Friday Review

Chemmeen: 50 Years of a Classic

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

Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen is one of the very few ‘popular classics’ in Malayalam cinema. The film not only won a national award for its artistic excellence, being the first South Indian film to win President’s Gold Medal for the Best Film, it was also a huge commercial success. Very few films have succeeded in achieving both, and no wonder, its popularity and aesthetic appeal persists even today.

Based on the celebrated novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, and made in a decade when literary adaptations were the norm, filming this novel held tough challenges. The novel itself was a huge success and was widely read, raising the expectations of the viewer and, in turn, the demands upon the filmmaker. Ramu Kariat took up the challenge with the help of Babu Sait, a youngster in his twenties, who agreed to produce the film. In the film, Kariat succeeded in conjuring a creative synergy between technical expertise and creative excellence. Thus a host of artistes like Hrishikesh Mukherjee as editor, Marcus Bartley as cinematographer with U. Rajagopal and Salil Chaudhury as music director along with K.D. George, joined hands to realise his dream project. All these were built on and around the narrative structure spun by resonant dialogues of S.L. Puram and evocative lyrics of Vayalar.

What also contributed to Chemmeen’s resounding success were the sterling performances by actors like Kottarakkara, Sathyan, Madhu, Sheela, S.P. PIllai, Adoor Bhavani, Pankajam and so on.

Set against the vast expanse of the sea, the narrative of Chemmeen offered immense visual possibilities, which the cinematographer and editor exploited creatively. In the film, the seascapes – its various moods, turbulences, ebbs and tides, and also its bounties – punctuate the narrative, virtually turning the sea into a character, raging and roaring, cheering and embracing the human drama unfolding on and before it. The legends and beliefs among the fisherfolk community are evoked time and again, through songs and dialogues, to paint the story in darker, dramatic hues. The songs penned by Vayalar use these legends to weave haunting songs (‘Manasamaine varoo’, ‘Kadalinakkare ponore’, ‘Pennale, pennale’) that remain evergreen classics. The sprawling beaches, sunrises, sunsets, waves and wind, the whole range of routine activities that fisherfolk are engaged in, their banter and mirth, their thrill during chaakara and despair during lean seasons, the everyday risk of life and death that looms over them are sensitively woven into the narrative. The magic of Chemmeen also owes a lot to its multi-layered narrative that encompasses within itself several poignant strands.

On the one hand, it is a tragic triangular love story, involving Karuthamma, Pareekkutty and Palani. It is a story of a woman who is caught between her lover and husband, who are worlds apart: Pareekutty is a romantic Muslim trader and Palani, a simple fisherman brought up by the sea; while one is given to romantic raptures, the other is a rustic simpleton in matters of love, while one lives off the sea and does business on the shore, the sea is the other’s very life and livelihood.

Karuthamma is also torn between the demands of the family and customs of the community on the one side, and her instinctual and physical attraction towards Pareekkutty. While she tries to avoid and keep away from Pareekutty, he is unable to forget her and continues to haunt her life till death unites them.

On the other hand, she tries her best to please Palani and be a good wife, but suspicion fuelled by local gossip and his insecurity as an orphan, drives him away from her. In an evocative scene at the end, when he casts aspersions about her chastity and his child’s paternity, she decides to leave everything behind and walk into the hands of her lover and to their only refuge, death.

Chemmeen is also about possession and greed. Chembankunju (brilliantly essayed by Kottarakkara) personifies human greed and the way money blinds one to everything human and ethical. Paradoxically, while he realises his dream of possessing a boat and net, he loses everything in the process – his dedicated wife, daughter, second wife, and finally his own sanity. In the case of Pareekutty, his singular obsession about Karuthamma, drives him again and again to her, unsettling lives around them; they finally ‘reunite’ only in death. Palani’s desire to possess Karuthamma haunts him in the form of suspicions about her chastity.

Omnipotent and omnipresent like the sea is the presence of the milieu; never before has the life of fisherfolk in all its beauty and misery been portrayed more vividly in Malayalam cinema. Even when they bicker and fight, they readily share all the sorrows and celebrations of life.

Interestingly, the women in Chemmeen are stronger; they are sure about themselves and dare to pursue their dreams and assert their presence. For instance, Karuthamma, when all her efforts to find love within marriage fails, dares to embrace her original love and eventually, death. Chakki is an able homemaker and holds the reins of the family in her hand, always taking care of others.

Nallapennu, the neighbour, is a very rustic but humane being, who suffers a childless life with a simpleton drunkard of a husband, but always ready to play motherly roles to Karuthamma and her younger sister; she nurses Chakki when she falls sick and looks after her husband after Chakki’s death. She offers refuge to Pappi, when she is thrown out of the house by Chembankunju. Pappi is also torn between love for her own son and her new husband; she too valiantly fights the tragedies in her life with courage and makes every attempt to keep the family together. These characters portray the umpteen ways in which individual lives are entangled with that of the milieu, and how attempts to cross the lines are shunned, abused and punished, which in the case of Karuthamma means exile and denial of love and life.

Chemmeen worked with the most elemental in individual and society, communal and personal life, human emotions and yearnings, which may be the reason why it still holds its mercurial charm. The tragic love of Karuthamma and Pareekutty, the irrepressible greed of Chembankunju, the frustration of Palani, all touched some raw nerves in the Malayali psyche, leaving behind some of the most emotive moments and resonating images in Malayali imagination.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2021 11:18:07 AM |

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