Cast: Sathyan, Madhu, Sheela, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Adoor Bhavani, S. P. Pillai, Adoor Pankajam etc.
Cult Classic Sheela with Sathyan, left, and Madhu in the film Chemmeen
‘Chemmeen,' released in 1965, put Malayalam cinema on the national map. The film won the President's Gold Medal for the best film of the year. The film acquired cult status in the history of Malayalam cinema besides being the first South Indian film to win the coveted President's Gold Medal for the best film. The film was released commercially on August 19, 1966.
The film was based on a highly acclaimed Malayalam novel of the same title by the renowned novelist and Jnanapith winner Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. First published in 1956, the novel won the award for the best literary work from Kendra Sahitya Academy in 1957 and was the first Malayalam novel to receive the national honour.
‘Chemmeen' was translated to more than 30 languages which include major Indian languages and foreign languages. The novel was accepted as part of the UNESCO collection of Representative Works - Indian series.
In 1965 Babu Ismail produced the film version of the novel under the banner of Kanmani Films. The story of ‘Chemmeen' is set in a fisherfolk community settled in the southern belt of the coastal area of the state. The highly emotional melodrama told the tragic love story set in the backdrop of a fishing village interlinked with some ancient beliefs that exists among the community.
The Hindi film ‘Nadiya Ke Paar' (1948) produced by Filmstan under the direction of Kishore Sahu, with Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal in the lead roles, was probably the first Indian film that focussed on the life, customs, traditions and beliefs of the fishermen. The Malayalam film ‘Thirakalkkapuram,' was a sequel to ‘Chemmeen.' But this film failed badly at the box office.
‘Chemmeen' was a huge hit. It was one of the earliest colour films made in Malayalam. Besides the National award, the film won a Certificate of Merit at the Chicago Film Festival. The film was screened at the 2005 Brisbane International Film Festival as a part of the retrospective on 50 years of Malayalam Cinema.
The dialogues written by the popular playwright S. L. Puram Sadanandan closely followed the local parlance and slang of the fishermen community, as used by the novelist. Directed by Ramu Kariat, the film was canned by cameramen Marcus Bartley and U. Rajagopal. The editing was by Hrishikesh Mukherji. The superb musical score by Salil Choudhary was another major strength of the film. This was the debut Malayalam film of the composer. The film brought to Malayalam cinema playback singer Manna Dey.
The film included the top acting talents of Malayalam cinema like Sathyan, Madhu, Kottarakkara and Sheela. The theme of the film was based on a myth prevalent among the fishermen communities along oastal Kerala. The myth is about chastity. They believed that if a married fisherwoman loses her chastity while her husband is away at sea, ‘Kadalamma' or the sea goddess would consume him. This myth is perpetuated by the novelist in his novel through a tragic love story. This was adapted for the film quite impressively. Karuthamma (Sheela), the daughter of a fisherman Chembankunju (Kottarakkara) is in love with a fish trader, Pareekutty (Madhu). Chembankunju's only aim in life is to own a boat and net. Pareekutty finances Chembankunju to realise this dream. This is on a condition that the fish caught by Chembankunju will be sold only to him. Karuthamma's mother Chakki (Adoor Bhavani) comes to know about the love affair of her daughter with Pareekutty, who belongs to another religion and warns her to keep away from such a relationship. A fisherwoman has to lead a life within the boundaries of strict social traditions and an affair or marriage with a person of another religion will subject the entire community to the wrath of the sea.
Karuthamma sacrifices her love for Pareekutty and marries Palani (Sathyan), a young fisherman. Karuthamma accompanies her husband to his village. Karuthamma gives birth to a child and she has endeavoured to be a good wife and mother. But the scandal about her love affair with Pareekutty makes her family life unhappy. Although Palani accepts that Karuthamma's affair with Pareekutty did not break the barriers and slip into illegitimate relations, the village does not believe it and Palani is censured.
Chembankunju becomes more greedy and heartless. His dishonesty drives Pareekutty to bankruptcy. Chakki dies of illness and Chembankunju marries Paappikunju (C. R. Rajakumari). On the arrival of her stepmother, Panchami (Lata), Chembankunju's younger daughter leaves home and joins Karuthamma. Chembankunju's savings is manipulated by his second wife. The setbacks in life turns Chembankunju mad. Palani's friends ostracise him and refuse to take him with them for fishing.
One night Karuthamma and Pareekutty meet each other by a stroke of fate and their love is awakened. Palani is alone at the sea and baiting a shark. Caught in a huge whirlpool Palani is swallowed by the sea. The film ends with Pareekutty and Karuthamma found dead, holding their hands, their bodies washed ashore. At a distance lies a baited, dead shark.
The film was dubbed to major Indian languages. Timeless music created by the Vayalar-Salil Choudhary combination was a highpoint. All the four songs became super hits. It is said that Salil Choudhary composed the tunes first and lyrics added in. Manna Dey sang his first Malayalam song, ‘Maanasa mainey varoo...' which was an instant hit. The solo by K. J. Yesudas, ‘Kadalinakkre ponore...' was based on an improvised tune of a very popular Bengali folk song composed by Salil Choudhary ‘Hai hai ki hayrilam...' The chorus led by P. Leela and Yesudas, ‘Pennale pennale ...,' based on a folk tune also became very popular.
Will be remembered: As the first South Indian film to receive the President's Gold Medal. As the debut Malayalam film of music director Salil Choudhary and playback singer Manna Dey.