This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.
There is a moment in Kamal’s 2013 film Celluloid when the noted film journalist Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan (Sreenivasan) is drinking a soda outside a shop. On the radio, the news is shared that Ramu Kariat’s film Chemmeen has just won the National Award for Best Feature Film. Gopalakrishnan watches the figure of an elderly man walk away – a man who turns out to be J.C. Daniel, the long-forgotton director of the first Malayalam language film. Gopalakrishnan later shares the news with Daniel and his wife Janet that Chemmeen has run for 100 days (even today, the number of days in a film’s run is celebrated in Malayalam cinema) and has won awards.
It’s a moment that serves not only to root the film firmly in the mid-60s, but it also serves as a poignant contrast with Daniel’s situation – a man forgotten, his film lost, yet, some 35 years later, Malayalam cinema finally makes its mark on a national stage.
Chemmeen was adapted from Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s novel of the same name, which explored the folk myth amongst fishing communities in coastal Kerala that the fate of a fisherman depends on the chastity of his wife. Chembankunju (Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair) is a lower caste Hindu fisherman whose ambition is to own his own boat and net. His eldest daughter, Karuthamma (Sheela), is in love with a Muslim fish trader, Pareekutty (Madhu), and asks him to lend her father the money to purchase a boat. Pareekutty agrees, on the condition that Chembankunju give him his fishing haul until the amount of the loan is paid back.
The flush of success, however, turns Chembankunju’s head, and he refuses to keep his promise to Pareekutty, becoming increasingly greedy and heartless not only to Pareekutty and his plight, but to others in the community as well. He ignores the fact that his daughter is distraught at having asked Pareekutty to lend her father the money for a boat, that she is well aware that Pareekutty did it because of his love for her. Even worse, when Karuthamma’s mother Chakki discovers her relationship with Pareekutty, she warns her to keep her distance from him. Everywhere, Karuthamma is reminded of the wrath of the sea goddess when it comes to unfaithful women who carry on affairs, especially with someone of a different faith – a wrath that can affect the entire community.
Worse still, Chembankunju decides to marry Karuthamma off, ignoring her wish to be with Pareekutty; his daughter cannot and will not be married to a Muslim. Instead, he marries her to Palani (Sathyan), an orphan from another fishing community, whom he wants to live with his family so that he can take over the fishing business, and allow Chembankunju and Chakki to enjoy life. Knowing she has no choice in this matter, Karuthamma agrees to the marriage, on the condition that she and her new husband will leave for his community immediately after the marriage. When Chakki falls ill the day of the wedding, she insists that her daughter leave, knowing that it will be dangerous for her to stay where Pareekutty is. Chambankunju is furious – he believes his daughter should stay and look after her mother – and he disowns Karuthamma. Chakki eventually dies, and Chambankunju takes another wife, a widow with a son. His actions result in Pareekutty going bankrupt; but in turn, his own luck turns, and he ends up bankrupt and alone just like Pareekutty, going mad in the process.
I am like Sheela, always crying when I watch Chemmeen.
Karuthamma, meanwhile, makes the best of her situation, trying hard to be a dutiful and affectionate wife to Palani, eventually giving birth to a daughter. The rumours of her relationship with Pareekutty, however, follow her to her new home. First Karuthamma is ostracized by the other women in the community; eventually Palani is as well, when the other fishermen refuse to take him with them, likely fearing that his wife’s supposed behaviour will cause their misfortune as well as his. Karuthamma gives Palani her mangal sutra (wedding necklace) so that he will have enough money to buy his own boat.
One day, Palani heads out to sea alone, and is baiting a shark when he ends up caught in a whirlpool – not inconsequentially, it is at this time that Karuthamma and Pareekutty finally meet again, and embrace. Palani disappears into the whirlpool. Karuthamma and Pareekutty are found together, dead, on the seashore; near them is a baited shark.
There are many reasons that Chemmeen remains a classic, from its beautiful cinematography (by Marcus Bartley and U. Rajagopal), to its luscious score, and its gorgeous music (with music by Salil Chowdury and lyrics by Vayalar) – not to mention editing by Hrishikesh Mukherjee (probably best known for his own films as a director). Three of the films four songs feature K. J. Yesudas (who has won a National Award for his singing a record seven times, and whose son, Vijay Yesudas, is also a popular playback singer); the fourth, "Maanasa Maine Varoo", features the Malayalam debut of playback singer Manna Dey (and is one of only two songs he ever sang for Malayalam movies), and although I adore all the music in the film, it’s this song that tugs at my heart the most:
Nightengale of my heart, please come to me, and provide sweetness in me.
Whom are you searching in your own beautiful garden?
In the land of moonlight, when flowers are blooming,
Did you forget your playmate?
The waves in the sea and desires in the heart,
Are not going to stop, my dear.
It’s the song that best exemplifies the relationship between them, an almost siren song for Karuthamma, who cannot resist the pull of it; and of the pining of Pareekutty for her, all of his longing held just in those few beautiful lines.
I understand that Chemmeen’s central premise represents something far from a feminist ideal – Karuthamma allows herself to be exploited by her parents for their own gain, at great expense to the unfortunate Pareekutty. As well, she becomes a victim of a society that places weight only on women’s fidelity – it’s only the transgressions of women that unleash the wrath of the sea. However, while Karuthamma marries Palani out of duty, her relationship with him is shown to be affectionate, something which surprised me. Palani, too, trusts Karuthamma and believes her when she tells him that nothing has happened between herself and Pareekutty – at least, he does until the rumours about him not being the father of Karuthamma’s daughter completely overwhelm him.
And it’s this that is the great tragedy of Chemmeen – that communal differences serve to separate Karuthamma and Pareekutty, that the community Karuthamma and Palani move to only spread rumours that drive a wedge between them. There is no point hoping for a happy ending with Chemmeen; such a thing is impossible in this place, in this time. There are only tears, and more tears.