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Family affair

K. PRADEEP

A get-together of some of the cast and crew of ‘Nirmala,’ the first movie to be produced in Malayalam by a Malayali, was organised in Kochi to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the film.

Photo: H. Vibhu

Walking down memory lane:(from left) Vimala B. Varma, Baby Joseph, Gracy Davis and T. K. Govinda Rao.

From 1941 to 1948, no Malayalam films were produced. After a seven-year hiatus, came ‘Nirmala,’ a movie that went on to become a landmark in the history of Malayalam films.

The three films that were released prior to ‘Nirmala’ were made by Tamil producers and the cast and crew were drawn from other Southern states. The storylines were either mythological or social and without a Malayali touch. The songs were direct lifts from popular Tamil and Hindi film tunes.

‘Nirmala’ was the first movie to be produced in Malayalam by a Malayali. The film had a cast and crew comprising Malayalis and it was in this film that playback singing was introduced in the language.

It was the late P. J. Cherian, along with a group of friends who decided to venture into the industry by starting a production house called Kerala Talkies Ltd. Their first movie, although not intentional, turned out to be a family affair.

While Cherian’s son, Joseph Cherian was selected for the male lead, a search was on for the female lead. That was when the director, P. V. Krishna Iyer suggested that Baby, Joseph’s wife, play the role of Nirmala.

Baby Joseph, now in her Seventies, spoke of her memories of that pioneer movie and its making. “My father-in-law wanted to make a film that could be watched by the entire family. I was a 22-year-old and the mother of two at the time I was cast in the film. Of course, I was quite thrilled to act in a movie. Besides, my husband, one of his sisters-in-law, Gracy Davis, was also a part of the film.”

The production ran into rough weather when it was less than halfway through. Technical complications, especially those associated with playback singing, dug a deep hole into the financial resources of the producer. Recording the songs took over six months for completion.

Vimala B. Varma, who was ‘contracted’ to sing the back up vocals for Sarojini Menon and is credited with being the first female playback singer in Malayalam, was found to be so impressive that she was asked to sing another two songs in the film.

To top it off, Vimala was asked to do a role in the film too. “I played the role of Nirmala’s younger sister who dies of typhoid in the first half of the film. I also acted as Lalitha in the latter half. There is a song-dance sequence where I come in with my song ‘Ettanvarunna diname…,’” Vimala says.

Vimala, rendered the soulful solo in a voice that still had the sweetness of yore. P. Leela, T. K. Govinda Rao, Vasudeva Kurup and C. K. Raghavan were the other singers used in the film. Govinda Rao and Sarojini Menon did not sing for any other Malayalam film after ‘Nirmala.’

When released in 1948, the film ran to a full house for several days but failed to recoup the money spent for the film. P. J. Cherian was set back by about Rs. 2 lakhs. He later went into overdrive to produce a Tamil movie ‘Kanavu,’ which ended in a total financial disaster. Despite the financial failures, P. J. Cherian will be remembered as a visionary who took Malayalam film a huge step forward.

60th year celebrations

The 60th year celebrations of this path-breaking film were held under aegis of the Cochin Film Society in Kochi. Baby, Gracy, Vimala and Govinda Rao attended the event.

The switch-on ceremony of a documentary, to be made by Cochin Film Society on the film ‘Nirmala,’ was held as part of the function.

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