Malayalam cinema has reaped a rich harvest at the National Awards for 2017 and three of those awards were won by the yet to be released film Bhayanakam.
The awards were for Best Direction (Jayaraj), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jayaraj) and Best Cinematography (Nikhil S Praveen). For director Jayaraj who helmed his first film Vidyarambham in 1988 and is still going strong, this was his second National Award for Best Director. The first came way back in 1997 for the internationally acclaimed Kaliyattam starring then mainstream hero Suresh Gopi in the lead role.
Apart from several National Awards, Jayaraj's work has also won international honours at various film festivals. An engineering graduate, Jayaraj was drawn to films after being fascinated by classics like Akiro Kurosowa’s Rashomon and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Fortunately for the young man, he had as his neighbor one of Malayalam cinema’s most celebrated directors, Bharathan. Bharathan took Jayaraj under his wing and their first collaboration together was Chilambam.
Jayaraj assisted the veteran in six more films, including the lavishly mounted Vaishali. After getting his first break with Vidyarambham, Jayaraj went on to direct several films that did precious little to further his career. Most of them were commercial ventures like Aakasha Kottayile Sultan, Johnnie Walker, Highway, Arabia, Kudumbasameham etc. But the first film in which Jayaraj showed flashes of his brilliance was Desadanam, released in 1997.
The film which eschewed commercial ingredients in toto, narrated the story of a young boy all set to renounce material life and embrace the life of a sanyasi and the emotional churn in the lives of his parents who are loath to part with him. The film turned out to be a commercial success and also won the National Award for the Best Regional Film. But the film that created a greater impact was Kaliyattam, also released in 1997 an adaption of Shakespeare’s Othello.
The principal characters of Theyyam artistes were played by Suresh Gopi, Lal and Biju Menon, with Lal playing Iago to Gopi’s Othello and Manju Warrier, with her large expressive eyes was cast as Desdemona. Misled by Paniyan ( Lal), Kannan Perumalayan (Suresh Gopi) suspects his wife’s fidelity and slays her, only to realise later that she was innocent of his suspicions. Stung with remorse, Perumalyaan kills himself.
Jayaraj won the National Award for Best Director for the film and Suresh Gopi was adjudged the Best Actor. After flirting with comedy in Thilakkam, starring Dileep and Kavya Madhavan, Jayaraj again captivated audiences with his hard hitting film 4 The People, a story of four engineering college students who raise a banner of revolt against corruption. The major highlight of the film, however, was Jassie Gift’s music score with a few numbers turning into chartbusters. While 4 The People was a hit, the other two films which were part of the trilogy - By the People and Of the People turned out to be damp squibs.
Jayaraj embarked on a series of films, dubbing them as a ‘navarasa’ series and the culmination of the journey was Bhayanakam. The films were titled Shantham, Karunam, Bheebats (Hindi with Seema Biswas and Atul Kulkarni), Adhbudham, Veeram and Bhayanakam. Except Bhayanakam which is expected to hit the screens this month, all the other films were released commercially to varying degrees of success.
Veeram, which had Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor in the lead, was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and was a period film set in 13th century Kerala. A painstaking effort by Jayaraj, his cast and technicians, the film which had Kerala’s celebrated martial arts discipline ‘kalari’ as a backdrop met with little success at the box-office.
Bhayanakam was based on a couple of chapters that were a part of Jnanpith winning author Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai’s epic novel Kayar. A simple film with a few characters, Bhayanakam is set in the days of World War II and the protagonist isa postman (Renji Panikkar) who delivers money orders from soldiers to their kin in a village in the pre-war days. With the outbreak of war, the same postman turns into an omen of death, carrying telegrams conveying tragic news of ultimate sacrifice on the war front and becomes a dreaded figure.
Among the oeuvres of this director who has always trodden his own path, was Naayika, the story of an actor. It had Urvashi Sharada in the role of a diva past her prime and Padmapriya as her younger version. Jayaram, as the evergreen hero of Malayalam cinema Prem Nazir, played his part to perfection, bringing to life the mannerisms of the star and his perfect diction as well. Naayika won critical acclaim but bombed at the box office.
But, perhaps the one film that should deserve a pole position among Jayaraj’s works was the much admired Ottaal, the plot of which he borrowed from the play Vaanka by the Russian playwright and author Anton Chekov. The film narrated the story of an emotional bond between a young orphan boy and his grandfather, with their simple joys and profound sorrows forming the nucleus. Brilliant acting by Ashank Sha as the young boy and Kumarokom Vasudevan (a fisherman in real life), as the grandfather, haunting visuals and Jayaraj’s deft directorial touches were the highlights of the film. Ottaal won all the major awards at the International Film Festival of Kerala and also the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The film also had the distinction of being the first Malayalam film to be released in the theatres and online simultaneously.
While Jayaraj has worked with superstar Mammootty in three films Johnnie Walker, Loudspeaker and The Train, he is yet to make a single film with the other reigning superstar Mohanlal. Jayaraj has plans to direct films based on the arts, Shringara, Roudram and Hasyam in the coming days. His greatest strength so far has been the discerning viewer and most of his films have catered to that segment of film aficionados.