Fading Screen Icons.
The ubiquitous, humble teashop in our everyday lives seems to have been the best indicator of our ‘social progress’, going by the way it has evolved. With the screen ‘life’ more often reflecting the real life, its gradual disappearance from our daily lives, for sepia junkies like me is a painful reminder of the momentum that is taking our lives on a blazing trip onwards, seemingly on a one-way ticket. I miss them terribly in screenplays these days. No, its not that their ‘presence’ was a significant pivot in the screen narrative, but it had, and it held its place, in the grand scheme of things, just like it did in real life, to our ordinary, and at times, extraordinary life in our quaint hamlets. A cursory look through the screen narratives from the 60’s to the present, say 5 decades, offers an amazingly surprising ‘evolutionary curve’ of our lives, the change in pace, ‘texture, environment and relationships in the screenplays that translated to movies. The ‘agrarian’ aspect seems to have all but disappeared from our screens – hardly one find the main protagonist tilling the land, ploughing the field or for that matter, the lady love winnowing the harvest grain ! Gone is the Post man whose very presence is underlined with the simple one liner “Oru Kathundu/ Oru Reyisteerrrundu ..”, or for that matter, the local Toddy Shop.
I intend to cover all of these going forward, but amongst all of these, the fading away of the ‘orthodox teashop’ seems to be the most prominent. The ‘social development curve’ from “grabbing the common day’s newspaper and settling down” to “grabbing a coffee and scurrying” has made its presence felt in our urbane narratives also. A teashop used to be the social meeting place for an ‘unhurried’ generation in their unhurried scheme of things, where there was no class divide – everyone drank from the same ‘glass’, there was no political correctness to opinion – you could argue till the cows came home ( literally), and above there were no demands, aspirations or expectations placed on you, something more akin to the socialism inside a Toddy Shop. But there was a big difference. A glass of frothy, sweetened, milky tea could never deaden your senses. Here is a compilation of the onscreen life of the ubiquitous, humble teashop and its onscreen role in the narrative, in its own laid-back sort of way. It throws up a lot of interesting perspectives. It sure does.
The earliest one I can remember that subtly (?) makes the tea shop another tool in the celluloid effort to demolish the walls of separation based on caste, color and creed. It sure seemed to be the center of most of the activities driving the movie forward, and P Bhaskaran ( as Sankaran Nair, the Postman) makes it a point to hang around Manavalan Joseph‘s Bhagavathi Vilasom Teashop, his most comfortable domain. I think P Bhaskaran tried to paint the two socially contrasting entities, that of the constricted, orthodox, ‘claustrophobic’ social nature exhibited by Sreedharan Nair ( Sathyan) who surprisingly never sets foot inside the Teashop, and the genial postman, who is already a ‘socialist’ with his heart. The teashop is also the place in the movie where the community organically coalesces, and yet in a state of flux. Bhagavathi Vilasom also plays cheerful host to bartering ( remember the pawning of the ring at the tea-shop?), counselling, and as the movi progresses, decision-making that becomes the turning point of the movie. I think, amongst other things, P Bhaskaran was also emphasising the importance of free speech, open thought and physical interactions and where else to portray it better than the local teashop ?
Here is Kayalaraikathu, probably the first song picturised in a teashop in Malayalam cinema, and the first Mappilappattu onscreen in Malayalam, set to music by Raghavan Master.
Raarichan Enna Pouran (1956)
Again, directed by P Bhaskaran, Rarichan enna Pouran was a tale that interestingly put love between two religions, and Rarichan ( Master Latheef ), who considers himself to have a heart of faith than of organised religion, that is caught between the people he loves and their aspirations. The chief protagonist, young, lissome Khadija (Vilasini) and her mother Beeyathumma (Mrs. KP Raman Nair) who runs a teashop in the tiny hamlet, caught at the crossroads between the town and the countryside and on a hand-to-mouth existence. The axis of the movie is this teashop and the financial doldrums that the mother and daughter find themselves in, as they seek to redress and reclaim the young girl’s love. The Teashop is also their home, to which Rarichan is adopted by the generous Beeyathumma, and this bond also results in him taking a life-changing decision towards the end of the movie. The point is, it is the Teashop and the social stature that the humble place of social commerce that is the core of this movie. also, this movie might also be the first in Malayalam cinema that portrays a woman running a teashop, her own business, taking charge of her own life. ( Please correct me if I am wrong ).
