Against the backdrop of films like Lincoln being under the spotlight we keep hearing of why there are very few biopics in India getting made of late. In fact it’s true that Paan Singh Tomar was one of the rare biopics in India last year and a rather good one at that. This post is not about exploring the scenario of biopics in India (we can save that for another day) but to acknowledge a really well made biopic in Malayalam, Celluloid. While we have had some good biopics on some of the most important Indian personalities like Gandhi (though an international film, it had an Indian soul), Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Swami Vivekananda, Subramania Bharathiyar, E.V.R.Periyar, Sree Narayana Guru etc, most of them have been political/social personalities in some way or the other.
So of late it is good to see films like Harishchandrachi Factory and Paan Singh Tomar being made, films on non-political personalities and yet people whose stories need to be told. So in keeping in lines with this trend it’s heartening to see veteran Malayalam filmmaker Kamal paying tribute to J.C.Daniel, the Father of Malayalam Cinema with his latest film, Celluloid. Truth be told I did not know anything much about J.C.Daniel till a few months ago, except maybe fleetingly having heard/read somewhere in the past about him. But the moment I came to know about this project I was intrigued and decided to read more about this legendary figure. But it finally took the trailer of the film and the songs to move me completely and I was somewhat like a man possessed.
As I dug into the past of J.C.Daniel and found out whatever I could about him it also struck me as to how odd it was that no one before Kamal had decided to make a film on this personality and the subject surrounding the same. Kamal as a filmmaker though slightly inconsistent with his output, is still one of the more prolific filmmakers among his peers. So I knew that he could easily handle this subject with reasonable comfort and adding to the confidence was the casting of people like Prithviraj, Mamta Mohandas, Sreenivasan etc, all competent actors in their own right. Even before the trailer was released the initial posters indicated that the film was trying to get the look and period fairly accurate as much as possible. The trailer and the songs only confirmed it. Along with the actors already mentioned, Chandni a singer who shot to fame on a T.V show looked good as the choice for Rosie, who played the heroine of J.C.Daniel’s film, Vigathakumaran.
The film follows a fairly simple structure and does not pretend to sound or look desperate to be perceived as a trendsetter. While most filmmakers would have been tempted to make this a non-linear film today, Kamal keeps it simple and starts off the story in the 1920’s when J.C.Daniel (Prithviraj) is shown as a youngster keen to put Kerala on the map of Indian Cinema by making the 1st Malayalam film. Daniel travels all the way to Mumbai, meets Dadasaheb Phalke (Nandu Madhav) and manages to gain some practical knowledge by being present on the sets of a film and observing the happenings. Of course he doubles up the practical knowledge by doing a lot of reading and later on even visiting the sets of Tamil films, thereby only determined all the more to turn filmmaker.
To fulfil his passion Daniel decides to sell of most of his property, a move that makes his wife Janet (Mamta Mohandas) a little
cautious but nevertheless she stands like a rock solid pillar and supports all his decisions right till the end. The 1st half of the film is all about how Daniel goes about setting up his studio and makes his feature film, Vigathakumaran. We also get to notice the social scenario of those days like for example how tough it was for women especially those from the lower castes to act in movies and plays. Throughout the 1st half there is also an undercurrent of humour which also ensures that the proceedings are lively enough. Take for example the character of the Kathakali artist who is assigned one of the key characters in the film by Daniel and how he finds the whole process of acting in a film so different from what he is used to.
Here I need to necessarily pause for a moment and add that Kamal has based this film on 2 books, Nashta Naayika by Vinu Abraham (which talks about Rosie, the heroine of Vigathakumaran) and Life of J.C.Daniel, a biography of J.C.Daniel by Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan. The pause is important because the film takes a leap forward by 3 decades once the shooting of Vigathakumaran is over and we see that both the film and J.C.Daniel have faded away to obscurity. That’s the time when Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan (Sreenivasan), a film journalist starts taking interest in the story of J.C.Daniel. On realizing that Daniel’s contribution to Malayalam Cinema was largely unknown and that he was living a life in anonymity and penury, Chelangatt decides to push for the recognition of Daniel and enable some financial assistance for him. The rest of the film looks at how Chelangatt goes about this crusade, the kind of roadblocks he faces, his encounters with Daniel and Janet and getting to know what went on in the lives of Daniel and Rosie post the making of Vigathakumaran.
