Remembering Vijaya Nirmala, the first woman director of Malayalam cinema

She rose to fame playing the ghost in the horror classic ‘Bhargavi Nilayam’, and went on to direct more than 40 films in south Indian languages.
Remembering Vijaya Nirmala, the first woman director of Malayalam cinema
Remembering Vijaya Nirmala, the first woman director of Malayalam cinema
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Vijaya Nirmala must have been all of 20 when she became the ghost in Bhargavi Nilayam, a horror classic of Malayalam cinema made in 1964 – four years after Hitchcock’s Psycho. Less than a decade later, she directed her first film, Kavitha, in Malayalam – even though she’d been acting predominantly in Telugu – and became the first woman to do so. Malayalam cinema therefore lost a legend when Vijaya, 75 years old, passed away on Thursday, after a heart attack in Hyderabad.

She was born in Tamil Nadu and began acting as a child in films – in Tamil and Telugu – before she came to Malayalam for Bhargavi Nilayam and turned famous. As Bhargavi, she played the ghost who would guide a writer (Madhu) moving into the house she once lived in, to write her story, in mysterious ways. Prem Nazir, her lover in the film, also became her hero in Udhyogastha, a woman-centric film with Sarada in the lead, that came out three years later. She acted in 20 more films in Malayalam, of which one came out as the first A-certified film in Malayalam – Kalyana Rathriyil.

Vijaya acted in 200 or more films across Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam, but it is as a director that she truly made her mark. She’s directed over 40 films, beginning with that first one in Malayalam, and made an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2002 as the most prolific female director.

To an interview given to Mathrubhumi three years ago, Vijaya spoke about her decision to make Kavitha in Malayalam. It was a time she had developed an interest in direction but worried about the cost of making a movie – around Rs 10 lakh, at the time. That’s when she met IV Sasi, late Malayalam filmmaker, whom Vijaya described as young in the early 1970s. He told her it would only cost half the amount to make a Malayalam movie, compared to a Telugu film. 

She and her husband (actor Krishna) produced it under Rs 4 lakh and Vijaya also played the title role in the film. The film tells the story of a woman who has to undertake sex work to take care of her little daughter Kavitha and how the girl grows up talented, but has to bear the society’s scorn for being her mother’s child. The climax showed Vijaya being raped by the man who had kept her mom as a mistress, and the mother killing him on learning about it. The man’s son offers his hand in marriage to Kavitha, a rarity in the 1970s when virginity was all too glorified as the only thing that matters.

Poster of 'Kavitha'; Source:

Vijaya remade the film in Telugu, but with a different climax, to suit the ‘morality norms’ of those days. While making most of her movies in Telugu, she also crossed over to make the occasional Tamil one (Kumkumachimizh) and Malayalam (Chattambi Krishnan). 

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