The three MT screenplays that stand out for their rebellious treatment of human life and its myriad concerns.
Film: Vithukal (Seeds), 1971
Cast: Madhu, Sheela, Sankaradi, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, K.P Ummer, Sukumari, Adoor Bhasi
Director: P Bhaskaran
After the mixed bag that was Nizhalattam, a lot was expected from the next MT vehicle. He goes back to the Nair milieu that he knows more than most. And scripts a tale of hardship and love and the lack of it.
Achuthan Nair (Sankaradi) is the head of a relatively well-to-do Nair family. His two elder sons Raghavan (N Govindankutty) and Chandran (Ummer) are both employed. His daughter Ammini (Ponnamma) is at home, while his youngest son Unnikrishnan (Madhu) is a graduate who is revolutionary who is interested in literature, but is unable to land a good job.
Kerala has been the most literate state in India for decades. The movie calls out the negative side of that achievement. Highly educated young men unable to find employment. As a principled man, Unnikrishnan wants to protest against some of the social ills he sees around. Unfortunately, his financial situation is dire. This conundrum continues even as he works in a small newspaper.
Despite some hard-hitting, yet melodious songs, and some standalone poems, Vithukal is pretty realistic and bleak. It was not meant to be an entertainer. So much so that the hopeful ending comes as a surprise. The train and tracks are used as a recurring motif throughout the movie. The title is a pretty straight-forward ode to offspring and how they will always be judged against their parents.
The performances are low on theatrics. While Madhu is the hero, it is the supporting cast that really shines. A special shout-out to Sankaradi. My generation and later only knew him as comic relief. I am stunned at how good he was at emoting. Sheela and Madhu were the famous star-crossed lovers in the masterpiece Chemmeen. They do not set the world on fire here. They are not meant to.
Film: Kuttyedathi (Kutty, the Elder Sister), 1971
Cast: Kuttyedathi Vilasini, Jayabharathi, Sathyan, SP Pillai, Philomena, Kuthiravattam Pappu
Director: PN Menon
We often hear about how one role sometimes typecasts an actor for the rest of his or her career. At other times, the audience continues to associate one role with an actor even after many years. I heard the name Kuttyedathi Vilasini way before I saw her in a movie. I never thought to question where the name came from. I had seen her in many movies during my childhood and could easily identify her. . It was many years later that I realised Kuttyedathi was actually a movie, and not an affectionate nickname.
Malu (Vilasini) lived with her mother (Philomena), younger sister Janu (Jayabharathi), her aunt (Shantha Devi) and young cousin Vasu (Sathyajith). She was the proverbial ugly duckling, while her sister was the swan. The lack of traditional good looks affected her and her relationship with others. Whenever someone would come to ‘see’ her for an arranged marriage, they would end up preferring her younger sister. The proposal would then go away as it was unheard to get the younger daughter married off first. Appunni (Sathyan), a lower caste labourer was the only one who would stop to talk with her whenever she passed by, even though he usually got a brief and sharp retort for his trouble.
In the guise of a commentary on how society views superficial beauty, MT manages to bring a small caste conflict, something that was not publicly called out in movies those days. Caste plays a big, ugly role in Indian life. Kerala was not an exception. But bringing it out in the open was something of an achievement. MT chooses to do it subtly, putting the spotlight firmly on Vilasini and not the inter-caste relationship.
Vilasini gives her all in a fascinating performance. She embraces Kuttyedathi, warts and all. In fact, an actual wart plays a rather important plot point. I doubt she has had another role such as this. Sathyan and Jayabharathi, to their eternal credit, do not take away the spotlight but put in understated performances to support Vilasini.
Director PN Menon embraces realism and directs at his own pace. There are multiple folk arts that are showcased at various critical points in the story. MT, adapting his short story, keeps the dialogues to a minimum. The visuals are powerful. Despite the print having disintegrated over the years, you sense that the makers wanted to ensure every shot counted.
If I have a bone to pick it would be a strange one. During a conflict, where Appunni faces off against many adversaries, he goes and slaps the one person who is from a lower caste. It is intentional. Whether it is the fear of the audience rioting, or the public opinion being against them or something more sinister, we don’t know. But that rang a very false note, for me.
Film: Nirmalyam (Remains), 1973
Cast: PJ Anthony, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Ravi Menon, Sumithra, Sukumaran, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair
Director: MT Vasudevan Nair
Nirmalyam means the removal of flowers and offerings. In temples, the idols of gods and goddesses are bathed and adorned with flowers, oils, incense sticks and powders. This is a daily ritual. Before this is done, the temple priest needs to remove the previous day’s offerings. The flowers would have withered away and the oil dried up.
The priest would start cleaning up and getting the deity ready for the believers to offer their prayers. This is also a very special occasion for the priest. He is the first one to have a darshan of the god or goddess that day. At the same time, it is the reverence for the new day and the removal of decay from the previous day.
The velichappadu is like an oracle. The deity is said to speak through him. During special occasions, he builds himself up to religious fervour and dances before the god or goddess. This is also quite dangerous because he dances with a ceremonial sword and often draws blood from his own forehead.
The velichapadu (Anthony) and the temple he is associated with have fallen on to hard times. The temple and its surroundings have fallen into disrepair. Neither the rich benefactor (Kottarakkara) nor the other villagers who are in the vicinity are interested in its upkeep. The velichapadu lives in abject poverty with his wife Narayani (Ponnamma), eldest son Appu (Sukumaran), elder daughter Ammini (Sumithra), two young daughters and his bed-ridden father, the Velichapadu before him.
The velichapadu struggles to get three square meals for his family, but his faith remains strong. Appu is unemployed and spends his day’s gambling. A new priest (Menon) comes to take charge of the temple. The young man is helped by Ammini. A romance blooms, despite the obvious caste differences.
Smallpox rears its deadly head. The velichapadu takes it as a sign of the goddess being displeased. He puts his heart and soul into convincing the villagers to conduct a ritual at the temple. Unbeknownst to him, a series of events are happening with various members of his family.
MT adapted one of his short stories for his directorial debut. He highlights the decay of a way of culture through the disintegration of a family. Despite the short subject, the screenplay is among the tautest MT has written. The pace is measured, and the various plot points come together to one end or another. A special call-out should go to Ramachandra Babu’s cinematography. The way his camera soaks up the sad remnants of a once-proud temple stand out. With the exception of a madman, the characterisation is perfect. I have not seen anyone like these characters, but I can feel they are authentic. The only villain is fate.
Of course, the characters are only as good as the actors playing them. PJ Anthony is content to be just another player for three-quarters of the movie. Then he towers above everyone else in the last part. What was supposed to be a bombastic role instead turns a masterclass in underplaying. For recent generations, PJ Antony was the answer to a trivia question – the first Malayali actor to win the National Award for Best Actor. Through this series, I am discovering what a master he was, of his craft.
Ponnamma, Sukumaran, Sumithra, Sankaradi and even Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair provide able support. Ravi Menon, often considered the Poor Man’s Madhu, makes an assured Malayalam debut.
Nirmalyam has a lot to tell us, but it never seems like preaching. The passing of time and its effect on culture is touched on, but we do not wallow in nostalgia. Faith is questioned, but dispassionately. Helplessness is not glamourised, it is acknowledged. Like the title, it stands at the crossroads of the old and the new. And it appreciates the two.
MT took to direction like he was born to it. All the more surprising that he has so few directing credits. Maybe he was experimenting, or he got more satisfaction from writing. I am just glad we didn’t have to choose between MT the writer and the director.
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Read Part 1 & 2 of the series here.