- "Karyakkar and his men were now at the crest of Pulichimala and could see the expanse of Tirunelveli. From such a great elevation, although regions of distinct shades were clearly discernible, it was not easy to make out the precise physical features of the land; wood and water, rock and valley – everything looked flattened out as if on a vast map unfurled."
"As they descended, the details of the vast country below gradually assumed clearer form. Presently, they caught sight of a sunlit stretch of gravelly terrain with a lone rocky hill standing guard over it. And suddenly, from among the cloud shadows scudding across the face of this hill, there emerged, at an equally vigorous gallop, two horsemen; they were fast approaching."
- "The fort of Mallankotta lies half a mile upstream from the Ponnani estuary on a large and elevated island in the Peraar river. The top of the island is a perfectly even tableland and gives an uncanny feeling that in long gone aeons, a colossal force had set to work with inexorable intent to flatten its former rugged features; the edges of this plateau drop down in sheer rocky cliffs into the river. Except for the presence of half a dozen or so ominously tall palms which stood like silent sentinels, this desolate island was barren."
- "The Chenkali river, alternately cutting thru rocky gorges and shooting thru treacherous rapids in the dim depths of the tangled knot of mountains bearing the same name, finally breaks free and leaps off the rim of a cliff in a massive five hundred foot waterfall down into a darkly verdant valley."
These passages were written long before cinemascope was invented and film epics were made. And these are but translations from Malayalam – the source: 'Bhutarayar', a 1932 novel by Appan Thampuran. Though the work won praise for its often vigorous prose, it also copped a lot of flak from some influential critics and never gained popularity among general readers and now, it is largely forgotten. To explain why I took up the exercise of translating the above samples, I need to begin the story (it is going to be long, Reader!) in early 2013.
Last year something unusual happened in Malayalam cinema. A period film of sorts called 'Celluloid' directed by Kamal, achieved the double whammy of box office success and very considerable critical acclaim. This is what this very preachy film tries to convey:
In the first quarter of the 20th century, an idealistic young man named J C Daniel invested the bulk of his wealth in a brave and noble attempt to make the first ever motion picture in Malayalam language (the film reveals no motivation for this adventure). Against heavy odds, he completed the film titled 'Vigathakumaran' (story-wise it was an early example of the lost-and-found potboiler) but was not allowed to screen it by the caste prejudices prevalent in Travaancore. Daniel went broke. Later, in impoverished old-age, he was neglected by the ignorant people of Kerala and its insensitive Government - a prime troublemaker was the rabidly caste-minded IAS officer Malayattoor Ramakrishnan (a Brahmin) who made sure even the small Sarkari pension given to needy former artists was denied to Daniel (Ramakrishnan was very particular that a Christian should not be honored for making the first film in Malayalam). Despite the yeoman efforts of journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan, who labored tirelessly to bring the contributions of the hero to limelight, Daniel died pennyless and broken. God of course, saw the Truth, and as usual, waited ... and waited; a generation later, a repentent Kerala Government instituted an award in his honor and many eminent filmmakers got together at a meeting - also attended by a huge section of the public - to offer tributes and to collectively seek the pardon of Daniel's Spirit for how the pioneer had been treated.
'Celluloid' had decent production values and good music. But plenty about its basic premise struck me as quite shady as well as shaky. For while it is certainly quite conceivable that Daniel's efforts could have been cruelly stymied by some caste-mad people of the then Travancore, his later travails had very little to do with the Kerala Government and pretty much zilch with the average Malayali: indeed, as the film indicates (before hurriedly wiping under the carpet), Daniel squandered what remained of his wealth in a lengthy and seemingly dissolute sojourn in Madras in an attempt to make another film, this time perhaps in Tamil; for unspecified reasons, his own children turned their backs on him and at the end, only his steadfast wife was at his side.
Sad business, truly! But it is also amply clear (from the film's loud silence on the matter) that the Malayalam cinema community never bothered about Daniel when it counted. Satyan, who was, for long our number one star, was from the same region and community as Daniel but he did precious little for the old man ('Celluloid' - rather pathetically- makes Daniel say: "Satyan is from my own caste and he often asks people about me!"); Thikkurissi, another stalwart hailing from the same district seems to have done a clean zilch. The noble Prem Nazir, who became a bigger star than Satyan, did likewise (well, did precious little, that is)... Mind you, these were Daniel's younger contemporaries who ought to have felt some debt to the man later anointed the 'Father of Malayalam cinema'. And if they could not care less, why should the people of Kerala collectively do penance for a sin of the order of parricide, as this 'biopic' would have us believe?
