Navodaya Studio which has always produced blockbuster hits in Malayalam is all set to make a period film based on North Kerala’s folklore. The film which will give a cinematic spin to the universe of North Kerala ballads will be set in the 13th century. ‘Chekon’ directed by Navodaya Appachan’s son Jose Ponnoose will start the project next year.
Apparently, Jose has been researching this film for the last 10 years. The script has been prepared after going into detail about Chekavar’s emotional journey, his family ties, society, interactions with the common man, the rule of the chieftain, and their economics. Jijo Punnoose who is Jose’s brother is the creative director.
Telling history in the new age
The preparations for the new film have already started at Kakkanad Navodaya Studio. The brothers are currently in the middle of last-minute script improvisations. “Chekon is a universal hero. The films we have seen based on the North Kerala ballads were all made within certain constraints back then. These stories narrated the cultural ethos of a land straddled between Elathur river and Mazhayi river. So far we haven’t really done enough research for such stories. We have done a lot of research on this film. This is the story of a warrior who intends to defeat death and is in search of the sword that has been designed for his murder”, says Jose Punnoose.
The main foundation for the film was Chelanattu Achyutha Menon’s (Madras University’s Malayalam branch head) 1935 research material ‘Utharakeralathile Veeragadhakal’ (The ballads of North Kerala). Another reference was former Madras collector Percy McQueen’s collection of Northern ballads which she compiled with the help of Adiyeri Kunjiraman. The interest shown by William Logan and Herman Gundert in exploring North Kerala Ballads was also invaluable.
Films based on north Kerala ballads
It was in 1961 that Udaya produced the first film based on north Kerala ballads called ‘Unniyarcha.’ That series stretched for over 55 years. From ‘Unniyarcha’ to ‘Veeram’, over 19 films emerged from the production house. Around 16 films were created during the 1960s to 90s. Even there the first film that deviated from the familiar path was Jijo’s ‘Padayottam’ from Navodaya. It was in 1982 that 'Padayottam' which created a new history in Indian cinema got released. Though the Hindi film 'Sholay' was already released in 70 mm, its production works were done at a lab in England. But Jijo was able to finish the work of his film in Madras’s Prasad Colour Lab studio.
Navodaya produced the film on a budget of Rs 1 crore at a time when the maximum budget for a Malayalam film was Rs 15 lakhs. 'Padayottam' was also the first film that used the first ever multiple-track stereophonic sound system in Malayalam. The country’s first-ever 3D film ‘My dear Kuttichathan’ was released in 1984 during an Onam season. It was Jijo’s sheer determination that paved the way for the first-ever 3D film in India.
Hariharan’s ‘Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha' was released exactly 7 years after ‘Padayottam’.
“After Kunchacko’s ‘Unniyarcha’ I consider Pareekutty’s ‘Thacholi Othenan’ (1964) as the best ever film based on the North Kerala ballads. All the other films will only come after that. I think that people are always fascinated by films that are closer to the local terrain and people. It’s this originality and authenticity that makes stories of North Kerala ballads so popular and international,” Jijo observes.
Box office results
These films based on stories set in this milieu also point towards their box office successes in Malayalam cinema. In the 1961 film, ‘Unniyarcha’ produced by Navodaya, 24-year-old Ragini played the titular role. The film gave money and fame to Navodaya. The film scripted by Sharangapani was based on the drama written by Govindankutty. Two of Navodaya’s biggest experiments were also based on North Kerala ballads. The 1978 film ‘Thacholi Ambu’ was Malayalam’s first film done in cinemascope. While ‘Padayottam’ was the first ever 70 mm film.
“A sword carved with Chekavor’s name. That sword is hidden somewhere. Only that sword is capable of taking away his life. Sage Agastya who crafted the rules in Kalari has written a thesis about the sword that was predicted to kill a warrior. The film is also a journey in search of that.” Well, the makers are clearly polishing the elusive sword which will take centre stage in the narrative.
Percy McQueen documented the folklore of Nanupananar who is awaiting death sentence at Vellore prison. For someone like that, what is the secret in the folklore that she is not able to pass on to generations? Navodaya makers are in search of those secrets.