Some of Malayalam cinema’s biggest hits of yore were Onam releases.
In the early days of Malayalam cinema, much like Mahabali, movies were rare visitors, gracing theatres only one or twice in a year, usually during Onam or Christmas. Most old-timers’ Onam memories would be tinged with the names of the films that reached the theatres with great fanfare. Once the number of films increased, the much-awaited Onam releases no longer had the same charm. However, big-time directors and superstars usually plan something special for the festival season.
In the black-and-white era, films that reflected the colours of life were kept apart to celebrate the season. Big banners, multi-starrers, huge outdoor units and ambitious projects were readied to usher in viewers into theares. Mythologicals, Vadakkanpattu series (based on valorous heroes and heroines of Malabar of yore), adaptations of landmark literary works and historicals were the staple diet of cineastes then.
Big banners not stars or directors dominated tinsel world. Udaya, Neela, Jayamaruthi, Manjilas, Surpriya… were the banners that gave shape to the fledgling Malayalam film industry. Kunchacko’s Udaya and P. Subramanian’s Merryland competed with each other to win over the box office during the Onam holidays.
In 1961, Neela Productions’ Bhaktha Kuchela from Merryland Studios encountered Udaya Studio’s Krishnakuchela, both of which narrated the same story. Although Neela scored a win that year, the competition intensified over the years. When Neela came up with the movie Kattumyna set in the forests of Kerala, Udaya made a flick Kadalamma, which narrated a tale on a coast. When Udaya’s period films (Vadakkanpattu series) and social dramas such as Anarkali, Pazhassi Raja, Palatukoman, Othenante Makan, Gandharvakshetram and Punnapra Vayalar hit the marquee, from the stables of Neela came Kumarasambhavam, Sri Guruvayurappan, Devi Kanyakumari, Swami Ayyappan, Kadu, Kaattumallika and so on.
Navodaya, which branched off from Udaya, made Malayalam’s first cinemascope film (Thacholi Ambu in 1979), the first 70 mm film (Padayottam in 1982) and the first 3-D (My Dear Kuttichathan in 1984). Incidentally, all these films reached cinemas during Onam.
Chemmeen, which marked a milestone in Malayalam cinema’s history by winning the President's gold medal, released in theatres during the Onam of 1966.
However, Ezhu Ratri, which was made by Ramu Kariat ad Kanmani Babu, again an Onam release, did not set the box office on fire. The entire cast comprised theatre actors and was shot on sets but the viewers did not ask for an encore.
It was during an Onam that M.O. Joseph’s banner Manjilas and Hari Pothen’s Supriya made their debut. In 1967, Supriya kicked off the festival season with director A. Vincent’s Ashwamedham. Thulabharam, Nadi, Karakanakadal, Naghankal, Etha Ividevare… came from the same production house in the following years.
In 1968, Manjilas’ Yakshi set a trend of hits that enthralled viewers during Onam. Some of the veterans at the helm of Manjilas’ projects were Joseph, K.S. Sethumadhavan, Sathyan, Thoppil Bhasi, Vayalar and Devarajan. In 1971, after the death of thespian Sathyan, three of his films captured the attention of movie buffs during Onam – Anubhavangal Palichakal, Iquilab Zindabad and Panchavankadu.
Twenty years after Neelakkuyil (1954), which witnessed the teamwork of Ramu Kariat and P. Bhaskaran, the two friends tried to win over the marquee with two very different themes – Nellu (directed by Ramu Kariat) and Thacholi Marumakan Chanthu (directed by P. Bhaskaran).
In those days, long after the festivities of Onam had blown over, Onam pictures continued their reign on the silver screen. Those films became milestones of a period in Malayalam cinema and Kerala’s cultural scenario. The themes and characters of those films challenged and changed perspectives of viewers; those films became an inseparable part of nostalgia. Generations of music buffs continue to hum the golden oldies that were featured in thosemovies.
Sans televisions or FMs, the movies were the sole source of mass entertainment in Kerala. Newspapers and magazines were the only means to get the latest news about films and the people who worked behind and in front of the camera. Full-page film ads were a common scene in newspapers. Moreover some magazines and supplements of newspapers used to carry only film news related to the Onam releases. Films stars spoke to their fans through these publications.
Through dusty roads and earthy lanes, a bullock cart covered with cinema posters would trundle along merrily, bells tinkling. Drumming up excitement would be a chenda player. Above the beats of the chenda would come the loud and clear announcement of the title of the movie and names of characters in it. Children running behind the bullock cart would be given multi-coloured leaflets (called notice). The latest hits played through loudspeakers would invite one and all into ramshackle theatres with thatched roofs to see the action unfold on screen.