Against all odds: How J.C. Daniel, Father of Malayalam cinema, made his first and last movie

Daniel never won any recognition when he was alive and the hardship he went through forced him to give up cinema.
Against all odds: How J.C. Daniel, Father of Malayalam cinema, made his first and last movie
Against all odds: How J.C. Daniel, Father of Malayalam cinema, made his first and last movie
Written by :

John Moses

History is never remembered in its entirety, there are always some portions which get lost in the oceans of time. But there are some who find these missing pieces of the jigsaw and reveal to us again the events of the past.

The first Malayalam film was released in 1930 and it is thanks to the work of Chelankattu Gopala Krishnan that we know the intriguing story surrounding it. Through his biography Life of JC Daniel, he put the father of Malayalam cinema under the spotlight that was denied to him when he was alive.

In the times that Daniel lived, caste oppression was the norm in Travancore. To escape the inhuman treatment and restrictions imposed by the upper caste Hindus, many people from lower caste groups converted to Christianity, a religion which was offered to them by missionaries.

However, the puritanical teachings of missionaries considered a wide range of acts to be "sinful", including watching plays and films. Daniel's family, too, had converted to Christianity and shared the same belief.

J.C. Daniel's father, NJ Daniel, was a doctor in the Neyyattinkara Government Hospital under the Travancore Kingdom. His mother's name was Ganammaal.

Daniel was the couple's seventh child and he was born in Agestheeswaram near Kanyakumari. After completing his education in his birthplace and Nagercoil, he later moved to Travancore for his higher education.

It was here that the boy from the strictly Catholic family developed a love for cinema and the performing arts. He went to watch silent films and plays along with his friend Raman Changu without the knowledge of his parents.

One day, the young Daniel read an article in an English newspaper about cinema production which involved sound. Daniel could not get the article off his mind. It sparked within him a deep desire to produce films and he subsequently traveled to Mumabi and Chennai to learn the techniques of film production.

Daniel then came up with a plot for his film. It was to be the story of a boy born into a wealthy family in Travancore but is kidnapped and taken to Sri Lanka where he is put to work as a laborer in a plantation. Over time and through much struggle, he reunites with his parents.

However, it was difficult for Daniel to find a female actor who'd be willing to play the heroine in his film. Just as caste oppression was widely prevalent in Travancore, women, too, led restricted lives.

Daniel ran an ad in a newspaper and received a response from an Anglo-Indian woman from Mumbai. At her invitation, he went to the big city to meet her and discuss the terms for the project. However, though the woman was willing to be part of the film, she demanded Rs 10,000 from Daniel - a very big amount for those times.

Daniel attempted to negotiate a lower salary with her but she refused and wouldn't budge. Since he didn't have any other options, he agreed and paid her an advance of Rs 5000. He also arranged for first class tickets for her on a train from Mumbai to Travancore.

However, when the woman arrived in Travancore, she was unhappy with her accommodation and decided to leave. She did not return the advance paid to her.

Left on the lurch, without a heroine or money, Daniel was frustrated and discouraged. But his friend Johnson consoled him and told him that he knew of a girl who was acting in some local theatrical production.

Rosi, born Rajammal, was from a dalit family. As with many others, she too converted to Christianity and became a Catholic, changing her name to Rosamma or Rosi in the process. Daniel met Rosi's father and shared the plot of the film with him. After some persuasion, the latter agreed and Rosi was allowed to become part of the production.

Finally, Daniel had a cast. He turned his attention to building the infrastructure needed for him to make the film. He wished to create a studio just like the one he'd seen in Mumbai. To finance this, he sold his 108-acre land near Panachchamoodu (now near the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu states). He also sold land from his birthplace, Agastheeswaram.

With this money, he built the Travancore National Pictures studio modeled after the Mumbai studios.

Daniel named his first film The Lost Child (Vikathakumaran in Malayalam).  Rosi played the part of a Nair woman named Sarojini, following Daniel's instructions and pulling out a commendable performance. When the production was finished, Daniel decided to screen the film on October 23, 1930, at the Capital Theatre in Travancore where plays were usually staged.

Rosi and her family came for the film's premier. But this was seen as an overreach by the upper caste people in the theatre - they were outraged that a "Pulaya woman" was watching the film with them.

They demanded that she leave the venue but Rosi refused to go without watching her film. When the film began to play, the upper caste people realised that it was Rosi who had acted in it. Their ire grew. How could a woman of her caste origin play a Nair woman, they shouted.

The crowd transformed into an angry mob which tore down the screen and damaged the theatre.

Daniel, too, was threatened by the mob and he had to run to make an escape. However, the film was later screened in Nagercoil, Kollam, Alappuzha, and other parts of Travancore.

Though there were many screenings, Daniel could not recover the cost of the film's production. He sold his wife's property to settle his debts and eventually, he had to sell even the land on which Travancore National Pictures stood.

A heartbroken Daniel then went to Chennai where he studied dental medicine and spent the rest of his life as a dentist. He died on April 29, 1975.

For Rosi, the backlash was even more severe. Her caste and gender were twin identities that marked her out as an easy target for the upper castes. She was unable to step out of the house without listening to abuse and slurs.  A mob even tried to burn her hut and she escaped the fire with the help of a lorry driver.

It is believed that Rosi, Malayalam cinema's first heroine, married the same lorry driver and later died in Nagercoil.

Daniel suffered for the sake of his art. It came at the cost of his wealth, property, and personal life. He was not recognised for his contribution to Malayalam cinema when alive. During his last days, when he was bedridden, his wife Janet requested assistance from the Kerala government. But the rulers merely ignored her request.

However, today, J. C. Daniel is celebrated as the Father of Malayalam Cinema. This recognition is made possible through the work of the veteran cinema journalist Chelangottu Gopala Krishnan. It is through Krishnan’s efforts that Daniel’s ground-breaking film production was recognized after his death. The Kerala government granted this recognition only after Krishnan’s work was revealed.

Today, the Kerala government gives the J.C.Daniel award each year to those who excel in Malayalam cinema.

And at last, well into the 21st century, someone made a film about the man who had started it all. In 2013, a movie based on Daniel's life was released. Celluloid, directed by Kamal, and starring Prithvi Raj, Sreenivasan, Nedmudi Venu and Mamta Mohandas, went on to become a box-office success, and also picked up several awards. Most importantly, it brought back J.C. Daniel, the man Kerala had forgotten, to life once again. In a medium that was beloved to him.

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