It seems strange and sad that every mention of the glorious film production history of Malayalam hinges around the obvious two – P Subramaniam‘s Merryland and Kunchacko‘s Udaya Studio, while the one that literally forged the path for them, a soul whose daring laid the very foundations of the Malayalam film industry as we know it – Dr JC Daniel‘s Travancore National Pictures always seem to be conveniently forgotten. Long before the technical and the artistic lot of the Malayalam industry working out of Coimbatore and Chennai yearned for a similar set of working conditions in the comfort of their homeland, a committed, lanky lad besotted by the potential of this new medium and fuelled by passion had already built a studio right at the heart of erstwhile Trivandrum, at Pattom, right across the Pattom Palace. But the story of Travancore National Pictures is more than that, and the whole credit for archiving that part of history ( or whatever was possible of it ) should go to Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan, the veteran journalist.
For the seventh amongst the eleven children of Dr NJ Daniel and Njanambal, born November 28th, 1900, Joseph Chellaiah Daniel, came into this world, you could say, holding the the proverbial silver spoon, at Neyyattinkara. The affluent family shifted to their hometown Agasteeswaram by 1905, into their palatial house that was an architectural landmark of the times. Growing up to be a dashing, handsome lad who stood at 5′ 11”, the captain of his high school football team, athletic, deeply interested in martial arts (even publishing a book titled Indian Art of Fencing and Sword Play in 1915, when he was 22 ) and a voracious reader, he was everything a conventional movie producer of our collective perception wasn’t. Initially planning to make an hour long talkie on the indigenous martial art-forms of Kerala of his times, from his perspective, and his initial inquiries on the cost-aspects of film production were to this effect. Vel Picture Studio, Guindy quoted an astronomical 40,000 rupees for his dream project, and a defiant Daniel set out to check out the ‘prices in Mumbai’. In Mumbai he visited the production studios of the times, one of which even permitted him to hang around for a full day and night, allowing him to to grasp the fundamentals of the production processes in close range, and the bright and alert mind was quickly, systematically filing away everything he observed for future use.
Recharged, on his return, he sold off his share of the family inheritance ( 108 acres ) at Neyyattinkara for Rs 30,000/- and even managed to bring in a partner for his venture, named Sundaram. Initially enthusiastic, once he came to know of the fervor and passion of young Daniel to realise his project, his focused approach, Sundaram developed cold feet and slinked away. Undeterred, he borrowed some more, and with this capital, traveled to Mumbai and bought the first set of studio equipment to Kerala. He sold off more land, organised another Rs 40,000/- and this time headed out to Calcutta where he got his cinematography equipment.
On JC Daniel’s Cinematography equipment.
This has been something that has always piqued my curiosity – on the type of movie camera that he would have filmed Malayalam’s first movie. As I am given to understand, the actual technical details of the production are sketchy to say the least. I have asked around a bit, and kept asking myself on the type of cinematography equipment, I could be looking at, presumably in 1925-26, with Rs 40,000 in my kitty and a fairly good understanding of what exactly I want in terms of my cinematography equipment. The popular ones of those times, what I am given to understand, were the Debrie Le Parvo, the Moy ( Moy & Bastie ), the Bell & Howel 2709, the legendary Mitchell Standard and the Eyemo. The Mitchell Standard and the Eyemo were astronomically priced, even for those times for an individual, and maybe the young film maker decided upon the next best option which must have been the Debrie, as the Moy and the B &H weren’t as popular or as available as the others. ( Assumptions, assumptions ! ) I came across this production still from Kamal’s Celluloid, the biopic on JC Daniel of a movie camera that seemed to have been inspired by the Debrie Le Parvo, but glossed over with a lot of imagination and kitsch. I have no idea where the creators of the movie have based their assumptions on this being JC Daniel’s cinematography equipment, but I am sure they must have their reasons ( ! ).
The Debrie Le Parvo actual.
According to CINEMATOGRAPHERS.NL, “The wooden casing was an enclosing shell. The gears, film gate, etc. were mounted on, and contained within a metal chassis. On the front panel was a brass knob to open the front of the camera and a further brass knob to unlock the shutter mechanism. The camera had a fold-out Newton finder and eyepiece. The rear of the camera featured a footage counter dial marked in feet, a cranking speed indicator marked 16fps and 24fps and a pull-out focusing eyepiece with diopter adjustment and an eyepiece light-trap cover.
