Originally appeared in The Hindu, dated November 26, 2004, by Randor Guy. Online link here.
CINEMA BEGAN to talk Malayalam in 1938 with “Balan,” seven years after it spoke Tamil and Telugu in 1931 and four years after Kannada in 1934.
“Balan” was produced by the Salem-based South Indian movie mogul T. R. Sundaram of Modern Theatres. The early Malayalam talking pictures, and not many of them were made, were mostly inspired by the melodramatic Tamil Cinema and were also mostly directed by Tamil filmmakers. And even a Sindhi one! The music or songs were again inspired or lifted in toto from popular Hindi and Tamil movies of the period.
All this changed in a big way in 1954 with the first Malayalam milestone movie, “Neelakuyil,” which sowed the seeds of growth. Malayalam Cinema would soon gain recognition in India and abroad, winning awards and adulation at international film festivals.
This film put Malayalam Cinema on the Indian movie map when it won the President’s Silver Medal at the National Film Festival. “Neelakuyil” was the first Malayalam film to come to grips with social realism and was a protest movie, the likes of which had not been attempted before with such depth and commitment. It highlighted the socially relevant issues plaguing the Kerala society like untouchability, casteism, and also the corroding influence and impact of the feudalistic aristocracy.
It also took a bold look at issues like unmarried mothers and illegitimate children which were considered shocking then.
“Neelakuyil” was written by `Uroob’ (P. C. Kuttikrishnan), who was one of the leading lights of Modern Malayalam Literature. He set new trends and wrote novels and short stories. Two of his novels `Omaachu,’ and `Sundarigalum, Sundaranmaarum’ are considered classics. This movie is based on his story to which he also contributed the screenplay and dialogue.
It was directed jointly by P. Bhaskaran (born 1924) and Ramu Kariat (1927-1979) who later became icons of Malayalam Cinema. Bhaskaran is a one-man institution in Kerala. His lilting lyrics for the songs contributed to the success of the movie. Besides writing the lyrics and jointly directing the film, he also played a major role in it. He was the upper caste village postman who shocked the villagers by daring to pick up the abandoned, illegitimate infant of an `untouchable’ woman and bringing him up as his son and then striving to restore the boy to his natural father.
Produced by the successful T. K. Pareekutty under his banner `Chandrathara Pictures,’ “Neelakuyil” was all about an upper-class bachelor schoolmaster (Sathyan) who offers refuge to an `untouchable’ young woman (Kumari,) on a rainy night.
Soon the two fall in love, breaking all codes of social conduct and caste and class. And when the woman becomes pregnant, the schoolmaster refuses to marry her because she is low-born. Shattered by the betrayal, she leaves the infant beside the railway track and commits suicide. The villagers are shocked yet no one has the courage to even touch the baby for fear of social boycott. And then the kind-hearted postmaster takes him home. The schoolmaster marries a young woman from the upper caste aristocracy but his married life is not happy for he is carrying the guilt of his betrayal. Unable to bear it any longer, he confesses his past to his wife who asks him to bring the child home to be brought up as her own.
Another reason for the film’s success was the brilliant photography. The visual splendour of the Kerala landscape was captured by the creative maestro of lens and lights, Aloysius Vincent. Vincent (born 1928), who began his life as camera assistant in Gemini Studios, quickly made a mark as cameraman setting new trends in cinematography like lighting, camera angles, composition, and what the French call `Misce en scene.’
It will be no exaggeration to say that much of the success of the early movies of the famed filmmaker C. V. Sridhar was partly thanks to Vincent. He excelled in filming the picturesque landscape of Kerala, its sprawling fields, palm trees, languid rivers and the blue sky and it was the first time that the movie camera was used in such innovative manner in a Malayalam film. Later Vincent became a successful multi-lingual filmmaker with many hits to his credit.
Sathyan and Kumari who played the lead roles became stars. Sathyan (1912-1971) was one of the most brilliant actors of Indian Cinema who played many memorable roles. Unfortunately, his talent was not known to the rest of the country. Kumari was for some time one of the leading stars. However, her married life was not happy and she committed suicide when she was still young.
As the schoolmaster’s wife, Prema, took her bow in “Neelakuyil.” Her daughter Shobha became a brilliant award-winning actress. But Shobha had problems in her personal life, which drove her to suicide. Unable to bear the shock of it all Prema too ended her life soon after.The music too contributed to the film’s success. Composed by the talented K. Raghavan, the songs were set in Malayalam folk music style. The outstanding lyrics of Bhaskaran added to the lilt and the poetic mood.
The songs, many of which became hits, were rendered by playback singers like P. Leela, Janamma David, Shantha P. Nair, and Mehboob. Fifty long years have gone by since the movie was released, and yet it is still fondly remembered by Malayalees and is constantly revived on television. Since caste prejudices like ‘untouchability, ‘ still haunt the society, movies like “Neelakuyil” will remain relevant.