K K Aroor, Master Madanagopal, M V Shanku, K Gopinath, Alleppey Vincent, C O N Nambiar, M K Kamalam, K N Lakshmi, Baby Malathi etc.
Pathbreaking effort A scene from Balan, the first Malayalam talkie
The first film with sound (talkie) in Malayalam ‘Balan’ should have been the first film, chronologically, to be featured in this column. Released on January 19, 1938, this film had a social theme unlike the earlier films with sound in the other South Indian languages, which chose episodes either from history or mythology. While the first talkie in Tamil ‘Kalidas’ (1931) was based on the life of the poet, ‘Bhakta Markandeya’ (1931) in Telugu and ‘Dhruvakumar’ (1934) in Kannada had mythological themes.
‘Balan’ was produced by T. R. Sundaram at his Modern Theatres in Salem. Fascinated by cinema a Nagercoil man A. Sundaram reached Madras with a dream of making a sound film in Malayalam. The story of this film ‘Vidhiyum Mrs. Nayarum’ was authored by him. Sundaram met T. R. Sundaram who advised him to approach the cinema theatre owners in Kerala to mobilise funds for production. This idea clicked. An advertisement appeared in leading news papers inviting artists to act in the film. The shooting of the film started on August 17, 1937, at Modern Theatres. A. Sundaram abandoned the project due to some dispute. T. R. Sundaram took over and completed the film.
The film was directed by Shewakram Nottani, popularly known as S. Nottani. Dialogues and songs were penned by Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai. Music was composed by Ibrahim, and K. K. Aroor, who also played the lead in the film.
The story features the struggle of two orphaned children, oppressed and exploited by an evil stepmother. The film was a stereotype of the themes of early Indian cinema, particularly South Indian cinema.
Balan (Master Madanagopal) and Sarasa (Baby Malathi), are children of Dr. Govindan Nair (M. V. Shanku) by his first wife. Meenakshi (K. N. Lakshmi), the second wife, tortures Balan and Sarasa. She even hatches a plot to kill them and take over the entire wealth of Nair. Meenakshi is severely punished by Nair when he comes to know of her motives. Nair dies of heart attack. Meenakshi marries a wicked city wastrel Kittu Panicker (K. Gopinath). Balan and Sarasa flee from home as a result.
Barrister Prabhakara Menon (C. O. N. Nambiar) gives refuge to Balan and Sarasa and brings them up as his own children. In the will executed by Nair before his death, all his wealth is assigned to Meenakshi on condition that she take care of his children.
When Meenakshi and Kittu Panicker come to know about the stipulations in the will, they trace out the children. Kittu Panicker kidnaps the children from Prabhakara Menon’s home. Shanku (Alleppey Vincent) comes to know about the plans of Meenakshi and Kittu Panciker and rescues the children. He uses them in street shows. Balan and Sarasa escape from Shanku. Sarasa is taken away by a labour contractor while Balan is asleep. She is forced to work in an estate. Sarasa (M. K. Kamalam) grows up here. Balan (K. K. Aroor) also reaches the same estate as a labourer.
This estate is owned by Barrister Prabhakara Menon.
Prabhakara Menon identifies Balan and Sarasa. Balan traces out the will executed by his father and Prabhakara Menon files suit against Meenakshi. She is tried by the court of law and punished. A furious Meenakshi shoots Prabhakara Menon, but the bullet from the pistol takes the life of Balan who jumps in between to save Menon. Menon marries Sarasa. They name their son, Balan. The film ends with Menon, and Sarasa paying homage at the tomb of Balan.
‘Balan’ was a huge hit. The splendid sets, camera by the German cinematographer Bado Gushwalker, sound recording by Ishwar Singh and editing by Varghese were good. All the artists who performed in the film were new to this medium. The acting was not natural, and resembled more of a stage play.
Compared to Tamil sound film, ‘Kalidas’ the Malayalam film is regarded much better by film critics. ‘Balan’ had an original script and dialogues in Malayalam, whereas in ‘Kalidas’, the artists spoke in their own mother tongue deviating from the original script and dialogues. The different characters spoke in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi!
It is quite sad that not even a single frame from the footage of this first Malayalam sound film is available now. What is left of this film are a few stills from the film and the songs book.
There were 24 songs in the film. Most of them followed popular Hindi and Tamil film tunes of the time. Gramophone records of the songs were not produced. The most popular song was a solo by M. K. Kamalam ‘Jaathaka doshathale...’ It was a direct copy of the solo by M. K. Radha from the Tamil film ‘Sathi Leelavathi’ (1936). ‘Theyila thottathle...,’ the Tamil song based on Chenjurutti raga became so popular that it was later sung by Carnatic musicians in concerts.
Will be remembered: This film will be remembered as the first talkie in Malayalam.
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