I need to say a bit more on the film's attack on the late Ramakrishnan. A commie fellow traveler and gifted writer (and of course IAS), 'Malayattoor' was known to be progressive and secular in his outlook and social dealings. To accuse him of the basest form of caste prejudice is no sin but would demand the marshalling of some very hard evidence indeed. And this is what director Kamal said: "I had great regard for Ramakrishnan. But the film is based on a biography of Daniel written by investigative journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan; I needed to be true to what Gopalakrishnan wrote".
Well, what was it in Gopalakrishnan's work that made Kamal want to follow his judgements so faithfully? I checked and this was what I saw: Quite a loose cannon, Gopalakrishnan's books abound in intemperate verbal salvoes fired at most (but not all) prominent figures of Mal filmdom. Satyan, Tikkurissi, Nazir,... each one of them receive plenty of bile and vitriol for various acts of alleged omission and commission. I am sure, if Kamal were really particular about being *true to Gopalakrishanan*, 'Celluloid' would have had to say things about especially Satyan which would have got its maker into a very nasty pickle among his industry. Another example would show how committed Kamal really is to Truth as revealed by Gopalakrishnan. The latter, in his writings, praised the generosity of old-time film producer Subramanian Muthalali but Kamal chooses to show him in 'Celluloid' not as a benign overlord but as a peddler of cheap and crappy 'jungle girl' kind of films and a crass feudal reactionary to boot. And of course, showing Muthalali in an unflattering light is a safe enough bet - his descendendents do not have any serious clout in the industry.
Kamal could of course, merrily attack Malayattoor because Malayattoor is dead, because he was from the numerically insignificant Tamil Brahmin community; and because there is also the average Mallu's jealousy that he very naturally attracts by just being a TamBrahm-IAS. And quite an attack it is. 'Celluloid' has film lyricist and fellow-commie Vayalar say: "(Ramakrishnan) is a very capable guy, mostly good. But what sometimes comes out of his mouth is the the fart of the upper caste overlord!".
Well, Kamal knows which side of his bread is buttered. 'Celluloid' is no 'poem on celluloid' but a faux biopic with competent music and a rotten moral core. Any mediocre melodrama needs a villain. Cinema folk can be as mean and ungrateful as anybody else. And of course, nothing like a raking up a foul controversy to sell a product these days! But, even taken together, these facts hardly merit a post here! Indeed, I am only getting to the main point of this story. Here is another early filmmaking project I happened to read about a few months after 'Celluloid' made its money; and a comparison to Daniel's experience would be interesting:
Around 1938, a few years after Daniel made his ill-fated foray into film making, Appan Thampuran, eminent man of letters, decided to make a film (a talkie) on his own novel 'Bhutarayar'. 'Kairaleevidheyan', a detailed biography of Thampuran written by the late K T Ramavarma devotes a chapter to this project which occupied a couple of years of Thampuran's old age. Having actively worked in theatre as actor-director-playwright, Thampuran seems to have had some clear and original ideas on how to transfer, modify and adapt the lessons learned on stage to the new medium of film. He hired Notani, the director of the first Malayalam talkie 'Balan' to helm 'Bhutarayar' but retained near-total creative control over the proceedings. Artistically gifted, Thampuran anticipated the great Satyajit Ray by preparing sketches for the scenes in the film. A troop of actors - established theatre hands and promising newcomers (among the latter were Tikkurissi and S P Pillai) were handpicked and hired on a full-time basis and rigorous rehearsals were held...
But all efforts came to nothing. Industrialists who had offered to finance the film backed out (or had to back out), some relatives offered help and they too ditched and .... finally, having exhausted his own funds, the frustrated Thampuran called it quits. Just as happened to Daniel, Thampuran's already strained finances took a major hit but, owing to relative good fortune, he did not have to suffer poverty in his last days like Daniel probably had to. Of course, Daniel's very mediocre stab at film-making (even his die-hard champions Gopalakrishnan and Kamal don't seem to attribute any artistic value to 'Vigathakumaran') has, albeit belatedly, thrust upon him a kind of immortality but nobody remembers Thampuran's project which had promised hugely more by way of plain and simple Art(*).
