Who was responsible for wiping out the name of J.C. Daniel from the history of Malayalam Cinema? Anyone keen to find the answer does not need to look beyond the Malayattoor Committee Report.
In 1970, the then C. Achutha Menon government appointed an expert committee to study the problems facing Malayalam cinema and the feasibility of establishing a film studio in the public sector.
The committee was headed by bureaucrat and noted writer Malayattor Ramakrishnan. The 19-member committee comprised people from various sectors of Malayalam cinema and included among others renowned film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
In its very first meeting Malayattoor, who presided, said that the history of Malayalam cinema began with Balan, the first talkie in the language. The film was produced by T.R. Sundaram and directed by S. Nottani.
Some of the members, especially author-film critic Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan, argued that before Balan (1938) two silent movies, Vigathakumaran and Marthanda Varma, were released in erstwhile Travancore. Vigathakumaran was produced and directed by J.C. Daniel, who, in fact had established a studio, The Travancore National Pictures, at Pattom, near Trivandrum. This silent film was released on November 7, 1928. So, the member argued, that this was the first film in Malayalam.
Malayattoor ruled out this argument. He believed that since Vigathakumaran was a silent film it did not belong to cinema per se. Heated arguments followed. Examples of Dada Saheb Phalke, recognised as the Father of Indian Cinema, making silent films, and those of Sergei M. Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were put forward.
In the opening sentence of his report he wrote, ’The Malayalam Motion Picture Industry made a halting start in 1938 when the first Malayalam talkie Balan was produced in a studio outside Kerala…’ This one line in favour of Balan, ignoring both the earlier silent films, in this report came to be accepted as an official, historical document. And Daniel was erased from our cinema history.
The arguments in favour of Vigathakumaran continued in the next meeting that was presided over by K. Karunakaran, who was then minister in-charge of cinema. He also toed Malayattoor’s line of argument. They even went on to conclude, rather assertively, that there was no film called Vigathakumaran.
And when assistance was sought for an ailing Daniel the request was set aside stating that Daniel was not a Malayali. This resulted in the complete expulsion of Daniel from the annals of Malayalam cinema.
Even the film archives in Pune could not help as they needed evidence to accept Vigathakumaran as the first film in the language. Sadly, not even a bit of the film existed.
Ironically, when all this was happening J.C. Daniel was alive, struggling to keep the wolves from the door at Agastheeswaram, Kanyakumari district.
Later the Kerala government instituted the J. C. Daniel Award in 1992 to honour lifetime achievements and outstanding contributions to Malayalam cinema. Why then was the award instituted in the name of Daniel who was ‘not a Malayali’, and who, according to official records, never made a film at all?