Also on the rear panel was a spirit level to level the camera on a tripod. The camera front lifted up and the side panels were hinged to reveal the very impressive movement and two 400 feet co-axial metal film magazines. The hand-cranked Le Parvo was at one time the most popular European made camera. Even in the early 1920’s, the Le Parvo was the most used camera in the world.”
The Debrie was one of the most popular models of the times, according to acclaimed senior DOP Jayanan Vincent, and says “the Debrie, Mitchell NC and Newall are still available at AVM studios, Chennai ! ”
A Video of the metal-jacketed, advanced version of the Debrie.
The Travancore National Pictures Movie Studio.
After getting back to Kerala with his cinematography equipment, JC Daniel sold off some more of his remaining property, and with the money, bought two acres of land at Pattom, from Nagappan Nair, a lawyer from the city, that included a house names Sarada Vilas, along with which he also built a two-roomed structure that would also double up as his living quarters. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call these two buildings, Sarada Vilas and this new annexe, the First Film Production Studio of Malayalam Film Industry. The name of the studio, was borne out of JC Daniel’s deep sense of bonding and love for his state and wanted his business venture to reflect it too.JC Daniel had almost exhausted his resources by now with no money left for the actual shooting process. So he did what he did best, dipped into the pockets of his close relatives and friends to find another round of capital and the shooting began, based on a story board he himself had put together, as feature film, shelving his idea of the initial plan for a later date.
According to Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan’s biography of JC Daniel, the debut production of the debut studio in Malayalam cinema was done in two schedules, the first in Ceylon and the second at Pattom, mostly brought out and done in natural sunlight, as the director/cinematographer found the Sarada Vilas interiors too dark for normal shooting. The details on the Ceylon trip and the shooting there are unavailable yet, but it was a fact that JC Daniel himself cranked the camera, and in the night, after a days work, he processed the film himself in the studio, assessing his work and getting ready for next day’s shoot. The cast of the movie ( The Lost Child aka Vigatha Kumaran ) was a smattering of family members, rank amateurs and professional theatre artists, with the lead actress PK Rosy ( whose actual identity and her years post the movie remain an mystery even now ) also taking care of catering for the crew. Yes, she and her family cooked for the crew, and she acted in the movie ! There was no editing and the shooting was done as a continuous process keeping in mind the roll of raw stock in each cartridge, which was around 1000 feet. The crew themselves took care of the costumes and the makeup. The shooting started at sun up at places around the studio and Pattom palace with JC Daniel multi-tasking . The ENTIRE cast and crew were from Kerala, a daring initiative when one considered the prevailing conditions of movie-making in south India of those times.
Suffice to say, The Lost Child took two years to complete and was released on November 7, 1928 at Capitol Theatre and was a disaster – not because the movie was sub-standard, but the pseudo-orthodox, senselessly conservative local population could never take a lady from their own land “acting onscreen.” To them, it was akin to prostitution! It ran for 4 days and had to be withdrawn ultimately, as the irate mob, incensed at the sheer audacity of PK Rosy to act in a moving picture, had by then, torn down the projection screen.
The movie, released in 5 more centres never fared any better and The Travancore National Pictures went under. It was only a matter of time. The equipment and the premises were sold at a pittance to recoup losses and repay his lenders, but that never sufficed. He had to sell of his wife’s remaining jewelry and the rest of his property to make good the losses. JC Daniel, Malayalam cinema’s first producer, bankrupt and broken, would relocate to Madurai, learn dentistry, open a clinic that would soon blossom into a flourishing practice and reclaim his life in the next 5 years.
But his love for film -making remained, which was rekindled with a chance meeting with PU Chinnappa, one of the “megastars” of the times, who enticed him to make another movie, this time, bigger in budget, bigger in everything. He could get him in touch with some great money-men who would finance the project, and he himself would play the lead ! And that led to chain of events that decimated JC Daniel completely, condemning himself and his wife to a life of penury that they never recovered from, ever.
In retrospect, our first Film Studio’s only production was a path breaker in many respects. It was the first production that had an overseas shooting schedule, the studio owner was also the script-writer, cinematographer, lead actor, processing technician, director and distributor.The Lost Child aka Vigathakumaran also starred an all-Malayali cast and crew speaking of volumes of the righteous sense of purpose and initiative of JC Daniel, now considered the father of Malayalam cinema.