The pioneers of Malayalam cinema had to pay a heavy price for their fascination for the moving images. A look at the men and women who created the first frames of Malayalam cinema.
The magnificent obsession with the silver screen is a continuing saga of fatal attractions, endless struggles, frustrations, gambles, thrills and shattered dreams. The lure of the magic lantern burnt the wings of many. While some were relegated to the backstage of oblivion after a brief spell of stardom, a few were immortalised, though many more were immolated.
The history of Malayalam cinema too abounds with stories of blood, sweat and tears of the likes of J.C. Daniel, Paul Vincent, Katturkaran Varunny Joseph, R. Sunder Raj, Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai, K. Gopinath, Alleppey Vincent, K.V. Koshi, M.K. Kamalam, C.K. Rajam, K. Aroor, and A.B. Pious. Recorded history seldom remembers these crusaders who gave everything to make cinema what it is now.
Last year, the release of the film Celluloid by Kamal that was based on the life and struggles of J.C. Daniel, the ‘Father of Malayalam Cinema’ triggered controversies about facts, dates and details. The ‘official’ date of the release of Vigathakumaran as 1928 has itself been challenged by some film historians, who say that it was released only in 1930. Similar is the case with film exhibition too. Some historians claim that the first ever film screening was at Kozhikode in 1906; it was done by Vincent Paul, a railway employee who had bought an Edison Bioscope from a Frenchman and became a travelling exhibitor. Some others say that it was by Kattukkaran Varunny Joseph in Thrissur who organised the first successful commercial screenings, after buying his equipment from Paul.
There are claims that it was in 1907 that the first screenings took place, which was part of the Thrissur Pooram festival. Jose went on with his venture, and established himself as a popular exhibitor, setting up touring talkies that travelled widely across South India. Obviously, this confusion about facts arises from the total absence of archiving and documentation in the area of film history.
The most striking aspect is the state of archiving and preservation of Malayalam film prints which is in an appalling state. Most of the negatives of film not only from the Black and White era, but even that of films made in the 70s and 80s are either damaged and beyond repair, or altogether missing. No wonder controversies abound, and whatever history is written is most often drawn from unverifiable newspaper reports, biographies and personal memoirs.
The life and fortunes of the pioneers in cinema all over the world seem to follow a similar pattern: it begins with the fatal attraction to this magical medium, followed by a leap into its charming vortex, and the eventual misery and abandonment at the end. It is the case with D.W. Griffith and Melies as well as J.C. Daniel and Sunder Raj (the producer of Marthanda Varma, the second silent film in Malayalam, and the only silent film print that survives today in South India). If J.C. Daniel was hounded out of Thiruvananthapuram after the mob, enraged at the sight of a lower caste girl playing the role of an upper caste woman, vandalised Capitol Theatre where Vigathakumaran was screened. Unable to withstand the wrath of the mob, P.K. Rosy, the first heroine of Malayalam cinema, had to run away to a life of obscurity somewhere in Tamil Nadu.
The story of Rosy is one of endless struggle for survival and expression. According to sources, she was born as Rajamma in a Dalit family, who later got converted and adopted the name of Rosamma. In her new role as a film actress, Daniel renamed her as Rosy. She is believed to have run away with a lorry driver to Tamil Nadu and adopted the name of Rajammal during the rest of her life. Professionally too, she ‘acted’ in many roles in her life: from an adolescent age, she was an agricultural worker, who was also a renowned Kakarissi performer. Then, she became a film actress at Daniel’s insistence, and, during the last years of her life, a seamstress to make ends meet. The fact that she was constantly on the run and had to take on various identities, professions and domiciles in order to survive, speak volumes about not only the status of cinema but also the casteist and social stigma attached to it.
Similarly, his celluloid dreams shattered and almost pauperised by the venture, Daniel too had to leave Thiruvananthapuram and become a dental surgeon to survive.
In the case of Sunder Raj, who produced Marthanda Varma (1931, directed by P.V. Rao), it was a legal tangle that destroyed his career. After the initial screenings, the film print was confiscated, as he had not bought the copyrights to the novel. The print of the film was later rescued from the book depot, thanks to a visionary like P.K. Nair, who headed the National Film Archives.
RESCUING MARTHANDA VARMA
This is how P.K. Nair describes the event: “As regards Marthanda Varma … the information about the availability of the print .. at Kamalalaya Book Depot … was given to me by Kottayam based journalist C.K. Soman, assistant editor of Cinema Masika. He also gave me the background of how the print came into the possession of the Book Depot. In fact both of us went to the Book Depot’s office at Pulimood in Thiruvananthapuram and examined the print kept in a film box in their basement go down.
“The metal box was opened in front of us and I counted the number of reels as eleven while the original film was a 12-reeler. One reel was missing at the outset in the box itself. I recall the film was in a pretty bad shape and all the sprockets were damaged. According to the owner of the Book Depot, the film was projected once in the early fifties at Saleem Talkies, Pattom, by a party who was planning a remake of the film, at which time the damages may have taken place. Anyhow we made arrangements with Chithralekha people to get the film box collected and dispatch it to Pune, where we had to do lot of repair, even frame to frame copying because of terrible shrinkage and then take out a fresh print, which was later screened at the House of Soviet Culture, Gorky Bhavan, in the capital city in the presence of the main female lead, Devika, who was alive then. The screening was done as a special joint programme of NFAI and Chitralekha Film Society. I understand that a number of people are now coming forward to take credit for getting Marthanda Varma for the NFAI. Let me clarify, if at all anyone has to be credited, for salvaging Marthanda Varma, it has to be C.K. Soman of Cinema Masika and not others.”
(This is the first part of a monthly column on the history of Malayalam cinema by the award-winning film critic)