When I first began searching the Net to find landmark regional films to review for this special ‘100 years of Indian cinema’ celebration, Chemmeen was one name that cropped up again and again. It sounded impressive. This was one of the first Malayalam films to be made in colour; more importantly, in won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Feature Film at the National Film Awards in 1965. It was screened at both the Cannes and the Chicago Film Festivals, and was greeted with much critical acclaim (not to mention commercial success)—it was even released, dubbed, in Hindi as Chemmeen Lehren, and in English as The Anger of the Sea.
All it needed was for me to discover that the music director of this film was an old favourite (Salil Choudhary) and that Manna Dey sang in it, and my mind was made up: I had to watch Chemmeen.
Based on a very famous novel (written in an astounding three weeks!) by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Chemmeen (‘Prawns’) is set along the Kerala coastline, in a community of fisherfolk. The film opens on the seashore, as the fishermen get their boats out to sea, rowing, swinging their nets out, hauling in the catch, bringing it ashore, and sorting it.
Among these is the middle-aged Chembankunju (Kottarakarra Sreedharan Nair) and his friend and neighbour Achankunju (SV Pillai). Achankunju is a happy-go-lucky man who spends most of what he earns on drink, which leaves his wife Nallapennu (Adoor Pankajam) thoroughly irritated. They have no children, which means Nallapennu has plenty of time to nag her husband and try and get him to mend his ways.
Chembankunju’s household consists of his wife Chacki (Adoor Bhavani), and his two daughters, the beautiful Karuthamma (Sheela) and the teenaged Panchami (Lata).
In the scene where we are first introduced to Karuthamma, she is sitting beside an upturned boat on a secluded part of the shore, chatting with Pareekutty (Madhu). Even though their conversation is innocuous enough—she tells him that her father wants to buy a boat and a net, and will Pareekutty please lend him the money—it’s obvious that these two are in love. Their eyes say it, even if they do not put it into words.
Panchami, sent by her mother to fetch Karuthamma home, returns without her sister. It’s only when Chacki emerges from their hut and starts yelling for Karuthamma that Karuthamma scrambles up and rushes back home—where Panchami tells Chacki that Karuthamma has been with Pareekutty. Pareekutty is Muslim, and therefore, not a man Karuthamma should be meeting, since nothing can ever come of it.
In a diatribe which forms the crux of the film, Chacki yells at Karuthamma: for them, the fisherfolk, the ‘Sea Mother’ provides all they need—as long as they, the women of the community, keep a hold on their morals. If a woman slips and yields to an illicit passion, the Sea Mother will inflict a terrible punishment: death. Any fisherman whose wife is unfaithful will fall prey to the sea.
Shortly after, Chembankunju—who had been planning to ask Pareekutty for a loan—goes to meet the young man. Pareekutty is a trader (from what I can see, he owns a small outfit that dries and sells fish and prawns) and is wealthier than Chembankunju.
Chembankunju needs Rs 450 for the boat and net (he knows of someone who wants to sell the boat, and that is about how much Chembankunju is willing to pay).
Pareekutty, because of his love for Karuthamma, agrees. Chembankunju and he discuss the deal through: how will Chembankunju repay the loan? They finally agree that all the catch that Chembankunju brings in in his new boat will be Pareekutty’s until the value of the loan has been repaid.
Only, Pareekutty has no money to lend Chembankunju; will dried fish do instead? He can deliver basketloads to Chembankunju’s home that evening, and Chembankunju can sell it and use the money. Chembankunju is more than happy. That evening, Pareekutty delivers the baskets.
The next day, Chembankunju hurries off to the house of the man whose boat is on sale. He is given a warm welcome, buttermilk to drink, a stool to sit on, and a taste of just what it might be to be wealthy. The man’s wife—perhaps just a few years younger than Chacki, probably, since her son is a teenager—is elegant and well-dressed, too, and Chembankunju is impressed.
This is how he wants them to live, he tells Chacki when he gets back home with the new boat. They should be living in style.
The next morning, Chembankunju begins to show his true colours. His dear friend Achankunju, who had been certain that he would be among the first to be welcomed onto the new boat, finds himself left behind…
…and when the boat comes, full to the brim with the catch, everybody comes crowding around. A bubbly Panchami reaches for the fish, asking her father if she can fill up her basket—only to have him beat her and tell her to get lost, this fish isn’t for her. Panchami bursts into tears, and Chacki and Karuthamma try to console her.
Onto the scene comes Pareekutty, who, by rights, is the owner of all the fish that Chembankunju has brought in. But when he asks if he can take the fish, Chembankunju pretends complete ignorance of that verbal agreement. “Do you have the money for the fish? I want ready cash for it,” he tells the young man, as if Pareekutty wants to buy the fish, not claim what is really his.
Pareekutty does not have any money, and Chembankunju shoos him away. And Pareekutty, too polite (and too much in love with Karuthamma to accuse her father of reneging) goes away.
The days pass. Chacki pleads with her husband to return Pareekutty’s money. After all, the boat and the net are bringing in lots of fish, which translates into increasing prosperity for the family. They’ve managed to buy new furniture, and when the monsoon stalls work for the rest of the fisherfolk, Chacki even has enough money to loan to her neighbours (against surety—a brass lamp here, a small metal pitcher there).
