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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Malayalam cinema

Kerala: The Legacy of Visual Culture

Even much before the arrival of cinema, the people of Kerala were familiar with moving images on the screen through the traditional art form ‘tholpavakkuthu’ (Puppet Dance). Usually exhibited at festivals of village temples, ‘tholpavakkuthu’ uses puppets made of leather with flexible joints. These joints are moved using sticks and the shadow of these moving puppets are captured on a screen using a light source from behind, creating dramatic moving images on the screen. Stories from the mythology were told so, with accompanying dialogues and songs with traditional percussions like the Chenda. ‘Tholpavakkuthu’ uses some of the techniques widely used in cinema like the close-ups and long-shots.

Apart from the art of ‘tholpavakkuthu’, which exhibits the nature of cinema, many of the folk arts and classical dance forms like ‘Kuthu’, ‘Koodiyattam’ and ‘Kathakali’ exhibits very high visual qualities in their form. My be this legacy of Kerala’s visual culture lead the filmmakers of Kerala to take up cinema in a different way, rather than mere plain story telling, than anywhere else in India, and the people of Kerala to appreciate them.

Malayalam cinema

Malayalam cinema refers to films made in the Indian state of Kerala in the Malayalam language. It forms a significant component of Indian cinema. Malayalam cinema remains the most popular medium of entertainment of the people of Kerala. The most successful movies at the box office are often remade in other Indian languages.

History of Malayalam Cinema

Early Era

A lists of film in year order produced in the Malayalam cinema and language from the beginning, 1928-1959:

The Silent Era

The first Malayalam cinema was produced and directed by, J C Daniel, a dentistby profession who didn't had any prior experience with cinema. His film Vigathakumaran was released in 1928, but failed economically. But it is notable that while mythological films ruled all over the Indian cinema arena, J C Daniel had the courage to produce the first ever Malayalam film with a social theme. The economic failure of Vigathakumaran discouraged him from producing further films.

The ill luck of Malayalam cinema continued. The second film Marthandavarma based on a novel of the same name by C V Raman Pillai, was produced by Sunderraj in 1933. But due to a legal confrontation regarding the rights of the film, the producer had to withdraw the film from cinema halls after few exhibitions. Had it not been for the legal embargo, the film would have had a great impact on the cinema of South India. By Marthandavarma the history of silent Malayalam cinema too came to an end.

Balan: The First Talkie

Indian cinema had already entered the talkie age even before Marthandavarma was released. Balan, the first Malayalam cinema with a sound track was released in 1938. Produced by Tamilian, T R Sunderam at the Modern Theatres, Balan was directed by Notani. A melodramatic film, with more Tamil influence than Malayalam, Balan featured the struggle of two orphaned children, Balan and his younger sister, oppressed and exploited by their evil stepmother until they are rescued by a kindly lawyer. Even though this film could be considered irrelevant in artistic sense, its economic success created a base to the Malayalam film industry. Followed by the success of Balan, Jnambika was released in 1940. After Prahlada (1941), Kerala had to wait till 1948 for the next film. Nirmala (1948) directed by P J Cheriyan explored the possibility of music and songs in Malayalam cinema. Legendary Malayalam poet, G Shankara Kurup penned the lyrics for this film. Thus song-dance sequences became an essential ingredient for commercial success in Malayalam cinema.

Inspired from an imported film - Life of Christ - Phalke started mentally visualising the images of Indian gods and goddesses. What really obsessed him was the desire to see Indian images on the screen in a purely Swadeshi venture. He fixed up a studio in Dadar Main Road, wrote the scenario, erected the set and started shooting for his first venture Raja Harishchandra in 1912. The first full-length story film of Phalke was completed in 1912 and released at the Coronation cinema on April 21, 1913, for special invitees and members of the Press. The film was widely acclaimed by one and all and proved to be a great success.

It is notable that none of the Malayalam films that came before the independence of India reflected the mood of the struggle for independence and also the film that came after independence and the early 1950s reflected that torrid period of Kerala, where the Communist upspring was taking place changing the entire social climate of the State. Cinema continued to be dramas happening in a totally artificial and alien world.

