Cross-dressing onscreen in Indian cinema isn’t anything new, in fact it has been one of the reliable tools of generating guffaws in an onscreen narrative when the going is tepid or lack-lustre. Same has been the case with Malayalam cinema too, and more so owing to strong, polarised, testosterone-dripping “maleness” that have come to be associated with the onscreen leading personas since the past six decades – ever since we got the “bi-polar successions” of Sathyan – Prem Nazir, Mohanlal – Mammootty and hopefully it would end with the last.
One of the most glorious decades of Malayalam Cinema. Black & White blossomed into pure art in the hands of one of the best cinematographers of India, A Vincent, who turned Director with Bhargavee Nilayam (1964). RK Shekhar came to his own, with his first independent music composed for Pazhassi Raja (1964), with the brilliant Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair essaying the lead character, Pazhassi Raja ! (Yes, Mammootty wasn’t the first, you see) .
Salil Choudhary had this amazing sensibility to really get under the skin of any genre of music that he was briefed to create according to the Director’s vision. Add to the sound tapestry that we are familiar with, when it comes to Salilda‘s contribution to Malayalam cinema, a Russian composition for Nellu (1974), and I would say the most perfect Christian harmonic church chorale I have ever heard onscreen was in Aparadhi ( 1977), Nanma Cherum Amma. It is also surprising that he never repeated that composition anywhere, maybe because it was so appropriate and unique, just perfect for that moment for that one film in Malayalam. I have had the misfortune to listen to countless versions ( really really horrible, terrible, scary covers) of the song available in the market, and I chuckle to myself when you realise that even with the latest cut-and-paste sound engineering magic in recording studios these days, NO ONE has been able to replicate the haunting harmony of the song!
My Grandpa used to get very offended, when, I used to tell him that King Mahabali (from now on refereed to as Maveli) had to be the only ‘Socialist’ ruler in mythology, for being able to manage a kingdom where the material needs were none, and everyone had enough to keep them happy! Now, I can’t find a better and finer example than the concept, more beautifully lived out in our mythology, than the legend of Maveli. And ancient texts, scriptures, mythology have always been a favorite hunting ground for our film makers, going back all the way to Raja Harishchandra in 1913, our first movie from India !
Thiramala (1953), based on the short story ‘Choondakkaran‘ by TN Gopinathan Nair, the celebrated literary icon of Kerala, also introduced the singer Shantha P Nair and the legendary Adoor Bhasi to Malayalam Cinema. I think this was also the first movie with a different climax, for the the North and the Southern audiences of Kerala. Of the 13-odd songs, which was more or less imitations of Hindi tunes of yore, P Bhaskaran should have been at his wits end, penning lyrics that some how came across very amusing when married to the tune.
[ This was written on July 3, 2010 on the passing of MG Radhakrishnan, as my own little tribute to this unassuming genius in music as we know it. Today, a year on, the memories and the songs are still afresh, just like they were, new off the composing console.]
I think Providence is in a hurry to take back all the talent that had been powering Malayalam Cinema, and is going about it with its cold and clinical might that is beyond the scope of our mortal capabilities. With the passing of MG Radhakrishnan, Malayalam Cinema loses another school of playback compositions – no more of the new compositions in the exquisitely mellowed Ahori Raga, or for the matter, the earthy tone of Unni Ganapathiye. Speaking of which, it was just two days back I watched Kalli Chellamma (1969), one of the enduring classics from Shobhana Parameshwaran Nair, and just couldn’t take my eyes and my ears off the folk dance that Adoor Bhasi performed on stage, lip-synching to the voice of the debut of MG Radhakrishnan as a Playback singer.
Another artiste that was a part of the Malayalam Cinema for five decades, passed away silently into the dusty public memory archives. Five decades, ladies and gentlemen ! ( Read that against the shelf life of the current crop of actors who do not go beyond single digits). As the famous Adoor Sisters of Malayalam Cinema, with the elder sibling, Adoor Bhavani, they were a delightful combination, whose characterizations was almost pigeonholed for their roles on screen. As the elder one brought the vile, acerbic mother-in-law or the brooding, muttering Granny to life on screen, Pankajam was the brash, spunky and loud wife/grandmother – and the duo, regardless of whatever the demands of the script, mostly rendered their lines in the sing-song tone of central Travancore, something that was always a delight to listen to. It must also have been because of the fact that Adoor was a stone’ throw away from our little hamlet.
A week down the line, I realize it is difficult to get out of the vice-grip that a literary work by Padmarajan has on your soul. It was on a whim that I dusted off the old, dog-eared collection ( from my school days) of the Celestial Storyteller, and dived straight in, starting with Nakshathrangale Kaaval (1978). It might have been a coincidence that the recent news report about his son, Ananthapadmanabhan starting off on preliminary scripting in remaking the 1978 film version of this fantastic story of three souls bound together in deep friendship, love, immorality, lust and celestial love.
I remember watching the movie in one of the late-night sessions of Doordarshan Kerala, thanks to probably a very bored program executive trying to bring some life into the otherwise staid proceedings of DD’s program chart. But try as I might, now, I just cannot recollect the main protagonists of the movie, I know there was MG Soman as Prabhu and Adoor Bhasi as Varmaji (Uncle). Recently I got hold of an old movie-still from the film which had MG Soman and Jaya Bharathi which brings me to the next question