Biographer Ramavarma wistfully signs off: "I often heard from (writer) M T Vasudevan Nair and others that Tikkurissi and S P Pillai used to reminsce about the months spent at the 'Bhutarayar' rehearsal camp and the experiences there. I wrote to both gentlemen several times seeking information. Sadly, despite all the effort from my side, neither replied". Guess I don't need to add any comment of my own on this particular experience with film people. But our story needs to continue...
Ínspired by 'Kairaleevidheyan', I sought out a copy of 'Bhutarayar' and read it. Though set in Kerala of around 1000 AD and packing quite a bit of intrigue and action, the novel is not the usual historical romance. Critics have even classified it as the "first and only impressionist novel in Malayalam", whatever that means. Stylistically, the book offers many pleasant surprises - taut and racy descriptive passages like the ones translated at the top, brilliant caricature-like character sketches (the pen portrait of 'Thurassan' is a marvel). And it has, in Omala, the only known (to me) instance in Malayalam literature of an Eva Braun kind of female lead, a sort of 'gangster's moll', determined to stick with her Evil Beloved to the edge of doom, and if need be, beyond. I did not find the novel uniformly likeable or thrilling but its sui generis quality was not lost on me at all.
And then, a few months back, came a surprise. an up-and-coming film-maker asked me if I had any ideas for a short film. I eagerly mentioned Appan Thampuran and his failed attempt.
"Thampuran's home in Trichur is now a museum" I said quoting from 'Kairaleevidheyan'. "It has preserved the preparatory sketches made for the film and other stuff. Thampuran also was a talented sculptor. Some of his carvings are preserved there. You could make a trip to the place and find out more. Just see how much attention that 'Celluloid' generated. At least from the point of view of art, the failure of Bhutarayar was a much more serious loss than the loss of 'Vigathakumaran'! You could perhaps make a film to highlight this point."
The chap seemed excited. "Please see if you can write your thoughts down. We will work it into a documentary script!" he said.
Shortly thereafter came a second saturday and in a sudden spurt of energy, I made a quick day-trip to Trichur, reaching the place around 11 am. The museum was locked up and there was nobody around. The day's newspaper lay at the entrance. I inspected the exterior of the building and found some granite carvings (done by Appan Thampuran himself as Ramavarma tells us) on the walls of its portico - 'Radha-Krishna', 'Mating cobras',... Sadly, dark brown (!) paint had been very thickly smeared over them and the details were impossible to make out.
The compound was deserted; not even a watchman was in sight. I stepped out and asked around to find out if the place would open at least by the evening. No one in the vicinity had anything to say. I gave up and left.
And the filmmaker, I never heard anything further from him - in hindsight, his asking me, of all people, for a script must have only been an act of desperation prompted by circumstances which must have changed for the better soon thereafter. I guess he is now on to something more fetching than the dissecting the failures of a certain Appan Thampuran ...
And the jinx surrounding 'Bhutarayar' persists....
(*) - A potentially unpopular thought: Consider the case of the Malayalam novel. In any discussion, 'Kundalata' is readily acknowledged as the first of its kind and right thereafter, it is promptly dismissed as a low-quality yarn and 'Indulekha' mentioned as the 'first proper Malayalam novel'; at any rate, there is no talk attributing any paternity (of a literary nature) to Appu Nedungadi, author of 'Kundalata' and no major award or anything commemmorates him. So one can legitimately wonder whether calling Daniel, whose actual position in the history of Malayalam cinema looks considerably less substantial than Nedungadi's vis-a-vis Mal literature (and to me, the argument that a silent film like 'Vigathakumaran' has no well-defined language has some merit as well), the 'father of Malayalam cinema' isn't going quite a bit overboard. One could even add, the truly unfortunate 'lost heroine' Rosy, who played the female lead in 'Vigatha...' has better credentials to be called the 'Mother of Malayalam Cinema'.
Update(December 16th 2014): Just saw a remark by noted film critic Vijayakrishnan quoted by someone else. The gist of the remark goes thus: "'Vigathakumaran'was a flop not only because of the opposition from caste-groups - as a film it was not much good. People in Trivandrum had already seen films made elsewhere (a theatre 'Capitol' was already there) and had some idea of what a film ought to look and feel like. Daniel's rather simpleminded approach to filmmaking mostly was making a set, staging a play in that set and filming it from a fixed camera position; and this left most spectators unimpressed."