The JC Daniel Award, instituted by the Government of Kerala and presented by the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, is a kind of Holy Grail for those associated with Malayalam cinema. It is the highest honour for outstanding contribution to cinema and is given in memory of JC Daniel, considered as the father of Malayalam cinema.
Incidentally a film on Daniel titled Celluloid, brilliantly directed by Kamal with Prithviraj in the lead, was released in 2013. The award for the year 2015 was presented in 2016 to a doyen among directors, KG George, whose films released in the 1970s and 1980s and revolutionised Malayalam cinema, giving it an altogether new idiom and meaning.
George graduated from the celebrated Film and Television Institute of India, Pune with a Gold Medal in direction. Having been exposed to the works of masters like Kurosawa, Ray, Antonioni and others, he had decided right at the outset that he would shun commercial cinema altogether and opt instead for a new genre that would lay emphasis on the story and the script, more than anything else. George was fortunate that he could pick up the ropes from his mentor Ramu Kariat, the man who made the redoubtable classic Chemmeen, a film considered as a masterpiece even today. He assisted Kariat in the latter’s Nellu, apart from working on the screenplay for the film. Though ‘Nellu’ was hardly a patch on Chemmeen, George could pick up the nuances of filmmaking from the master. For good measure, he also inherited Kariat’s famous goatee which he sports to this day.
George, who had earlier worked as an Associate Director for the film Maya in 1972, branched out on his own with the film Swapnadanam in the year 1975. The film, starring one of the popular heroines of the time, the late Rani Chandra, had a newcomer Dr Mohandas as the hero. Touted as a marital psychodrama, Swapnadanam won the National Award for the Best Malayalam film. Though it was totally shorn of the usual commercial ingredients, it went on to become a box office hit as well. With a tightly woven script and characters that were well fleshed out, ‘Swapnadanam’ signaled the arrival of a new trend in filmmaking. George, who was later to be spoken of in the same breath as Bharathan, Padmarajan and Mohan, had won his spurs with his maiden effort.
His campus film Ulkadal with Venu Nagavalli and Shoba in the lead roles, which was released in 1979, introduced thespian Thilakan, a theatre veteran to Malayalam cinema. Another highlight of the film was the cinematography by Balu Mahendra. In the 1980s, the director was more prolific and found opportunity to come up with films like Mela and Yavanika. Mela featured Mammootty, then a rising star, in one of the lead roles. It was a story set in a circus tent and a midget circus clown was the main protagonist, who finds his wife falling for a bike jumper employed by the circus (Mammootty). In a tragic denouement, the clown takes his own life, unable to bear the separation from his wife, whom he loved dearly.
George, who had an abiding friendship with members of a travelling drama troupe in his village, based his next film Yavanika, released in 1982, on a drama troupe. The tabla artiste (Gopi) of the troupe, who is an alcoholic loathed by the female members of the troupe for his debauched ways, suddenly disappears and a police inspector Jacob Eraly (Mammootty) is called upon to investigate the case. The film had a host of actors in the supporting cast including Thilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Jagathi Sreekumar and Jalaja. One of the earliest mystery thrillers in Malayalam cinema, Yavanika, a compelling backroom drama, was not just commercially successful but also won acclaim for its artistic superiority and the performance of the entire cast. The film was also adjudged the Best Film of the Year by the Kerala Government.
Lekhayude Maranam, Oru Flashback, another of George’s oeuvres was loosely based on the tragic suicide of National Award-winning actress Shobha (who had featured in George’s film Ulkadal), and the controversy that surrounded her untimely demise. Shobha, who was married to cinematographer-director Balu Mahendra, hanged herself just days after she received the Best Actress Award for a riveting performance in the Tamil film Pasi, directed by Durai. The film had a petite Nalini in the lead role, and though George played safe while narrating her story, the film did manage to stir a hornet’s nest. The only film based on a true-life incident directed by George, Lekhayude Maranam too received a good reception at the box office and critics found it appealing and aesthetically satisfying.
Three women from different walks of life, and their travails and tribulations formed the crux of George’s film Adaminte Variyellu, and while two of the women better placed in life commit suicide unable to stomach the torture meted out to them by the men they married, it is the third, who works as a housemaid who braves the horrors and fights the odds to emerge successful. George had cast Srividya, Suhasini and Surya in the lead roles, and Surya, as the maid, walked away with the acting honours.
The only film where George was at his satirical best was Panchavadi Palam, a film that lampooned and ribbed the political class and their obsession over constructing a bridge, mainly to feather their own nests through kickbacks on the deal.
Irakal, a film where he explored the psychology of violence, narrated the tale of a ruthless father Mathukutty (Thilakan) who raises his sons as criminals and is stung with remorse at the appalling sight of one of them turning into a serial killer. He then has a change of heart and kills the monster that he had created. Scenes of graphic violence dotted the film, which could not curry favour with the audience, despite sterling performances from Thilakan, debutant Ganesh Kumar (as the psychotic killer) and the deft directorial touches from George. His other flops included films like Oru Yaathrayude Anthiyam and Rappaadigalude Katha, which, however, won the Kerala State Award for its popular appeal and aesthetic value. The director last wielded the megaphone for the Mammootty-Khushbu starrer Elavankodu Desam in 1998, but the period film simply failed to click. George was later to take a potshot at Mammootty, whom he accused of sabotaging his career.
The director was the Founder-Chairman of the Malayalam Cine Technicians Association (MACTA) and also served as the Chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation, apart from being part of the jury for several prestigious awards. His memoirs, titled Flashback – Enteyum Cinemayudayum, was published in the year 2012. A documentary directed by Shahina Rafiq and Lijin Jose titled Cinemayile Mattoraal on George, which showcased his works, was released in 2013. Plagued by ill health, the septuagenarian director now spends his time in his native place, indulging in his favourite pastime, reading.