Jeevitha Nauka (1951)
Director: K. Vembu; Writer: Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai; Producer: K.V. Koshy, Kunchako, K&K Productions; Cinematographer: Balasubramanyam, P.B. Mani; Editor: K.D. George; Cast: Thikkurisi Sukumaran Nair, Sebastian Kunju Kunju Bhagavathar, P. Adimoolam, Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai, B.S. Saroja, Pankajavalli, S.P. Pillai, Mathappan, Nanukuttan, Jagadamma, Janamma, Mulavana, Girija, Gopinathan, C.R. Rajakumari, Indira Acharya
Duration: 02:32:54; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 300.000; Saturation: 0.002; Lightness: 0.259; Volume: 0.308; Cuts per Minute: 12.341; Words per Minute: 34.190
Soman (Nair) is married to Laxmi (Saroja), a poor village performer. His brother, employed by the local capitalist, and wicked sister-in-law resent this and break up the joint family. Soman goes to the city while Laxmi, with her infant son, faces local harassment. She follows her husband to the city, but when she sees him in the company of rich women, she misunderstands and keeps away. Soman then searches for his wife and son and the nuclear family is reconstituted, although the sister-in- law is punished when she is forced to become a beggar. The second big production of the famed duo Koshy and Kunchako (after Nallathanka, 1950
) and the first Malayalam megahit, the film combined the talents of Sebastian Bhagavathar who, with Augustine Joseph, was one of the last great actor-singers from the stage, alongside future stars Nair, Pankajavalli and composer Dakshinamurthy. Both the title and the character of Saroja evoke Osten’s Jeevan Naiya (1936)
, but the major dramatic influence was probably Vauhini Studio’s 1940s cinema, which Koshy in his autobiography maintained as his ideal. Tamil and Hindi versions were also made, probably dubbed.
Jenson Joseph:Jeevithanowka (The Boat of Life; d. K Vembu, 1951)
is a Malayalam film, produced under the banner K & K Productions, that, according to many accounts, went on to become the first major commercial success in Malayalam cinema. According to historian Vijayakrishnan, "the film ran for 284 days at Thiruvananthapuram" (1987: 62). It was shot at Udaya Studio, Alleppey, one of the first studios set up in Kerala during the late 1940s under the management of Kunchacko. The banner K & K Productions was a combined venture of Kunchacko and K V Koshy, considered the first Malayali distributor who set up his firm Filmco in 1938. The film was dubbed into Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
The narrative is constructed within an overarching framework of the rationalist, egalitarian discourse which was gaining cultural dominance in the wake of the birth of the nation-state as well as the growing sentiments of linguistic nationalism in the region. Meanwhile, the film introduces contrived moments in the plot so as to include sequences from mythological plays, featuring B. S. Saroja, by then a prominent star in Tamil, in central roles. In doing so, the filmmakers were clearly trying to capitalize on the two ingredients that were deemed to be good business in popular cinema in India – mythological tales and the female star. Besides, this was also an attempt to incorporate the attractions of popular dramas and wean people away from theatre. Incorporating such elements as independent units was a common practice in the cinema during the time.
[Jeevithanowka (The Boat of Life; d. K Vembu, 1951) is a Malayalam film, produced under the banner K & K Productions, that, according to many accounts, went on to become the first major commercial success in Malayalam cinema. According to historian Vijayakrishnan, "the film ran for 284 days at Thiruvananthapuram" (1987: 62). It was shot at Udaya Studio, Alleppey, one of the first studios set up in Kerala during the late 1940s under the management of Kunchacko. The banner K & K Productions was a combined venture of Kunchacko and K V Koshy, considered the first Malayali distributor who set up his firm Filmco in 1938. The film was dubbed into Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
The narrative is constructed within an overarching framework of the rationalist, egalitarian discourse which was gaining cultural dominance in the wake of the birth of the nation-state as well as the growing sentiments of linguistic nationalism in the region. Meanwhile, the film introduces contrived moments in the plot so as to include sequences from mythological plays, featuring B. S. Saroja, by then a prominent star in Tamil, in central roles. In doing so, the filmmakers were clearly trying to capitalize on the two ingredients that were deemed to be good business in popular cinema in India – mythological tales and the female star. Besides, this was also an attempt to incorporate the attractions of popular dramas and wean people away from theatre. Incorporating such elements as independent units was a common practice in the cinema during the time.]
The CD of the film was marketed by T Series.
