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Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Master Narrator



K S SETHUMADHAVAN – Master Narrator

C S Venkiteswaran

This year’s JC 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. None could be more deserving and coincidentally, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of his entry into Malayalam cinema; his first film Malayalam, Jnanasundari was made in 1961.

Born in 1931 in Palakkad, K S Sethumadhavan took to the world of films like fish to water. And his lineage runs back to the beginnings of Malayalam cinema: he began his career in films under TR Sundaram of Modern Studios who produced the first Malayalam talkie, Balan. After a brief apprenticeship under K Ramanathan, he made his debut with a 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 till the end, it was a long and fascinating engagement with literature. He was virtually a ‘writer’s director’ and almost all the major writers of the period like Muttathu Varkey, Kesavadev, MT Vasudevan Nair, Thakazhy, Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, Pamman, KT Muhammed, Thoppil Bhasi, Vettoor Raman Nair and Parapurathu feature in his oeuvre that spans more than four decades.

K S 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 managed to produce some of the finest works in Malayalam cinema at regular intervals. His early films were all social melodramas like 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 the acting performance of Sathyan in the lead role. Daham, set in a hospital, was about a murderer, who gradually wakes up to the 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 the genre in Malayalam cinema. It was about a college lecturer, who is disfigured during a scientific experiment, and whose erotic life is even more deeply scarred by it. Other significant films to follow were Kadalpalam, Adimakal, Vazhve Mayam, and Mindapennu. In 1970 he made six films, among which Aranazhikaneram, which was based on a novel by Parappurathu stands out as one of the finest works of the period. Following the novel closely, the film adopts Biblical themes and captures the moral rot within a middle class Christian family. The narrative is about the last days in the life of Kunjanechan, who, as his life ebbs away, becomes a helpless witness to the various deadly sins his offsprings succumb to. Anubhavangal Palichakal (1971) based on a novel by Thakazhi, is yet another landmark film that starred Sethumadhavan’s favourtie actor, Sathyan (he met with while doing this film). A rare and reflective film about 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. Both institutions seem to push the individual into deep conflicts, demanding huge sacrifices to sustain them, and the institution and morals of the party is conflated with that of the family. formally, like in Aranazhikaneram, here also one finds the prevalence of night shots; as if the characters occupy a twilight, liminal world, caught up in its web and groping to find a way out.


Some of the significant films in the next years include Panitheeratha Veedu, Kanyakumari, and Chattakkari. Oppol (1980) based on a story by MT Vasudevan Nair, which received several awards at the state and national level, returns to the theme of Oedipal conflict. It is an emotionally intense story about an illegitimate boy, his unwed mother, and her new husband, who is a soldier. 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 National Award for Best Film. Based on a story by Indra Parthasarathy, it is a chilling film about marriage and scholarship. It is about an aged traditional vedic scholar, at the fag end of his life, being haunted by the memory of his teenage love. She is finally brought to him by his estranged son, and the film ends with the vacant and devastated stare in the face of his lifelong companion and wife in the face of that final rendezvous.

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! As for official accolades, he has won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Director 4 times: Vazhve Mayam (1970), Karakanakkadal (1971), Pani Theeratha Veedu (1972) and Oppol (1980). In 1973, he won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration for Achanum Bappayum and in 1966, his Telugu film Sthree won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Telugu.

Sethumadhavan belongs to a period when Malayalam cinema was trying to find a narrative idiom and language of its own. Sethumadhavan 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 Oedipal character. In many of his films, the masculine centre of the narrative is under severe crisis. Many of his male heroes are loners who are disfigured or impotent, nurse compulsive doubts about the fidelity of their wives, or fight futile battles. In Odayil ninnu, for Pappu the rickshaw puller, life is a constant slide to helplessness and self denial, in Kadalpalam the blind patriarch who stays upstairs and rules over his sons, finally finds himself powerless, and Aranazhikaneram is about the final days of another father figure, whose moral world is collapsing around him. If in Oppol, it is a virtual Oedipal battle between the illegitimate son and the new husband of his mother, in films like Yakshi, Anubhavangal Palichakal, Punarjanmam, and Vazhve Mayam one can sense a strong undercurrent of castration complex.

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. These celluloid portrayals of the deep conflicts of masculinity and male agency marks him off as the cartographer of malayalee male psyche of a particular period in our social and political history. As far as cinema was concerned, it was also a period that was prior to the advent of super stars and macho, one dimensional heroes.

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