 and 1924 respectively. Both the stage plays were performed by prominent troupes very successfully.
In 1928 Guarantee Film Corporation produced a silent film ‘Kovalan,' directed by R. S. Prakash. This is probably the first film version of the ancient Tamil epic. The very next year General Pictures Corporation came up with a silent version of the story titled ‘Kovalan' or ‘The Fatal Anklet,' directed by A. Narayanan. The Tamil film produced by Imperial Film Corporation in 1933 with Leela and Narasimha Rao in the lead roles was the first sound film based on the epic story.
The Tamil film ‘Kannagi' (1942) produced by Jupiter Pictures and directed by R. S. Mani is considered as the best film adaptation of the epic. The performance of the singing star of early Tamil and Telugu cinema, Pasupaleti Kannamba as Kannagi remains her best and perhaps one of the best in the history of Tamil cinema. The character of Kannagi is figured in popular legends in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka and was subjected to various mutations down the centuries in poetry and theatre. But as an icon, Kannagi came to be identified with P. Kannamba's image after the tremendous success of the 1942 film. Even some of the statues of Kannagi that adorn junctions and public places in Tamil Nadu seems to have been modelled on Kannamba.
In 1964 Kannagi's story was remade in Tamil as ‘Poompuhar' with M. Karunanidhi's script and dialogues. However, the performance of Vijayakumari as Kannagi did not impress. The film flopped. The impressive dialogues written by Karunanidhi for the film is reflected in those written by Jagathi N. K. Achari for the Malayalam film ‘Kodungallooramma'. The film was directed by M. Kunchacko.
The story of the Malayalam film deviates from the Tamil epic ‘Chilappathikaram' and the various film and stage versions in certain aspects. In some of the film versions Kannagi is portrayed as the incarnation of goddess Parvathi who was made to descend to the earth following a curse by Lord Shiva. There is no such mention in the Malayalam film. Further, the Malayalam film co-relates the epic story with the history of the famous temple at Kodungalloor where the presiding deity is Bhagavathi. The special effects scenes in which the city of Madurai is set to fire failed to impress. The music composed by K. Raghavan (Raghunath in the title cards) was the highpoint of the film.
The film opens with a scene where devotees are seen worshipping the goddess at the famous Kodungalloor Bhagavathi Temple. The story of Kannagi follows as the flash back. Kovalan (Prem Nazir), the son of a wealthy merchant (Thikkurissi) of Kaverippoompattanam in the Chola kingdom marries Kannagi (K. R.Vijaya), a woman of legendary beauty. The young couple live happily until Kovalan meets a dancer Madhavi (Jyothilakshmi) and falls in love with her. In his infatuation for the dancer Kovalan forgets his wife and gradually spends all his wealth on Madhavi.
Kovalan becomes penniless and is expelled from Madhavi's house. Kannagi, the loyal wife, receives her husband. They leave their hometown and reach the neighbouring Pandya kingdom. The only asset left with them is Kannagi's anklets filled with precious stones. Kannagi offers to sell one of her anklets to help Kovalan start his business.
The anklet of the Pandya Queen is stolen. Kannagi's anklet, which Kovalan attempts to sell, is mistaken to be that of the Queen's. Kovalan is arrested and brought before the royal court. Kovalan is beheaded by royal command. Kannagi avenges herself by proving the king was mistaken. While the Queen's anklet was filled with pearls Kannagi's anklet was filled with rubies. The king and the queen die of remorse. Kannagi in her anger sets the entire Pandyan capital town of Madurai to fire. She leaves the Pandya kingdom and reaches the neighbouring Chera kingdom. King Chenkuttavan, of the Chera kingdom, worships Kannagi and builds a temple for her at Kodungalloor. The film ends with a scene showing Kannagi as the presiding deity in the temple.
The Kodungalloor episode in the legend of Kannagi, as shown in the Malayalam film, has no reference in the Tamil epic or in any historical document. It remains just an ancient belief. There is no similar reference in any of the earlier stage or screen versions of the epic.
K. R. Vijaya's performance as Kannagi was impressive, but of course, was no match to the classic performance of P. Kannamba. The comedy scenes involving Adoor Bhasi, S. P. Pillai, Adoor Pankajam etc. adversely affected the highly charged and sentimental theme of the film. And all these scenes were just repetitions from earlier films. The climax, where Madurai town is shown engulfed in flames was not effective. The film was released on November 22, 1968, to coincide with the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage season. Despite all this the film did not really click.
The seven songs written by Vayalar Rama Varma were set to music by K. Raghavan. All the songs turned hits. The romantic number "Manju bhashini ..' (K. J. Yesudas), the soulful solo ‘Bhadradeepam ...' (S. Janaki) and the group song led by M. Balamuralikrishna ‘Kodungallooramme ...' became very popular. The other hits include ‘Rithukanyakayude...' (P. Susheela), ‘Kaveri poompattanathil...' (Balamuralikrishna-Susheela ), ‘Udayasthamanangale...' (Yesudas) and ‘Narthaki nisha narthaki...' (Yesudas-P. Leela).
Will be remembered: As the Malayalam film on the history of the Kodungalloor temple. And for its timeless music.