Sunday, July 28, 2013

NIRMALYAM - A Land Mark in Malayalam Cinema

I was taken aback when I was asked by M.T. Vasudevan Nair  the renowned Malayalam Writer, to be the cinematographer of his  Directorial debut film NIRMALYAM. His screen play was based on his own short story “Pallivalum Kaal Chilambum”. At that time MT was a sought after Script writer  in the Malayalam film Industry and I was just an up coming cinematographer. He could have obtained the services of any one of the top cameramen of that day for his film. But he didn't opt for it. MT himself told me later that he did not want any top people in his film as sometimes the credit for the success of film may get attributed to them. Also he wanted the film to be done in his own way, whether correct or not without any kind of interference. At the same time he was open to creative suggestions for the betterment of the film.

Sukumaran, Ravi Menon and Sumithra

I had first met M.T. while a student at the Poona Film Institute in 1970, and
he had come there as visiting Professor to take Screenplay classes. After that meeting I had met him once or twice at Madras and I have done only three films before I was contacted to do Nirmalyam. My senior friend at the Institute M. Azad was the associate Director and my batch mate again from the Institute Ravi Menon was doing a prominent role and P.J Antony with whom I have done Ragging ( he had written the lyrics and also acted in it) was doing the lead role. So I was quite comfortable in doing the film with people previously known to me. Being the youngest member in the unit, M.T. used to address me as “Thampi” meaning younger brother in Tamil. He always treated me as his younger brother and the relationship continues till now.

The shooting location was in a small village near Edappal called Mukkola (Mukuthala) and there were no lodges or hotels capable of  accommodating all the unit members. Actor Sukumaran's uncle Edappal Kuttan made arrangements in his relative's houses for Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Sumitra etc to stay. There was a rice mill in Edappal where a building with two rooms and a hall was available. We were able to get that building for ourselves. MT took one room, P.J.Antony the other and the Hall was for the rest of us. Ravi Menon, Azad and myself slept there on grass mats spread on the floor. Sukumaran was acting in his debut film and though his house was nearby in Edappal, he also joined us to become more familiar with film making methods. Since we were shooting mainly in and around the temples we had to be satisfied with only vegetarian food. At night after the shoot we will sit around Antony Asan as he had bottles of different varieties of fish pickles with him as accompaniment to his drinks, and he will offer us some of the tasty fish pickles which to an extent fulfilled our craving for non vegetarian fare.

P.J.Antony as Velichappad

When P.J.Antony Asan came to the location he didn't have much idea about the Velichappad ( Oracle) character. So he requested M.T. to get the services of the local Velichappad, gave him Guru Dhakshina and learnt from him the steps and mannerism of temple performances. He observed him minutely and succeeded in  bringing alive on screen the Velichappad, as M.T. had envisioned. During the climax shooting for a whole day he performed as if in a trance even though his feet was bleeding with the painful hitting of heavy bronze anklets.The next day he could not even walk, but still when the shot of Velichappad walking home after bathing was being taken, he walked proudly with a smile acknowledging the villagers' reverence. Such was his dedication to the art of acting, it is no wonder that he got the National Award as Best Actor. He truly deserves it and I had never come across  such a true actor  any time in my career so far. 

With Camera assistant Venkitaraj (R)

In those days we could not afford to have generators for our power supply and had to depend on the State Electricity Board outlets for our lighting needs. We have to apply in advance for Temporary 3 phase connections with separate meters in all the locations where power supply is needed. Fortunately we required the use of lights  in two locations only, the Temple and the Velichappad's house which were adjacent to each other. We managed with one connection for both the locations. But the power situation in those days was worse in Malabar area and the voltage was very low at night, around 100 – 120 volts only. Hence most of our night shooting was done after 9 PM only when people switch off the lights and go to sleep. Then the power consumption load goes down and the voltage rises to a usable level of around 200 volts. That made our night shoots extending  till the wee hours! For daytime shooting we used reflectors which we got fabricated at Calicut in Balan K Nair's workshop, since we did not have the luxury of having a full out-door unit from Madras  at our disposal.

