Ponni: 1976

Prabhat Films, pioneers in Indian cinema, produced films with unusual themes. V. Shantaram’s Amrit Manthan (1934) talked about human and animal sacrifice, and Vishram Bedekar’s Lakharani (1945) that supported inter-tribal marriages were two such films from Prabhat. Ponni , released on September 3, 1976, was an unusual Malayalam film in that it portrayed on screen the life of adivasis or tribals of Attappadi. The film was based on a novel of the same title written by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, first published in 1967. The novel was supposed to have been inspired by real life incidents at Attappadi, which the writer came across when he was posted as Sub-Collector, Ottappalam Revenue Sub-Division during 1959-1961.

Thoppil Bhasi, who directed the film, also wrote the script and dialogues. The dialogues, a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam with a smattering of Kannada was impressive. Produced by M.O. Joseph for Manjilas, the film was shot in forest areas of Palakkad and at Satya, Gemini, AVM, and Karpakam Studios. Balu Mahendra’s cinematography was outstanding and so too the editing of M.S. Mani. The dances choreographed by E. Madhavan were in sync with the adivasi folk traditions. And G. Devarajan made effective use of folk tunes for the songs.

The film opens with an Independence Day celebrations organised by the Sub-Collector (Janardanan) of the area and the participation of various tribal groups of the region. Ponni (Lakshmi) belonging to the Mudhuga tribe and Maran (Kamal Haasan) belonging to the Irula tribe who danced on the day are introduced to each other by the Sub-Collector. Ponni and Maran fall in love at the first sight even as they willingly pose for the media.

These two tribes are rivals, who follow separate faiths and traditions. The Independence Day photograph of Ponni and Maran are published in the newspapers next day. Chellan (Soman), a Mudhuga, is in love with Ponni, but she dislikes him. Ponni’s friend Maashi (Rajakumari) loves Chellan.

Tension and strained relations in the Mudhuga tribes is cleverly exploited by the landlords of the area. The tribals practice the ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation method, which is resented by the landlords who needed the tribals as cheap labour. Ponni revolts against the attempts of the landlords to hamper their traditional agricultural activities. Maran also stands by Ponni.

The Ponni-Maran love affair is met with widespread animosity and opposition. News is spread that the mountain god and the powers of Nature will not be pleased with the inter-tribe relationship.

Hanuman (Paravur Bharathan), an tool in the hands of the landlords. He works for them against the tribals. The tribal chief (Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai) warns the Mudhugas that their settlement will be destroyed by natural calamities if Ponni marries Maran and she is banned from meeting Maran. Meanwhile, Ponni’s father Nanjan (Sankaradi) decides to marry her to Chellan. The police arrest Maran on false charges of holding firearms without a licence. Ponni meets the Sub-Collector and pleads with him to save Maran and manages to get him freed.

The Mudhuga priest Bomman (Adoor Bhasi), through the influence of the landlords and Hanuman, set a trap to kill Ponni. And Bomman makes a prediction that the tribal settlement will soon be destroyed by the anger of Jakkamma, the mountain goddess. Pretending to be possessed by the goddess, Bomman demands human sacrifice to appease the powers and save the tribe. Ponni is chosen for the sacrifice and arrangements are made for the ritual. Maran and Chellan reach the spot in time and save Ponni. The film draws to a happy ending, Maran and Chellan marrying Ponni and Mashi respectively.

In the novel, Ponni dies in an avalanche. The film deviates with a scene where the tribals vow to stop human sacrifice and encourage inter-tribe marriage, thereby given it a very positive twist.

Kamal Haasan and Adoor Bhasi excelled in their roles. The comic scenes involving Bahadur and Kunjan (as the Village Officer and his Assistant) created moments of riotous laughter.

The songs written by P.Bhaskaran and set to tune by Devarajan were all hits. Markazhiyil mallika poothaal … (K.J. Yesudas), Maamaramo poomaramo …. (P. Madhuri), Maattupongal makarappongal …(P. Jayachandran, P. Leela, Madhuri and chorus), Singarappenninte …. (Leela- Madhuri), Neeraattu Pongal neeraattu …(P.Susheela and chorus) have stood the test of time.

Will be remembered : As a film against social evils like animal and human sacrifice; for its music, especially for the song Margazhiyil mallika

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