Originally appeared in The Hindu, dated April 21, 2004, by Saraswathy Nagarajan. Online link here.
‘Neelakuyil’, the film that blazed a trail in terms of theme, music, direction and script, and launched the careers of some well-known names in the Malayalam film industry, hit the silver screen 50 years ago this day. Incidentally, it is also the birthday of its director, P. Bhaskaran, who turns 80 on Wednesday.
Taking a walk down memory lane, Mr. Bhaskaran recounts, “The opportunity to make a film with a social message was a dream-come-true for a group of youngsters who were determined to make films that reflected the harsh social realities of those times.”
Thus was born `Neelakuyil’ in 1954, which questioned the oppressive caste system and its all-pervasive influence on society and relationships. Its lilting music and poetic lyrics written by Mr. Bhaskaran immortalised the movie that brought together talented actors such as Satyan and Kumari, and the music composer, K. Raghavan. Most of its shooting was done outdoors and it captured images of the rural, agrarian Kerala_its vast paddy fields, the life of the peasants and the feudal society. It brought to life the characters who enrich and influence life in a village. Little did this band of idealistic film-makers believe that this black and white film would go on to win the Rajat Kamal Award for Malayalam cinema.
With obvious pride, Mr. Bhaskaran relates, “It was a surprise and many in New Delhi found it hard to believe that a youngster had bagged this prestigious award.”
Talking about its making, Mr. Bhaskaran explains, “With the encouragement of my friend and reputed writer, Uroob (P.C. Kuttykrishnan) and Satyan, I was able to translate the script on celluloid.” Uroob and Mr. Bhaskaran had worked together on its script.
“Since Satyan and I were close friends, I asked him to essay the role of Sridharan Nair, the upper caste school teacher who falls in love with Neeli, a peasant, and later deserts her. Similarly, it was Ms. Kumari’s debut.”
Mr. Bhaskaran says that he and Ramu Kariat, who directed the film together, had an excellent rapport. “Perhaps it was because both of us hailed from Kodungalloor.”
The Koundalloor connection also helped him find a producer for the film. T.K. Pareekutty’s wife’s house was in Kodungalloor and some of Mr. Bhaskaran’s friends were able to arrange a meeting with him. “He was a successful businessman but knew little of film-making. He gave me a little more than Rs. 1 lakh and asked me to make a movie for him.”
Chandrathara Productions came into being and `Neelakuyil’ was the first movie under its banner.
Many political activists and well-wishers advised him to make `revolutionary films’ with a social message that would help remove the social prejudices and superstitions that existed, he remembers.
A poet, composer, actor, freedom fighter and writer, Mr. Bhaskaran had no qualms in donning the director’s hat. He even acted as the postmaster, Shankaran Nair, the broadminded liberal who dared to think and act according to his principles.
“P.J. Antony was supposed to do that role. However, at the last minute he could not make it. Finally I decided to play that role and it did win accolades,” smiles Mr. Bhaskaran. He even managed to rope in his uncle, Ramankutty Menon, to don the role of an aging feudal lord who refuses to shed his anachronistic beliefs.
Looking back, Mr. Bhaskaran believes that his contribution to the film industry was to link literature and music to the world of cinema. He says, “I remained true to the principles I believed in and my films had a social content and outlook. They were all rooted in reality.”