Shooting at the Bharathapuzha, myself on camera, M.T.(with dark glasses) and Devadas (Sound Engineer) sitting on the sands

Most of the locations were situated within a radius of few kilometres from our main location.The steps of Thirumittakode temple on the Bharathapuzha riverside was the location  for the  song " Thinthinathano " where the Unni Namboothiri departs the village as his beloved Ammini, looks on with teary eyes. It was an overcast day, dull and dark,  a suitable mood for a sad situation. The sun was setting, the light was low  and we had many more shots to be taken. When there was not sufficient light to shoot with normal film, I loaded my camera with higher speed ORWO NP7 film ( 400 ASA ) and went on shooting. When the light was really low, some one tapped me on the shoulder and when I looked back it was Samiyettan ( S.Konnanatt) the Art Director. He asked me whether I will get any image in such a poor light. I took out my meter, checked the light  and told him, " Why not? I have enough light to take a few more shots". He exclaimed that even an expert cinematographer like Vincent master will not shoot in this light. I told him "I am confident about my exposure, I'll show you the rush print" When he saw the rushes afterwards, he really appreciated my work. Only much later I came to know that he originally started his career as camera assistant to Vincent Master!

Sumitra and Ravi Menon

Another location we needed was a natural cave where the characters Unni Namboothiri and Ammini take refuge when it suddenly rains. We were lucky to have found a large cave  in a nearby hillock and  when we started shooting the scene it was a bright sunny day with clear skies and I was in a dilemma whether to start shooting the scene or not because it was supposed to rain in the end. Since we had hired a Fire engine for the afternoon ( they charge per hour) we could not  afford to waste our time. Any how we decided to start shooting the scene and, fortunately as the shoot progressed the weather Gods pitied us and filled the clear blue sky with clouds and  the atmosphere got totally changed. It was really like a rainy day and with the help of the fire engine we made it very realistic.

Our main location, the Temple was really in a neglected state with out any puja or rituals being done  for a long time.  We came to know that a few people thought that a non Hindu, Christian P.J Antony should not enter the temple.  M.T. planned to finish all the exterior scenes including the climax and kept the temple interior scenes involving P.J Antony  at the end of the schedule. In case any strong objection arises  at that time, we can safely  complete the film by erecting a matching set of the interior portion. After finishing all the other scenes we had to shoot the scenes of P.J. Antony inside the temple, and as usual we started doing the lighting after 9 PM and there were only few onlookers to watch the shooting. We had a stand in dressed as Veichappad  whom we said will be entering the temple instead of P.J.Antony to dupe the curious onlookers. We took a long shot of him entering the temple and didn't permit any one inside saying that they will come in camera's field of view as we were going to take a full view of the temple interior.

Once the doors were secured, through a back entrance P.J Antony  was let in and all his scenes were taken  before sunrise. Later on after the film was released M.T. was charged with a case for polluting the temple and he had to pay for the purification ceremonies.

Towards the end of the shooting schedule  M.T. ran out of money and we still had to shoot the climax and other scenes. M.T  describes the scenario:

I specially recall the tension I went through one particular day.We had arranged to shoot the festival sequence from next morning on wards. Groups of"Pootham", "Thira" and drummers were fixed. The village girls would be ready with "Thalappoli". I n the evening the camera crew said they have only hundred feet in the magazine. The film stock has not come from Madras. Then I checked with the cashier," How much money do you have?". He said "five". I was worried " You mean you have only five hundreds left??" He said "No , only five rupees left".

I discussed the severity of the situation with a few trusted friends. Somebody suggested to call off the next day's work. I was reluctant. i had a feeling that somehow the problem would be solved. I immediately sent a messenger to Shoranur, where I knew Mr.Vincent was shooting a film, to lend me some film. By midnight a person came back with thousand feet of film. That was enough to see us through till afternoon when the Madras stock was expected to arrive. Now the problem of money was still to be solved. We started work in the morning. It was difficult to raise funds from the locality as i had already tapped three well-to-do houses. But when I started work I cleanly forgot the money problem. I avoided the cashier's anxious looks. Before lunch break two familiar faces from Calicut appeared on the scene. They were my good friends, businessmen. they ere on their way to Cochin for auctioning rosewood. I cornered them and asked them whether they would lend me some money. Between them they parted with ten thousand rupees.I said I required only five , as I was expecting funds the next day. One of them said"suppose it is delayed? You keep the ten and we will settle the accounts later"

As soon as he got the funds shooting was interrupted to make arrangements for the festival scene on a war footing. We had arranged for a second camera to be handled by my friend Kasturi R Murthy so that we can cover the action in two angles. By next day morning,  every thing was in place and till dusk it was all hectic and frenzied shooting activity.

