It is in the film studios of Thiruvananthapuram that Malayalam cinema found its identity

As the curtain goes up on another edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), the capital city becomes the cinema capital of Kerala. It is an apt time to remember the stalwarts of Malayalam cinema who made Thiruvananthapuram the capital of cinema as well. It was here in the city built on seven hills that Malayalam cinema acquired an identity of its own.

Five decades ago, Malayalam cinema took its first steps on to the silver screen in studios in Chennai. In those days, the only time Malayalam cinema got the space for shooting in the studios was in the wee hours of the day or after sunset, after major Tamil and Telugu producers had called it a day. The shooting was mostly on sets erected for Tamil and Telugu films.

In those days, a full-fledged studio complex for Malayalam cinema was a dream nursed by filmmakers and technicians. Two filmmakers made that dream a reality – M. Kunchacko and P. Subramoniam. While Kunchacko established Udaya Studio in Alappuzha, Subramoniam set up Merryland Studio at Nemom, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram.

The legacy

Subramoniam was a producer, distributor and theatre owner. City Theatre, which he began along with his father Padmanabha Pillai, managed Sreekumar Theatre, Sree Padmanabha, New Theatre, Karthika and, later, also opened Sree Vishakh. In addition, Subramoniam, who had worked in the Secretariat and the Water Works, also became the Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram.

Beginning with Atmasakhi under the Neela Productions Banner, he made more than 60 films in Malayalam and Tamil between 1952 and 1978. Many of the films were also directed by him. Paddathe Painkili, Randu Edangazhi, Harischandra, Bhaktha Kuchela, Aana Valarthiya Vanampadi, Althara, Adhyapika, Swami Ayyappan, Sri Guruvayurappan, Devi Kanyakumari, and so on were some of the landmark films under the banner. Padathe Painkili, Randu Edangazhi and Adhyapika won the President’s merit certificate for Malayalam films.

When the Government instituted the film awards in 1969, Kumarasambhavam won the award for the best film. Sathyan (Atmasakhi), P.J. Antony (Randu Edangazhi) and Srividya (Chattambi Kavala) were stars discovered by the banner. Prem Nazir, Madhu, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, S.P. Pillai, Miss Kumari, Bahadur, Shanti, and Aranmula Ponnamma made their mark on celluloid under the banner of Neela Productions.

Thirunayanar Kurichi and Brother Lakshman’s memorable songs such as ‘Aatma Vidyalayamey’, ‘Sangeethame Jeevitham’, and ‘Ishwarachintayithonne manujanu’ were immortalised in the voice of Kamukara Purushothaman. Lyricists Sreekumaran Thampi and scriptwriters Nagavally R.S. Kurup, T.N. Gopinathan Nair and Muttathu Varkey came to tinsel town via Merryland Studios. Film director M. Krishnan Nair, E.N.C. Nair and Karunakaran (both camera), Krishnan Elamon (sound) and N. Gopalakrishnan (editing), some of the best technicians of the time, also worked for Merryland Studio. Kumaraswamy and Co., the distribution company under the leadership of Subramoniam’s son S. Kumar, looked after the distribution of his films.

Many of the film screenings of the IFFK will be in the theatres owned and operated by Subramoniam’s grandsons. Merryland Studio, which put the city on the cinema map, continues to function.

Uma Studio

Thespian Madhu, a resident of the city, who celebrated his 80th birthday recently, gifted another studio, Uma Studio, to the capital city. Actor, director and producer, Madhu decided to establish a studio after he witnessed the difficulties experienced by Malayalam filmmakers in Chennai. After directing Priya and Sindhooracheppu, he became the producer of Sathi in 1973, and soon began work on setting up a studio in Thiruvananthapuram. Dheerasameere Yamunatheere was the first film to roll out from Uma Studio. Thus Vellaikadavu, a rustic area in the district became a centre of filmmaking. However, certain vested interests made things difficult for the studio to function. Madhu was disheartened and sold the well-equipped studio to Asianet. It was from this studio that the first private channel in Malayalam began functioning. Thus Madhu and Uma Studio became a part of the history of broadcasting in Kerala.

In the meantime, the demand for a studio in the public domain was put forward most forcefully by Ramu Kariat (who had directed the classic Chemmeen). His idea was to make one on the lines of the Moscow Film City. He along with P. Bhaskaran, Thoppil Bhasi and many other filmmakers who thought along the same lines met the then Chief Minister Achutha Menon and put forward their demand. Achutha Menon put them in touch with the then Home Minster K. Karunakaran, who also looked after cinema. Karunakaran and litterateur Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, then a secretary to the government, was in favour of their demand.

In 1975, the Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC) was formed with the late P.R.S. Pillai as its first chairman and G. Vivekanandan as the first managing director. Chitranjali Studio, situated on a picturesque hillock in Thiruvallam, was KSDFC’s baby. The films that were born in the well-equipped studio caught the attention of world cinema. P. Bhaskaran, Shaji N. Karun, K.R. Mohan and Devdas were some of the architects of the studio complex.

It was again in the seventies that auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who opened his account in films with Swayamvaram, along with his friend Kulathoor Bhaskaran, started the Chitralekha Film Cooperative. They also began a studio called Chitralekha at scenic Akkulam. Kodiyettam, Adoor’s second feature film, which, also witnessed the birth of the star Bharath Gopi, was made in that studio. However, when Adoor and Chitralekha parted ways, it did not augur well for the new studio. The area and the building were eventually taken over by the Southern Air Command.

Kaalpadukkal, which introduced the legendary K.J. Yesudas to the world of cinema was made by city-based K.S. Antony. He wanted to start a studio in his son’s name but in vain.

Another endeavour that met a premature end was Shrikrishna studio begun by Crossbelt Mani at Kundamankadavu. Shasta Film City, which was an enterprise begun by S. Kumar, at Vilappilsala, also made a few films.

In addition there were many organisations such as Kaumudy Films and Sivan Studio that contributed to the growth of Thiruvananthapuram as a centre of cinema.

Thiruvananthapuram is the home of legends of Malayalam cinema such as Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Madhu, Thikkurissi, Adoor Bhasi, the Travancore Sisters – Lalitha, Padmini, Ragini, their cousin Sukumari, Gopi, Mohanlal, Jagathy Srikumar and many more stalwarts.

When the magic of cinema draws thousands to the enchantment played out on the silver screen, the capital city will again be celebrating its tryst with cinema.