In the Watching of Two Films


I recently watched two movies that I remember from my childhood, back-to-back. The first was Sankarabharanam, a film in Telugu that was made in 1979, directed by the legendary Kasinadhuni Viswanath. I was about five when I first saw it. I did not know Telugu, then or now, but this is one of those movies that does not need you to know the language to understand the story. The visuals stuck in my mind for many reasons. There was the automatic intrigue and fascination of seeing another culture, and the inevitable melodrama of a certain sort that accompanies Indian cinema. But more than this, there was such a plaintive honesty in the cinematography, the rather unstylised camera work, and the natural, softer hues and tones. And I must say this—few films in Indian cinema have the level of music, scoring, editing and rendition as this one. Now, being able to appreciate all this also depends on whether you are able to enjoy that type of music, cinema and culture. But if you do, the scoring and music, in conjunction with the visuals, and the story, remain in the mind for a long time.

This is what I find fascinating… In 1979, just as it is now, the landscape of mass audience cinema was dominated by the filmstars of that era. With absolutely no star cast, but hinging on powerful performances by the actors, musicians, playback singers, editors, and some excellent camera work, Sankarabharanam initially released to partially empty cinema halls. But it soon began filling up to full-houses across the country, based entirely on word-of-mouth publicity. It went on to win several significant awards for the film itself, including four National Film Awards, and separately for its music. S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who performed many of the songs, received the first National Award of his career through this film. It also subsequently premiered at the 8th International Film Festival of India, and was screened at several international film festivals.

I can never forget the opening scenes from the second movie that I remember watching as a kid. The dark, tanned, sinewy, hatted bodies tugging at the ropes, drawing in the boats, pulling at the fishing nets in unison—few movies open so brilliantly. Anyone watching this scene today will scarcely believe that this was shot in India. This second movie is Chemmeen, directed by Ramu Kariat… a significantly older film, made in 1965. It is known for its cinematic brilliance, of sweeping oceanscapes, beaches and skies, scenes from a small fishing hamlet, and from within the homes of the fisherfolk.

The movie is made from a book of the same name written by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai in 1956. Apparently, the book was completed in about a week of furious writing. It has been translated into over 50 languages since (the first translation was into Czech by Kamil Zvelebil, and is a part of UNESCO’s Catalogue of Representative Works). Though a tragic love story, both the book and the film are extremely bold for its time. In fact, I cannot imagine a film of its kind being made today. Of course, the book did not receive the kind of censure and criticism that the film eventually did, possibly because one would expect books to be read by more intellectual gentry who would be more tolerant to ideas, especially fiction. Yet, apparently, at the Chicago Film Festival, the Chicago Sun Times reported (November 18, 1967) that the ladies of the Chicago censor board “sighed and said it was the most beautiful film they’d ever seen,” just after it was screened.

Chemmeen was among the early Indian movies to use Eastmancolor, a single colour negative process. It was far simpler and less expensive than the Technicolor process. Technicolor necessitated three black-and-white films to be shot simultaneously then developed using the dye transfer method. It was only later that Technicolor introduced Monopack, a single low contrast film (similar to Kodachrome) but it was grainy. By then, Eastmancolor came into the picture, quite literally. One rarely thinks of the effort it took to make movies back then.

Despite being a Malayalam movie entirely made in Kerala, what I find fascinating is the singular vision of the director, Ramu Kariat, who knew when and how to let go. The brilliant cinematography was largely by Marcus Bartley (who was fond of photography and known for his black and white images), and by U. Rajagopal. There was so much footage, that Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who was roped in as editor, made brutally tight edits, even taking the call to shoot some scenes again. Possibly against all advice, Ramu Kariat also decided to bring in Salil Chowdhury for the film’s music. The songs were sung by K.J. Yesudas, P. Leela, and several of the most known names in playback singing in Malayalam. And also by Manna Dey, who was asked to record and re-record a single song many dozens of times, over days, because he could not get the pronunciation right.

Vision. Extraordinary conviction, over years. Tremendous effort. The rest, as they say, is history!

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Better Photography.