History of Malayalam Film


By the 1930s, an Indian film industry consisting of films mainly in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu had been established with production centres concentrating in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. But the first silent film in Malayalam Vigata Kumaran _ written, produced and directed by J.C. Daniel _ was screened to the public only in 1930. The next year when the first Indian sound film, Alam Ara was made, Malayalam cinema presented its second silent film, Marthanda Varma based on the well-known historical novel by C.V. Raman Pillai. The producer of the film, Sunder Raj of Nagercoil, did not buy the filming rights from the publishers of the novel, M/s Kamala Book Depot and hence got into a legal hurdle.

The film was never shown publicly until 1974 when the National Film Archives of India negotiated with the copyright owners and restored the print. The film combined with its staged drama, actual newsreel footage of the annual procession of the Maharajah of Tiruvitamkur. Sound films were being made regularly in Hindi and other Indian languages since 1931, but Malayalam cinema had to wait till 1938 to have its first sound feature film, Balan produced by T.R. Sundram of Modern Theatres, Salem. Many unsuccessful attempts had preceded it. Two years would pass before another film, Njanambika directed by Balan's director, S. Nottani, was made. Next year, a mythological, Prahlada was attempted. Most of these early attempts were by Tamilians "whose main inspiration was from the flourishing Tamil Cinema well set in Madras with large studios and experienced technical personnel". Naturally a Tamil atmosphere prevailed in such films.

It was only in 1948 with Kerala Talkies' Nirmala, that a company based in Kerala produced a Malayalam film. Writers like Puthezhath Raman Menon and G. Sankara Kurup collaborated in this effort. In the same year the first major studio, 'Udaya' was set up in Alappuzha by Kunchakko and others, from where a Malayalam film, Vellinakshathram was shot the next year. With studio facility now available in the state, many Keralite producers came forward to make films thereby injecting a certain amount of local writing and acting talent into Malayalam cinema. But the directors and technicians were mostly non- Malayalis trained in and used to a 'Madras-school of film making'. So even when Malayalam writers and artists were involved, the models for these early films were Tamil and Hindi films and the formulae found successful in these films were easily put to use in Malayalam films too.

Starting with Phalke's early mythologicals, Indian film makers thought that stories from our mythologies would appeal to the public. So a number of such films got made. But in Malayalam, there was an interest to touch social issues right from the early days. When Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and English films were regularly shown in those days, it was only occasionally that a Malayalam film was screened to an eager audience.

One of the most popular films of the era was Jeevithanouka (1951) made by Koshy and Kunchakko productions in Udaya studio with a screenplay by Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai. The film by its phenomenal success, heralded the making of a Malayalam film industry. The film contained all the ingredients that were to form the basis for future commercial productions. The structure of the film is more akin to village festivals of Kerala than anything. The film is a mixture of various traditional art forms like music recital, dance, dance-drama, mimicry and so on. Connecting these various disparate elements was a story line which showed the triumph of the good over the evil. Many of these elements would form the commercial formula of future Malayalam productions.

By 1952, another studio 'Merryland' was established near Tiruvanthapuram from where Malayalam films were regularly shot. Although a few of these early movies can be classified as mythologicals, wild life adventure, comedy and so on, a majority of productions were social films vaguely touching aspects of society. The structure of most of these films was predictable, even though story line differed. There would invariable sub-plots or 'inner dramas' in most of the films contributing pretty little to plot development. The style was essentially theatrical with painted backdrops, abundant frontal shots, endlessly speaking characters and music and sound effects running through the entire length of the film. Screenplays were written by writers like Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai (incidentally the first Malayalam screenplay writer) Tikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, N.P. Chellappan Nair, Ponkunnam Varkey, Nagavalli R.S. Kurup, T.N. Gopinathan Nair and others. Occasionally stories were devised by the story department of the production company or adapted from other language films or from other languages. Since a dozen songs were considered necessary in a film, song writers and music directors were in great demand. Lyricists like P. Bhaskaran, Abhayadev, Tirunainarkurichi and Vayalar Rama Varma and music directors like Brother Lakshmanan, Dakshinamurthy, K. Raghavan and Baburaj had a field day.

