According to the records available, around 1,330 silent films were produced in India between 1912 and 1934. But only a handful of them exist now. Only two silent films were produced in Malayalam. These films had scripts and the artistes even delivered dialogues. Important dialogues were shown as inter-titles in respective languages.
Vigathakumaran (1928) and Marthanda Varma (1931) were the two silent films produced in Malayalam.
Marthanda Varma was based on the Malayalam novel of the same title written by C.V. Raman Pillai and first published in 1891. The novel effectively launched the prose tradition in the language. It was first of a series by the author (followed by Dharmaraja: 1913, Ramaraja Bahadur: 1920) dealing with Travancore’s royalty.
The novel recounts the adventures of Marthanda Varma (1706-1758), the crown prince of the State of Travancore; on how he eliminates his rivals one after one, to ascend to the throne of Travancore.
The film was produced by R Sunder Raj under the banner of Sree Rajeswari Films. The director P. V. Rao wrote the script and dialogues. It was shot at locations in Trivandrum, Nagercoil etc.
Amateur artistes, along with actors and actresses from the stage, acted in the film. Jayadevan (real name Andy) A. V. P. Menon, A.P. Krishna Menon, Sunderraj, Devaki Bai, Padmini (real name Pattammal) etc. were the artistes cast in the important roles.
The producer of the film failed to obtain the film rights of the novel which remained with the Kamalalayam Book Depot, the publishers. The film was completed in 1931. Consequently, Kamalalayam Book Depot took possession of the print on the strength of a court order. The film was released only after the trial of the case and by then ‘talkie films’ or sound films were in vogue.
According to details available, the film was released on May 12, 1933. Marthanda Varma was a disaster at the box office and the producer became bankrupt. The Indian Copy Right Act, the first legislation of its kind, was passed in 1914.
According to available records, the case related to this film was the first of its kind in Indian Cinema. No footage of Vigathakumaran, the first feature film (silent) is available now.
The print of Marthanda Varma was also missing for a long time. In 1974, a print was located in an abandoned room in Xaviers Lodge (near the Secretariat; opposite YMCA, Trivandrum) and taken over by National Film Archives of India. Once, this building was the main office of Kamalalayam Book Depot.
The length of the original print was 11,905 feet. A part of the available print was damaged and the salvaged copy is of 7,915 feet.
The story pivots round the royal family of Travancore. The power struggle between Marthanda Varma (Jayadevan) and the Ettuveettil Pillamar, the Nair feudal lords who tried to assassinate the would-be king of Travancore, forms the main plot. According to the matriarchal tradition followed in the State, Marthanda Varma was the legal heir to the throne. But the king’s sons, with the support of the Ettuveettil Pillamar laid several traps and attempted to assassinate Marthanda Varma. A brave warrior Ananthapadmanabhan (A. V. P. Menon) protects and saves Marthanda Varma from the enemies on several occasions. The love between Parukutty (Padmini) and Ananthapadmanabhan provides the romantic thread. Ananthapadmanabhan’s sister Subhadra (Devaki Bai) supports Marthanda Varma by bringing to his notice secret plans of his enemies to assassinate him. Marthanda Varma comes to the reign suppressing all his enemies.
The film opens with a footage of the famous Aaraattu festival procession of the Travancore Maharaja Chitra Tirunal before moving to the story of his ancestor Marthanda Varma. Scenes from Marthanda Varma’s youth are intercut with episodes from the novel. The Malayalam inter-titles, taken from the novel, are translated into English.
Will be remembered: As the second feature film (silent) in Malayalam, as the first Malayalam film based on a novel and because it is the earliest Malayalam feature film now available.