The Story of Malayalam Cinema: Birth and Early Years (1928 – 1950)

Abstract : Malayalam cinema has a dynamic history to narrate, starting from the 1950s. But rarely do we concern ourselves about the movies made before the 1950s. While the 1950s saw the rise of communism and the establishment of the first communist government in India, it has to be remembered that this is the time when Malayalam cinema also rose to strength and prominence. Though drama and other forms of literature were directly used by the party for propagandist purposes, movies never contributed to it directly but cinema as a collective venture was influenced by the emergence of communism.

Keywords: malayalam cinema, history, early years, renaissance in Kerala, Udaya Pictures, first communist government, emergence of communism, communist party

As a socio-cultural production of the society, Malayalam cinema has won many accolades over the past decades. Yet, compared to other popular entertainments, cinema is rather young and naïve. Though it has now become the most preferred cultural medium, it had rough early days which almost stalled its growth. Copies of the movies made during the first three decades of its birth are unavailable today. Malayalam cinema took its chances to blossom out when the state itself was trying out something new and unconventional in a period known as the enlightenment era. Keralites were then witnessing a great deal of reformative changes which drastically altered the future of Kerala. Kerala did not turn ‘God’s own Country’ one fine day. Everything that now makes the state stand apart from the other states in the country began budding during the enlightenment and reformation era. The changes initiated at the time covered a period of three decades —be it communism, entertainment, education or individual contributions to society.

Historically, Travancore was considered a progressive state. It had progressive-minded kings, modernised social and economic infrastructure, impressive legal system and so on. The Kings here introduced universal suffrage and upheld people’s right to education. They vehemently opposed caste orthodoxy, and threw open the doors of Hindu temples to people of all castes. These historical developments contributed considerably to the emergence of communism and the establishment of the first Communist government in India. However, the state was slow to embark on film production on its own. People were content with watching movies made in Madras or Bombay. Early Malayalam movies were either unsuccessful or were made by non- Malayalis or were more or less family businesses. The success of cinema as the most popular art form was not only because of the money or the glamour it brought but also because of the vast number of people who got involved in the making of it. In the late 1940s, Travancore saw many uprisings as well as the emergence of the Communist party, and it is not a coincidence that along with the rise of the party the film industry also started thriving. There is no obvious connection between cinema and Communism, but it would not be wrong to surmise that the party and the way of thinking it produced, had an impact on the new outlook promoted by Malayalam cinema from the beginning of 1950.

Lumier films were shown at Bombay Esplanade Hotel on July 7, 1896, but it took three more decades for the celluloid frames to reach the coasts of Travancore. It was a time of great political turmoil, and cultural forms like music and drama contributed their bit in boosting up patriotic fervour. That was when J. C. Daniel started ‘Travancore Pictures’ to bring out the movie Vigatha Kumaran (The Lost Child). J. C. Daniel is considered the father of Malayalam cinema for his efforts to bring modern cinema to Kerala. When he made the first Malayalam feature film in 1928, he could not find a woman to play the role of his heroine, Sarojam. However, after a long and vigorous quest, Daniel found P. K. Rosy, a dalit woman to play the role of Sarojam. The first screening of Vigatha Kumaran caused a furore among the town’s nobles, and it is said that they chased P. K. Rosy away from Thiruvananthapuram for the atrocious crime of acting in a film at a time when acting was considered more heinous than prostitution.

What added to the intensity of the crime was that she had acted as a Nair woman. Untouchability was practiced rigorously then and low caste people were not allowed to walk on the roads when the high caste ones chose to use them. P. K. Rosy’s boldness to act in a film at such a time and her enthusiasm and talent in acting, might have captured the attention of the film enthusiast J. C. Daniel. Vigatha Kumaran was screened at the ‘Capitol Theatre’, Trivandrum on November 7, 1928. The film’s failure nearly broke J. C. Daniel financially and emotionally and he never came to the limelight until recently. To think that the first Malayalam movie had to undergo such an unfortunate reception might have created a sort of fear among movie enthusiasts of the time. For a long time to come, until 1933, no one tried their hands on celluloid frames. What’s more, the movies made after Vigatha Kumaran showed nothing but melodrama or mythology until the year 1949.

After the first unfortunate incident in 1928, it took five long years for the next film to be screened in Travancore. This second one was a film based on C. V. Raman Pillai’s Marthanda Varma. The film recounted the adventures of the crown Prince Marthanda Varma and the ways by which he eliminated his arch rivals one by one to ascend the throne of Travancore. The film was produced by R. Sunder Raj under the banner of Shri Rajeswari Films and was released at Capitol theatre in 1933. However, after the first screening, the movie was withdrawn from theatres because of the copyright infringement case filed by the novel’s publishers, namely Kamalalaya Book Depot, thus making the first copyright case in Indian film industry.

