The making of Nirmalyam

The big pictureM T Vasudevan Nair, seated extreme right, and below,Ramachandra Babu during the shoot of the filmspecial arrangement

The big pictureM T Vasudevan Nair, seated extreme right, and below,Ramachandra Babu during the shoot of the filmspecial arrangement  

There are many who believe that MT Vasudevan Nair (MT) could not have made his magnum opus, Nirmalyam today. Just think of all the ruckus it would have caused. This film in black and white still remains one of the best in Indian cinema.

Looking back at how the film was made in 1973 would be an invaluable lesson to present day film makers. Made on a shoestring budget, the trials MT went through during the making of his debut film is a story that needs to be told.

The location was a village near Edappal and the temple at Mookkuthala, was the main location. The temple was dilapidated , which helped MT shoot there without hindrance. Before the shoot began MT found a local oracle to teach his lead actor P.J. Antony the rituals and the body language of an oracle.

Antony soon began training in real earnest and perfected the movements. He was so immersed in the role that during the shoot he often kept aloof, not mingling or joking with the rest of the cast and crew.

MT was also the producer of the film. He knew that he was working on a small budget and so had to cut costs. They worked without a unit van; reflectors, trolley tracks were fabricated at a workshop in Calicut, owned by actor Balan K. Nair. Some of the lights and camera were brought from Madras by train. The shoot was for a month.

Since there were no hotels or lodging facilities at Edappal, the outhouse of a rice mill was hired. Ravi Menon, Sukumaran, associate director M Azad and cameraman Ramachandra Babu shared the space in a hall on the ground floor. The two rooms on the second floor were occupied by MT and Antony. Sumithra and Kaviyoor Ponnamma were put up in the houses of actor Sukumaran’s uncle and other relatives.

As part of cost cutting, and also because the locations were in and around the temple, only vegetarian food was served. “This was tough for Antony. He managed to get home-made pork, beef and fish pickle. We used to go to his room to listen to his stories and taste the pickles,” remembers cinematographerRamachandra Babu.

Script writer John Paul says, “There was a shortage of funds right through the production. MT could not even hire a generator and had to depend on Kerala State Electricity Board for power. Temporary connections with separate meters were taken at all the locations. Moreover, there used to be heavy power fluctuation during peak hours. So, most of the night shoot was done after 9 p.m. and this extended till early morning.”

The people of Mookkuthala were friendly and helpful. They were at hand to assist the unit move properties and be part of the crowd scenes. In fact, they became so attached to the unit that many of them were in tears when it was time to pack up.

Noted film critic Kozhikkodan once wrote about his experience on the sets of Nirmalyam . “I arrived there with some friends and saw a crowd watching the shoot, some people were discussing the story Pallivalum Kalchilambum which was being adapted as the film. MT was there, standing among the unit members, in a black shirt, folded dhoti, and a beedi on lips, his head covered with a towel. He seemed to be in total command.”

Towards the end of the schedule MT ran out of money. He still had to shoot the climax and a couple of other scenes. “I still remember the tension I went through one day. We had arranged to shoot the festival sequence. Groups of artistes were fixed, the village girls were to be ready with the thalappoli . In the evening the camera crew said they had only 100 feet of film left and that fresh stock had not arrived from Madras. I asked my cashier how much money he had with him and he said ‘five’. I was worried and asked him if meant five hundred. He replied ‘no only Rs. 5 ’. I discussed the situation with a few friends, someone suggested I call off the next day’s work. But I had a gut feeling that something would happen. I sent a messenger to Shoranur, where Vincent was shooting and asked him to lend some film. By midnight the man came back with 1,000 feet of film. That was enough to see us through till afternoon when the Madras stock was expected to arrive,” recalls MT.

But there was new problems in store. They had to find means to solve the shortage of money.

“We started work in the morning. It was difficult to raise funds from the locality as I had already tapped three well-to-do families and raised some money earlier. Just before lunch break two of my friends from Calicut, reached there. I asked them if they could lend some money. Between them they parted with Rs. 10,000.”

The shoot was completed on a war-footing. Is this possible today?

The writer is a film columnist

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