Christian devotional films based on the Bible and the life of Jesus Christ are rare in Indian cinema. Starting from the silent era , Hollywood films on the subject were screened in India and did well at the box office. From the Manger to the Cross (1912), The Ten Commandments (1923 & 1956), The Sign of the Cross (1932) , The Big Fisherman (1959), The King of Kings (1961), The Bible – In The Beginning (1966) are a few examples. Crucifixion of Jesus Christ was visualised in early Tamil films like Gnanasoundari (1948) based on a Christian folk myth which was remade in Malayalam in 1961 by T.E. Vasudevan as Gnanasundari (directed by K.S. Sethumadhavan). In both the films the song sequences of crucifixion – ‘Nenjame Nee Anjaathe…’ (P.G. Venkateshan) and ‘Kezhaathe Kanmani…’ (P.B. Sreenivas) respectively, were a special attraction. Tamil film Annai Velankanni (1971) produced and directed by popular dance director K. Thankappan under the banner of Giri Movies was dubbed to Malayalam by Mary Matha Pictures as Velankanni Mathavu and was released on May 27, 1977. Kamal Haasan, who was the assistant director of the film, appeared in a cameo as Jesus Christ in the scenes where he carries the Cross to Calvary. The crucifixion scenes with background songs ‘Deva Maindan Pokinraan…’(T.M. Soundararajan) and ‘Deiva Puthran Pokunnu…’ (Yesudas) the Tamil andMalayalam dubbed versions respectively became an attraction of these films. Both the Tamil original and the Malayalam dubbed version were box office hits in Kerala. G. Devarajan, assisted by R K Shekhar, composed music for both the versions and the songs became super hits. R.K Shekhar was also the co-art director.
Besides real location scenes at Nagapattinam and Velankanni, the film was shot at AVM and Sarada Studios. Abhayadev translated to Malayalam the dialogues written by Sam D. Dasan for the original Tamil film-based on the screenplay by K. Thankappan. The cinematography, jointly by R.N. Pillai and B.B. Lukas, was impressive and the scenes shot around the church at Velankanni impressed the audience. N. M. Shankar edited the film.
K.R. Chadaiyappa Chettiar, the film’s financer, had a dream that he cast Jayalalitha in the film opposite Gemini Ganesan. Jayalalitha excelled in her role as a nurse. A multi-starrer movie, other popular stars who acted in the movie beside Gemini Ganeshan were Muthuraman, Siva Kumar, S. V. Subbiah, ‘Major’ Sundararajan, Sreekanth, Malayalam film star Vincent, ‘Thenkai’ Sreenivasan, ‘Churuli’ Rajan, Padmini, K. R. Vijaya, Sreevidya, Devika and Manorama besides others.
The story pivots around the centuries-old Basilica of Our Lady of Health at Velankanni village near Nagapattinam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. While the miracles of the presiding deity of the Basilica, Mother Mary, performs in the lives of the devotees is narrated as flashback, the story involving Jayalalitha and Gemini Ganeshan is in the present.
Mary (Jayalalitha) is a nurse in a hospital at Nagapattinam and is a devotee of Mother Mary of Velankanni. She narrates the story of Kamakshi (K.R.Vijaya), a milkmaid and her son Sundaram in Velankanni village to a child patient (Baby Sumathi). Mother Mary appears before Sundaram who is on his way to the landlord’s (Muthuraman) house at Nagapattinam to deliver milk. The landlord, a bureaucrat, is an atheist. Sundaram gives milk to Mother Mary to feed the infant Jesus. The landlord is annoyed with Sundaram for the shortage in milk and does not believe the story of “a lady with a child” that caused the shortage. A miracle occurs - the milk pot overflows spontaneously. The Mother appears before the landlord and he becomes a believer, a devotee of Mother Mary. He generously helps his tenant Karuppayyan (Ramadas) in the conduct his daughter’s marriage Chellayi (Sreevidya) to her rich lover (Sivakumar).
The story of Swarnam (Padmini) and her lame son Raja (Master Shekhar) in Velankanni village is narrated by Doctor Sundararajan (‘Major’ Sundararajan) to his assistant. Villagers often poked fun at Swarnam and Raja because of his lameness. On his way to the market to sell curd and milk, Mother Mary appears before Raja and cures him. Mother Mary assigns Raja the task of building a church for her in the spot where she appeared before him under the supervision of the priest Francis (S.V. Subbiah).
Meanwhile, Mary rejects marriage proposals from young doctors in the hospital. She is waiting for Mother Mary’s oracle to decide her marriage. And the miracle occurs. Both Susainathan (Gemini Ganeshan), the son of a rich landlord in Nagapattinam and Mary have the same dream - both of them singing praises of the Mother. They meet each other in the church and eventually get married. While Mary is away from the hospital meeting Susainathan, the kind Mother attends to Mary’s duties disguised as a nurse.
All the artists assigned with the respective roles, major or minor, were impressive. Performances of Jayalalitha, Padmini, K. R Vijaya and ‘Major’ Sundararajan were outstanding.
Four songs written by Sreekumaran Thampi and set to tune by Devarajan became hits. Instant hits were ‘Neelakkadalin Theerathil…’ (Jayachandran, Madhuri and chorus) and ‘Vaanamalar Veethikalil…’ (Yesudas & Madhuri).
Will be remembered:
As a successful film on the Basilica of Our Lady of Health, Velankanni.
For the songs.