Monday, September 21, 2009

Nirmala (1948)

Playback singing in Malayalam films was introduced with this film

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.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Balan (1938 )

K K Aroor, Master Madanagopal, M V Shanku, K Gopinath, Alleppey Vincent, C O N Nambiar, M K Kamalam, K N Lakshmi, Baby Malathi etc.

Pathbreaking effort A scene from Balan, the first Malayalam talkie

The first film with sound (talkie) in Malayalam ‘Balan’ should have been the first film, chronologically, to be featured in this column. Released on January 19, 1938, this film had a social theme unlike the earlier films with sound in the other South Indian languages, which chose episodes either from history or mythology. While the first talkie in Tamil ‘Kalidas’ (1931) was based on the life of the poet, ‘Bhakta Markandeya’ (1931) in Telugu and ‘Dhruvakumar’ (1934) in Kannada had mythological themes.

‘Balan’ was produced by T. R. Sundaram at his Modern Theatres in Salem. Fascinated by cinema a Nagercoil man A. Sundaram reached Madras with a dream of making a sound film in Malayalam. The story of this film ‘Vidhiyum Mrs. Nayarum’ was authored by him. Sundaram met T. R. Sundaram who advised him to approach the cinema theatre owners in Kerala to mobilise funds for production. This idea clicked. An advertisement appeared in leading news papers inviting artists to act in the film. The shooting of the film started on August 17, 1937, at Modern Theatres. A. Sundaram abandoned the project due to some dispute. T. R. Sundaram took over and completed the film.

The film was directed by Shewakram Nottani, popularly known as S. Nottani. Dialogues and songs were penned by Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai. Music was composed by Ibrahim, and K. K. Aroor, who also played the lead in the film.

The story features the struggle of two orphaned children, oppressed and exploited by an evil stepmother. The film was a stereotype of the themes of early Indian cinema, particularly South Indian cinema.

Balan (Master Madanagopal) and Sarasa (Baby Malathi), are children of Dr. Govindan Nair (M. V. Shanku) by his first wife. Meenakshi (K. N. Lakshmi), the second wife, tortures Balan and Sarasa. She even hatches a plot to kill them and take over the entire wealth of Nair. Meenakshi is severely punished by Nair when he comes to know of her motives. Nair dies of heart attack. Meenakshi marries a wicked city wastrel Kittu Panicker (K. Gopinath). Balan and Sarasa flee from home as a result.

Barrister Prabhakara Menon (C. O. N. Nambiar) gives refuge to Balan and Sarasa and brings them up as his own children. In the will executed by Nair before his death, all his wealth is assigned to Meenakshi on condition that she take care of his children.

When Meenakshi and Kittu Panicker come to know about the stipulations in the will, they trace out the children. Kittu Panicker kidnaps the children from Prabhakara Menon’s home. Shanku (Alleppey Vincent) comes to know about the plans of Meenakshi and Kittu Panciker and rescues the children. He uses them in street shows. Balan and Sarasa escape from Shanku. Sarasa is taken away by a labour contractor while Balan is asleep. She is forced to work in an estate. Sarasa (M. K. Kamalam) grows up here. Balan (K. K. Aroor) also reaches the same estate as a labourer.

This estate is owned by Barrister Prabhakara Menon.

Prabhakara Menon identifies Balan and Sarasa. Balan traces out the will executed by his father and Prabhakara Menon files suit against Meenakshi. She is tried by the court of law and punished. A furious Meenakshi shoots Prabhakara Menon, but the bullet from the pistol takes the life of Balan who jumps in between to save Menon. Menon marries Sarasa. They name their son, Balan. The film ends with Menon, and Sarasa paying homage at the tomb of Balan.

‘Balan’ was a huge hit. The splendid sets, camera by the German cinematographer Bado Gushwalker, sound recording by Ishwar Singh and editing by Varghese were good. All the artists who performed in the film were new to this medium. The acting was not natural, and resembled more of a stage play.

Compared to Tamil sound film, ‘Kalidas’ the Malayalam film is regarded much better by film critics. ‘Balan’ had an original script and dialogues in Malayalam, whereas in ‘Kalidas’, the artists spoke in their own mother tongue deviating from the original script and dialogues. The different characters spoke in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi!

It is quite sad that not even a single frame from the footage of this first Malayalam sound film is available now. What is left of this film are a few stills from the film and the songs book.

There were 24 songs in the film. Most of them followed popular Hindi and Tamil film tunes of the time. Gramophone records of the songs were not produced. The most popular song was a solo by M. K. Kamalam ‘Jaathaka doshathale...’ It was a direct copy of the solo by M. K. Radha from the Tamil film ‘Sathi Leelavathi’ (1936). ‘Theyila thottathle...,’ the Tamil song based on Chenjurutti raga became so popular that it was later sung by Carnatic musicians in concerts.

Will be remembered: This film will be remembered as the first talkie in Malayalam.