Iruttinte Athmavu ( The Soul of Darkness ) has to be probably the first mainstream Malayalam film which highlighted the travails of the unsound mind on the silver screen through its main protagonist, Velayudhan, brought to life by Prem Nazir. At a time when candyfloss romances and insanely skewed and delightful CID capers were ruling the marquee, P Bhaskaran’s attempt in bringing this “social malaise’’ was a daring effort, similar to what he attempted with Ramu Kariat in Neelakkuyil (1954), bringing untouchability to the fore. I say social malaise from a broad perspective, as, even in this age of advanced medicine, our basic mindset of an unsound mind is still a “life, doomed”, to be lived in chains. The fact that it is an ailment just like any other and is treatable like any, seems to have been lost on us generations, who have been socially conditioned to look the other way when it comes to addressing the issue. This becomes all the more “manipulative”, when the victim happens to be the pivot in an extended social circle, intertwined with relationships and distribution of wealth. This was the first collaboration between MT Vasudevan Nair and P Bhaskaran, and they would come together for the last time in Vithukal (1971). Based on his own short story, MT Vasudevan Nair crafted a screen narrative that was revolutionary for the times, in its emotional density and cultural richness, all the while ensuring that the requirements to adapt the narrative onscreen were minimal, thereby bringing down the cost to a huge extent. The brilliant cinematography was by EN Balakrishnan, lyrics by the director himself, set to music by MS Baburaj. All the four compositions were rendered by S Janaki, each a gem. Coming back to MT Vasudevan Nair, one couldn’t help but notice that he has stuck to this “minimalism” all through his career especially when he did the direction along with the screenplay. MT Vasudevan Nair seems to have elevated “minimal film making” to a fine art, if you ask me.
Prem Nazir speaks on playing Velayudhan onscreen.
The first 20 minutes of MT’s screenplay of Iruttinte Athmaavu is a brilliant example of establishing the main cast in a rich tapestry of light, darkness and shadows, building the fabric of the movie layer by layer that you can actually feel as the narrative flows onward. The close-knit montages of child-like scrawls that adorn the walls of a cavernous room “lost” in the overwhelming structure of the tharavadu, ( there are absolutely no bearings of Velayudhan’s dwelling place with respect to the entire house), is the personal domain of Velayudhan and his life. His mental faculties have not seem to have caught up with his blooming youth, preferring to stay back with his childhood, but his physical aspersions and social bearings are in agreement with his physical growth.The only son of Paru amma ( P Santha Kumari), who never has had a day of physical wellness her entire life, added to the shame of having a ‘liability’ as her offspring, she stays along with her elder brother ( PJ Antony as Gopalan Nair) who is the perceived head of the rambling house, her aging father ( MS Namboothiri ), her niece ( Sarada as Ammu ) and a domestic help. They also have another sibling, Meenakshi Amma who is in Singapore with her family. Achyuthan Nair ( Sankaradi ), the local medicine man who has taken upon himself to ‘heal’ Velayudhan is also, according to him, his arch enemy as he relies more on the rod as the remedy for his mental inadequacy.
Velayudhan’s daily acts of harmless mischief are a chief source of concern for everyone except Ammu kutty who defends him and cares for him with a ferocity that is uncommon. It could be also that, in the traditional scheme of social dynamics, she is betrothed to him, by birth ( murappennu ).The affairs of the tharavadu is in dire straits with hardly any source of income, as their traditional land holdings are mired in civil disputes that have been dragging across years. The minimal income is just enough to barely pay its legal fees.The homestead runs courtesy of Gopalan Nair’s brother-in-law’s generosity from Singapore, who, within this time of has very cleverly got the house and the land along with it in his name, in the guise of ‘helping’ out Gopalan Nair win his civil suits. Gopalan Nair receives a letter from his brother-in-law informing him of his decision to return to India for good, along with his family. This comes as a shocker, as he knows that with the arrival of this urban family, the entire dynamics of their reasonably peaceful existence as a family will be a thing of the past, and above all, the truth is not lost on him that their position as ‘tenants in their own family house’ has never been this evident, ever.