The film opens with the childhood days of the protagonists Lakshmi and Soman. The lifeworld of the female protagonist’s lower caste family is dependent in many ways on the sphere of ‘folk’ cultural performances. Here, an endearing young Lakshmi (Baby Girija) and her father seek patronage from the male protagonist’s middle class family and the feudal lord, who are generous in their gifts and appreciation. What they perform here is a musical-dance rendition of the exchanges between the venerated Hindu mythical figure Krishna and his foster mother Yasoda.
The first encounters between the young Soman and Lakshmi…
The first part of this sequence, composed of around 30 shots, is an actuality footage showing a festive crowd, a percussion performance and activities on the premises of a Hindu temple. The practice of inserting actuality footages into feature films was common during the late 1940s and the 1950s, as evidences suggest. The practice, in Kerala's context, acquired specific significance. Inserting real life footages showing local events and images was one of the ways in which 'nativity' was sought to be inserted into the films of the period, most of which were made for a wider audience across the whole South India and markets in Ceylon, Singapore and Malaysia.
Folk performances as part of the temple festival… In the earlier scene, Lakshmi’s father was working on the masks that the performers in this sequence are wearing.
The feudal court is where the middle class patriarchal figure, the advocate, the comedian and the rich and imprudent feudal lord converge.
Soman tries to impress Lakshmi… Pleasant music...
First comedy scene… The sequence introduces and clearly establishes the feudal landlord (Nanukkuttan) as a stingy, stupid lecher. Meanwhile, the servant Kunju (Maatthappan?) is endowed with certain ability to mock at the landlord and generate laughter at the latter’s expense. The comedian’s direct look at the camera on occasions makes it look as if the mockery is done on behalf of the audience, while the landlord appears oblivious to this relay of the audience’s disdain for him channelled through the comedian.
Lakshmi finds out that Soman has placed gifts in her basket; she is finally convinced that Soman is a lovable boy.
Soman offers to help Lakshmi in her studies. Another scene that extends the middle class’s appreciation towards the poor lower caste family’s aspirations to a better social status through education...
The middle class family. Our young protagonist’s place in the family and his relation to the elder male figure are prefigured in this scene. The elder brother Raju (Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavathar) wants to give college education to Soman, to which the former’s wife Janu (Pankajavalli) objects, as she thinks that is a waste of money. Moreover, she wants Raju to steal from the landlords’ where he works as the accountant.
Popular comedian of the time S P Pillai’s entry.
Raju and the advocate plots to steal from the landlord.
Time passes on… The grown up Soman (Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair) is introduced through a photo that he sends Lakshmi (B S Saroja). The film takes care to convey that the heroine is in the clothes that Soman sends her from the town when she is first introduced. Lakshmi bursts into a song about her desires.
Time goes by… Melancholy, as Soman, on his return, finds a depressed Lakshmi over her father’s death.
First references to the lower caste status of the heroine, and the problems that that might create for the protagonists...
The adventures of romance... The impulses of adventurous romance to transcend the boundaries of caste and community instill tremendous confidence in the high caste male protagonist, which in turn brings him the admiration of the heroine of a lower status, and others.
One of the rare moments of physical intimacy between the romantic couple...
The first instance when the plot makes space for a long sequence of a stage play to be included in the film. The 10-minutes long sequence opens with perhaps a real life shot of a crowd thronging a playhouse.
Soman has convinced Lakshmi to do a performance at the college anniversary. The drama being enacted on stage is the Bible story of Mary Magdalene. The lines for the musical drama were written by the renowned poet Vallathol Narayana Menon whose poem on Mary Magdalene (titled 'Magdalana Mariyam') written in 1921 was later included in the school syllabus in Kerala.
Vallathol Narayana Menon
It is evident that the film was trying win over the audience for popular drama during the time. Besides, by interspersing the stage drama with outdoor footages, like that of a deer being trapped which goes as a metaphor for the innocuous woman being lured into prostitution, the film is perhaps suggesting what only cinema can do, even while cashing in on the attractions of commercial drama of the time.
Shots of the audience at the playhouse...
Lakshmi seeks Soman’s approval only when she is about to act out the parts in which her character flirts with men; Soman says go ahead.
Mary Magdalene meets Jesus Christ, repents… The drama comes to an end with a shot of the audience leaving the playhouse.
One of the most popular songs from the film… The hero stands on an elevated plane and invites the heroine to join him in the romantic heights of love, whereas the heroine is apprehensive about what might ensue.
