This column features people and moments that redefined Indian cinema
The irresistible desire of a young man for Kalarippayatttu, Kerala’s martial art, was, in a way, responsible for the first film in Malayalam, Vigathakumaran. Incidentally, when Indian cinema celebrates its centenary, Malayalam cinema turned 85, on November 7 this year. A time to remember this landmark film and the man behind it.
Joseph Chellayya Daniel, better known as J. C. Daniel, was hooked to Kalarippayattu from a very young age. Born at Neyyattinkara, near Thiruvananthapuram, the seventh son of Dr. N. J. Daniel, on November 27, 1900, J.C. Daniel developed a fine physique, thanks to his regular training in Chilambattam, the south Kerala version of Kalarippayattu. His father moved to Agastheeswaram, in Kanyakumari district where Daniel completed his schooling. He joined Royal College, Trivandrum, for his Intermediate studies.
College proved to be a turning point in Daniel’s life. He continued his Kalarippayattu training and was a regular at a local gymnasium. This was also the time when silent cinema was becoming popular. Daniel never missed a chance to watch these films. Gradually, the seed of cinema was sown in Daniel’s mind.
Daniel began reading a lot on cinema from the imported magazines and books in the college library. That was when Daniel thought about making a documentary film on Chilambattam with the purpose of propagating the martial art. He wrote to studios in Madras and Bombay seeking details of the expenses to produce a documentary. He even travelled to Madras to discuss the project with the studio owners there. Not satisfied with their responses Daniel went to Bombay. What they told him here was different from what he heard in Madras. Confused, Daniel returned to Trivandrum.
The idea of making a documentary fell through and Daniel set his eyes on a full-length feature film. He sold a huge portion of landed property to mobilise funds for the project.
In 1926 he opened a studio called The Travancore National Pictures at Pattom, in the heart of Trivandrum. He bought a camera and film from Madras and Bombay. Daniel was involved in every aspect of film making and also played an important role in the film.
Daniel picked P. K. Rosy, a Dalit girl, to play the female lead. He did this after his attempt to rope in Bombay-based Miss Lana, an Anglo-Indian, for that role failed owing to her unreasonable demands. Johnson, Daniel’s close aide, his son Sundaram and daughter Sulochana, along with other friends and relatives completed the cast. The film was released on November 7, 1928, at Capitol Theatre, Trivandrum.
After four days in Trivandrum, Daniel screened Vigathakumaran in theatres at Nagercoil, Alleppey, Trichur and Tellicherry. But the film did not net even quarter of the expenses Daniel incurred. This threw him into a huge debt.
Daniel was forced to seek a job. He left for Bombay to learn dental surgery. He qualified and started practice in Tamil Nadu. He began earning well but the passion for cinema kept nudging him. He met P. U. Chinnappa, a leading Tamil drama-movie actor. Daniel now decided to make another attempt to produce a film, which ruined him forever. Daniel spent his final days in abject poverty. He died in 1975 at Agastheeswaram. His wife Janet was his sole companion during those dark days, a mute spectator to her husband’s passion and fate.