Soon Kerala became a market for the Tamil studio barons in Madras who started conquering and controlling the market. They financed Malayalam films, got local actors to act and dispatched Madras based technicians to Kerala to assist in film making. In 1938 came out the first talkie in Malayalam titled ‘Balan’, produced by T. Sunderam of Modern Theatres in Salem, and directed by S. Notanni. It was the first successful Malayalam movie released in Travancore. In the melodramatic manner of Tamil movies, it narrated the story of two orphans who were abused by their stepmother but were finally rescued by a lawyer. It was based on the story ‘Vidhiyum Mrs. Nayarum’ (Fate and Mrs. Nair) written by T. Sundaram. Though devoid of high artistic merit, it laid the foundation for the future Malayalam film industry. It had music tracks with popular songs of the time. Another movie Gnanambika (1940) made at Newstone Studios in Madras, was also directed by S. Nottani. Gnanambika also dealt with the evil designs of a wicked stepmother trying to harm children. Prahlada, a mythological film was released in 1941 and after that Malayalam cinema took a long break for good. During this time the society was undergoing several drastic changes and Malayalam cinema was set for resurrection at the hands of those who themselves underwent transformation at the impact of communism.

Because of the scarcity of Malayalam films of artistic merit, people of Travancore flocked to theatres screening Tamil movies. Telugu too found favour with Keralites for their sentimentalism and high drama. Hindi films had a tolerably good market as well, mostly due to their extravagant production, expensive sets, music, dance et al. It is noteworthy that none of the Malayalam films produced before independence reflected the struggle for independence; the films that came after independence in the early 1950s reflected the turbulent period in Kerala history when the Communist uprising was taking place, changing the entire socio-political climate of the State. Those were days when the Communist Party attracted the attention and widespread support from people. ‘Deshabhimani’ started functioning. Party carried out a strong intervention in the socio-political scenario through the likes of Punnappra Vayalar struggle. Strong propaganda was carried out by the party through the medium of drama to make people conscious of exploitation and suppression. Party formed organisations of workers and peasants irrespective of caste distinctions and was able to raise the fight against social inequalities to the level of class consciousness. The practice of actively intervening in the struggle for social reform played a major role in the strengthening of the Communist Party in Kerala.

There is no apparent connection between the advent of cinema and the growth of the communist party in Kerala but the efforts made by the party to spread consciousness about the need for reform shook cinema out of inactivity. “After the release of Prahlada (1941), Malayalam cinema production went through a long period of inactivity. Exhibitors in Travancore, Cochin and Malabar had to depend on films from other places. No one ventured to produce a film here. The topic of discussion among a group of people who regularly assembled on the second floor of an old building located north of the iron bridge in Alappuzha town was this rather long, seemingly unending interval” (The Hindu). These people wanted to produce a patriotic movie in Malayalam. The two people who really wanted the Malayalam cinema to come out of sluggish slumber were Alleppey Vincent, a Malayalam actor and T. V. Thomas, who later became minister in the first government of Kerala. They soon floated a production house named Udaya Pictures. Their regular meeting place was turned into an office. They registered it under the Companies act. T.

V. Thomas took the lead to mobilise capital and got investments from T.

M. Varghese, Vendor Krishna Pillai, Cheppad Mathukutty and E. John Philipose. Udaya Pictures Private Ltd. came into being in 1946. T. M. Varghese, Cheppad Mathukkutty, Dhanalakshmi Vilasam Krishna Pillai,

E. John Philipose, K. B. Harshan Pillai, K. B. Raman Pillai, K. B. Anandam Pillai, T. V. Thomas and Alleppey Vincent were partners. Thomas and Vincent being working partners, they did not have to invest money. T. M. Varghese agreed to be a shareholder in the new company. Vendor Krishna Pillai invested Rs. 20,000, while Cheppad Mathukkutty and E. John Philipose offered to invest in shares worth Rs. 10,000. They started searching for a good story, and as soon as they heard about Kuttanad Ramakrishna Pillai’s play ‘Prathima’ being banned alleging it to be anti- national, decided to bring in Ramakrishna Pillai as their script writer. Vincent found a German cameraman in Madras and asked him to be a part of the venture. Felix Base thus travelled to Alleppey and became the director of the film. Though it all started in the year 1946, it took three years to premier the movie Vellinakshatram in 1949. Peethambara Menon, Lalitha, Kuttanad Ramakrishna Menon, Alleppey Vincent, Mathappan, Mulavana Joseph, Kandiyoor Padmanabhankutty and Ambujam were chosen to play the main roles. Thresiamma, who was later christened as Miss Kumari, also acted in a few scenes. Later Kunchako took over Udaya Pictures and renamed it Udaya Studio. Though Kunchako is now regarded as the one who founded Udaya Studios, in reality it was a people’s venture aimed at bringing out the best of what they possessed and thus to squirm out of the clutches of the Tamil movie barons. The establishment of Udaya Pictures gave a new life to Malayalam cinema. After Vellinakshatram, more secular films began to be produced resulting in the golden age of cinema in the 1950s. Ever since then, Malayalam cinema did not have to look back.


J, Nossiter T. Communism in Kerala: A Study in Political Adaptation. London: U of California, 1982. Print.

“Party History.” Party History. CPM, n.d. Web. <http://www.>.

Chelangad, Saju. “How Udaya Productions Came to Be.” The Hindu, 04 May 2014. Web. <http%3A%2F%2F columns%2Fhow-udaya-productions-came-to-be%2 Farticle5928834.ece>.


CHANDRALEKHA K.R. Is a freelance content writer and has worked as Research Assistant for the projects of Sahitya Akademi and The University Grants Commission. Her areas of interest are shifting meanings in mythology, translation patterns in Children’s literature and Film Studies.

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