Desamangalam Mana was the location for a day's shoot for the scene involving the rich Land lord Namboodiri and we moved to Shoranur early in the morning. The actor to play that role, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair arrived at the Rest House in a car in an inebriated condition. He could not even stand let alone act. On seeing him in this condition M.T. was in a fix. How to find a person with a majestic Namboodiri look in the last minute to replace him. It was Sankaradi who  found a solution by making him to consume some curd and have  a cold bath. In the meantime we shot some interior scenes involving P.J.Antony and Sankaradi. By noon Kottarakkara was in a position to act and it was the timely intervention of Sankaradi which made it possible. The same night we did the dance sequence at Kalamandalam Auditorium and finished Kottarakkara's work without any further incidents.

Except for the Sreekovil ( Sanctum sanctorum) portion all other scenes were completed in one schedule. The original Sreekovil was a very cramped place and customs prevented us  from entering inside it to  place camera, lights etc.  Also  there was no proper idol. So we erected a set of the Sreekovil in Calicut where the  shots involving the idols were taken in another schedule. During the shooting at Calicut, I stayed at  M.T's home "SITHARA". His wife Prameela Chechi and daughter Sithara considered  me as one of their family members.

With M.T's daughter Sithara

There was full co-operation from the villagers and they always were there to help us with properties for the scenes and also acting in minor and crowd scenes. In fact they got so attached to the unit, many children were in tears when it was time for us to depart after the shooting was over. 

There were some funny interludes during the shooting - We were fed up with eating  only vegetarian food  day after day. So one day M.T. took us along with him for dinner at the invitation of his friend at Ponnani. It was a sumptuous feast with all kinds of fish, prawns, crab and chicken. Everyone  ate to their heart's content. The result most of us got our stomachs upset and had to rush to the bathroom during the shooting. Since we didn't have toilet facilities near the location we had to take the car and go our place of stay and come back. For our absence we have to invent some other reason - in my case I told the light has become dull and we will have to wait for some time for the clouds to clear, and hurriedly took off in the car!

After the shooting at Calicut I received a letter from Sukumaran, thanking me and saying :

"As a novice in the field I would like to take this opportunity to express my heart felt thankfulness and gratitude for your well timed suggestions and sincere advices during our outdoor work. I expect the same amount of sympathy and consideration in future also......."

Sukumaran"s letter
Though many actors made their debut film with me except Sukumaran, none other bothered to express their gratitude to me. That was the unique quality of Sukumaran, the man!
The post production work was done at Madras and  a house was rented and M.T., Sukumaran, Azad, assistant directors, all slept on  grass mats spread on the floor.  Some times Editor Ravi, John Abraham, K.G.George and others visited  to give us company. Food was mostly cooked there and we had a nice time of staying together like a family. Never again I have worked for such a film from beginning to end in such a manner. That was a very memorable experience in my film career as such!

Though the film won the Best Film Award at The National and State level,Best Actor etc, I did not get any such recognition for my work as Cinematographer. But later on when I was given the Kerala State Award for Excellence in Colour Cinematography for the Film DWEEPU, M.T. sent me a short note: 

 " My dear Thampi,

I did not congratulate you formally for the Award. I thought that was unnecessary. What is there to talk about something coming in which was long overdue? "

M.T's Note
That note from M.T was worth more than a National Award to me, because it came from the heart of the creator of our film.
The film ultimately won several other laurels and is still being discussed about even after 40 years, "whether any film with a theme like this can be made now in our country at this period of religious fanaticism  "

Film Data:

Banner: Novel Films
Producer : M.T.Vasudevan Nair
Director: M.T. Vasudevan Nair
Cinematography: Ramachandra Babu
Editing: Ravi
Screenplay: M.T.Vasudevan Nair
Lyrics: Swathi Thirunal, Idassery
Music: Raghavan Master (Songs)
Background Music: M.B.Sreenivasan
Choreography : P.S.Gopalakrishnan
Cast: Vincent, P.J.Antony, Sankaradi, Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Ravi Menon, Sukumaran,  S.P.Pillai, Kuthiravattom Pappu, Nilambur Balan,  Kunhandi, Surasu, Sumithra, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Vijayalakshmi Balan, Santha Devi

Release date: 23-11-1973

Please go to  Malayalam Movie Data Base Page Here to listen to songs from the film


  1. i was taken up by the detailed description/narration of the making of the very famous "nirmaalyam". thank you
    beena jp

    1. Thank you...Please read it once again as I have updated it with some more details....

  2. thank you for sharing this to the posterity.
    well written and evocative
    Biju Viswanath

  3. Well written. You are so lucky to be part of the cream class who created the golden era of malayalam cinema.

  4. i want to see film online please provide me the link............

  5. i want to see film online please provide me the link............

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