The rhetoric that posits inter-caste marriage as a way to achieve caste egalitarianism; The statement that the only legitimate division between humans is the one between men and women was central to discourses of egalitarianism.
Raju tries to fix Soman’s marriage with the daughter of Janu’s rich uncle, eyeing the latter’s wealth. Soman opens up, and his affair with the lower caste Lakshmi scandalises Raju, who is traumatised by the social stigma that the family would have to endure; Soman is unwavering.
Raju is torn between two worlds – he can’t accept the fact that Soman wants to marry a lower caste woman. But he loves his younger brother, and assumes parental responsibilities towards him. Finally, he calms down and requests Soman to think about it. However, Janu obstinately refuses to listen to Soman, and abuses her husband for wasting money on his brother’s education only to bring disgrace to the family. She also vows to teach Lakshmi a lesson ‘for seducing a gentleman from a higher caste’. From this moment, Janu is irrevocably portrayed as evil, drawing on the type of the wicked stepmother character.
The film then tries to retrieve Raju, the patriarchal elder, as a sympathetic character towards Soman and Lakshmi’s romance. Here, Soman and Lakshmi, distressed at the thought that they will never be able to unite, decide to end their lives. But Raju overhears their conversation and promises them that he would never let that happen.
The suicide motif...
Janu wants to leave the house, saying she can’t share the space in the house with the lower caste Lakshmi once Soman marries her. Raju, nevertheless, has thought of ways to convince his discontented wife that this liaison will work in their own favour.
One of the reasons he cites to convince Janu is that the family’s reputation will only improve if it sanctions an inter-caste marriage, as this would be seen as a progressive gesture! Interestingly, this moment, intentionally or not, in fact exposes a central issue in projects that seek to achieve egalitarianism through inter caste marriages, inter dining, etc., which is that, such projects often only serve the purpose of the the high castes reclaiming and retaining their centrality within the emerging social-cultural ethos.
Raju winks at the camera/audience, seeing that his tricks are working and that he has managed to change Janu’s mind.
The film is still nervous about romantic scenes... The scene of physical intimacy is abruptly cut by the intervention of Janu.
First shots of the slave castes… An elderly couple from the slave caste is asking for food after a day’s work. Their juxtaposition with the thatched wall of their house behind, the cultivated plants and their tools, along with the submissive posture and the display of the man’s dark complexioned skin, add to the effect of ethnographic representation in these shots.
Janu continues to complain. During the course of the conversation, we are told that time has passed, and that Soman and Lakshmi has a kid now. Janu wants them out of the house, as she thinks they do not do any work.
Elaborate scenes of how Lakshmi is being tortured emotionally and physically at the hands of Janu, who is waiting for an opportunity to find fault. The song instills courage in Lakshmi, asking her to be brave like a true Indian woman, and endure the tortures like a devoted wife.
Soman and Lakshmi, along with their son, decide to leave the house and move to Lakshmi’s hut. Raju is distraught that he is not able to do anything, as any sympathy towards his younger brother’s family would result in estranging his own wife Janu.
The pain of separation conveyed through the distress that the two family’s children feel…
The following sequence, portraying the elder brother’s emotional trauma over his younger brother – our protagonist – having to leave the joint family, is noteworthy. It presents (exclusively) to the audience the elder brother, who is like a father figure to the protagonist, being emotionally torn between his commitments towards his brother and towards his own wife and children, when the harassments by his own wife causes the young couple to leave the house to form their own (modern) nuclear family. The sequence, thus, keeps open the possibilities of redeeming the elder brother from being identified as, and reduced to, one of the active agents of the traditional Hindu high caste joint family’s oppressive structures. The oppressive structures of the Hindu high caste joint family is invoked through various narrative moments, but by displacing them on to the wickedness of the cantankerous Janu, the sister-in-law (a character modelled on the already available representational figure of ‘the evil step mother’ in commercial dramas and films).
Janu separating the branches of a tree works as a metaphor to convey that the troubles have mostly been created by this cantankerous woman, thus redeeming the elder brother from the responsibilities of causing distress to the protagonists and to destroying the family’s unity.
A devotional song seeking the blessings of a Hindu deity.
The family’s poverty is conveyed through the plain rice and porridge that they have on their plates for dinner.
The poverty at the protagonists' home is contrasted with the prosperity at Janu’s… Nevertheless, poetic justice is gradually being served: the servant at Janu's house ignores the kids, eats most of what she cooks for the children, steals grains and food, talks back to Janu and even dares to beat her when the former tries to boss over her…
Janu tries to alienate Soman and Lakshmi socially. Here, she tells the washerwoman not to do any work for them if they do not pay her on time.
