Iconic Malayalam movie ‘Nirmalyam’ is often remembered whenever a movie is attacked for hurting the sentiments of religious communities. The High Court too had mentioned the movie while considering a plea against the release of the controversial movie ‘The Kerala Story’. Interestingly, the national award winning movie, which was released in 1973, completes fifty years since it came out.
The classic in black and white has immortalised characters like the Velichapad (temple oracle), Narayani, Ammini, Appu and his sisters and Unni Namboothiri. Very few among the cast are alive to see their movie celebrate the golden jubilee of its release. Even yesteryear actors like Sukumaran and Ravi Menon who debuted as young actors in the movie has bid adieu to this world.
No one can speak, write or engage in discourses about the history of Malayalam cinema without watching ‘Nirmalyam’. Now, the movie is back in conversation, mainly focusing on it's political correctness. Even though ‘Nirmalyam’ is being hailed as a cult classic, the movie is attracting criticisms too for its political discourse.
It is not a new trend to perceive an artistic creation only through the lens of extreme attitudes. The critics have the right to express their opinions. However, they hardly notice the political stances or discourses in it. Meanwhile, some others focus on blindly praising the linguistic excellence of the movie. When people who express delight over the features that they like and scorn at what they do not like, evaluate artistic creations, their opinions are likely to be biased and intolerant.
‘Nirmalyam’ is also a visual evidence that showcases how the political, social, cultural and economical changes that had happened post independence had influenced the villages in Kerala. It is a fact that all movies represent the age in which it was taken. However, some movies portray the age in a detailed manner. They reflect on the positive and negative impacts that social changes could bring in an individual.
Even in the modern era where food scarcity and unemployment aren’t in its worst form, a movie like ‘Nirmalyam’ touches the audiences’ hearts. The critics who are determined to dig out evidences to elucidate that MT Vasudevan Nair had created the movie by taking the side of the upper caste, can easily do so. However, the society has changed a lot from the bleak times when the temple priest had to open a tea shop or the oracle’s wife submits herself to the merchant just to escape from starvation.
The society has only moved forward unlike the sad plights of Narayani or Appu, the oracle’s son. Now, there is no temple in Kerala that has deteriorated into a dilapidated state like the Melukavu in the movie. The faithful in all the religions have grown strong and the places of worship have prospered. Even the character Valyambran played by Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair shows reluctance to contribute money to perform a sacrificial ritual in the temple. The people are ready to give money for conducting the ritual as they are scared of the deadly small pox that were killing masses. During the modern age, the temple festivals are grand and people do not hesitate to contribute hefty sums as donations. So, it is quite ironic that some people are eager to find out the political correctness in ‘Nirmalyam’ while enjoying these grand affairs in the modern age.
MT’s autobiographical element
The character of Warrier who stays close to the temple, laments about the prosperous past while looking sadly at his ancestral home that has descended into misfortune and impoverishment when the kudikidappukar or the tenants took over the land following the historic land reforms. Similarly, the oracle too recalls the good times when he enjoyed scintillating temple festivals. Meanwhile, Kathakali artist Ramunni played by Sankaradi cannot help reminisce about the days when the art was celebrated for its real beauty. When changes happen, some people experience personal losses and disappointment. Meanwhile, Valya Thambran embraces the changes by presenting the capsule formats of these traditional art forms to foreign tourists. He even owns a car. When the oracle is destined to beg for a handful of paddy grains, the elephant owned by Valya Thambram feasts on ghee and special medicinal herbs.
It is true that these characters represent the real people who lived in the premises that were familiar for MT Vasudevan Nair. As an artist, and not as a historian, he perfectly shows how an era of change had impacted the lives of people in various walks of life.
The spectacular frames of Ramachandra Babu and the soul touching tunes composed by M B Sreenivas had elevated the movie into an intense emotional experience. Ramachandra Babu’s camera had perfectly captured the beauty of the countryside and the locales like the temple, illam (traditional Namboothiri homestead), oracle’s house, the paddy fields with authenticity. The celebrated cinematographer transforms the frames of the rustic set up and the brilliant performance of the oracle in the climax into a mesmerizing visual treat.
The shadow images of Unni Namboothiri and Ammini sitting inside a cave, to escape from the rains, while returning from the post office shows the sign of a master craftsman. Similarly, a few scenes from inside the temple too is scintillating. In an interesting anecdote, in a scene where the character played by RK Nair reads out the address from the letters at the post office, he says the name of Thekkepattu Vasu who is MT Vasudevan Nair himself!
The imagery of helplessness
M B Sreenivas has used the music of Kerala only in certain places in order to augment the emotional impact. In the temple scenes, the percussion instruments that are played during temple festivals are used. The background music in the scenes in which the love relation between Unni Namboothiri and Ammini grows into intense passion stirs an inexplicable magical emotion in the audience.
The performance of every actor in this movie is praiseworthy even though it was P J Antony who won the National Award for best actor. Actors like Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Sumithra, Shanta Devi, Kottarakara Sreedharan Nair, Surasu, Kuthiravattam Pappu who plays the newspaper man, Nilambur Balan who sings Pulluvan pattu and M S Namboothiri who essays the elder oracle had delivered memorable performances.
Unni Namboothiri is appointed as the new temple priest when the old priest resigns as it is no longer a lucrative job. When he arrives for the first time by crossing the river, his eyes hooks onto Ammini at the bathing ghat. Ammini who helps Unni Namboothiri cook the temple offering, doesn’t hesitate to share the food with the insane person who sits beneath the banyan tree even though she knows that the morsel of food could have filled the stomachs of her own family members. But, she knows no other way as she is the daughter of the oracle who never use the money that is contributed to the temple to fulfil his needs.
However, their kindness and devotion are not enough to keep poverty at bay. Moreover, the good hearted Ammini doesn’t even get the man she loves. The movie has umpteen number of images that realistically depict the helplessness experienced by people. ‘Nirmalyam’ could rightly be called a successor to the movement of realistic cinema that was led by iconic Italian and French filmmakers.
Those who watch with heart
This movie is different from the other screenplays penned by MT Vasudevan Nair that focuses more on dialogues and conversations. In this movie, he is a filmmaker who perceives cinema as a visual art. Interestingly, a sad and dejected Ammini is still at the bathing ghat when Unni Namboothiri returns by crossing the river. He, meanwhile, is forced to reject Ammini as he says ‘yes’ to another alliance so that his sister’s marriage too would be fixed.
In this scene, instead of sad music, a joyous folk wedding song sung by a wedding party who passes in another boat accompanies as the background score. Meanwhile, the audience watches the montages of the wedding party, the teary eyed Ammini who gazes at her lover and Unni Namboothiri who walks away from her. M T Vasudevan Nair breaks all rules of filmmaking when he pastes these sad scenes along side the vibrant wedding beats of the song. Later, many filmmakers may have tried this kind of treatment in their movies.
It is alright to dissect ‘Nirmalyam’; praise it baselessly or hate it pointlessly. You could even crucify or judge the filmmaker using the parameters of political correctness. However, it is also true that the movie continues to be a scintillating cinematic experience even half a century after its release. Those who watch the movie, with their heart and not just with their heads, are sure to appreciate this great work of artistic excellence.