Music and a messageKamal Haasan and Lakshmi in a scene from the film
Prabhat Films, pioneers in Indian cinema, produced films with unusual themes. V. Shantaram’s Amrit Manthan (1934) talked about human and animal sacrifice, and Vishram Bedekar’s Lakharani (1945) that supported inter-tribal marriages were two such films from Prabhat. Ponni , released on September 3, 1976, was an unusual Malayalam film in that it portrayed on screen the life of adivasis or tribals of Attappadi. The film was based on a novel of the same title written by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, first published in 1967. The novel was supposed to have been inspired by real life incidents at Attappadi, which the writer came across when he was posted as Sub-Collector, Ottappalam Revenue Sub-Division during 1959-1961.
Thoppil Bhasi, who directed the film, also wrote the script and dialogues. The dialogues, a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam with a smattering of Kannada was impressive. Produced by M.O. Joseph for Manjilas, the film was shot in forest areas of Palakkad and at Satya, Gemini, AVM, and Karpakam Studios. Balu Mahendra’s cinematography was outstanding and so too the editing of M.S. Mani. The dances choreographed by E. Madhavan were in sync with the adivasi folk traditions. And G. Devarajan made effective use of folk tunes for the songs.
The film opens with an Independence Day celebrations organised by the Sub-Collector (Janardanan) of the area and the participation of various tribal groups of the region. Ponni (Lakshmi) belonging to the Mudhuga tribe and Maran (Kamal Haasan) belonging to the Irula tribe who danced on the day are introduced to each other by the Sub-Collector. Ponni and Maran fall in love at the first sight even as they willingly pose for the media.
These two tribes are rivals, who follow separate faiths and traditions. The Independence Day photograph of Ponni and Maran are published in the newspapers next day. Chellan (Soman), a Mudhuga, is in love with Ponni, but she dislikes him. Ponni’s friend Maashi (Rajakumari) loves Chellan.
Tension and strained relations in the Mudhuga tribes is cleverly exploited by the landlords of the area. The tribals practice the ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation method, which is resented by the landlords who needed the tribals as cheap labour. Ponni revolts against the attempts of the landlords to hamper their traditional agricultural activities. Maran also stands by Ponni.
The Ponni-Maran love affair is met with widespread animosity and opposition. News is spread that the mountain god and the powers of Nature will not be pleased with the inter-tribe relationship.
Hanuman (Paravur Bharathan), an tool in the hands of the landlords. He works for them against the tribals. The tribal chief (Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai) warns the Mudhugas that their settlement will be destroyed by natural calamities if Ponni marries Maran and she is banned from meeting Maran. Meanwhile, Ponni’s father Nanjan (Sankaradi) decides to marry her to Chellan. The police arrest Maran on false charges of holding firearms without a licence. Ponni meets the Sub-Collector and pleads with him to save Maran and manages to get him freed.
The Mudhuga priest Bomman (Adoor Bhasi), through the influence of the landlords and Hanuman, set a trap to kill Ponni. And Bomman makes a prediction that the tribal settlement will soon be destroyed by the anger of Jakkamma, the mountain goddess. Pretending to be possessed by the goddess, Bomman demands human sacrifice to appease the powers and save the tribe. Ponni is chosen for the sacrifice and arrangements are made for the ritual. Maran and Chellan reach the spot in time and save Ponni. The film draws to a happy ending, Maran and Chellan marrying Ponni and Mashi respectively.
In the novel, Ponni dies in an avalanche. The film deviates with a scene where the tribals vow to stop human sacrifice and encourage inter-tribe marriage, thereby given it a very positive twist.
Kamal Haasan and Adoor Bhasi excelled in their roles. The comic scenes involving Bahadur and Kunjan (as the Village Officer and his Assistant) created moments of riotous laughter.
The songs written by P.Bhaskaran and set to tune by Devarajan were all hits. Markazhiyil mallika poothaal … (K.J. Yesudas), Maamaramo poomaramo …. (P. Madhuri), Maattupongal makarappongal…(P. Jayachandran, P. Leela, Madhuri and chorus), Singarappenninte …. (Leela- Madhuri), Neeraattu Pongal neeraattu …(P.Susheela and chorus) have stood the test of time.
