The Celestial Storyteller


‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed’ – Ernest Hemingway

P. Padmarajan barely lived 46 years. In that short span of time he excelled himself so much in the spheres of story writing and film-making that even two decades after he left us, his memory grows fonder in the minds of those who have read his books and seen this films. In the galaxy of Malayalam cinema, Padmarajan and Bharathan, a film maker who used the camera like a painter his brush, were two blazing comets. Together and separately they ushered in fresh air into our cinema starting from the mid 70’s. Fittingly enough they announced their arrival in the same work, the black and white Prayanam, which Padmarajan wrote and Bharathan directed in ‘75. The unconventional story of a young girl married to an old priest challenged societal mores. Sexuality was finally out of the closet and discussed in the living rooms of our filmi forums.

The partnership was to continue in five more movies – Rathi Nirvedam, Thakara, Lorry, Eanam and Ozhivukalam in chronological order. Also after the writer’s death, Bharathan paid him a tribute by remaking his Thakara in Thamizh as Aavarampoo. The other directors for whom Padmarajan wrote scripts are I.V. Sasi, Mohan, Sankaran Nair, Joshi, K.S. Sethumadhavan and K.G. George. Padmarajan himself directed 18 films and it is a sign of his greatness that he looked to other writers for three of the stories, in spite of being such a towering litterateur himself. Koodevide and Innale are based on novellas Moongil Pookkal and Punarjananam respectively by the Thamizh writer Vaasanthi. Thinkalazhcha Nalla Divasam is an adaptation of a radio play Ammacku Vendi by Sajini Pavithran while yet another radio play Sisirathil Oru Prabhatham by Sudhakar Mangalodayam became the film Kariyilakatupole. The source for Namukk Parkkan Munthirithoppukal is the novel Namukk Gramangalil Chenn Raparkkam written by the MG University librarian K.K. Sudhakaran. Padmarajan’s short story Orma was adapted by his former assistant Blessy in ’05 as Thanmatra.

Padmarajan was born in Muthukulam, Alapuzha on 23rd May 1945. He graduated in Chemistry from University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Soon afterwards he devoted himself to studying Sanskrit for one full year under Cheppad Achutha Warrier. He joined All India Radio in Thrissur as programme announcer. After three years he was transferred to the capital city. Some of the experiences of his initial working days crystallized in the novel Udakapolla which later became source for the movie Thoovanathumpikal that many consider as his masterpiece. This was one of five films in which he cast Mohanlal. They last associated in Season, set in the seedier pockets of Kovalam beach.  He dubbed for many of his characters. In ’86 as he got mightily busy in films, Padmarajan took voluntary retirement from AIR. The decision proved to be cinema’s boon as that very year itself he produced three classics. This includes Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil which I feel has a remote resemblance to Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). His first directorial venture had been in ’79 with the black and white Peruvazhiyambalam which was produced by Prem Prakash who also appeared in his later movies. The film blooded a thin, young Asokan. Other actors he introduced in his films include Rahman in Koodevide, Shari in Namukk Parkaan Munthirithoppukal and Jayaram in Aparan. The last one happened after he saw the cassette of the Cochin Kalabhavan mimicry artist. Incidentally Parvathi, the lady who was to become the actor’s wife in real life, played his sister while Shobhana was the heroine. Jayaram was asked to don the greasepaint for the master’s very next film as well. Moonampakkam has such universal appeal that this tragic tale is treasured by fans as one of the best acts of thespian Thilakan. His literature-loving old man grieves over the grandson who disappears in the sea, yet he clings to hope by recalling Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor where the protagonist returns after ten days in the Caribbean Sea.

Padmarajan was an early bloomer. By the time he was 20 he wrote a short story called ‘Lola Milford Enna American Penkidaav’. He went on to write many more stories which got collected in books like Aparan, Prahelika, Kaivariyude Thekkeyatam, Mattullavarude Venal and Pukakkannada. He won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for his novel  Nakshatrangale Kaval in ’72 when he was only 27. His other novels include Itha Ivide Vare, Manj Kalam Nota Kuthira, Nanmakallude Sooryan, Prathimayum Rajakumariyum, Rithubhedangallude Parithoshikam, Shavavahanangallum Thedi, Udakappola and Vadakakk Oru Hridayam. As his former teacher ONV Kurup observed, Padmarajan replaced the Valluvanadan slang that our movies were ridden with in the ‘70s with Onanattukara language.

