P. Ramdas, who made Newspaper Boy, the first neorealist cinema in Malayalam, feels our cinema still lacks a vision rooted in our tradition

In his voice one can hear the still sad music of a bygone era in Malayalam cinema. An era that echoed the dreams and aspirations of numerous Malayalis like him, who had come under the magic spell of the silver screen. Today even as one speaks of New Generation films which seem mostly about new ways of packaging cinema by enterprising youngsters and making it easily big in the industry, we need to turn back the hands of time and look at those yesteryears when the going was much tougher for young and creative minds who dared to be different.

P. Ramdas, aged 22, made Newspaper Boy in 1955 and changed the history of Malayalam cinema. This was the first neo-realist cinema in Malayalam. In an age when the films in circulation in Kerala were mainly in Tamil and Hindi, Ramdas was smitten by a new call for realism under the influence of Indian masters like V. Shantaram and Amiya Chakravarthy.

Avoiding popular cinema’s fascination with conventional notions of beauty and of aesthetic representation, in Newspaper Boy Ramdas strove to offer an un-romanticised bleakness that is so much a part of common everyday life. His cinematic style and language was completely at variance with what the audiences had learnt to appreciate in a visual culture where Tamil mythologicals and devotionals ruled the roost. Thus Ramdas and his Newspaper Boy epitomised a historic moment in Malayalam cinema that embodied the tensions between the traditional mythical modes of storytelling and a modern ethical sensibility marked by a passion to show what was ‘real’ and tell what was ‘true’.

Newspaper Boy was the modest result of the coming together of a group of youngsters, who dared to write Malayalam cinema into an innovative and bold script. All of them were students at that time and they formed Adarsh Kalamandir, an art initiative under which banner the film was produced. At that time Ramdas was a student of the University College in the city along with his friend Parameswaran.

With a touch of pride he claims that he was not an ideal student to the world but his ideals were set by his own standards. None of his nights were spent in the students’ hostel of the college but in endlessly walking the main street between the University College and the Pazhavangadi Ganapathy temple. He would also carry the morning’s uneaten breakfast packet with him and distribute it among the beggars who thronged the temple, church and mosque in Palayam.

These were nights spent in animated discussions with his friend, and amid those midnight rendezvous was born the idea of an ‘out of the ordinary’ movie in Malayalam. Thus it was the enigmatic darkness and the misty streetlights of what is today called MG Road, that in umpteen nights of yesteryears bore witness to the unfolding of a dream that would go on to create a celluloid history in Malayalam.

It was during this time that Parameswaran and Ramdas mulled over a short story that the latter had written, titled ‘Compositor’ and published in the magazine Mahatma. They decided to make it into a film. Hours were spent poring over cinema books in the British Library and an 8 mm camera was ordered. The rest is history.

What he aspired was a movie off the beaten track. Though the film was completed the same year Ramdas was unable to find distributors. Many distributors wanted to make drastic changes in the movie to suit audience tastes, which Ramdas solidly refused. Finally the Kochi-Malabar rights were sold to RS Pictures and the Thiruvananthapuram rights to Variety Pictures. The film bombed at the box office.

“Our attempt to end the film with the title ‘Aarambham’ (beginning) on screen instead of the staid and stale ‘Shubham’ (end), which was suggestive of the fact that no stories come to an end, they only pave the way for new stories, was however met with hooting and booing from the audiences,” says Ramdas, who now stays in Kottayam.

In fact, ‘Aarambham’ was picturised using stones in order to metaphorically project the optimism and determination of a new generation. “Yet we were forced to abandon many such innovative and inventive experimentation in form and style. Newspaper Boy was a movie for which the Malayali audience was not ripe, for it came much before its age,” reminisces Ramdas.

Cinema, according to Ramdas, should both entertain and educate. Even today we do not have an Indian tradition of cinema, a cinematic vision that is culturally resonant with our philosophies, our aesthetics and our ideals, laments Ramdas. The role of directors has diminished today to being mere visual translators of a given script.

“I spent a lifetime learning cinema, and lavished my entire resources for the love of it, and I have no regrets.” These words echo the agony and the ecstasy that cinema engendered in the twentieth century, embodying the quotidian concerns of a generation and its hopes for redemption through the modern dynamism of an art form that recast all other arts