However, Soman and Lakshmi live in utter poverty with their son. ‘The endearing child in distress’ is used as a trope here to heighten the melancholy, and to portray the hardships of poverty. The boy survives on cattle fodder, and that melts the heart of the washerwoman, whom Janu had prompted not to show any sympathy towards the family. The washerwoman, instead, gives Lakshmi some money!
Metaphoric visuals, as Janu throws to the dog the food she denied the boy.
‘The poor hungry child’ trope again…
The play with music and light isolates Janu as representing (the dark spheres of) evil and cruelty. In this scene when the younger brother has to separate from the family, this strategy helps convey the helplessness of the elder brother, who is to be retained as a sympathetic character.
Soman leaves home to look for a job in town.
The song that we hear on the soundtrack is the rerecorded version sung by Jesudas in 1985. The original version, in the voice of Mehboob Khan (1925-1981) - a popular playback singer in Malayalam during the 1950s, is considered irrecoverably lost. According to many accounts, the song was a hit during the time. It is evidently inspired by the famous Hindi song ‘Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki’ composed by Naushad and sung by Mohammad Rafi for the film Dulari (1949)
The lyrics exhort the protagonist not to lose hope and achieve his goals through hard work.
The lyrics addresses the protagonist using the word ‘sakhavu’. Meaning comrade, Sakhavu is a form of address with which the activists of the Left parties in Kerala address each other.
Visuals of physical labour, rickshaw puller, manual labourers, road construction, fisher women(?), workers in a quarry… – perhaps all real life shots.
Critique of caste system… Here, the landlord takes away the fruits of the labour of a slave caste family. The lyrics says “It is evil to eye the fruits of others’ labour”.
As Soman and Lakshmi have moved out, Janu’s brother Shanku (S P Pillai) and her mother have moved in to stay in the house. Shanku’s blunders offer comic relief…
The child in distress motif… The pain of separation…
The hardship to get a job, unemployment… The board ‘No Vacancy’ superimposed on the distraught protagonist’s face.
The first instance of a sustained shot of a motor car… City woman…
S P Pillai, famous for his slapstick, is afforded more screen time… Here, Shanku’s attempt perhaps to rape Lakshmi ends up in his own agony. In order to save his face, Shanku convinces others that Lakshmi had invited him home.
Soman is appointed as the estate manager at the rich family, the women of which are taking care of him after their car hit him.
Shanku continues to harass Lakshmi, emotionally and physically...
Lakshmi and her son Gopu goes to the landlord seeking help for putting an end to Shanku’s harassments. The landlord tries to rape her. Lakshmi escapes this bid, but the landlord convinces Raju that Lakshmi is a ‘slut’; orders his servants to burn down Lakshmi’s house. The mother and the son are now homeless, and have to leave the village.
The loyal slaves…
Soman is unaware of what is going on back home.
The pain of separation…Melancholy…
The comedy scenes involving Shanku, the landlord and his servant Kunju serve as comic relief, as the plot becomes gloomier. Here, the landlord, helped by Kunju, is getting ready for a motor car ride. The landlord is nervous whether or not he has dressed up adequately for the occasion… In the rush, he forgets to change from his towel to the formal lungi. Despite all the preparation, their ambition does not materialize, as the car refuses to start.
Soman begins to send Lakshmi money-orders; Janu poses as Lakshmi and pockets all the money with the help of her brother Shanku. The long conversation between the postman and Shanku is meant to evoke laughter, as the illiterate Shanku misunderstands the title ‘Mrs’ that the postman uses as he looks for Lakshmi. The postman later explains that ‘Mrs Soman’ means Mr Soman’s wife. Popular cinema taking on the pedagogic role of familiarizing the audience with modern etiquette.
Dream sequence…; tribute to the popular genre of mythological films… Here, Lakshmi has a dream that Lord Krishna listened to her prayers, appeared before her and protected her from Shanku’s bid to harass her.
The mother and her child in distress…
Lakshmi sees Soman getting on the train with the two women from the rich family where he works; and gets the impression that Soman has left her.
Lakshmi decides to commit suicide, but has a change of mind, as she is reminded of her duties to her son.
The city’s underbelly… Lakshmi and Gopu witness the poverty on the streets of the town and the poor, beggars, the disabled, etc. She starts a shelter for the beggars.