In 1970 Padmarajan married Palakkad-born Radhalakashmi, his colleague at AIR. They have two children, Ananthapadmanabhan and Madhavikkutty. In her touching reminiscences of her husband, Padmarajan Ente Gandharvan  Radhalakshmi writes about the recurrence of the theme of death in his works. Many male members of Padmarajan’s family including his brothers died early and he too had a premonition about going early. At one point it became an obsession such that Padmarajan feared sleeping alone in a room. This could have impacted the nature of the stories which were nevertheless detailed and immaculately crafted. Padmarajan once said that when he was a child his mother Njavarakkal Devaki Amma told him so many stories, too many stories that he was left with no choice but to also tell stories himself. And what stories they turned out to be! They bore the smell of raw earth, of blood, sweat, tears and laughter. His range was amazing; he never repeated himself in his films and explored the full gamut of human emotions in the stories. He loved the fable. Njan Gandharvan is a great example of his interest in the supernatural, hints of which we got earlier in the vessel-seller’s warehouse in Kallan Pavithran. Recently his son Ananthapadmanabhan published two hitherto unseen old movie synopses of his father’s in a book called Swam. Apart from the title story, the other one is ‘Pirannalkutty: Oru Manthravada Katha’ about a friendly goblin who is sadly held captive by a sorcerer.  Ananthan also remembers producer Appachan and son Jijo landing at their door in that early ‘80s period, buying the story for a decent sum and that was that. To complete the sordid tale, My Dear Kuttichathan, India’s first 3D film, came out before long — only the original source was never acknowledged. And Padmarajan had better use of his time than question this seeming ingratitude.

Padmarajan’s films, like those of his contemporaries Bharathan and K.G. George, were middle of the road. They did not have the pretensions of high art. They never stooped to crass vulgarity or catered to mindless formulae, a bane of popular films in India in general. At the same time they struck deep chords within the viewers and genuinely intrigued them. Most of them had strong females at the centre. In Koodevide when the sexual frustration of the military man played by Mammootty culminates in him killing his girlfriend’s favourite pupil or when Baby Sonia’s character disappears in the woods in Nombarathipooov, one cannot help being disturbed. I personally did not like Novemberinte Nashtam and consider it a very puerile plot. Oridathoru Phayalvan has universal appeal and is evocative of Latin American masters. If the much talked about Rathi Nirvedam was a needed slap in the face of society’s moral hypocrisies, Desadanakkili Karayarilla brought lesbianism to the limelight. The wiry adolescent of Kanamarayath, the arguing inter-caste couple in Parran Parran Parran or even the wayward students of Idavela are plucked right out of our middle class lives. Innale  was Moondram Pirai with an alteration. The sight of college girls flocking to the matinee of Njan Gandharvan had surprised me (in Thiruvananthapuram and in those days at least it was a rare sight). Even today the film is a rage with females of all ages. It proved ominous for its maker. Soon after the release he went for a promotion tour in Kozhikode along with actor Nitish Bharadwaj and producer Goodknight Mohan. On the cursed morning of 24th January  1991 he did not wake up from his sleep at Hotel Paramount Towers. P. Padmarajan, celestial teller of enchanting stories, the shining comet in Malayalam’s evening sky had quietly slipped into eternal slumber.

A Trust was formed to perpetuate the memory of Padmarajan. It gives out awards in both writing and film every year. Ananthapadmanabhan is today a journalist with several short stories to his name. But he has not been able to come out of his father’s shadow, a situation shared by his friends like Siddharth Bharathan and Murali Gopi. However in recent years he is testing the filmy waters. After remaking Vadakakk Oru Hirdayam as a serial for a TV channel, Ananthan has written a movie script bearing a name worthy of his legendary father, Venalinte Kalaneekkangal. It was later named to August Club.  It remains to be seen how well he bears the torch.

(July 2012)


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