Nairu Pidicha Pulivaalu (1958)
P Bhaskaran again ! An absolutely delightful gag-fest, this brought travelling circus to malayalam cinema for the first time. Produced by TE Vasudevan, the story revolved the intense rivalry between the two ‘leading teashops’ of the village, owned by Paithal Nair ( TS Muthaiah ) and Kuttappa Kurup ( Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai ). The most delightful aspect of the movie is that it gathers momentum and moves ahead in just two domains, either in the environs of the Peninsular Circus, or at any one of the tea shops. As both Kurup and Nair vie for the contract to serve food for the members of the circus, there is also hidden agendas, desires of the flesh and of course, a case of long-lost love that unravels between these three places. The contrast of the two teashops, one run as a family, and the other run by a disgruntled, weary, irritable father-nimcompoop son duo is a delight to watch. As in with his other movies, there are a whole lot of things ‘happening’ inside the Tea shop at any given time. Along with the brisk business that takes place, are the beginnings of a marriage proposal, preening the prospective groom, hatching a conspiracy, or even serving the buttoned-up pseudo Victorian-era management from the visiting circus, the teashop common area doubles up as the family’s visting room. This should also be the first movie that presented this premise of two warring teashop factions In Muthaaramkunnu PO, it became a ga-riot when the premise was taken over by VD Rajappan and Jagathy Sreekumar. If you haven’t watched this movie, please do.
A clipping from the movie. Notice the layout, the body language, the activities, the decor and the topics of conversation.
Bhargavi Nilayam (1964)
I always like to think that there were two worlds in Bhargavi Nilayam – the mansion, that represented everything mysterious, eerie, dark and conspiring was one, and the local tea shop that the Writer frequented, represented a microcosm of the ‘normal’, real world that everyone else lived in ! Every time I watch the movie, I believe in it a little more than before. And the bridges between the two worlds, the keys to the mysteries in the mansion are always found in the tea shop. It is here that the Writer finally comes to believe in the apparition that is rumored to haunt Bhargavi Nilayam, it is here he meets the alleged murderer of Bhargavi, its in the tea shop that he is bestowed the grudging respect of the local community for having the courage to stay in the mansion, all alone – the teashop becomes the stage for many events in the movie. Maybe it was unintentional, but it becomes a powerful technique to enrich our experience of watching Bhargavi Nilayam.
You can read in detail about the movie here.
Olavum Theeravum (1970)
PN Menon‘s phenomenal movie that literally brought Malayalam cinema to the ‘Glorious Outdoors’ from the dank confines of the kitschy studio floors had its script by MT Vasudevan Nair. The protagonist Bappootty’s ( a brilliant role by Madhu ) main domain of social interactions and exchange is the local teashop, where everyone knows everyone else. In Olavum Theeravum, Kuttan Nair’s teashop is the armageddon for Bappootty and Kunjali ( Jose Prakash in a specially menacing role ), and the way MT builds up the ‘almost confrontational scenes’ has to be watched to be believed, with the help of silence, a broken down gramaphone and the sound of the river lapping the bramble-thick shoreline. Sample this from the Screenplay . Please note, all rights rest with DC Books.
ബാപ്പൂട്ടി : കേട്ടില്ലേ, ഒരു ചായ.
[ രംഗം പൂര്ണമായ നിശബ്ദത. കുഞ്ഞാലി ബാപ്പൂട്ടിയെ നോക്കാതെ അടക്കിപ്പിടിച്ചു ഇരിക്കുകയാണ്. സുലൈമാന് എന്തെങ്കിലും ചെയ്താല് കൊള്ളാമെന്നുണ്ട്.തന്റെ വീര്യം കാട്ടാന് നാരായണന് കൌതുകവും ഉണ്ട്. ഭയവുമുണ്ട്. അലക്കുകാരന് കെട്ടെടുത്തു, മേശപ്പുറത്തു ചില്ലറയിട്ടു പുറത്തു കടക്കുന്നു.നിന്ന നില്പില് നിന്ന് നായര് നീട്ടിയ ചായ വാങ്ങിക്കുടിക്കുമ്പോള് ബാപ്പൂട്ടി നേരേ നോക്കുന്നില്ലെങ്കിലും എല്ലാവരെയും ശ്രദ്ധിക്കുന്നുണ്ട്. ഒഴിഞ്ഞ ഗ്ലാസ് മേശപ്പുറത്തു വെച്ച് ഗ്ലാസില് അരയില് നിന്നും ഒരു അണയിടുന്നു. നിശബ്ദതയില് നാണയം ഗ്ലാസില് വീഴുന്ന ശബ്ദം.എന്തിനും തയ്യാറായി ഒരു നിമിഷം കൂടി നിന്ന് ബാപ്പൂട്ടി പുറത്തു കടക്കുന്നു. പുറത്തു കടക്കുന്ന ബാപ്പൂട്ടിയുടെ നെറ്റിയില് വിയര്പ്പു പൊടിഞ്ഞിട്ടുണ്ട്. കഴിഞ്ഞ നിമിഷങ്ങളിലേ പിരി മുറുകി പൊട്ടുമെന്ന അവസ്ഥയുടെ ഫലം. ]
It eventually explodes, and it also becomes the subject of conversation for the entire community, back at the teashop afterwards. For that matter, everything that happens between them becomes the conversational topic for the hamlet, so thoroughly devoid of excitement. And it happens at Kuttan Nair’s teashop.
