Nirmalyam a film yet to enter the historic annals of Indian films, despite its strong contention

V K Cherian

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MT Vasudevan Nair receiving the National Award for best feature film 'Nirmalayam' and President's Gold medal from Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed at a function in New Delhi | Mathrubhumi Archives

Nirmalyam, (offering) the 1973 film of M T Vasudevan Nair, the cultural icon of Kerala who turned 90 years in July, remains a not so celebrated film among the New Wave cinemas of 1970s. Surprisingly even the film historians of Kerala too appeared to have forgotten the film, by not giving Nirmalyam its rightful place in the history of Malayalam films.

What makes the MT film a milestone is its strength of not just the story, but its visual beauty. Apart from portraying the decaying feudal village and its people who have been subjected to changes of the 50s and 60s, the film also looks at the changing realities of the religious beliefs of those living out of an old village temple.

No wonder, the film was adjudged as the best film of the year by almost the same jury as that of the previous year, which awarded Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s debut film Swayamvaram as the best film of 1972 nationally. The jury headed by Romesh Thaper in 1973 had Malayalam writer OV Vijayan too, apart from Teji Bachan and Dileep Padgoankar (later Editor of Times of India) and a host of others. Unlike Swayamvaram which was neglected in State awards, Nirmalyam finds its place of honour in the Kerala awards too, as for any jury to ignore MT ‘s film would be very difficult, as the writer MT had his own strong profile in Kerala.

Swayamvaram a film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan

What makes the film notable even today is its bold stand on human predicaments for those who have dedicated their lives to the religion. The oracle, the lead character of the film, is a staunch believer of the local deity and attributed all his misery and the sad plight of the village to the abandoning of the rituals by the villagers in the near crumbling local temple. The oracle reports all the situations to his father, who was an oracle before him, but is bedridden after a stroke. The father for him is a “time” factor, lies paralyzed, but witnesses all activities, including the betrayal of his wife towards the end of the film. MT and his crew lead by Associate Director Azad and Cinematographer Ramachandra Babu beautifully visualizes the few significant scenes with the elder oracle and the son in the twilight of their rooms in the house.

P.J. Antony in a scene from Nirmalyam

The Oracle’s son is a rebel, educated but jobless and he finds the traditional job of the oracle of no use to him. But he is stuck in the village, as there is no job for him to make a livelihood or support the household which is dependent on the ever dwindling revenues from the temple. Unlike the son, the father, the Oracle, played by PJ Antony, veteran actor and theatre personality, cannot reject his traditional role and beliefs and still tries to get the temple rituals going. He goes to the Nampoodiri to persuade them to send a new priest when the old priest leaves. He warns people of the dangers of ignoring the local deity and the smallpox in the village comes as a wakeup call. The role of oracle convincingly and strongly enacted by PJ Antony a, Christian by birth, got him the best actor award of the year, both national and the State annual awards.

The arrival of smallpox and awakening of the villagers for the temple was too late for the oracle. His son had left the village. His daughter who was friends with the new young priest gets seduced and the priest himself leaves the village for a better life. His credit line with the local money lender was increasing and tired of their plight, oracle‘s wife allows the village money lender to exploit her sexually. For the oracle that was the tipping point, he does not protest, he does not go violent; he takes his frustrations to himself and indulges in his ritualistic dance with the sword for the welfare of the villagers. And finally the oracle strikes his own skull in frenzy with all the strength of his frustration and spits blood on the deity expressing his utter disillusionment with deity, he and his family served all their life. Oracle succumbs to the head injury he himself inflicted in total frustration, leaving the viewers with the magnitude of the tragedy.

The end of this otherwise quiet, almost uneventful film is so disturbing, that the entire build up to the last sequence makes it poetic, just like another film of Ingmar Bergman, Winterlight made in 1963. There too it is the plight of a priest who is struggling with his beliefs and the stalk reality outside the church, making him almost an atheist like his girl friend. Unlike in the West, here the theme is poverty and a society frozen in time in the village, but the struggle with beliefs and unkind Gods remains the same. The 60s and 70s villages in India were stuck between the old and the change which was yet to happen and most of the “New Wave “ films have their theme based on this slow pace of the change after the independence of the country resulting in the tragedies of people in the villages. From Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali onwards, the focus of the new cinema has been on the villages and its terrible existence pressing the need for a drastic change. MT too follows this path in his first film.

PK Venukuttan Nair and KPAC Lalitha in Swayamvaram

Be it Swayamvaram of Adoor, where an educated young man out to start a new life falls through this slow pace of change or the lead character of Aravindan’s Uttarayanam of 1974, which again focus on the educated jobless youth, the theme of the period was the slow and painful pace of the change and the intense uncertainty which people endured in those periods. No wonder many of the meaningful films were damned as dark and depressing, just as a Bergman film. But then dark times work wonders on creative people and so does it worked on MT, the quintessential renaissance man of Malayalam literature.

It is this period theme and the wonderful visual treat which MT and his technical team created gives Nirmalyam, a special place in the history of Indian new wave films. His technical team led by Azad and Babu were both fresh graduates from Pune Film Institute, giving their technical expertise as a visual film treat to the strong narrative line of the film. The imprint of the strong and committed technical team, which gave Nirmalyam is unfortunately missing in later films of MT. But that does not belittle his first film in any manner, though the religious -social situation has become too hot, making even the screening of such a film which scoffs, rather spits at a deity impossible. That is how the film enters history, by capturing the essence of human life in a particular time period and storing it as a creative statement. Nirmalyam eminently qualifies to be in the history of Indian films as it captures life with all its manifestations of that period creatively and technically and stores it for future generations.

(VK Cherian is the author of the book, India’s film society: Its Journey and Impact, 2017 and Chalachitra Vicharam, 2021)

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