It was in 1954 that Malayalam cinema got national attention by winning the President's silver medal for Neelakkuyil. Produced by T.K. Parekutty of Chandrathara Pictures, scripted by well-known novelist and short-story writer Uroob and dealing with the subject of untouchability, the film introduced a number of fresh talents like directors; Ramu Kariat and P. Bhaskaran, A. Vincent, cameraman, K. Raghavan, music director and others who were to establish themselves later on. Melodramatic in style and laced with songs and dances, the film was a big hit with the public. It was the team work of a number of film enthusiasts who took time off their professions to live near the banks of the Periyar river in central Kerala discussing the script and other details of the film. There was difficulty in location shooting at that time. Also studio facility was limited in Kerala. In spite of these limitations, they were bent on recreating authentic Kerala setting for the story. Props, household articles, costumes and other cultural artifacts were made and sent to Madras for aiding studio work. Most of the actors hailing from Kerala performed in front of authentically constructed sets with all the manners and mannerisms of Malayali characters found in the story. Even the lyrics were derived from local folk tradition. This was at a time when Malayalam cinema had not established its cultural identity and was hardly distinguishable from the Tamil films of the time, except for the spoken language.

Equally significant and much more unique was the next year's offering, Newspaper boy, made by Adarshakalamandir, the cultural wing of a student organization in Trissoor. It was written and directed by twenty two year old P. Ramadas, probably the youngest film director in Indian film till then.

The only experience Ramadas had in film making was the two films he made in 8 mm and the theoretical knowledge that he gathered. He was assisted by his young colleagues in Adarshakalamandir and the only veteran in the attempt was dialogue-writer Nagavalli R.S. Kurup. The film tried to portray realistically the travails of an orphaned boy, dispensing with romance, considered an essential ingredient in Malayalam film, and taking pains to evoke Kerala atmosphere throughout. It was bolder than Neelakkuyil in its rejection of the elements of the so called box-office formula.

Chandrathara Pictures followed up their first effort with Rarichan Enna Powran in 1956, this time entrusting the full directorial responsibility to P. Bhaskaran. Screenplay writer Uroob successfully adapted characters from the drama troupes of Malabar. P. Baskaran also took care in creating Kerala atmosphere throughout the film and contributed lyrics of local flavour set to music by K. Raghavan.

Chandrathara hired the co-director of Neelakkuyil, Ramu Kariat, for their next production, Mudiyanaya Puthran, an adaptation of Thoppil Bhasi's successful play. The film was remarkable for the histrionic levels reached and the extensive use of location by cameraman A. Vincent.

When one looks at these early developments, one finds that Malayalam cinema had no time to evolve on its own from its silent days. Much of the visual expression in International cinema was possible because silent film had enough time to germinate and grow. But in the case of Malayalam film, sound arrived soon after the two silent films and there was no need for makers to think of communicating through visual means. Everything could be spelt out through dialogues and the artists who came mostly from the stage translated their stage experience into films. Another aspect to be mentioned here is the lack of exposure to international cinema. No matter how sincere and competent the script writer and director were, the ultimate product ended up as photographed drama staged within studio sets (much later in 1967 a stage performance of Indulekha was filmed as it is). In early days, there was a minimum of camera movement. Different episodes were self-contained and they made social comment, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, while attempting to entertain. There were parallel streams of story line going on. All these traits could be found even in films like Neelakkuyil. It appears that there was not much pressure from the audience for a tight narrative. An unhurried, leisurely pace was acceptable for the viewers who enjoyed individual moments of the film more than a satisfying whole, although story was of primary importance. This was understandable especially when cinema was seeking to displace the pastimes of an agrarian society and the best way to do it was by maintaining a close equation to village fairs and festivals.