Friday Review

Behind the scenes of Chemmeen

Sheela and Madhu in a still from Chemmeen. Photo: special arrangement   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Here is an interesting collection of facts and trivia about Chemmeen.

* Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai knew the shoreline stretch between Purakkad and Thycal like the back of his hand. This was his favourite haunt right from the time he was a student till he worked as a lawyer at Ambalapuzha. The lives of the people at the water’s edge, their culture, traditions, and superstitions were dear to him and this manifested in his most popular work, Chemmeen.

* Thakazhi wrote Chemmeen at a small lodge in Kottayam. One person used to come there every day, read what Thakazhi had written that day and return without a word. The novel was completed in a week’s time and this man incidentally became the first person to read the novel. He was C.J. Thomas, the noted playwright and critic.

* Chemmeen became the first Malayalam novel to win the Sahitya Akademi Award (1957). The novel was translated into more than 50 languages. The first was into Czech by Kamil Zelabil. It is part of UNESCO’s Catalogue of Representative Works, a project to translate and disseminate global literature of high calibre.

* The novel and the film did not escape censure. The fishermen community protested against the way in which Thakazhi presented their language and life. And some rationalists attacked the obvious build-up of superstition in the novel – the myth that the sea goddess would take away the husband of any fisherwoman who transgressed – on which the film revolved.

* Chemmeen, the film, won the National Award for Best Feature Film in 1965, and went on to be screened both at the Cannes and Chicago film festivals. In Chicago it won a Certificate of Merit, the first Malayalam film to win an honour at an international festival. The Chicago Sun Times reported (November 18, 1967) that Barry Stone of the festival staff said that when the ladies of the Chicago censor board finished screening it, they “sighed and said it was the most beautiful film they’d ever seen”.

Later, it was dubbed and released in Hindi as Chemeen Lehren.

* In 1962 Ramu Kariat decided to make this novel into a movie. He sought financial assistance from the Kerala Financial Corporation. His request to them was to fund 75 per cent of the project. This did not work out. Some of his friends introduced him to a young businessman Babu Sait who agreed to produce the film.

* Ramu Kariat wanted to shoot the film in the exact locations mentioned in Thakazhi’s novel. But some people at Purakkad demanded rent for their boats, forcing Kariat to shift the location to Nattika, a place he was familiar with.

* Sathyan was paid Rs. 12,000, and Madhu Rs. 2,000 for Chemmeen. The film was made at a cost of something around Rs. 8 lakh and went on to reap a profit of nearly Rs. 40 lakh. Babu, who was popularly called Kanmani Babu, used the money to construct a theatre, Kavitha, in Ernakulam.

* Chemmeen will forever be remembered for its impeccable cinematography by Marcus Bartley and U. Rajagopal. Every little detail of the fishing village was captured evocatively. The waves, the fishermen setting out to sea in their boats, the fishing nets, stand-out frames that resemble paintings, and the famous sea sequence picturised on Sathyan’s struggle with a shark in the swirling waters, made the film worth watching for its visual charm. An Anglo-Indian, Marcus Bartley was a master of black and white photography and had made his film debut in the Telugu film Swarga Seema (1945). He won accolades at Cannes for his camera work in Chemmeen. In fact, after the outdoor shoot was done Marcus Bartley had to leave as he had to complete a Dilip Kumar film. Rajagopal gave the finishing touches to Chemmeen.

* Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s tight editing was another highpoint of this film. He really changed the whole script inside out. The script by S.L. Puram Sadanandan followed the novel very faithfully and Ramu Kariat went by that. At the edit table Mukherjee was drowned in footages that he thought would divert focus. For instance, the childhood of Karuthamma and Pareekutty that was canned was dumped by Mukherjee. At the end of it Chembankunju turned into a more rounded character and many scenes had to be shot again.

* A major strength of Chemmeen was its music. Ramu Kariat took a gamble against expert advice by bringing in Salil Chowdhury. This marked his debut in South Indian music.

But the gamble paid off as the songs and the background score still continue to haunt. One of the songs, ‘Maanasa maine varu’, rendered by Manna Dey, went through many rehearsals.

Manna Dey had problems in pronunciation and Salil Chowdhury, a perfectionist, made him render it many times. Finally, it was recorded even though Salil Chowdhury was not satisfied only because the studio rent kept escalating after each passing day. Another song beginning, ‘Puthan valakkare’, sung by K.J. Yesudas, P. Leela, K.P. Udayabhanu and Shantha P. Nair, was an inspired version of Salil Chowdhury’s own ‘Baag mein kali khili’ from the film Chanda aur Suraj (1965). This tune was used for a Bengali non-film number sung ‘Jaare jaa amar ashaar’, by Sabitha Chowdhury. The song ‘Kadalinakkare ponore’ closely resembled another non-film number ‘Haay haay ki herilam’, a folk tune that Salil Chowdhury composed long back but released first for Chemmeen. Even ‘Maanasa maine varu’ was later used in the Bengali film Srikanter Will (1979) as a duet.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2021 12:01:46 AM |

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