Remembering the Celestial Story Teller

The 1984 movie `My Dear Kuttichathan’ is a watershed event in Indian cinema, not just for being India’s first 3-D film but also because it combined technology and myth in a superlatively packaged children’s film. As a school-going kid, I was treated to this falooda of a celluloid treat whose sweetness just refused to go away. In 2011, the magic was relived with a new digital version which introduced a robot into the plot as well as a song-ballet with a giant who keeps dwarfs as hostage-slaves in an island. A totally entertaining audio-visual delight for the new generation kids, it was also a nostalgic trip for their parents who get to see actors like Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, Zainudeen, Rajan P. Dev and Ravi Baswani come alive on the big screen. Who do we give credit for the adventures of this wonderful goblin, this chathan and his two friends, for this phantasmagoric movie that we will long cherish? Generally the applause is directed toward producer Navodaya Appachan, his son and director Jijo Punnose, music composer Illayaraja, lyricist Bichu Thirumala, and screenwriter Raghunath Paleri. 

Which is all fine, except that the protagonist is missing in this melee!

One can pose it as a puzzle for avid film watchers of Kerala to guess who could’ve thought and fleshed out a magical story such as this in the 80’s. Think end ’80s. Think gandharvan. You got it, didn’t you?

Jump cutting to now, Swayam is a slender collection of two forgotten movie synopses of P. Padmarajan (Pirranaallkutty and Swayam) that had gathered dust in files and remained unpublished for long years. His son Ananthapadmanabhan, who is also a writer, took pains to bring them out, almost two decades since the master story teller’s demise. In the foreword, he grows nostalgic of the days when he and his younger sister Madhavikkutty enjoyed the warmth of their father’s overflowing love. The daughter even called the dad Achankutty in moments of extreme pamper. Pirranallkutty: Oru Manthravaada Katha is a story that germinated and evolved in Padmarajan’s fertile imagination after Appachan and Jijo had had a lengthy discussion with him. They paid him a decent sum for the effort. The writer took them along on research trips to all the prominent chathan seva madoms of central Kerala in the next few days. The kids in the tale are of the same age and characteristics as Padmarajan’s children. Pirranaallkutty was so named because he takes after a then newborn cousin of theirs (he is a bank officer today).  In Ananthan’s words, “Only a possessor of magical imagination can create a chathan. There is a certain fabulous nature to father’s works, akin to a flight seen in Italo Calvino.”

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How true! His fantasy novella Prathimayum Rajakumariyum, the film Njaan Gandharvan or even the hilarious Kallan Pavithran (particularly the scenes involving Nedumudi inside the warehouse of vessels) best illustrate this. There is a looming sadness in the lives of both Gandharvan and Kuttichathan. Both are victims, living accursed lives per other people’s terms. Chathan is in perpetual fear of the manthravaadi, the sorcerer from whose captivity he has fled and who he knows will bottle him. Eventually he destroys the old man and disappears into a new freedom.

After Padmarajan’s passing away, two of his works were filmed. In 1992, Bharatan remade Thakara in Tamil as Avarampoo and in 2005, Padmarajan’s former assistant director Blessy adapted his guru’s short story Orma as Thanmatra. In both the cases, the writer was duly acknowledged in the credits. In spite of the non-recognition for My Dear Kuttichathan, Padmarajan never cribbed, but moved on and immersed himself in creative pursuits.

Born in Muthukulam, Alapuzha on 23rd May 1945, 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 a quarter century after he left us, his memory grows fonder in the minds of those who have read his books and seen his films. In the galaxy of Malayalam cinema, Padmarajan and Bharathan, a film maker who used camera like a painter wields his brush, were two blazing comets. Together and separately, they ushered in fresh air into our cinema starting from the mid 70’s. They announced their arrival in the same work, the black and white Prayanam, which Padmarajan wrote and Bharathan directed in 1975. 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 our living rooms.

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The partnership continued in five more movies – Rathi Nirvedam, Thakara, Lorry, Eanam and Ozhivukalam. 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. 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 by Tamil 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 Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal is K.K. Sudhakaran’s novel Namukku Gramangalil Chenn Raparkkam.

Padmarajan graduated in Chemistry from University College, Thiruvananthapuram and studied Sanskrit for one 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. The experience of the Thrissur days crystallized in the novel Udakapolla which became source for the movie Thoovanathumpikal. This was one of the five films in which he cast Mohanlal. They last associated in Season, set in the seedier pockets of Kovalam beach. In 1986, as he got busier in films, Padmarajan took voluntary retirement from AIR. Three classics rolled out that very year including Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil (which slightly resembles Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri).

Padmarajan’s directorial debut had been in 1979 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 Namukku Parkkaan Munthirithoppukal and Jayaram in Aparan. 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 in which the protagonist returns after ten days in the Caribbean Sea.

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Padmarajan was an early bloomer. By the time he was 20-years-old, 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 1972 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 1970s with Onanattukara language.

In 1970, Padmarajan married Palakkad-born Radhalakashmi, his colleague at AIR. 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’ve impacted the nature of the stories which were nevertheless detailed and immaculately crafted. As a child, Padmarajan was told countless stories by his mother Njavarakkal Devaki Amma 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. His range was amazing; he never repeated himself in his films and explored the full gamut of human emotions in the stories.

Padmarajan’s films, like those of his contemporaries Bharathan and K.G. George, were middle of the road. Neither did they have the pretensions of high art nor stoop to crass vulgarity or cater to mindless formulae. At the same time they struck deep chords within the viewers. Most of them had strong females at the centre. The viewer is disturbed when the sexual frustration of the military man culminates in him killing his girlfriend’s favorite pupil in Koodevide or when the little girl disappears in the woods in Nombarathipooovu. Oridathoru Phayalvan has a universal appeal 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 Parannu Parannu Parannu 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 as it was a rare sight in Thiruvananthapuram those days. The film proved ominous for its maker. Soon after its release he went for a promotion tour in Kozhikode along with actor Nitish Bharadwaj, producer Goodknight Mohan and distributor Gandhimati Balan. On 24th January 1991, he didn’t 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.

 

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