Will be remembered : As a film against social evils like animal and human sacrifice; for its music, especially for the song Margazhiyil mallika …
Valarthumrugangal, released on May 29, 1981, was based on a short story of the same title written by M.T. Vasudevan Nair which was first published in December, 1954. The story also won an award in a national-level competition conducted the magazine where it was published. In an interview the author had stated that the story was written after watching a circus show at Palakkad and understanding the hardships faced by the artistes. The film portrays the bitter side of life in a circus camp. Humans are just valarthumrugangal or pet animals, treated worse than the animals in a circus.
Produced by K.C. Joy for Priyadarshini Movies, and directed by Hariharan, the script, dialogues and songs were by M.T. Vasudevan Nair. Mention also should be made of Mehli Irani’s cinematography and editing by G. Venkitaraman.
Circus was the main theme of many earlier films like S.S. Vasan’s Tamil-Hindi bilingualChandralekha (1948), P.Bhaskaran’s Malayalam film Nair Pidicha Pulivaal (1958), and Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970). But none of these films trained the camera on the lives of the circus artistes. Probably, Valarthumrugangalwas first film to do this.
Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, popular Tamil actor Nagesh, K.P. Ummer, Sukumaran, Ratheesh, Nandita Bose, Madhavi played important roles in the film. The music composed by M.B. Sreenivasan was impressive.
Kumaran (Balan K. Nair) the owner of a circus company was virtually thrown to the streets when his company was destroyed in a cyclone while performing in Nasik. He now earns a living by performing on the streets. Grand Malabar Circus, owned by Madhavan (Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair), who once worked with Kumaran in a circus company, sets up camp in the city where Kumaran now performs. Some members of Kumaran’s group, Nanu (Nagesh), Lakshmi (Nandita Bose), Janu (Madhavi) and Chandran (Ratheesh) join Grand Malabar Circus.
Janu and Chandran were children when they joined the Circus company. Lakshmi was degraded as a “helper” when she crossed her youth. Janu became an efficient trapeze artist and became the “Star” of the Circus Company. Madhavan’s nephew Gopi (K P Ummer) takes charge of the Circus Company when Madhavan leaves to the native place. Lakshmi dies of prolonged illness and lack of proper medical care. Kumaran and Nanu leaves the Circus Company unable to withstand the discrimination and humiliation by the management.
One day Gopi attempts to molest Janu . Chandran saves Janu and Gopi is beaten by him severely. Chandran is dismissed from the job and he leaves the Company. Chandran who was in love with Janu invites her to accompany him, but she stays back.
The newly joined Bike rider Bhaskaran (Sukumaran) is fascinated by Janu and slowly she falls in love with him. He raises voice against exploitation of the artists in the Company and fights for better work conditions. But the fate was cruel. Bhaskaran dies in a simulated accident while performing “Jeep Jump” in the Circus show . Janu becomes “helpless” , nobody to support her, protect her . Unable to resist, she surrenders to Gopi’s desires. Chandran comes back to take her with him. Janu who is “spoiled” now, refuses to go with Chandran who was once her sincere lover. Janu loses her mental balance. She falls down from the trapeze while performing the show and breaks her arm . Janu who was once the “Star” performer of the Circus Company is now degraded as “Helper” since she is unable to perform. Janu leaves the Circus Company. She joins the ‘Street Circus “ that Kumaran and Nanu were performing in the streets.
Madhavi, Balan K Nair and Nagesh excelled in their roles. Madhavi won the Kerala State Film award for the best supporting actress. The film dispensed with usual hilarious comedy scenes. The bleak melodrama failed at the box office.
This is one and the only film for which M T Vasudevan Nair wrote songs. M B Sreeenivasan composed music. “Kaakkaalan Kaliyachan…. “ (Yesudas) and “ Shubha Rathri Shubha Rathri….. “ (Yesudas) became popular. Other hits include “ OrumuriKannadiyilonnu…. “ (Janaki) and “ Karmathin Paathakal… “ (Yesudas).
A realistic story of the life in a circus camp.
One and the only film for which M T Vasudevan Nair wrote songs.
Kerala State Film Award for the best supporting actress (Madhavi).