Why 'Chemmeen' remains a high point in Malayalam cinema

The film, based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s novel, was released in 1965 and still remains a fine artistic work of human passion

February 03, 2022 10:32 pm | Updated February 04, 2022 02:42 pm IST

A scene from the Malayalam film Chemmeen.

A scene from the Malayalam film Chemmeen.

Over six decades since its publication (1956) and more than five decades after the release of its screen adaptation (1965), Chemmeen (prawns), remains a high point in Malayalam literature and cinema. Its author, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, may have dismissed his bestseller as a ‘painkili (mushy) novel’ that he finished in eight days, but the book has been translated into 30 major Indian and foreign languages.

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Director Ramu Kariat bought the movie rights from Thakazhi for Rs. 8,000 in the 1960s, a large sum for a Malayalam novel then. Occasionally melodramatic and seemingly commercial in appeal, Ramu’s Chemmeen may not be a cinematic piece of restraint, like many of Malayalam cinema’s subsequent internationally-celebrated films, but it still remains a fine artistic work of human passion.

The film revolves around the life of a beautiful young village girl, Karuthamma (Sheela), the daughter of an ambitious and dishonest Hindu fisherman, Chembankunju (K. Sreedharan Nair). She falls in love with a Muslim fish trader and childhood friend, Pareekutty (Madhu).

Chembankunju’s only aim in life is to own a boat and a net, and Pareekutty, at Karuthamma’s request, offers to finance him, on the condition that the haul will be sold only to him. Meanwhile, Karuthamma’s mother, Chakki (Adoor Bhavani), comes to know of her daughter’s love affair, and warns her to stay away from Pareekutty since marrying a person from another religion will mean the entire community would face the wrath of the sea.

Karuthamma sacrifices her love and marries Palani (Sathyan) and moves to another village, where people soon come to know of her past affair. Despite being an honest wife and a good mother, Palani doubts her chastity. After a bitter fight one night, Palani goes into the sea alone in his boat. A heartbroken Karuthamma sobs and awaits her husband’s return. In an unexpected turn of events, Pareekutty happens to meet Karuthamma and their old love is awakened. Palani, meanwhile, is sucked into a whirlpool while trying to catch a shark.

Malayalam film director Ramu Kariat.

Malayalam film director Ramu Kariat.

The story is based on the old world fable that the safety of a fisherman at sea depends on the loyalty of his wife. For ages, such fables have been the conscience-keeper of many close-knit rural societies. The fisherfolk in the coastal Kerala village where the film unfolds are no exception. Chemmeen beautifully explores this subject through its many complexities, as we see the villagers clawing into the very camaraderie that sustains them, like prawns in a puddle. They act on the spur of the moment without thinking of consequences.

Chembankunju’s greed drives him mad, while Pareekutty and Karuthamma’s indiscretion results in their death. There are no permanent villains or heroes, as frailty and forgiveness unites them all. For example, the relationship between Chembankunju and his neighbours. The neighbour’s jealous wife often fights with Chakki when Chembankunju gets prosperous, but when Chakki dies, she promptly takes over the role of mother to her daughter. The taunts that Palani’s friends make about his wife’s past love is reflective of the mundane entertainment that a primal society derives in the affairs of its own.

Chemmeen opens to picture-perfect images of coastal Kerala, and is sustained throughout by its idyllic cinematography and indulgent use of colour. One senses a referencing from the rural template of earlier iconic Bollywood films (like Mother India) in Chemmeen’s lavish montages of daily life depicting the fishermen’s journey into the sea and the fisherwomen at work that unfold like an ethnographic documentation of rural south India. Recurrent visuals of sea and rowing fishermen may occasionally make a contemporary viewer feel the need for some trimming, but once you soak into the film’s dulcet pace, the indulgence rarely irks. Veteran Bollywood director Hrishikesh Mukherjee edited the film in association with K.D. George.

Timeless score

The high point of Chemmeen, however, is its music that brings together a talented pool of music-makers from north and south. Bollywood music director Salil Chowdhury weaves a timeless score, as he captures the unique sounds of the kaleidoscopic setting. In the seamless blend of folk beats and mainstream music (remember the Pahadi tracks of Madhumati), one can hear the sea’s many moods in the film’s songs and background score. The then rising singing talents, K.J. Yesudas and P. Leela, enrich its melodic numbers, but undoubtedly the song of the film is Manna Dey’s ‘Manasa maine varu’ (come little bird of my heart), which wafts in and out of the film like a wandering minstrel just like its tragic hero. Vayalar’s lyrics celebrate common man’s poetry at its aching best.

The beauty of adapting good literature to cinema is that one gets a wealth of well-etched, authentic characters beyond memorable protagonists to help savour a context in its entire diversity. The sea, the songs, and the very vulnerable Sheela (one of the most popular actors of South India, with nearly 500 films to her credit) as the ill-fated Karuthamma, however, remain the three aces of the film. Chemmeen engages and entertains, while educating viewers about the lives and concerns of Kerala’s fisherfolk, authenticated by the intimacy of its source novel’s inside-out perspective.

Celebrated as a pioneering effort for its technical and artistic brilliance, Chemmeen was the first South Indian film to win the National Award for Best Film in 1965. It also won the Certificate of Merit at the Chicago Film Festival and the Best Cinematography Award for Marcus Bartley at the Cannes Film Festival, and has been subsequently screened at various international film festivals.

The critic, author and filmmaker is Dean, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, R.V. University, Bengaluru

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