Karuthamma doesn’t like this idea of accepting surety, at least not from dear friends like Nallapennu. Chembankunju didn’t give any surety when he borrowed from Pareekutty, she points out bitterly to her mother, but Chacki—her head also somewhat turned by all this wealth—isn’t listening. Even though she too agrees that the loan should be returned to Pareekutty.
Meanwhile, Chembankunju has made the acquaintance of Palani (Sathyan), a fisherman who works on Chembankunju’s boat. Palani is no great catch: he’s very poor, he has no family or friends to speak of; he even admits—and with no compunctions—that he sleeps on the beach and spends whatever he earns on food.
Chembankunju decides that Palani would make a good match for Karuthamma (he seems to hope that Palani will agree to live with them, which will let Chembankunju retire). He invites Palani home for a meal, and he, along with Chacki, proposes the match to Palani.
Palani agrees, and Karuthamma, though she is distressed, really has no choice. Pareekutty, being a Muslim, can never be hers. And she has to be a good daughter; she cannot defy her father.
She does, however, put her foot down on one matter. She will not, come what may, stay on in this village. Palani belongs to a village some distance off; she will go there with him. (Karuthamma realises that living in the same village with Pareekutty will be painful for both of them).
So Karuthamma and Palani are married. Just as the wedding ceremony is completed, Chacki suffers what seems to be a stroke. Karuthamma decides to stay back, but Chacki—who knows how much anguish that will cause her daughter—begs Karuthamma to go. Snowed under by this emotional blackmail, Karuthamma finally agrees to go—only, this time, Chembankunju (who is oblivious of Karuthamma’s feelings for Pareekutty and has no idea why she wants to leave the village) pleads with her to stay for her mother’s sake.
Karuthamma does depart, in tears, but leaving behind a father who’s so irate, he refuses to have anything further to do with his newlywed daughter.
And Karuthamma also leaves behind, grieving for her, a ruined Pareekutty. His business has fallen apart, and despite many pleas from his father (who comes visiting now and then), Pareekutty refuses to leave the place and go back to a more comfortable life.
In Palani’s village, Karuthamma settles into married life. Palani may not be a fine husband; he may not be the man she wanted to marry—but she is a dutiful (even affectionate) wife. The only thorn in their flesh is the fact that the other villagers are suspicious of Karuthamma. Why did a woman so beautiful marry a worthless no-good like Palani? She must be characterless, say the women; and soon, rumours spread linking Karuthamma with Pareekutty. Karuthamma and Palani find themselves being ostracised…
…while, back in Karuthamma’s own village, things are swiftly beginning to deteriorate, both for Karuthamma’s family and for the inconsolable Pareekutty.
What I liked about this film:
Everything, actually. The story is simple and sensitive, and presents a common trope—that of a forbidden love—in a way that is touching yet not over the top melodramatic. The film is beautifully scripted (TS Pillai was involved in writing the screenplay), very well-acted, and well-directed (by Ramu Kariat). Incidentally, one of the editors of the film was another familiar name: Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
One thing that I liked in particular was the way the characters were drawn: in shades of grey rather than black and white. Chembankunju, for example: while his greed and ambition do get the better of him for a while, he is fond of Chacki. And while he may not be the best of fathers, he’s not completely neglectful, either.
Also, I like the way in which Palani and Karuthamma’s marriage is handled: unlike the more typical Hindi film way in which such unwanted marriages tended to be shown, Karuthamma neither:
(a) refuses to have anything to do with her husband; nor
(b) completely forgets Pareekutty
Instead, in a very human, very realistic way, she reconciles herself to being as happy as she possibly can as Palani’s wife—but it doesn’t mean that she has forgotten Pareekutty, or even her love for him.
Also noteworthy is the subtle way in which emotion is shown. For example, there’s a scene where a still-unmarried Karuthamma goes to a deserted pond with two earthen pitchers to fill water. Pareekutty arrives, and confronts her, asking her if she loves him. She admits it, but somewhere there lurks the fear of the Sea Mother’s wrath, and Karuthamma retreats. She does not say much, but in the way she moves—hesitating, moving away, stopping—you can literally see the conflict within her. And Pareekutty loves her too much to force her, so he struggles with himself too.
And the music, by Salil Choudhary (Chemmeen was his debut Malayalam film). Among my favourites are the haunting, oft-repeated Manasa maina varo (sung by Manna Dey) and Puthan valakkare (in which people familiar with Hindi cinema music are likely to find more than a passing resemblance to Baagh mein kali khili, from Chand aur Suraj, also composed the same year by Salilda).
Finally, the stunning cinematography by Marcus Bartley. The entire feel of the film is very evocative of a real fishing village, not a constructed set; and every little detail—the waves rolling in, the fishermen setting out to sea in their boats, the fishing nets ballooning in the breeze—is perfect. A film worth watching even if just for the sheer visual beauty of it.
What I didn’t like:
Perhaps, a few years ago, a younger I would have said that I found Chemmeen too tragic and too depressing. Today, I think I’m a little more mature. While I do think Chemmeen is tragic, the tragedy was not something I disliked, because I could see no other way for the film to move forward—anything else would not have had the impact, perhaps, that this story does.
A little bit of trivia:
TS Pillai’s original novel—Chemmeen—is part of the UNESCO’s Catalogue of Representative Works, a project to translate and disseminate global literature of a high calibre. The book has been translated into over thirty languages.