Way back in the mid-60’s, Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone transformed spaghetti westerns to such a degree that these movies walked right out of Hollywood and caught the fancy of millions of cine-goers all around the world. It still maintains its chunk of admirers in India – the Texan drawl, the ‘fastest draw’ and a fancy for Louis L’Amour – all of them pointers to the fascination for the sheer effect of incredulity and larger-than-life characters who were progeny of a harsh, unforgiving landscape and glorified the underdog’s tilt at social class windmills.
At about the same time, here in India, a similar genre of film-making took root in Malayalam. The very popular Northern Ballads or Vadakkan Paattukal, mostly passed down the ages by wandering minstrels, became the core plots for a new genre of movies. These film ballads were meant to entice and they did; they were the crudest form of Hollywood Westerns, only that they were in Malayalam, the local lingo. The martial art was Kalaripayattu, an indigenous form that is said to have been the origin behind karate and similar oriental fighting arts. The actors wore funny costumes, in all the bright shades you could conjure up, wearing magisterial wigs of such hues that seemed unbelievable because a Malayali can’t have anything else other than black hair. And the duels were epic in both canvas and popularity. The masses lapped it up.
As expected, this brand of movies catapulted the then galaxy of actors from a human level to hitherto unknown superstar status thus starting a trend that continues to this day. As someone growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, these localized films were meant to be a grand scale vista, a marked departure from the gentle status that had come to be identified with Malayalam cinema.
I remember them, most of them appealing to us, children and adults, who had not grown up on the now ubiquitous Superman/Spiderman phenomena. We needed heroes, capable of extraordinary feats, incredible acts of courage and sacrifice and the packaged ‘mixture’ (native variant of cinematic popcorn) sales just rode higher in those days. Thacholi Ambu was one movie I clearly remember from then. Prem Nazir, all clumsy with his trademark romantic histrionics, was the raging phenomenon. I remember trying to find out what exactly bit me just under my thighs (seats were wooden with a bawdy red rexin-cover which was inevitably torn and infested with bed-bugs) just as Nazir pulled out his sword and scrawled his name on the wall of the palace he sneaked into in the dead of night. This movie also proved big time lucky for Jayan, marking his association with machismo roles, again never before seen in Malayalam cinema.
The only saving grace then was the movie scene where Nazir and Jayan somersaulted over fifteen-feet fortified walls to land on nimble feet with a slight jerk to validate the superhuman effort. The last of these genre was seen sometime in the early 90’s and like the stories on which they were based, they have walked into the mists of time, evoked only now and then by the intermittent call of nostalgia.
Watch Maanathe Mazhamukil Maalakaley picturised on Jaya Bharathi, one of the screen goddesses of the 70’s. This was from the film Kannappanunni, from the Udaya Studio stable, directed by Kunchacko.