The Singapore family arrives, and Ammu kutty in her innate generosity envelops the family into her unconditional caring, treating each one of them as her own. [ The VCD that I have display some confusing cut-paste scenes at this point wherein events after their arrival somehow pops in BEFORE them ! ] Madhavan Nair’s ( Thikkurissy Sukumaran Nair ) family consists of his wife Meenakshi ( Philomena), elder son Rajan ( TS Muthaiah ), daughter Prema ( Usha Kumari) and her baby brother Unni (Baby Rajni) – most of the brood display classic symptoms of disdain and vanity to those who do not match up to them in material wealth, which includes almost all in their village and more specifically, everyone at home now. It is more pronounced towards Velayudhan, who represents the lowermost rung in their system of social hierarchy that revolves around respect and recognition, borne out of material wealth. With the pronounced wealth and the vanity to make it conspicuous at every given instance also gives Madhavan Nair his own entourage, who mainly feed off him, led by the dance teacher Guru Kunjichathu ( Adoor Bhasi in an epic wasted role ). The tharavadu now is clearly polarised, with the insanely rich ordering the less fortunate around, and in between all these, Gopalan Nair is desperately clutching at the last straws ( in the form of possible monetary help, one last time ) from Madhavan Nair to restore a major part of the land under litigation, now under the hammer. But Madhavan Nair is non-committal. And into this season of bitterness comes another torment in the form of Rajan ( TS Muthaiah ) who is besotted and smitten by the beautiful Ammu kutty, and is besides himself whenever their paths cross in the rambling house. There is no higher purpose in his attraction, other than to coerce her into bed with the power he yields as her ‘provider’s son.’
But his bloated, arrogant yet lily-livered ego gets a powerful kick where it hurts most with Ammu kutty, who summarily tells him to stay off her. The rejection on the face by her is unacceptable for him and he waits for a chance to strike. And that comes in the form of Velayudhan’s inquisitive heart who happen to wander into the ‘Singapore side’ of the house and is amazed by the opulence and comfort. Every object there fascinates him. Its like a magical world has opened before him. Inadvertently, he is in Prema’s room, and as he sinks into her plush bed, marvelling at the comfort of it and dozing off, she walks in. All hell breaks loose. Velayudhan gets thrashed, but is rescued of more pain, inside and outside, by his mother, who pleads his case with Madhavan Nair. The Medicine-man also appears, pushing his agenda, trying to convince Madhavan Nair of allowing him to carry on his “special ” treatment to cure Velayudhan. The timing seems perfect. Achyuthan Nair, now completely in charge of Velayudhan, starts off the proceedings with a traditional ritual of exorcism whose end is marked by the terrible lashings on the “possessed” to take leave of the body. Velayudhan’s anger towards Achyuthan Nair is now approaching dangerous levels.
Soon, a very prospective groom’s family visits the Padinjareppatu tharavadu to formalise the plan and preparations for Prema’s wedding. Gopalan Nair is strongly advised to have Velayudhan locked up and not to have him anywhere around the formal ceremony.Velayudhan sweet-talks little Unni into unlocking his room and he walks straight into the formal ceremony, gazing intently at the prospective groom with unmistakable happiness and joy, enjoying every bit of the sight of the handsome man. The family, caught in a ‘seemingly’ embarassing situation admonishes him out, where he finds the new motor car which becomes his next object of fond obsession. Needless to say, he escapes thrashing by a hair’s breadth. [ Thought : This scene seems to have another version in a production that approached the Unsound Mind from another perspective – in Thaniyavarthanam ]
Knowing that the best way to limit Velayudhan would be to curtail his freedom of movement, Achyuthan Nair takes care to see that he is mostly locked up in the room, to which Velayudhan reacts by drawing a bird-cage on his wall, an act which is so simple and at the same time touching.Parukutty Amma, frail and a physical wreck, is by now almost teetering at the brink, heart-broken with the with the latest dressing-down and humiliation that Velayudhan had at the hands of Madhavan Nair.Even she too had lost her self-control and thrashed him, repenting immediately and collapsing on him. It is at this time that Prema gets a new tutor at home, to help her through her “Senior Cambridge” exams- the dashing Chandran ( Balaji ), who, within no time gets involved a wee bit more than the prescribed syllabi, with his student. Parukutty Amma’s condition worsens day by day, and one night, the inevitable happens.
The entire sequence of her passing away, surrounded by her loved ones, Velayudhan struggling to understand the event unfolding in front of him, desperately pleading to make him understand in his own terms, but is admonished. I truly believe, this has to be one of the most poignant scenes ever written for film in Malayalam cinema.
