Sindooracheppu, released on November 26, 1971, was the first Malayalam film that featured an elephant and a mahout as its main characters. And not surprisingly, the film was a huge hit.
The Tamil film Yaanaippaakan (1960) had a mahout as its central character. This film, as well as its Hindi dubbed version Mahout (1961), also succeeded at the box office. But these films did not portray the true life of a mahout. Sindooracheppu was a realistic presentation of a mahout’s life and his emotional bond with the animal.
Directed by actor Madhu, the film was produced by noted lyricist-poet Yusuf Ali Kecheri, who also wrote the story, script, and dialogues. Produced under the banner of Anjana, the film was shot at AVM, Prakash and Venus Studios.
The rich Kerala landscape and folklore formed its backdrop. The outdoor scenes were canned at Deshamangalam Mana (a traditional mansion of Namboodiri Brahmins) and Cheruthuruthy village, located on the banks of the Bharathapuzha River.
Cinematography, which was by Martin Aloysius, Vasanth B.N. and Benjamin, supervised and controlled by noted cameraman U. Rajagopal, was outstanding. Editing by G.Venkitaraman, art direction by Konnanat, and music by G. Devarajan were the other highpoints of the film.
Madhu, Sankaradi, Muthiah, Premji, Jayabharathi, Prema etc. essayed important roles.
But the star of this somewhat violent film was the elephant Gopi. The elephant behaves and even thinks like a human, like his mahout, rebelling against ill-treatment and injustice. Some of the ‘star elephants’ of the time, such as Vishwakumar of Periyanampatta Devaswom, Lucky, owned by Bharat Circus and Ramachandran of Guruvayoor Devaswom, have been featured in this film.
The story revolves around an elephant and its mahout. Sankaran Nair (Sankaradi) is a mahout who lives in a remote village with his daughter Ammalu ( Jayabharathi) and wife (Prema). Sankaran is appointed as mahout of Gopi by its owner Namboodiri (Premji), a rich landlord. The village soothsayer, Kaniyan (JAR Anand) foretells that Gopi will kill three people. This prophecy instils fear in Ammalu’s mind. As a child she even attempts to kill Gopi by putting ants into his trunk.
Once, Sankaran in a drunken state annoys Gopi. He changes Gopi’s position in a temple procession allowing another mahout to place the thidambu (idol of the deity) on the top of his elephant. Humiliated, Gopi goes wild and kills two mahouts. The police team that arrives on the scene decides to shoot down Gopi. Kesavan, a wandering mahout, reaches the place and saves Gopi’s life by calming him down. Kesavan is appointed as Gopi’s mahout, and Sankaran as his assistant.
Ammalu falls in love with Kesavan and they decide to marry. Sankaran is dismissed from service by the landlord when he finds out he had been ill-treating Gopi. Sankaran turns against Kesavan. He decides to marry Ammalu to another person. Ammalu believes that Gopi was the cause for all her sorrow and bad luck. She attempts to kill Gopi once again. This time Gopi reacts and tramples Ammalu to death. Kesavan leaves the village throwing the mahout’s hook into the river, symbolic of giving up his profession in protest against cruelty to elephants.
Some of the scenes and the minor characters closely resembled those in Thomas Hardy’s novels. The village barber (Thodupuzha Radhakrishnan), tea shop owner (Bahadur) and the mad woman (Philomina) are examples.
The songs, written by Yusuf Ali Kecheri and composed by Devarajan, were well received. Some of them like Omalaale kandoo njaan (K.J. Yesudas), Ponnil kulicha raathri (Yesudas), and Thambraan thoduthathu (P.Madhuri) turned huge hits. The other popular songs included Thanneeril viriyum thamarappoo (Yesudas) and Mandachaare mottathalaya (Madhuri-Susheela Devi).
Will be remembered: As the first Malayalam film with an elephant and its mahout as main characters and for its excellent music.