Thursday, January 3, 2013

Malayalam Cinema: Snehaseema Revisited

ET Vasudevan’s Snehaseema directed by SS Rajan was released in 1954. The movie was a big hit. After half a century I saw it again two days back on the Asianet Movie Channel. Black and white print of course, but clear, and holding one’s interest throughout.

Snehaseema was notable for many reasons. It was the first Malayalam ‘war movie’ if one could use that label. There is quite a bit of World War II footage in it. During that time there were a number of Hollywood movies, and writings with the war background. Some similarities or adaptations are possible. But the Snehaseema story by Ponkunnam Varkey, a noted anti-Church writer of his time, has a strong social theme.

It is about Johnny (Satyan), an orphan brought up by the local priest. He grows up and becomes a teacher. Falls in love with the rich school manager’s daughter Omana (Padmini). Her father objects. He wants her to marry Doctor Baby (Kottarakkara), a friend of Johnny.

The lovers get married and have a daughter. But Johnny has to resign his job at his father-in-law’s school. To support the family he joins the Army – Air Force really. In a bombing mission over Burma, probably in 1942, his plane was shot down by the Japanese. He was missing in action presumed to be dead.

Three years pass. Persuaded by others, Omana marries Doctor Baby. They live happily though she carries Johnny’s memory close to her heart. And Johnny is not dead. He was a disfigured and partially handicapped PoW with the Japanese. The war is over and Johnny comes back. Omana now has two husbands, both having married her officially in the Church.

Absolutely complicated situation. One of them has to die to solve the tangle. But in Snehaseema, two die. It is well handled and does not offend the Church or anyone else. There might be silent tears in the audience. That adds to the Box Office clout.

The music is by V. Dakshinamurthy. I think it was the first time that a Malayalam movie tried to break free from the dependence on Hindi tunes. The lullaby Kannum pootti uranguka… became an all time hit. Adhwanikkunnorkum… was also popular. It is claimed that Dakshinamurthy, for the first time,   brought Carnatic raga into Christian devotional music with the song Kanivolum kamaneeya hridayam…

Satyan is good, as always. Padmini looks beautiful and does justice to her role. But Kottarakkara is rather disappointing. The Art Direction and cinematography are good, considering the limitations that existed almost 60 years back.

The cinema also gives an insight into the clothes used in Kerala during the mid-20th c. In a couple of scenes Padmini appears in chatta and mundu, the traditional white attire of the Nazrani women. The juba or kurtha had made its appearance, but those men who sported an upper garment mostly used long sleeved shirts. These had a 4-buttoned opening in front. Some of the shirts (not seen in this cinema) had a half inch pleat between the shoulder and the elbow. But the most interesting style was mundu worn at the waist over the shirt tails, and a single breasted jacket over the shirt. Some used a tie and a folded kuriamundu, a kind of thin shawl over the shoulders as well. The bush-shirt and subsequently short sleeved shirts became popular in Kerala only in the late 1950s.

Sorry for drifting off the main topic. Snehaseema is a milestone in Malayalam cinema history. A good movie. See it if you get a chance. It was dubbed into Tamil under the title Punyavathi. That was also a big success.

Note: You can read a good review of the movie by B. Vijayakumar published in The Hindu on 7/6/2008 at

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