Friday Review

Guiding light of Malayalam cinema

Cinematographer and director A. Vincent.

Cinematographer and director A. Vincent.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

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A. Vincent, who passed away on February 25, was a pioneering cinematographer of Malayalam cinema and a scintillating auteur too.

Aloysius Vincent (1928-2015) was born into and lived his whole life in a family where photography was a way of life: his father was a photographer in Kozhikode and he grew up watching his father working, and both his sons, Jayanan and Ajayan, are well-known cinematographers. It was at the behest of his father that he left for Chennai when he was about 18, and joined the Gemini Studios to assist Kamal Ghosh, a Bengali cameraman working for Gemini. The first film he worked in was one of the biggest blockbusters in Indian film history – Chandralekha, by S.S. Vasan – that set new heights in commercial cinema production in the country. His association with Ghosh in his formative years prompted many people to say that his film style belonged to the “Bengali school”.

His entry as a cameraman into Malayalam too was in a landmark movie: Neelakuyil (1954) by debutant directors Ramu Kariat and P. Bhaskaran. It was a film that gave a new look and feel to Malayalam cinema by introducing in an array of talents including Vincent, actors like Sathyan and Kumari, musicians and lyricists like K. Raghavan and Kozhikode Abdulkhader. In the coming years, he rose in the industry due to his innovativeness and professionalism, and was cameraman for several landmark films in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi such as Amaradeepam, Kalyanaparisu, Pelli Kanuka, Nenjil Oru Alayam, Nazrana, Punarjanmam, Nenjam Marappathillai, Dil Ek Mandir, Enga Veettu Pillai, Adavi Ramudu and Kadhalikka Neramillai. He was fond of saying that he had filmed three chief ministers: M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao and Jayalalitha; the latter’s 100th movie Thirumangalyam (Tamil, 1974) was directed by him.

The Malayalam films he shot before his foray into direction – Mudiyanaya Puthran (1961) Moodupadam (1963) and Thacholi Othenan (1964) – entrenched his position and brought him into contact with some of the finest artistes in the industry. His debut film Bhargavinilayam (1964) was not only a commercial hit but also a trendsetter of sorts. Based on the story and script by Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, its narrative revolved around a writer grappling with writer’s block who comes to stay in a haunted house. His stay there and encounters with the ‘ghosts’ of the past, the reminiscences of the villagers and eerie experiences there, punctuated with some of the greatest songs in Malayalam cinema, wove a magical narrative of epic dimensions. As most of the incidents in the film happen at night, the film used light and shadows, reminiscent of expressionistic style, to great effect.

In the next year, he made Murappennu, which introduced M.T. Vasudevan Nair to cinema, who was to have a lasting influence in the industry and film narratives in the decades to come. The tragic narrative of Murappennu was about the conflicts in a joint family set in a stagnant and crumbling feudal system. Shot in the background of Bharathapuzha, with Prem Nazir, Madhu and Sarada playing significant roles, it was a quintessential MT film in all respects. Nagarame Nanni (1967), based on another MT story, explored the dilemmas of migration to the city in search of livelihood. Shot in Chennai, it was about the lure of the city and how the dreams of villagers are shattered by its inexorable logic of greed. Aswamedham (1967) and Thulabharam (1968), both based on plays by Thoppil Bhasi, were heart-wrenching narratives about social issues that haunted Kerala society.

While Aswamedham dealt with the social stigma attached to leprosy, and the valiant fight against it, Thulabharam is a tragic story about a woman who is forced by social circumstances to poison her own children to death. In a way, it was a prophetic film about a spectre – family suicides – that was to haunt Kerala society in the next decades. Asuravithu (1968), Nadi (1969), Aalmaram (1969), Triveni (1970), Abhijathyam (1971) and Achani (1973) were some of the significant films Vincent directed in the coming years. His last directorial attempt in Malayalam was Kochuthemmadi (again based on a story by MT) in 1986.

Vincent was not as prolific as other filmmakers of his period like P. Bhaskaran and K.S. Sethumadhavan, maybe because Vincent was busy enjoying his cinematographic work in various languages and also because he was very choosy about his films. In his directorial oeuvre spanning a quarter century, he made some of the most memorable films that are marked by scintillating cinematography, gripping narratives, haunting songs and sterling performances. Most of his narratives were centred around a group of characters played by actors like Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Madhu, Ummer, P.J. Antony, Sarada, Sheela, Jyotilakshmi and Vijayanirmala. Some of the most memorable performances of these actors were in films by Vincent. Similarly, the songs in his films, with regard to their lyrical and musical quality and the way in which they were picturised, remain all time greats.

In his films, Vincent moved away from the dialogue-centred melodramatics focussing on a single protagonist. He always visualised his characters in a larger social setting and milieu, set against a vast visual canvas. The languid Bharathapuzha and Periyar in Murappennu and Nadi, vast expanse of backwaters and fishing net yards in Thulabharam and Triveni, cityscapes in Nagarame Nanni, the hillscapes of Nakhangal, and the verdant paddy fields and water bodies in Kerala played a major role in his compositions. He boldly experimented with camera positions, movements and angles: the scenes of the bullock race and the heroines swinging in Murappennu, the workers’ processions in Thulabharam, the boats meandering through the waterways in Nadi and the nightmarish fantasy of P.J. Antony in Triveni, the night sequences in Bhargavinilayam … gave the narratives a setting an unprecedented sense of reality and vibrancy.

Likewise, he also used architecture and the interiors to great effect: the dark and mysterious innards of Bhargavinilayam, the court scenes in Thulabharam, the tharavad in his MT films, the huge, desolate bungalows in Triveni and Nakhangal , all throbbed with the patterns of light, darkness and shadows of Kerala. The narrative style of Vincent’s films, their keen visual sense and moods and the way in which he presented the actors moulded the very cinematic and narrative idiom on Malayalam cinema in the coming decades.

It was Vincent who for the first time experimented with visual layering of the film frame where foreground, mid-ground and background were given equal importance. Along with their meticulous mise en scene, the shifts in focus between these grounds accentuated the emotional drama being played out.

As a cinematographer, he is considered a wizard: for instance, he created a zoom effect when such lenses were yet to arrive. In the film Uttamaputhiran starring Sivaji Ganesan, he surprised the technicians of Kodak lab in London with his zoom effect. He was known for his daring experimentations to produce the required moods and effects, and always kept pace with technology.

“By the way, when all this fuss about bounce light and reflectors started it did not sound very new to me as I was already exposed to the whole process of making photographs from using skylight, using bounced light from the ground and using black cloth field camera, the one where you see the image upside down. And then I witnessed the transition from slow varichrome film to high speed camera films like the ones that Ilford Company of Britain used to market – the panchromatic films called HP2, 3, 4. I have seen all the phases of the progress of technical improvements,” he had said during an interview.

This fine and sophisticated creator of images is now part of the history of cinema, and his images and narratives he created will stay alive in us for a long time to come.

Landmark films of A. Vincent

Bhargavinilayam 1964

Murappennu 1965

Nagarame Nanni 1967

Aswamedham 1967

Thulabharam 1968

Nadi 1969

Triveni 1970

Abhijathyam 1971

Achani 1973

Nakhangal 1973

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 11:20:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/guiding-light-of-malayalam-cinema/article6936773.ece

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