Jeevithanouka - 1951
(The boat of life)

Jeevithanouka was a turning point for Malayalam cinema. This highly dramatic musical film, which narrated the story of ego clashes in a joint family, was mainly directed towards the women audience. Jeevithanouka was a huge success, and can be considered as the first 'super hit' of Malayalam cinema. Thikkurishi Sukumaran Nair, an actor from the stage, became the first 'superstar' of Malayalam cinema after the success of the film. But this success had also an adverse effect on Malayalam cinema. Films that were produced after Jeevithanouka were made according to this success formula, and nothing creative was seen for a long time. Superstars took over the driver's seat and directors were forced to the background.

Neelakuyil - 1954
(The Blue Cuckoo)

Through Neelakuyil Malayalam cinema for the first time had an authentic Malayalam story. The story for Neelakuyil was penned by renowned Malayalam writer Uroob and directed by the duo of P Bhaskaran and Ramu Karyat. This melodramatic film dealt with the issue of untouchability in the society. Satyan and Miss Kumari were elevated to stardom after the huge success of this film. Malayalam film music till then were cheap imitations of Hindi and Tamil film music, also came up with original Malayalam tunes through this film. The lyrics written by P Bhaskaran were arranged by K Rghavan, influenced by Malayalam folk music, which became popular among the masses. This was also the first Malayalam film to be shot outdoors. Neelakuyil announced the presence of Malayalam cinema in Indian film arena.

Newspaper Boy - 1955

Newspaper Boy (1955) was the reflection of neo-realism in cinema, which became popular all over the world. This film was a result of extreme hard work by a group of college students. Newspaper Boy was directed by P Ramadas, who was totally new to cinema and almost all technical works were handled by amateur students. This film was distributed some months before Satyajith Ray's Pather Panchali came out. This film narrated the sad story of a printing press employee and his family reeling through poverty. He dies of extreme poverty and illness, which forces his children to stop their education. His elder son Appu leaves to Madras in search of a job. Failing to secure a job there, he returns and decides to take up the job of a newspaper boy.

Towards New Sensibilities

Even though Malayalam cinema right from the first talkie, Balan ventured into social themes instead of cosmetic dramas from Hindu Mythology, like anywhere else in India, they stood far away from social realities. While cinema elsewhere in the world, except India, took big leap forward in devising new cinematic forms making cinema an art form by itself, the Indian filmmakers right from the beginning considered cinema as a platform for combining all the art forms available in India. This was the concept about cinema even among the leading film critics then. Malayalam cinema was no exception in this regard. The first International Film Festival of India held in 1952 opened up the window to a new world of cinema to the Indian filmmakers. For the first time they understood that cinema has advanced much further than the make-belief Hollywood films, which were the only source of foreign films then. Films like Bicycle Thief, which was shown for the first time in India compelled a new generation of filmmakers to take a new path of filmmaking. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali triggered the movement, which was taken up by other new generation filmmakers in Northern India.

Malayalam cinema too took a new path during the mid 1950s towards more down-to-earth social realities, rather than cosmetic social dramas. But this change in sensibility was not due to the effect of world cinema on them, as the Malayalee filmmakers were virtually absent at the film festival. Hence, even though Malayalam cinema became more sensible during the mid 1950s, it had to wait till the mid 1970s, till the new breed of FTII trained filmmakers started filmmaking, for Malayalam cinema to become ‘real cinema’.

In fact, it was the powerful movement that happened in Malayalam literature spearheaded by literary giants like Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai, Viakom Muhammad Basheer and M T Vasudevan Nair and the ‘Library Movement’ which coincided with it became the real factor for this changes in Malayalam cinema. Also the strong presence of playwrights like N Krishna Pillai, C J Thomas, C N Shreekhantan Nair, G Shankara Pillai and K T Muhammad opened up new vistas in the field of stage plays. Dramas of Thoppil Bhasi like Ningalanne Communist Aakki, Survey Kallu and Mudiayanaya Puthran created ripples in the society. Malayalam cinema, which followed these footsteps but couldn’t create its own cinematic form and remained as novels and dramas.

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