I have just taken Kodiyettam as an example in Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s body of work where the humble beverage, and the meeting place around it always find a mention, much akin to the early movies of Sathyan Anthikkad. One of my favorites is Kodiyettam where Shankarankutty ( Gopi deserved that Bharath Award ) almost blissful relief as he hangs out at Velukkutty’s teashop, the only place where he is accepted without any questions or demands. He can be himself there, no questions asked. In fact, the movie opens out with a scene at the teashop that establishes the fact and then takes it from there. Brilliant, unquestionably !
Mutharamkunnu P O (1985)
I really think the ‘Dueling Teashops Concept’ was inspired from the 1958 classic, Nair Pidicha Pulivaal. The movie, with its unpretentious set of characters, so real that you can almost name them from where you came, also features two tea shop owners, Jagathy as MK Nakulan and V. D. Rajappan as MK Sahadevan, siblings in real life, at each others throats literally, in eternal conflict over an alleged stolen inheritance from their mother’s deathbed. Though it doesn’t ‘achieve’ anything in the narrative other than adding another hue to the colorful life in the hamlet, it sure has its rib-tickling moments, bizarre though it may be.
Here is a clipping.
Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu (1988)
Though credit should go to Sathyan Anthikkad for weaving his early movies mostly centered around villages and the characters it spawns, it was also delightful to have the teashop and its owner become a natural participant in the whole proceedings. Amongst all, I love Ponmuttayidunna Thaaravu (1988) the best ! The very premise of a rambling teashop with a precarious loft that doubles up as a classical dance classroom is howlarious. What becomes the icing on the cake is when the whole bunch of bananas fall on a customer’s head, as a result of the ‘co-curricular activity’ upstairs. Aboobackar ( Mamukoya ) lives the role, holding court to unfounded rumors, confounded rumors and everything in between, and it also helps that the main protagonist has his shop right next door, the one center of the universe around which the village seems to go around in a very, laid back and lazy arc. You almost wish you could catch the Panchayath Member ( Shankaradi as Madhavan Nair), the local cattle trader ( Oduvil as Paappi ), and the village’s favorite goldsmith ( Sreenivasan as Bhaskaran), sitting around and shooting the breeze on a rickety wooden bench, twirling their ‘medium’ and ‘strong chais’ as you walk through your hometown, but alas, they just seem to have disappeared.
Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal (1989)
I have always wondered why Ranjith never revisited this genre that he had absolute mastery over, this art of achingly funny situations construed out of everyday happenings. In Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal, the tea shop is the nerve centre of all conspiracies, where battle plans are drawn, revised, cancelled and again redrawn, and at times set into motion half-heartedly. I don’t think there has ever been a movie on the lines of this that chronicled a movement centered around a tea shop, to bring together two hearts that fell in love after a long deliberation Everytime I watch Jagathy put on his saddest face and mumble “Cheemium” to a visibly irritated Parvathy, I fall down laughing !
Watch from 3:40
Sibi Malayil discussed some cold, hard-hitting aspects of our hypocritical and hypercritical society, along with the vanity that weighs down on the shoulders of a generation that refused to acknowledge anything than a job with the government services, and an unforgiving, barely supportive family system that looked upon marriage as ‘fair trade.’ Kaliyugom Paramu Nair (Oduvil in one of his memorable roles), a fatalist to the core, and heartbroken that the son that he dotes on doesn’t even bother about taking the little business forward makes him a little more bitter everyday. Sibi makes the teashop and the business it represents a discussion point on many levels. Only Lohithadas could have written up a screenplay such as this that truly sits like deadweight on your chest. One of the few movies that make you squirm without even uttering a semblance of profanity.
Watch from 1:12