Abhishek K. Venkitaraman
This August will mark 57th anniversary of Chemmeen. Reviewing a classic like Chemmeen is almost a cinematic crime, but reintroducing and preserving such classics through writing is something that needs to be done more often. Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen is one of such endearing classics in Malayalam cinema. The film won a national award for its artistic excellence and was also a huge commercial success. I was introduced to this classic many years ago by my mother who is a huge fan of this movie and its songs. Chemmeen is based on the celebrated novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. The novel was a huge success as well. Although a Malayalam production, Chemmeen saw a host of artists collaborating together like Hrishikesh Mukherjee as editor, Marcus Bartley as cinematographer with U.Rajagopal and Salil Chaudhury as music director, and even one song by our own Manna Dey !!
Story & screenplay
The premise of the film is a popular legend among the fishermen communities along coastal Kerala regarding chastity. If a married fisher woman is unfaithful when her husband is out in the sea, the Sea Goddess (Kadalamma) would consume him. Karuthamma(Sheela) is the daughter of an ambitious and greedy fisherman named Chembankunju (Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair). Karuthamma is secretly in love with a young fish trader Pareekutty(Madhu). Karuthamma’s mother Chakki (Adoor Bhavani) gets to know about Karuthamma’s affair and reminds her of the strict social norms they must adhere to being part of the fishermen community. Hence, Karuthamma is married off to Palani (Sathyan), an orphan fisherman who is discovered by her father. The story seems to be an age old take on infidelity and local customs but here, the context stands out. The screenplay is tight, no side characters and no sub-plots, apart from a few comical laughs.
Direction & Cinematography
There are very few movies where the director and the cinematographer manage to personify a city or an inanimate object like a character itself. Much like Kahaani, where Kolkata is also a character in the movie. The sea in Chemmeen is not inanimate, its constantly changing, pushing to the banks, the vast expanse of coconut trees and the huts of the fishermen. Chemeen was a technical marvel in those times as it offers immense visual possibilities. The sea in Chemmeen has various moods and turbulences. The sea is a character in Chemmeen tied to the folklore of the local people. The cinematographer has done an immaculate job and one could only wish to see Chemmeen on the big screen to soak that experience. The sprawling beaches, the sunsets, the characters rooted in the local culture tells story of a past gone by. The routine activities of the fishermen are shown realistically and beautifully which makes you root for them. The use of color is often indulgent, and the seascapes are lavish. The movie demands an indulgence into the never-ending scenes of sea, you could almost feel the humidity and smell the beach. About performances, the actors deliver their best with their given material. Kudos to the supporting cast for giving us realistic portrayals and perfecting the local Malayalam dialect and accent.
Music And Themes
Several local beliefs and themes which are prevalent among the fishermen community are evoked again and again in Chemeen. The lyricist Vayalar spuns the words magically into haunting songs accompanied by melodious vocals. Talking about Chemeen would be incomplete without mentioning its timeless score. ‘Pennale pennale’ picturized when the lead protagonist is getting married, alludes to the central theme of the movie, the sea is the provider for the fishermen community as their livelihood is dependent upon it. Yet, the sea can also be merciless if you don’t abide by the societal laws and morals. The subjective morality is a recurring theme in the movie, and so is greed. Chembankunju is driven by his greed, and this ultimately leads to his downfall, while Karuthamma is torn between her loyalty to her husband and her lost love to Pareekutty. ‘Manasa maine varu’ is sung by Manna Dey and is beautifully haunting, you can almost imagine yourself pining for your lost love when you hear it. The music is by Salis Chowdhury, who gives a timeless score and Chemmeen truly brings together a pool of diverse music-makers from the north and south industry. The artistic brilliance of Chemmeen is enhanced by its soundtrack. The other two songs ‘Kadallinakkare ponore’ and ‘Chaakara’ again evoke the lifestyle and beliefs of the fishermen community. Chastity and infidelity are the central themes of the movie. Social hierarchy and caste induced societal barriers are present even among the poor fishermen folk. Karuthamma is torn between her belief system and her set of values while pining for Parekutty. Despite being a devout wife, she is constantly doubted upon by Palani. But alas, suspicion fueled by gossip ruins her martial life to the point that her only refuge is now death. Amidst all this, is the never ending expanse of sea, who is a witness to all these trials and tribulations of a community, it is constant but it is also ever changing in terms of its moods. The realism of Chemmeen might be the reason why this classic still works today. It manages to touch some raw nerves. Do give this classic a watch, and you will see the earliest example of why Malayalam cinema is so brilliant in terms of realism.
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.