Remembering Malayalam director Sethumadhavan and his ‘non-exaggerated’ movies

The director, who made many great movies between the 60s and 90s that were so akin to life, passed away on December 24.
KS Sethumadhavan
KS Sethumadhavan
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Writer Kesavadev’s Pappu is not a stranger who suddenly shows up on the screen, as a tough rickshaw puller. Kesavadev had made Pappu familiar by then, likeable, as the boy who can’t stand injustice. He had run away from home, fighting the discrimination by his school teacher between different classes of children. On his own, he kept fighting the unjust men who employed him till he found a rickshaw to run. Kesavadev built Pappu into a forthright figure, very clear in his words and deeds. A man who didn’t have to think twice about anything.

Perhaps that’s what director Sethumadhavan liked when he put Pappu into a film. One of his early movies, it would make people call him a legend later. The director who made many such great movies that were so akin to life passed away last Friday, on the eve of Christmas. Once again, people remembered him for bringing to Malayalam cinema not just beautiful stories but wonderful ways of telling them.

In a documentary that his son Santhosh made for Manorama News, Sethumadhavan says that a strong story is what makes the basic foundation for a film. Such was Pappu’s story in Kesavadev’s Odayil Ninnu – a rickshaw puller who stoops before no one gets entangled in the life of a little girl he finds literally in a gutter (‘oda’). He loves Lakshmi and raises her like a daughter, ignoring the taunts it brings him and the ungrateful insults she throws at him as an older girl. But towards the end, when she realises the error of her ways and says she’s always thankful, Pappu retorts: “I’m not a dog waiting for thanks”. And you can trace him back to the boy who rose against all he thought was wrong.

Those were the days film acting came with some amount of drama. But Sethumadhavan never wanted any sort of ‘exaggeration’, he liked it to be subtle. In his documentary, he thanks two people for this valuable lesson – Sukumaran from Kannur who took him to an English movie, The Keys of the Kingdom, in college and writer KT Muhammed who said he should avoid exaggeration when he adapted books.

Sethumadhavan began converting the books he loved into movies that spoke a real-life language. It worked for him that the men who planned to adapt Odayil Ninnu before him had rejected it because they didn’t think a movie about a rickshaw puller would succeed. It did. There were doubts cast when Sethumadhavan began a film to adapt Malayatoor’s Yakshi. One producer ran away fearing failure. But another came on board and the movie was a success. Like for most of his movies, it was MO Joseph and Manjilas who bankrolled Yakshi. Sathyan plays the lead again, as a lecturer whose face gets partially burnt and is then shunned by friends who think him ugly. A young woman (Saradha) walks into his life on a rainy night and he falls in love with her. But at one point he becomes obsessed with the idea that she is a ghost – a yakshi.

Sathyan and Sethumadhavan would create many wonders like these. In June, when TNM wrote about Sathyan’s 50th death anniversary, Sethumadhavan told us that the actor’s passing had broken his heart. It was in the sets of one of his films, Oru Penninte Katha, that Sathyan once coughed up blood and the others found out about his cancer. He died while acting in Sethumadhavan’s Anubhavangal Palichakal (1971), adapted from another literary masterpiece written by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Sathyan played a diehard Communist in the film who was a bad husband and father. The actor’s first state award too came from a Sethumadhavan film, Kadalpalam, adapted from a play by KT Muhammed.

Watch: Scenes from Kadalpalam

Sethumadhavan liked adapting literary works into movies, a practice that he developed after watching The Keys of the Kingdom. He got the book by AJ Cronin on which the movie was based and found it interesting how the book was transformed into a movie. He began reading books thinking of ways he could adapt them into movies. Once he met and befriended Sathyan, he began looking for characters in books that best suited the actor. Vazhvemayam was another film where Sathyan played the unflattering role of a jealous husband who throws out his wife (poor Sheela had to mostly bear the wrath of Sathyan’s bad guy roles) suspecting infidelity. Hardly the ideal hero. Sethumadhavan’s movies would in this way stand apart, not following the formula for ‘success’.

Many had discouraged him from making these movies. But he’d always take it as a challenge. Punarjanmam (1972) was a film that few thought would succeed. It was based on a case history published by atheist psychiatrist Dr AT Kovoor. Perhaps one of the early movies to explore mental health in Malayalam. Prem Nazir played the husband who can’t have sex with his wife (Jayabharathi) even though he loves her. A psychiatrist digs out the reason.

That same year, Sethumadhavan made another landmark movie – Achanum Bappayum (both Achan and Bappa are terms for ‘dad’, one used by Hindus, the other by Muslims) which had the celebrated song ‘Manushyan mathangale srishtichu / Mathangal daivangale srishtichu / Manushyanum mathangalum daivangalum koodee / Mannu panku vachu manassu panku vachu’. Roughly translating to: Man created religions, religions created gods, men and religions and gods divided the land and the mind.

He didn’t try to give a message, the director says in the documentary. But he is happy when there is an impact, such as an estranged couple who reunited after watching his film Vazhvemayam.

Sethumadhavan also introduced two major actors through his films. Kamal Haasan played his first lead role as an adult in Kanyakumari. Years earlier he played a child in the director’s Kannum Karalum – another unique concept at the time, in which a child wrote letters to his mother in heaven. The other big actor who made his debut in Sethumadhavan’s film is Mammootty. He played a young man standing alongside an agitated Bahadur in the film Anubhavangal Palichakal. Sethumadhavan spoke about meeting Mammootty before that on one of his sets, as a young person who had finished his BA and LLB and had come to ask for a chance to act. They have both become such valuable actors later, the director says in the documentary.

Watch: Kamal Haasan in Kanyakumari

Watch: Mammootty in Anubhavangal Palichakal

Sethumadhavan remained active in the 1970s, bringing out more acclaimed films like Pani Theerathe VeeduChukku and Chattakkari. All three were literary adaptations – from the writings of Parappurath, Thakazhi and Pamman. Chattakkari – a film that told the story of an Anglo-Indian woman falling in love with a Hindu man – was remade into multiple languages. Sethumadhavan also directed the Hindi remake, Julie, one of actor Lakshmi’s most appreciated performances.

He made films in other languages, especially Tamil since the 60s. One of his very last films was in Tamil – Nammavar starring Kamal Haasan, which came out in 1994. In Malayalam, he remained active through the 80s, bringing out acclaimed movies such as Oppol – in which a woman who gets pregnant as a girl raises her child as her brother – but made lesser number of movies. The last Malayalam movie he directed was Venal Kinavukal, scripted by literary doyen MT Vasudevan Nair, about the ways in which things can go wrong for teenagers who are just beginning to explore life.

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