Celluloid has been in the news for the last few weeks starting with the film sweeping the Kerala State Film Awards by grabbing 7 awards including Best Film, Best Actor and Best Music. This was later followed by the controversy over the film suggesting that renowned writer and civil servant Malayatoor Ramakrishnan and the then Chief Minister, K.Karunakaran were allegedly responsible for denying the recognition of J.C.Daniel as the Father of Malayalam Cinema. This led to accusations and counter accusations regarding the issue as many writers, politicians and social and cultural icons had their own viewpoints to project regarding the same. While I wouldn’t say that the film got noticed only due to the controversy (the film actually doesn’t mention either Malayatoor or Karunakaran by name) it cannot be denied that the State Awards and the controversy have helped in extending the shelf life of the movie at the theatres.
As mentioned already the film is a fairly straightforward tale of J.C.Daniel and probably what went wrong in his lifetime. Even in a serious subject the use of subtle humour in the 1st half works in favour of the film. If the film manages to get the period details right be it the 1920’s, 30’s, 60’s etc, then credit needs to go to so many people- Kamal for his vision, Ubaid the co-producer for supporting Kamal’s vision, Suresh Kollam for the fantastic art direction (which won him a State Award too), Venu’s cinematography, Pattanam Rasheed’s makeup (superb contrast among the 3 different getups of Prithviraj in the film), S.B.Satheesh’s costumes (which won him a State Award as well) and also all the others who worked with these people. Its also heartening to know that as a process of getting the detailing done to the best extent possible, Kamal has also made use of a language expert to get the Travancore way of speaking sound genuine in the film, watch the film to understand what I’m saying.
M.Jayachandran’s music is perfectly in sync with the needs of the film and he truly deserves the State Award not just for composing the 2 lovely songs (Enundodi sung by Sithara and lyrics by Engandiyoor Chandrasekhara and Katte Katte sung by G.Sriram and Vaikom Vijayalakshmi with lyrics by Rafeeq Ahammed) but for also ensuring that his singers also get recognition- Sithara won the Best Female Singer and both G.Sriram and Vaikom Vijayalakshmi won Special Jury Mention, at the Kerala State Film Awards, recently. Kamal’s mastery over his craft and the subject comes across clearly in the way he has not hogged all the attention and enabled all his actors and technical crew members to have their contributions made visible clearly.
Eventually despite everything else working a film like Celluloid can fall flat if the choice of actors goes wrong and/or the actors do not put in believable performances. Thankfully Celluloid does not have anything like that to worry about. Sreenivasan is as usual reliable and is effective as Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan, Chandni as Rosie is a find alright and she easily slips into a slightly difficult character. Mamta Mohandas is dignified in her portrayal of Janet and she acts as a solid pillar of support to the dreamer and the passionate J.C.Daniel. Sreejith Ravi and T.G.Ravi play the younger and older versions of Sundarraj with considerable charm and a whole host of prominent actors like Siddique, Nedumudi Venu, Thalaivasal Vijay etc play short but effective cameos. And finally I come to Prithviraj and I must hereby admit that seeing his portrayal of J.C.Daniel it looks tough to think of anyone else who could have done justice to this landmark character. Prithviraj is composed and in superb control as J.C.Daniel and as his youngest son and lends the film that special touch which elevates the film completely. With Molly Aunty Rocks and Ayalum Njanum Thammil, Prithviraj ended 2012 on a good note after a not so great start and with Celluloid it looks like he has turned over a new leaf. Here’s hoping that we see more such films from Kamal and Prithviraj from here on.
And yes here’s also hoping that we get to see more such biopics on personalities who have largely remained unsung heroes and whose stories need to reach out to a larger section of society. On a parting note its also imperative to note that if you are passionate about something and dream of making your passion into a reality (whether it be films or otherwise) then that makes Celluloid all the more a film which you cannot avoid.