‘Nalla Thanka' is considered as the first ‘Mega Hit' in Malayalam cinema. The film introduced legends like music director V. Dakshinamoorthy, and stalwarts of musical opera like Augustine Joseph and Vaikom Mani to tinsel world. The film also introduced comic actor S. P. Pillai and actress Miss Omana (real name N J Mary) to Malayalam cinema.
Early Malayalam cinema saw the entry of several popular stage artistes. Playback singing was not very popular and the singing stars from musical opera were preferred by film producers and directors. With the advent and popularity of cinema, ‘sangeeta natakam' began losing its prominence. Augustine Joseph and Manikuttan Nair, popularly known as Vaikom Mani, were two such singing stars who entered films through this film.
Augustine Joseph who formed the Udaya Kerala Natana Kala Samithi based in Kochi was noted for his Biblical, mythological and historical characters on stage. He was gifted with a melodious voice and was proficient in Carnatic music. The handsome actor's talents made him one of the most popular stars of musical opera. He also acted in the lead role in the Malayalam film ‘Velakkaran' (1953) and then went back to musical operas, never to come back to films again.
Vaikom Mani began acting from the age of 14. His singing and acting talents were recognised by Tamil cinema. He went on to act in films like ‘Daana Shoora Karnan' (1940), ‘Dharma Veeran' (1941) and ‘Krishnapidaaran' (1942). Songs sung by Vaikom Mani in the film ‘Dharma Veeran' turned big hits. Lyricist Sreekumaran Thampi is his son-in-law.
Music director V Dakshinamoorthy, who made his debut in this film, composed tunes for this venture along with Rama Rao, a noted Telugu music director. Most of the songs of ‘Nalla Thanka' were based on Carnatic ragas.
The legend of Nalla Thanka (‘Nalla Thankal' in Tamil) is based on a popular Tamil folk tale. The story was staged as musical operas in Tamil by some very popular drama troupes. These musical operas were very popular in Kerala. The mass appeal for these Tamil plays must have prompted the Malayalam version of a stage play.
The Malayalam musical opera ‘Nalla Thanka,' authored by Vaidyaratnam P. S. Varier, for the troupe Kottakkal Paramasiva Vilasam' became very popular.
The success of the Malayalam opera paved the way for the screen version. K. V. Koshy and Kunchacko, founders of Udaya Studios, went for the screen version of the story. The two Tamil film versions based on the legend of ‘Nalla Thangal' released in 1935 were not successful. But the Malayalam version titled ‘Nalla Thanka' created new records at the box office.
This was the second film produced at the Udaya Studios, the first being ‘Vellinakshathram' (1949) that failed at the box office.
The script and dialogues written by Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai followed the stage play with just minor changes. The camera was handled by A. Shanmugham and P. K. Madhavan Nair. The film was directed by P. V. Krishna Iyer.
Nalla Thanka (Miss Kumari), the only sister of Nallannan (Augustine Joseph), the King of Madhurapuri, is wedded to Somanathan (Vaikom Mani), the king of the neighbouring kingdom Ratnapuri. Alankari (Miss Omana), the wicked wife of Nallannan becomes envious of the prosperity of Ratnapuri and the happy married life of Nalla Thanka. Years pass and Nalla Thanka gives birth to seven children.
Drought strikes Ratnapuri and severe famine follows. Nalla Thanka leaves Ratnapuri with her children to seek the help of her kind brother. Nallannan promises all help. Alankari tortures Nalla Thanka. Nalla Thanka hides the misdeeds of Alankari from Nallannan as she does not want their family life to be disturbed.
Out of shame and grief, Nalla Thanka leaves her brother's palace. She decides to kill herself and her children. Nalla Thanka prays to Lord Shiva to forgive her for the decision. She throws her children one by one into a well. Lord Shiva descends and saves her life. All the children are brought back to life.
Nallannan comes to know about the misdeeds and cruelty of Alankari and she is banished from the country. Ratnapuri regains its glory. Nalla Thanka and Somanathan live happily with their children.
The performances of Augustine Joseph, Vaikom Mani, Miss Kumari and Miss Oamana were impressive. In fact, Miss Omana's character became so popular that the name Alankari became a synonym for a wicked woman. The special effect scenes was another highlight.
Music composed by Dakshinamoorthy was another highpoint. The songs were not free from the prevailing trend of imitations. There were 14 songs, written by Abhayadev.
The romantic duet sung by Vaikom Mani and P Leela, ‘Imbamerum ithalaakum mizhikalal...' was a direct copy of the Telugu song ‘Poovu cheri...' sung by Ghantasala and G. Varalakshmi from the Telugu film ‘Drohi' (1948. Music: Pendyala). The chorus sung by Augustine Joseph, Mani and Leela, ‘Manoharamee rajyam...' was a copy of the Mohamed Rafi-Noor Jehan duet ‘Yahan badla wafa ka ...' from the Hindi film ‘Jugnu' (1949. Music: Phiroze Nizami).
The solo sung by Ms. Kuruvila, ‘Pathiye deivam, deivame pathiye...' owes its tune to the Telugu number, ‘Premamayamee jeevithamu...' sung by Nagiah and Sabu from the film ‘Sumangali' (1940. Music: Nagiah).
In spite of being imitations all these songs became hits. The Vaikom Mani- Leela romantic duet became an evergreen number in this genre.
The lullaby by Leela, ‘Amma than premasoubhagya...' is considered as the first popular lullaby in Malayalam cinema. Other hits from the film included ‘Sodara bandham athonne...' (Augustine Joseph), ‘Anandamaanake...' (Augustine Joseph & chorus) etc. A prayer song ‘Shambho njaan...' (P Leela) was composed as a ragamalika.
Will be remembered: As the debut film of music director V. Dakshinamoorthy, actors Augustine Joseph, Vaikom Mani, S. P. Pillai and actress Miss Omana, and cinematographer P. K. Madhavan Nair. And as the first mega hit in Malayalam cinema and for its good music.