Incidentally, most of the behind-the-scenes stories of old Malayalam films are the same. It will always be about a producer who had to sell his house and valuables to fund his film. The climax is more or less the same for the producers of Malayalam’s first film ‘Vigathakumaran’ and the fifth film ‘Nirmala.’
‘Nirmala’ released in 1948 on February 15th is the film that rescued Malayalam cinema from the clutches of Tamil cinema, music and theatre influence. This was the first Malayalam cinema that had a crew that mostly featured Malayalees and also narrated a story that was rooted in Kerala. It’s been 75 years since Nirmala was released. P J Cherian who produced ‘Nirmala’ is also the first-ever producer from Kerala. But unfortunately the film he made after going through a lot of hardships only brought him misery.
How it all started?
After ‘Prahalada’ which was released in 1942, not many Malayalam films were released for a while. During that time mostly Tamil and Hindi films were released. Families stayed away from theatres. One of the many people who wanted to overhaul this disturbing trend was Poet Vallathol Narayana Menon. It was upon his insistence that painter, theatre artist, and photographer P J Cherian ventured into movie production.
The union of greats
‘Nirmala’ was produced by P J Cherian under the banner of Kerala Talkies. Members of the Cochin Royal Family as well as some of the influential personalities in Cochin were also part of the production company. Except for the technicians, the rest of the crew were all Malayalees. The film was adapted from M S Jacob’s story ‘Neela sari’.
The then Kochi National Chief Secretary Puthezhathu Raman Menon wrote the dialogues while Palakkad-based P V Krishna Iyer was the director. There were 15 songs written by Poet G Sankara Kurup and composed by E K Warrier. The producer’s son Joseph and his wife Baby Joseph became the hero and heroine of ‘Nirmala.’
But ever since the failure of the film, Cherian never produced a film, G Sankara Kurup never wrote lyrics, Govinda Rao never sang for a film and Puthezhathu Raman Menon never wrote lyrics for a film ever again. Equally important is to mention the story of Radha, who belonged to a famous family in Tripunithura and was ostracized for appearing in a dance number. Cheriyan was forced to sell his property to pay off his debts.
He again lost money when he produced a Tamil film called ‘Kanavu.’
The lost treasure
“Now and then I never realized the value of that treasure. That’s why there isn’t a single print available of the film. Though National Archives Director PK Nair and myself did search a lot for the prints, we couldn’t find any”—says P J Cherian’s grandson and Joseph Cherian’s son P J Cheriyan JR. His family laments that P J Cherian hasn’t been given his due in Malayalam cinema.
Cherian Junior who was the former Principal cameraman of Manorama News is the fourth child of Joseph Cherian and Baby Cherian. Lisa, Annie, Meera, Reetha, and Rasiya are his siblings.
The only living member of the crew is Vimala B Varma who acted as a child actor and singer in ‘Nirmala.’ She became a playback singer when she was studying in Grade 6 by singing ‘Karunakara Peethambara’ along with her Guru Sarojini Menon as well as going solo with ‘Ettan Varunna Diname’ and ‘Vazhuka Surichira.’ Not just that, she also played two characters in the film.