The fourth talkie in Malayalam, ‘Nirmala’ introduced playback singing to Malayalam cinema. The singing heroes and heroines of Malayalam cinema, who had cut their teeth in musical operas returned to the stage. They found theatre much more beneficial as a career than cinema, which at that time was made on shoe-string budgets.
It was during such a phase that playback singing was brought into Malayalam cinema. ‘Nirmala’ provided a perfect start to a technique that soon became an integral part of cinema.
Playback singing was introduced in Indian cinema by ‘New Theatres’ in the bilingual film ‘Dhoop Chaon’ (Hindi) and ‘Bhagya Chakra (Bengali) in 1935. Suprova Sarkar became the first female playback singer and K. C. Dey, the singing star who acted in the scene in this film sang for himself and for another actor in the sequence, became the first male playback singer. In the South, A. V. Meiyyappa Chettiar introduced playback singing in the mythological Tamil film ‘Nanda Kumar’ (1938). In this film a classical singer, Lalitha Venkatraman and in Telugu M. S. Rama Rao who sang in the film ‘Devata’ (1941) are credited of being the first playback singers in their respective languages.
‘Nirmala’ was produced by Artist P. J. Cherian, one of the pioneers of Malayalam musical opera or sangeeta natakam. Produced under the banner of Kerala Talkies, Cherian got financial support from the members of the Cochin Royal family and the general public. The film was directed by P. V. Krishna Iyer.
It was based on a story penned by M. S. Jacob and dialogues were by Puthezhathu Raman Menon. The songs were by Mahakavi G. Sankara Kurup and set to music by P. S. Divakar, a renowned saxophone player, and E. I. Warrier. The music dispensed with the usual practice of imitating other language film tunes. The technical crew were all experienced professionals like cinematographers J. G. Vijayam and G. Ranganathan, sound recordists K.B.S. Mani and S Padmanabhan, and editor Balu. Despite all this the film failed at the box office.
This film could be considered Cherian’s family project. His son Joseph Cherian was cast as hero, Joseph’s wife and Baby was the heroine. Apart from this his daughters, other relatives and artists from his own drama troupe were part of this film.
The story of the film followed a typical formula often repeated in movies with social themes. This repetition of theme was considered one of the main reasons for the film’s failure.
Produced at Modern Theatres, Salem, there was undue delay in completion. This delay in release also adversely affected the success of the film. It could not be released on the scheduled date, it failed miserably reducing the producer to penury.
The story centres around a fisherman Sankaran who loses his wife struggles to bring up his two daughters Nirmala (Baby Joseph) and Vimala. Sankaran’s sister Kalyani looks after the family. Sankaran meets with an accidental death while on a fishing expedition. Nirmala becomes a fish vendor. But the constant pestering by some city wastrels forces her to stop this only source of living. She then starts a food stall near the house. Time passes.
Vimala grows up as a girl fond of luxuries in life. Her eyes fall on a colourful sari in a nearby shop. On her way home after attending a function Vimala falls into a gutter as she tries to step away from a speeding car.
Vimala develops high fever and in her semi-conscious state murmurs about that sari. Nirmala goes to shop to buy it but is shocked by the high price. In a weak moment she steals the sari but is arrested for the theft. Police Inspector Raghu takes pity on Nirmala when he comes to know of her state. Nirmala is sentenced for one month imprisonment.
At home Vimala’s health worsens. Raghu takes care of her and even gets her the sari she always wanted. Before Nirmala is released, Vimala dies. Raghu falls in love with Nirmala. In the meanwhile, Ms. Rayan, a wealthy woman, appoints Nirmala to teach music to her daughter Lalitha.
Ms. Rayan’s son, Balan, a naval officer, falls for Nirmala and wants to marry her. When he comes to know about Nirmala’s love for Raghu, he withdraws from his intention. He helps to conduct their marriage. Balan marries Sumitra, daughter of Kumar, their family friend. The film ends wishing all newly married couples a happy married life.
Joseph Cherian and Baby Joseph excelled in their rols. All the other main characters were handled with ease by experienced stage artistes.
There were 12 songs in the film. Some of them have stood the test of time. ‘Paaduka poonkuyile kaavu thorum...’ (T. K. Govinda Rao-P.Leela), ‘Arabikkadalile kochurani...’ (Govinda Rao), ‘Neerile kumilapole...’ (Govinda Rao) are still popular. The song ‘Arabikkadalile kochurani...,’ a ragamalika, describes the beauty of Cochin city of yore. ‘Aettan varunna dinamey...’ (Vimala Varma) set in Mohanam raga was a hit of that time. A ‘vanchippattu’ sung by P. K. Raghavan beginning ‘Pacha ratna talika...’ was also very popular. This song is considered the first in that genre.
Govinda Rao and Sarojini Menon, who sang in this film, became the first male and female playback singers in Malayalam.
Will be remembered: As the first Malayalam film to introduce playback singing. First film of singers, T. K. Govinda Rao, P.Leela and Sarojini Menon.
It will also be remembered as the film, the only one, for which the Jnanpith Award winner G Sankara Kurup wrote songs.