Meanwhile, a theatre troupe owner approaches Lakshmi requesting her to act in his troupe. Lakshmi obliges, as the money she raises from this can be used for charity.
What follows are episodes from staged dramas ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and ‘Snapaka Yohannan’ (John The Baptist), in which Lakshmi (BS Saroja) acts in central roles. Drama performances based on the story of Snapakayohannan were famous in the region since 1920s and were repeatedly enacted by commercial drama troupes. Sebastian Kunju Kunju Bhagavathar, one of the leading actors in this film, owned his own drama troupe and was a prominent figure in commercial theatre.
This sequence sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to the re-union of Soman and Lakshmi. Soman, in the company of the daughter of the aristocratic family who employ him, comes to watch a performance by Lakshmi’s troupe. The drama is based on the story of Snapakayohannan, John the Baptist. Lakshmi/B. S. Saroja, sporting a beard and carrying a stick, plays the role of the Baptist who has incurred the wrath of the King by denouncing his adulterous behaviour and ignoring his duties towards his family and the kingdom. The performance starts with a song-dance sequence that shows the king flirting with women. The song is disrupted as John interrupts the revelry and begins to scold the king for his immoral ways. As this scene progresses, Lakshmi sees Soman sitting in the first row of the audience along with the aristocratic woman and she begins to see the image of her own husband in the wayward king. The Baptist’s dialogues now convey Lakshmi’s trauma as well, and attain a sharp accusatory tone. In one shot, the camera is placed behind the stage: the audience can see the king, partly from behind, and John the Baptist/Lakshmi pointing his/her finger at the king. In the background, we can also see Soman in the audience, along with the aristocrat woman. As the moral admonishment escalates, there is a cut to Soman’s face, showing his increasing discomfort, as if the moral chastisement has some bearing on him. On the surface, there is no reason why the moral charge of this scene should upset Soman, as he is not culpable of disloyalty or irresponsibility. Eventually, Soman faints, as if overwhelmed by guilt, and the play comes to an abrupt end when Lakshmi also faints during the performance. Later, Soman decides to return to his village to meet his wife and son, saying that the prophet’s speech reminded him of Lakshmi.
The particular mythological tale recounted on the stage – of the prophet reminding the wayward King about his responsibilities towards his family and kingdom – did not have any bearing on what was happening to the protagonists in the film. The protagonists are estranged as the result of the evil characters’ harassments; what Lakshmi thinks about Soman is the consequence of a misunderstanding – two plot elements that the film has clearly conveyed to the audience. Nevertheless, the sequence fulfils two functions; it brings the separated couple into the same space, and even though it only stages partial recognition (and that, too, a misrecognition), it draws from Soman feelings of guilt and a reminder of family responsibility, an emotional logic which will lead him back to his family and the meeting with his wife. Additionally, the scene provides the film with another opportunity to include attractions of the popular theatre – a major source of content for the commercial cinema, as well as its competitor in the entertainment industry during the time. (Theorore Baskaran notes that all the 61 films made in the first five years of Tamil talkie era were reproductions of stage plays – a practice that continued till the 1950s in South Indian cinema.)
Meanwhile, trouble is brewing as the landlord has approached the Police with the complaint that Raju stole his money. Raju plans to return the money, but Janu refuses to let go of any money or gold, saying the landlord is simply putting pressure on him. This infuriates Raju. The advocate pretends to help, but plots to steal all the money, and implicate Raju and Soman in all this.
Soman comes home to find out the burnt-down house of Lakshmi. Janu refuses to tell Soman where has Lakshmi gone or what happened to them. Thikkurrissi’s prowess at delivering long, poetic dialogues is on display, as Soman blasts Lakshmi for her wicked ways despite being born a woman.
The advocate knows that Janu and her brother Shanku will try to escape with all they have… He arranges goondas to kill them and steal the money and jewelry. Shanku gets killed, Janu jumps into a river and escapes.
The advocate misleads the Police and as a result, Soman is arrested for the murder.
Reunion of Lakshmi and Soman at the playhouse, even as Soman is being arrested… The rich family that employed Soman offers help; the truth comes to light; and Raju and Soman are freed.
The final nail on the advocate's coffin is reserved for the comedian...
Poetic justice is accomplished, as we see Janu begging on the streets. However, Lakshmi is so broad hearted that she accepts Janu back into the family when she turns up at her door.
The protagonists' family renuites...
The re-united family...