Harischandra (1955), Malayalam’s first successful mythological film

Harishchandra (1955) - Title MontageAs I mentioned about the timeless relevance of Harishchandra’s story as juicy meat for a film producer, I wonder how it would fare if someone were to make it today, when you have the best of the technical advancements available along with the sensibilities of our times. My guess is that it would fall flat on its face and the Producers know that. Harischandra (1955) was the first mythological film in Malayalam that was successful, prompting Merryland and Neela Productions to produce ‘blockbusters’ like Bhakta Kuchela,’ ‘Sree Guruvayurappan,’ ‘Devi Kanyakumari’, and Kumarasambhavam amongst others in the 69-odd movies that were produced in Merry Land. Harishchandra was directed by Antony Mithradas which has been erroneously credited to P Subramaniam on the cover of the VCD that I have ! Harischandra (1955), is according to B Vijayakumar,  a scene-by-scene ripoff of the Kannada version from 1943 and the Tamil indigenous production from 1944 (starring the legendary PU Chinnappa and Kannamba ) which surprisingly didn’t fare as well as the dubbed version from Kannada!
Harishchandra's wedding with Chandramati
The Malayalam version begins with Raja Harishchandra taking part in the Swayamvaram of Chandramati and is shocked to find a ‘divine’ mangalsutra already on her as she comes around to him and he naturally explodes in anger for insulting every single King who has been invited. But, he is pacified and actually overjoyed when informed that it is actually a curse on the beautiful Chandramati ( Miss Kumari ) that it would be a sign that her Chosen One has arrived! Meanwhile, Vishwamitra and Vasishta's wager in the court of IndraIndra’s court is witness to a blazing row between Sage Vasisht ( TS Muthaiah)and Sage Vishwamithra ( an evil-looking GK Pillai ) on the subject of anyone in the three worlds who value Truth even above his/her life. Sage Vasishta just happens to know someone – Raja Harishchandra, and Vishwamitra wouldn’t have any of it. Vishwamitra vows to prove the former wrong, personally taking charge of the ‘mission.’ Camping on Ayodhya’s outskirts, he cooks up ways to make the King’s miserable. he first pays a visit to the Court, with a personal request for 1000 gold sovereigns for a Yajna he is planning, fully knowing the Treasury is not in its best days.

The King asks for 24 hours to fulfill his request but doesn’t have to wait long. He soon receives word that the neighboring Kingdom has sent across exactly the same amount as a gift on the eve of the young Prince’s birthday! He leaves, informing him that he would ask for the money when the time comes. Back in the camp,  he incites and instigates the wild beasts who go on a rampage through the villages, terrorizing and killing the population. The benevolent, puzzled and hassled King, along with his meek and trusted Prime Minister Sathyavratha (a very young Jose Prakash) goes on a Vishwamitra's sirens try to seduce King Harishchandra Royal Hunt.Which leads the entourage straight into the ‘camp’ of Vishwamitra where the Royal party decides to take a breather before starting back for the palace. Vishwamitra sends two courtesans to seduce the King and halfway through, he sees through it. Vishwamitra arrives on the scene and insists he accede to their charms as they are his ‘people’ and he would take anything else as a personal insult. The King is adamant and holds his ground. The King is ready to forsake even his Kingdom for sticking to his values and Vishwamitra jumps at the chance. They get back to the palace where Vishwamitra takes possession of the kingdom, and then asks for his 1000 sovereigns as promised ! The Royal Family, with nothing but their common tunics on the backs are dumbstruck. The King, again, request for some time but the sage is in no mood to listen. He despatches his trusted disciple along with them to get the money ASAP, and he proves to be a pain in the royal back for the Royal Family enroute. They reach Kasi Vishwanath temple, where, the arrogant, overbearing pompous disciple pushes him to his final denigration – sell his wife and child and get the money. This is one technicality which I still don’t understand, which I will elaborate on soon. I believe, in the times and the sensibilities that existed half a century ago, the scene that depicts the King’s heart break and torment is one of the finest and the most moving, ever written for the Indian screen. KP Kottarakkara must have done a translator’s job, but hey, you needed talent, didn’t you?

The family is separated in the big, bad holy city of Kasi. Chandramati and the Prince  is bought by the trader Kalakanta ( SP Pillai) and his bickering wife ( a delightful Adoor Pankajam)as domestic help, but tragedy in the form of a a venomous snake is just around the corner. Vishwamitra’s disciple haughtily tells the king that that he has taken his share, as a Brahmin, from the Sale which again means the money falls short that is ‘owed’ to the Sage. To make good the money, the King sells himself as a slave, and is bought by the local cemetery keeper who makes him the ‘keeper of pyres.’ The once-reigning queen of Ayodhya is reduced to a domestic help, and the ruler of the land ends up stoking colas for the burning dead. All for upholding Truth, above all ! The Royal family is fated for a heart-wrenching reunion on Death’s hallowed portal, the graveyard, and a memorable climax, unique in Malayalm Cinema. To know how, ummmm..well, you need to watch the movie. 😀

So, is there a DVD/ VCD of the movie available ?

Yes, and you could even buy it online here.

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5 thoughts on “Harischandra (1955), Malayalam’s first successful mythological film

  1. Had Harischandra been thought about to be produced in the modern times of Malayalam Cinema and had the modern day Malayalam cinema producers and directors ever had seen the film at least once in their lives, the idea would not have been summarily dropped, like Cinematters in the beginning of this fine article observed. There is great scope for them to make a hit with just one scene, the seduction scene in the forest, which even in Subramoniam’s conservative times was a sensation. No one need have any doubt about the surety of film makers of present times jumping to the chance, after the example of the loathsome greed for money manifesting itself in the remaking of sexually and sensuously appealing films like Rathi Nirvedam. But the seduction scene in Harischandra, a still from which is incorporated in the article above, was produced with such artistical taste which is extinct today that the loveliness and exquisiteness of the scene still haunt us after all these years. Another finery in this film was the vibrant, sweet song in the scene of the little kids going to the woods for collecting, I remember, firewood when the little prince is bitten by a snake. Very rarely do such fine songs, music and visuals being produced in Malayalam films. If such fine films were produced in our times making use of present day technology, people who leave theatres after shows would not have been whistling but weeping on their way and Malayalam film industry would not have fallen into a pit of venemous hatred, jealousy and self destruction.

    1. Dear Remeshji,
      Harishchandra remade today would very well have, om highsight, a more ‘sticky’ and riveting approach for the current generation to watch it, and it would maybe need all the ‘deviousness’ from the wordsmithy of a story-teller like MT to do that a la Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. Else, it is too straightforward a narrative, and an ‘exaggerated premise’ for the current sensibilities. My two cents..regards..cinematters

    1. Dear Krishnaprakasha,
      Thank you for writing in.Subbaiah Naidu’s screen version of Harischandra is considered to be the most fabulous ones amongst all the versions of the story adapted on screen from what I could gather. Sadly nothing much is not about the movie, nor could I find anything worthwhile about the great actor and his works too. It would be highly appreciated if you could share any details on the movie or the actor. Thanks…CM

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