With Parukutty Amma’s passing, Velayudhan’s last line of defense, that cared and protected him against the more materialistic and merciless ‘normal’ world is gone, and Padinjareppatu tharavadu with its dark interiors and shadows take on a more sinister meaning for the now-motherless child.Restless with his long periods in confinement, Velayudhan pleads with Ammu to leave him out for a bit to get some fresh air one evening, to which she obliges. It is also the very same evening that Achyuthan Nair brings in the bad news. The match-making that Madhavan Nair looked forward to would never materialise as the groom’s family had expressed their reservations to marrying from a family with an in-house lunatic. An incensed and enraged Madhavan Nair, starts ranting, blaming it all on Velayudhan who, to him, has become the curse of the family. Still smarting from the drubbing, he orders Velayudhan to be chained and restrained.For Velayudhan, the humiliation is now complete.
Adding injury to insult, Velayudhan is chained to a tree next to the wood-shed, out in the courtyard, OUTSIDE the house that he has lived in all these years, and its beginning to take its toll on him, both physically and mentally. He is slowly coming apart at the seams, held together by threads of sanity, straining against the struggling beast inside. Now that his only obstacle has been chained away, Rajan makes his move, out at the wood-shed, and as Ammukutty struggles to escape, the commotion rouses the household, and Meenakshi is the first to arrive.Quickly assessing the situation, she starts vehemently defending her son, heaping insults on Ammu which proves to be Gopalan Nair’s tipping point, who arrives on the scene. In the dressing down that ensues which also sees Madhavan Nair categorically asking him to leave the house as its now his property, the hapless father and daughter packs their meager belongings and take leave of his father, infirm and helpless, now positively cursed to rot, now that his grandchild Ammu is leaving the house.
Gopalan Nair returns in some days to inform his father, now reduced to taking care of himself, that Ammu’s wedding has been fixed the next day, to a widower who has four children. Velayudhan who is within earshot of the conversation, is furious at the social injustice meted out to Ammukutty and manages to hack away at his chain through the nite, frees himself at the break of dawn, and runs to Ammukkutty’s house. Gatecrashing into the simple wedding ceremony, he upends the traditional offerings in a fit of rage, disturbed by what Fate had in store for the only one who cared about him. An overwrought Ammu kutty, in her bridal finery screams “Bhraanthan” which becomes the final blow that unravels Velayudhan. Resigned to his Fate, he stumbles, crawls, drags himself back to the tharavaadu, into the waiting group of armed locals, led by Madahavan Nair, and tells them, ” I am insane. Please chain me up“, which becomes in itself, a profound study in irony, and one of the finest closing lines ever written for a Malayalam feature film.
Iruttinte Athmavu’s Wikipage speaks about it receiving the The National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues, quoting T. M. Ramachandran (1971). Film world. 7. p. 106. but strangely, the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues seems to have been instituted only in 1984 according to the latter’s Wikipage ! Any information on this would be welcome.
So where does Iruttinte Athmavu stand in our movie heritage ? P.J.Cherian, in his Essays on the Cultural Formation of Kerala says it best :
A major landmark in Malayalam cinema was to come in the next year with Iruttinte Atmavu. With a detailed screenplay by M.T. Vasudevan Nair, P. Bhaskaran could make one of the best films of his career and also provide Malayalam cinema with a new direction; that of the low budget film. One could see a lot of the pre-occupations of the scenarist, who carried the touches of human relationships through all of his subsequent films whether as screenplay writer or director. In spite of its large number of studio shots and overall theatricality, the film was so culturally rich that many of the episodes would become archetypes for future Malayalam film makers dealing with family drama. It depicted the story of an imbecile (finely portrayed by the late Prem Nazir) in a joint family with remarkable sensitivity and seriousness of purpose.
The movie did not set the box-office on fire, it was rather a dud, but over the years, the brilliance of its screenplay and characterisation have made cineastes going back to it, and has become more of a cult-classic by now. Bhranthan Velayudhan has become one of the defining roles of Prem Nazir’s prolific career bests.
So, is there a digital copy of the movie available?
Yes, in crappy VCD format, with some confusing editing while transferring on to the digital mode, but yes.You could buy a copy here.