J. C. Daniel is in the news today. A documentary film by R. Gopalakrishnan, was the first to provide an insight into the man and his career

The Lost Life more or less sums up the J.C. Daniel story. It is also the name of, what is probably, the first film made on the father of Malayalam cinema. R. Gopalakrishnan made the State Award-winning documentary in 2006.

Revisiting the documentary in the aftermath of Kamal’s much-acclaimed Celluloid assumes importance because the 21-minute documentary film gives a real time feel, as much as is possible with the little matter that is available, to the life of Daniel. Gopalakrishnan does not permit himself the luxury of artistic license. He is a purist when it comes to history. “I would not want to portray fiction because then the historical value of the content gets diluted. In future someone might refer to it as history so we have to be careful about what we show and how.”

Film version

He had earlier written a book Good Luck to Everybody on the first Malayalam talkie Balan. “The plan was to write a book on J.C. Daniel but on realising that I didn’t have enough matter for a book I decided on making a film.” Then there was the matter of ‘the song’. This was a Tamil song written by J.C. Daniel’s father-in-law, Joel Singh, when Daniel married Janet, Singh’s daughter. The visuals are interspersed with the Tamil song, which forms a sort of background score.

“The lyrics were in pure Tamil. I first had to find people to translate the song to simple Tamil. The song is set in the same tune as was played at the wedding.” There was criticism for including the song into the documentary, but he was convinced about the relevance of the song in the film. Gopalakrishnan is the general secretary of FEFKA’s Film Photographer’s Union.

As still photographer for films Gopalakrishnan has been part of several films and this engagement with films led him, with three friends, to form Photo Data Bank. The Data Bank provides photographs to publications. “We needed photographs of old films, actors, stills…for these I took out a list of retired artistes on the pension rolls of the PR Department. This was the 70s and early 80s, there was no Chalachitra Academy.”

This search led him to Agasteeswaram in Kanyakumari district. It is the place, as we now know, Daniel grew up and where his final resting place is. There are visuals of the house, ‘Puthuveedu,’ in Agasteeswaram that his father, N.J. Daniel built, then there are some early photographs of Daniel, documents pertaining to the formation of Daniel’s ‘Travancore National Pictures’ (Kerala’s first film studio) and even a still from Vigathakumaran in the documentary. There are visuals of the house Sarada Vilasam in Pattom, Thiruvananthapuram, which was the registered ‘office’ of Daniel’s ‘Travancore National Pictures’. The house has, subsequently, been demolished.

Incidentally, some of these finds found their way into Kamal’s version of Daniel’s life, Celluloid.

It was in 1982 that Gopalakrishnan first went to Agasteeswaram, with a friend. At the time he just had a vague idea what or rather who he was looking for. What he found, he says, shocked him. “There was a famished Janet Daniel, living in near penury. We bought some plantains from a teashop and gave her. The house was slightly better than a hovel. At the time it would have been inappropriate asking her about her husband and his career…the very things which led her life to that.” During the course of other visits she gave him some documents and photos, he says.

In the documentary, Daniel’s surviving son, Haris Daniel talks about how his father, as a young kid, would sneak out to watch ‘koothu’, an indigenous dance form and got punished by his father. How a young and dashing Daniel fell in love with the beautiful Janet, what filmmaking meant to him, how he remade his life as a dental surgeon after losing everything…all these details flesh out the larger-than-life tragic dreamer that Daniel has become for us. His daughter, granddaughter and cousin also share their experiences of Daniel. “His daughter walked out during filming because the fact remains that her parents lived and died on the kindness of strangers. In absolute penury.”

No presumptions

The part where Haris Daniel talks about how the film reel was lost is shocking, despite having heard about the deed many times, hearing it is first person is like hearing it for the first time. There is, of course, the excuse of a child’s ignorance.

Neither does the documentary make any presumptions nor does it draw any conclusions. The mystery that is called P.K. Rosy is left untouched ditto the burning of Capitol Cinema Hall where the film was screened in Thiruvananthapuram. It is, however, tempting to ask why Vigathakumaran failed as it did? “Actors of the time, Devaki Bai for instance, who acted in Marthanda Varma, told me it was because those days talkies in other languages were screened and a silent film wasn’t much of a novelty.”

With one of Malayalam cinema’s most prestigious awards instituted in his name, J.C. Daniel would have loved the twist in the script.