May 29, 2002 
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K S Sethumadhavan
'I wanted to become a sanyasi'
Down memory lane with K S Sethumadhavan Swarna Kamal-winner of Marupakkam

In the history of Malayalam cinema, the 1960s is described as a golden period.

Malayalam cinema was slowly creating an identity of its own, moving away from the Tamil and Hindi background. Thanks largely due to filmmakers like K S Sethumadhavan, P Bhaskaran, P N Menon, Ramu Kariat and A Vincent, who made films on the literary works of great writers from Kerala.

Seventy films in 40 years may not seem like an achievement, but each of his films is still remembered, including films in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, even Sinhalese.

Apart from winning several National Awards for Malayalam films, Sethumadhavan's Marupakkam is the only Tamil film that won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film at the national level. He also won the Best Screenplay Award for the same film.

When Shobha Warrior met him, Sethumadhavan was preparing to make his second Telugu film for the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). On his birthday, May 29, the director walks down memory lane:

On his entry into films

I was an introvert. I do not know whether I was passionate about films when I was young. When I lost my father at eight, I could see his death like a film. While my mother and sisters cried, I just stood in a corner and watched everything as if I were watching a film. After my father died, we moved from Tamil Nadu to our native place, Palakkad, in Kerala.

I wanted to become a sanyasi. But I came to Chennai and enrolled at Madras University. The prospect of going to the same office every day, and seeing the same faces frightened me.

K S Sethumadhavan His first day in a studio

My long cherished dream came true when I became an unpaid apprentice at the Central Studio in Coimbatore.

When I first entered the studio floor, the spotlight was on a very handsome man in a dark green tribal dress and a bow and arrow in his hands. I stared at him, transfixed.

He was MGR (M G Ramachandran). The film was Karmayogi in Tamil and Ek Tha Raja in Hindi. I was the unpaid apprentice for the film. MGR and I became good friends.

He could identify with my life as his mother was also widowed when still young. She had to struggle very hard to raise her children.

His first film

I desire something strongly, it never happens. But certain fortunate things fall in my lap unexpectedly.

My first film came to me when I least expected it. It was Modern Theatres' Veeravijaya in 1960 in Sinhalese. The film was released in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Tamil Nadu.

His first success

My third film Kannum Karalum (1961) was a roaring success.

It was about a child writing letters to his mother who he thought was in heaven. Kamal (Haasan) had just finished his first film Kalathur Kannamma as a child actor. He played Satyan's son in Kannum Karalum.

The distributors who saw the film in Kochi told us the film would not run, as there was no romantic interest in it. But it ran for 100 days. Even in Palakkad, where Malayalam films never ran, it ran for 50 days!

I remember an incident. The film was about the mother-son relationship. The producer wanted me to show shots of a bird feeding its little ones or a calf drinking milk as symbols of love. I refused. There was no question of having such stupid shots in my film, which people had been watching from 1936 onwards.

I was confident and arrogant then. I did not want to do what somebody else had done!

On Naale Namathe and MGR

My brother wanted to remake Yaadon Ki Baarat in Tamil and wanted MGR in the film.

I was not interested in directing a remake, but when they went to meet MGR, he asked whether I was directing the film. My brother said yes. So I directed it.

You know, the shooting was to begin at 9 am the first day. He arrived at 10.45 am. When he came in late the secomd day as well, I asked him, "What time will you come in tomorrow?"

Everyone was shocked when I asked him that. I continued, "If you want to come at 10.30 am, I will have the call sheet at 10.30 am, not at 9 am. We are wasting one-and-a-half hours."

He said he would arrive early. Next day, when we came at 8.55 am, he was already there, ready with his makeup.

On Kamal Haasan

Kamal was extremely naughty on the sets of Kannum Karalum, but was very smart. He was neither scared of people nor of the camera. I could sense a spark in him even then.

After a few years, I planned to make Kanyakumari. We wanted a very young man and we decided on M G Soman.

Then one day, a handsome young man came to my house. It was Kamal Haasan. I didn't recognise him first --- I had not seen him after Kannum Karalum. I wanted him in Kanyakumari the moment I saw him.

It was his first film as an adolescent. Rita Bhaduri was the heroine. I directed his first film (Ormakal Marikkumo) as an adult, too. Recently, I directed him in Nammavar.

On the success of Chattakkari (remade in Hindi as Julie), (1972)

We wanted an actress who could play an Anglo-Indian girl convincingly. I was not satisfied with any of the girls I screen-tested. Then, somebody suggested Lakhsmi's name.

Lakshmi came to meet me with a lot of makeup --- bright lipstick --- wearing stockings. I told her to wipe it off. The transformation was remarkable. I was struck by her looks, presence and acting virtuosity. I fell in love with the actress in her!

I even created the song sequence Julie, I love you just for her. It was not there in the original script. I left for Mumbai with producer Nagi Reddy to meet the distributors for the Hindi remake. They were thinking of casting Zeenat Aman or Moushumi Chatterjee as the Anglo-Indian girl.

After we screened Chattakkari they wouldn't have anyone but Lakshmi in the Hindi version too. "The girl is fantastic," they raved. "Anyone else wouldn't be a patch on her!"

On Marupakkam, Best Film at the national level (1991)

I had been winning National Awards since 1966. I had won the Rajat Kamal for Oppol in the year 1981. Not in my wildest dreams did I expect the Swarna Kamal for Marupakkam. I thought Sivakumar would win the Best Actor Award.

I also got the Best Screenplay Award. I can't say how happy I was to receive both the awards.

National awards won by K S Sethumadhavan
Film Language Year Award
Odayil Ninnu Malayalam 1966 Certificate Of Merit
Adimakal Malayalam 1970 Best Regional Film
Kara Kana Kadal Malayalam 1971 Best Regional Film
Pani Theeratha Veedu Malayalam 1972 Best Regional Film
Achanum Bappayum Malayalam 1972 Best Film On National Integration
Ollathu Mathi Malayalam 1972 Award from The Ministry of Health and Family Planning
Oppol Malayalam 1981 Rajat Kamal Second Best Feature Film
Marupakkam Tamil 1991 Swarna Kamal Best Feature Film
Marupakkam Tamil 1991 Best Screenplay
Nammavar Tamil 1995 Best Regional Film
Stree Telugu 1996 Best Regional Film

Photographs by Sreeram Selvaraj


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