Cinema has kept me captivated since I was born. May be because of the first movie I saw. It was “Ulagam Sutrum Valiban” of MGR who also directed the film. Since then I became a very big fan of him. If his films are screened in theaters I would go and watch it even now. My brother once bought me the best in quality “Nadodi Mannan” DVD which I cherished for a long time. However it got missed and I am not able to find such a quality print anywhere.
Though it is a glamorous industry, it has its own struggle. I have been to few shootings and got really bored of the proceedings. A blink and miss scene takes forever to can. We would be standing in the crowd and commenting about the actors then. But when I was in front of the camera it was a whole different story. It was christian preaching short film and I played one of the brothers of the protagonist. I had only two dialogues that too in the crowd so I managed it easily. The director was stubborn on taking few reactions of all the brothers. For a simple pleading reaction I took half a day. Almost all members of the crew shouted at me. That day I thought I would never stand in front of the camera again.
One of my friend’s facebook post led me to this movie called “Celluloid” which released yesterday. It was about the director who made the first film in Malayalam. His name is J.C. Daniel. I went into some more digging and then only knew why his life is worth a movie. J.C Daniels was born in Kerala and he was trained in Kalaripayattu. He authored books about fencing which is one of the rarest sport practiced in India. I am talking about 1915. Somehow cinema got his attention and he traveled various places like Chennai and Mumbai to learn the nuances and get the necessary equipment required to take a film.
Armed with his knowledge he filmed his first film Vigathakumaran in 1926. There was no supporting crew and he alone directed, handled camera, edited and also acted as the lead actor in the movie. There was no funding and he produced the movie himself. He also made a girl to act as a heroine in the movie. At those times a girl acting in a movie is taboo. If you visit the Padmanabapuram palace, you will see that the performing area will have two narrow lanes on both sides covered by walls with small holes. This was for the ladies in the palace to watch the performed arts. In a society which considered even seeing a art form in public was a shame, acting was a strict no-no. He should have hard time convincing the girl to act.
One more thing about the movie is its a social movie. At that time nobody was willing to risk this. There was no social movie made in any language at that time. The directors were happy showing the epics in the movie. Basically because they had all the props from the drama companies and also retained the drama actors. But Vigathakumaran is a social drama.
The screening didnt go well in Trivandrum because there was severe objection for the movie which had a lady as lead actress and also the actress was a dalit and she took up the role of a Nair woman. The theater was damaged by the protestors. The collection was moderate in other towns where J.C. Daniels himself carried the film box as he had only one print of the movie. But the collection was not enough to cover the debts and he was forced to sell his equipment and close the studio.
He died penniless in 1975.
The story of the heroine of the movie is yet another disaster. Rosie was the dalit girl who played the female lead in the movie. She used to bring lunch and worked as a daily labor in the movie too. After the movie got released, she and her family were not allowed to watch the movie in theater. And also she was attacked at her house at night and her house was set on fire. Some say that she eloped with a lorry driver and lived the rest of her life in Tamilnadu. Some say she ended her life in a well. I would like to believe the former story.
The thing is nothing has changed since then. Not only in India but all over the world. The film makers are put into constant trouble for filming something they believe in, with their own money. Outright rejection of a work is acceptable but cornering a film maker or artist to death because they have performed something that didnt go well with particular group is called extremism. I always wanted to read Malayalam books and literary works as people hold it very high. The movie Celluloid is based on two books, Nashta Naayika by Vinu Abraham and J.C. Daniel’s biography.
Sometimes, I feel free art and free thoughts are just myths that exists in the minds of people to make them feel good at their heart. We talk what others want to talk, we behave to be liked by others. And if the society thinks that you are not thinking in their line and you are different, most probably that will be plucked in the bud. You will be branded as a outlaw and ignored. If you had already marked your place in the society you will be pelted stones or forced to drink Hemlock.
Quoting from my favorite author Ayn Rand…
I can die for you; But I cannot live for you
How long is the society (which is we) going to kill such artists, who try to do something out of the box? And then chide the Indian cinema industry for not thinking out of the box.
I can only wonder.