Auteur par excellence
Legendary filmmaker K.S. Sethumadhavan is a writer's director. He is the recipient of this year's J.C. Daniel Award for lifetime achievement in cinema.
Trailblazer:Film director Sethumadhavan's contributions were foundational to the evolution of the language of Malayalam cinema.
This year's J.C. Daniel Award for lifetime achievement in cinema goes to K.S. Sethumadhavan, the veteran director whose contributions were foundational to the evolution of the language of Malayalam cinema. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of his entry into Malayalam cinema. His first film in Malayalam, ‘Jnanasundari,' was made in 1961.
Born in 1931 in Palakkad, Sethumadhavan took to the world of films like a fish to water. He began his career in films under T.R. Sundaram of Modern Studios who produced the first Malayalam talkie, ‘Balan.' After a brief apprenticeship under K. Ramanathan, he made his debut with the Sinhalese film ‘Veeravijaya,' which became a commercial success. It earned him the reputation of being a responsible director and before long, he moved to Malayalam. From his very first film in Malayalam, it has been a long and fascinating engagement with literature. He was virtually a ‘writer's director' and almost all the major writers of the period such as Muttathu Varkey, Kesavadev, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Thakazhi, Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, Pamman, K.T. Muhammed, Thoppil Bhasi, Vettoor Raman Nair and Parapurathu feature in his oeuvre that spans more than four decades.
Sethumadhavan was a prolific filmmaker and in the first two decades of his career, he made more than 50 films. There were times when he used to make five to six films in a year. What made him different from the rest was that amidst this steady flow of work, he intermittently managed to produce some of the finest works in Malayalam cinema. His early films were all social melodramas such as ‘Kannum Karalum' (1962, which introduced Kamal Hasan to cinema), ‘Suseela,' ‘Nithyakanyaka' (1963), ‘Omanakuttan,' ‘Manavatti,' and ‘Anna' (1964).
The year 1965 marks a turning point in his life with two landmark films – ‘Odayil Ninnu' and ‘Daham.' ‘Odayil Ninnu' was the screen adaptation of a celebrated novel by Kesavadev, which dealt with the life and struggles of a rickshaw puller. It was a commercial success and also received critical acclaim for its raw energy and Sathyan's performance in the lead role. ‘Daham,' set in a hospital, was about a murderer who gradually wakes up to feelings of love and compassion.
A few films later, Sethumadhavan made another Sathyan-starrer – ‘Yakshi' (1968), based on a psychological thriller by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, which inaugurated that genre in Malayalam cinema.
Other significant films to follow were ‘Kadalpalam,' ‘Adimakal,' ‘Vazhve Mayam,' and ‘Mindapennu.' In 1970 he made six films. Of them ‘Aranazhikaneram,' which is based on a novel by Parappurathu, stands out as one of the finest works of the period. ‘Anubhavangal Palichakal,' (1971) based on a novel by Thakazhi, is yet another landmark film that starred Sethumadhavan's favourite actor, Sathyan. A rare and reflective film about the Communist movement in Kerala, it is a disturbing and emotional look at the question of belief and faith in two crucial institutions – the Communist party and the family.
Some of the significant films in the next years include ‘Panitheeratha Veedu,' ‘Kanyakumari,' and ‘Chattakkari.'
‘Oppol' (1980), based on a story by M.T., which received several awards at the State and National level, returns to the theme of Oedipal conflict. The rustic charm of the performance of Balan K. Nair won great appreciation and Sethumadhavan once again proved his mettle in bringing out the best in his actors with the help of a tightly-knit story.
By the 1980's, the film scene had undergone radical changes both in terms of thematic concerns as well as in technical and stylistic vocabularies. Between 1981 and 1990 he made only few films and some of which were in Hindi. But in 1991 he made a come back with ‘Marupakkam,' which won the National Award for Best Film. Based on a story by Indra Parthasarathy, it is a chilling film about marriage and scholarship. Always working from within the hub of commercial film industry, Sethumadhavan has made films belonging to different genres and also languages – apart from Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Oriya.
Sethumadhavan belongs to a period when Malayalam cinema was trying to find a narrative idiom and language of its own. He firmly anchored it by weaving intense film narratives by symbiotically linking it with literature and drawing out impressive performances from his actors.
When one looks back, it seems that one of the recurring motifs in Sethumadhavan's oeuvre is the crisis of the patriarch or the male hero, which sometimes assumes an Oedipal character.
We often dub Sethumadhavan as a ‘literary' filmmaker. When one looks back, one can find that the film narratives of this auteur par excellence are animated by certain deep ambivalences about a period that on the surface, seemed to be driven by political idealism and a sense of mission in life and polity.