Hollywood films based on The Bible were very popular in India. But Indian films based on The Bible were rarely produced. The need for spectacular sets, expensive costumes, etc. might have kept away producers and directors from making one. Films like Gnana Sundari (1961) and Genova (1954), both with a Christian backdrop, were made in Malayalam. But they were not based on The Bible.
The Tamil film Magdalanaattu Mary (1957), produced by Citadel Films, must probably be the first Bible-based South Indian film. Snapaka Yohannan, released on March 31, 1963, was the first Malayalam film that told on screen a story from The Bible. The film was a huge hit. Produced by Neela Productions and directed by P. Subramaniam, the film was fully shot at Merryland Studios. Popular novelist Muttathu Varkey wrote the script and dialogues.
Jose Prakash performed the central character. Popular artists like Prem Nazir, Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, Kottarakara Sreedharan Nair, G. K. Pillai, Miss Kumari, L. Vijayalakshmi, Pankajavalli, Kanchana etc. performed important roles.
The film told in brief the story of The Bible, with a special focus on the character of St. John The Baptist (Snapaka Yohannan). Yohannan (Jose Prakash) is brought up in the deserts by his mother fearing the order of the King of Judea who, in an attempt to get rid of infant Jesus, ordered the killing of all infants in Bethlehem. Yohannan grows up and preaches the righteous path of life. He criticises the incestuous marriage of Antipas (Thikkurissi), his brother’s wife, with Herodia (Pankajavalli). Antipas had abandoned his faithful and pious wife Mariam (Miss Kumari).
At the instance of Herodia, her secret lover Naamaan (Kottarakkara) captures Yohannan and attempts to kill him. But Yohannan escapes. Mariam enters the palace of Antipas disguised as a servant maid. She comes to know about the secret plan of Herodia and Naamaan against Antipas. Fascinated by the dance of Herodia’s daughter Salomy (L. Vijayalakshmi) Antipas promises to gift her with whatever she demands. Prompted by her wicked mother, she demands the head of Yohannan. And Yohannan is beheaded. Even Salomy’s lover Julian (Prem Nazir) hates her for this cruel deed. Antipas comes to know about the wicked plans of Herodia and Naamaan and they are punished. Jose Prakash excelled in the role of Yohannan and many consider it the best in his career.
Out of the ten songs in the film, two were written by Vayalar Rama Varma and the rest by Thirunainarkurichi Madhavan Nair. The music was by Brother Lakshmanan. Aakasathin Mahimavey… ( P. Leela), Oshana Oshana … (Kamukara Purushothaman, Jose Prakash, A. P. Komala, C. S. Radha Devi) and Bethlehemile… (Leela, K. J. Yesudas and chorus) became hits.
Will be remembered: As the first Malayalam film based on The Bible, for some of the songs and for the performance of Jose Prakash.