Prem Nazir, Mohan, Prem Nawaz, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Adoor Bhasi, Bahadur, Jayabharathi, Kanakadurga, Kaviyoor Ponamma, Kaviyoor Ponnamma etc.
Aana Valarthiya Vanampadi (1959), Kaattu Maina (1963), Kaattu Mallika(1966) etc. were some of the Malayalam films that had the jungle as its backdrop. The colour film Nellu, released on August 23, 1974, was the first Malayalam film that portrayed life of the adivasis of the State. The story was centred on Thirunelli village, in Wayanad, and the surrounding jungles.
Nellu was based on an award-winning novel of the same title by P. Valsala which was first published in 1972 and was a bestseller. The novel deals with the customs, manners, beliefs, taboo s and prejudices of the Adiyar tribal community in Wayanad and created a sensation when it was published. Produced by N.P. Ali under the banner of Jammu Films International, the film was shot almost entirely in Thirunelli and the villages around.
The excellent cinematography by Balu Mahendra, who was making his film debut, made Nellu a beautiful, outdoor visual treat. Directed by Ramu Kariat, the script was written jointly by Kariat and K.G. George. The dialogues were by S.L. Puram Sadanandan. Another highpoint of the film was the music by Salil Chaudhary. Latha Mangeshkar made her Malayalam film debut with a song that turned super-hit. Hrishikesh Mukherji and Appa were the editors.
Prem Nazir, Mohan, Prem Nawaz, Adoor Bhasi, Bahadur, Thikkurissi, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Jayabharathi, Kanakadurga, Kaviyoor Ponamma, Adoor Bhavani etc were cast in important roles. An array of popular actors like S.P. Pillai, K.P. Ummer, Innocent, Rani Chandra and Sumithra appeared in guest roles.
On his pilgrimage to Thirunelli temple and to immerse the ashes of his mother in the sacred river Papanashini that flows beside the temple, Raghavan Nair (Prem Nazir) befriends the family of Savithri Warasyar (Kaviyoor Ponnamma), a widow. He stays with the family at her request.
Nair comes across the life of the tribals. Their struggle against Nature, superstitions, the servility and exploitation they put up with, all of this become notes in his diary. The story is narrated through Nair’s observations.
Kurumatti (Kanakadurga), is a tattooist of the tribal community and is married to Chathan (JAR Anand). She tries to seduce Mallan (Mohan), a handsome tribal youth. Chundeli (Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair) who was away from Thirunelli for a long time returns to the village with his wife Pembi (Adoor Bhavani) and daughter Mara (Jayabharathi). Mallan and Mara fall in love with each other. Chundeli and Pembi agree to their marriage.
Kurumatti is upset by this. She spreads rumours that Mara and Mallan belong to same gothra or clan and so, according to the tribal traditions, cannot marry.
The tribal chief (Thikkurissi) imposes a ban on their marriage. Mara runs away with Mallan. The tribal community turns against them and the chief imposes a penalty for their breaking the traditions. Mallan leaves Thirunelli in order to earn money to pay the penalty. Mara stays in a storeroom at Savithri’s house.
Savithri’s younger brother Unnikrishnan (Prem Nawaz) is drawn towards the charming Mara. On a rainy day he rapes Mara and leaves the village. Mallan is afflicted by malaria but reaches the village with the money. He dies of the disease. The tribal chief sentences Mara to be lapidated and driven away from the tribal colony. Raghavan Nair intervenes and promises to keep Mara away from the colony. He requests Savithri help Mara and she accepts the tribal woman as her daughter. The film ends with Raghavan Nair leaving Thirunelli.
Kanakadurga excelled in her very complex role. Adoor Bhasi as the Postman, Ummer as a hunter also impressed. The comic scenes involving them and S.P. Pillai did not distract from the main plot.
Hrishikesh Mukherji won the Kerala State award for the best editor for this film.
The songs written by Vayalar Rama Varma and set to music by Salil Chaudhary turned super hits.Kadali kankadhali… (Latha Mangeshkar), Neelaponmaane … (K.J. Yesudas- P. Madhuri), Kaadu kuliranu… (P. Susheela) and Chembaa chembaa…(Manna Dey, P. Jayachandran & chorus) are still popular.
Will be remembered: As Balu Mahendra’s debut film, for Lata Mangeshkar’s first Malayalam song and for the music.