M.T. Vasudevan Nair, one of the greatest writers of our times and an exceptional scenarist and director of Malayalam cinema, turned 90 on July 15. In a writing career spanning six decades, he has produced some fine literary works, scripts, and films, and won the Padma Bhushan, the Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Jnanpith, besides several national film awards, and honorary doctorates.
Having won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award at the age of 25 in 1959 for his first novel, Nalukettu (The House With A Courtyard and Four Pillars, 1958), he went on to write some of the most beloved and iconic novels of modern Malayalam literature, such as Asuravithu (The Demon Seed, 1962), Manju (Mist, 1964), Kaalam (Time, 1969), Randamoozham (The Second Turn, 1984), and Varanasi (2002). The works of MT, as he is popularly known, in literature and cinema trace in many ways the subterranean history of Kerala society in all its intensity and complexity.
MT as scriptwriter and filmmaker
MT entered the world of films in the mid-1960s when Malayalam cinema was on the cusp of change; it was struggling to find its own narrative styles and visual idiom, and surviving as a popular medium and industry. MT’s debut script was based on his own story (Murappennu, directed by A. Vincent, 1965), and this was followed by a series of films that carved him a niche in the industry. His distinct narrative and dialogic style made him the most popular and sought-after screenplay writer in the Malayalam film industry.
Mastery in literature deeply influenced his artistry as a scenarist; his fiction writing was as “cinematic” in its eye for minute detail and deep sense of milieu. He brought to cinema a certain intense kind of interiority, one with a literary flavour but also a special charm. He penned more than 50 scripts in the following decades and directed six films: Nirmalyam (The Offering, 1973), Bandhanam (Bondage, 1978), Varikkuzhi (The Trap, 1982), Manju (Mist, 1983), Kadavu (The Ferry, 1991), and Oru Cheru Punchiri (A Slender Smile, 2000), all of which received both critical and popular acclaim.
The Valluvanad region on the banks of river Nila, its landscape, culture, and people constitute the narrative world of MT’s early scripts. The notable films of this period—the trilogy of Murappennu, IruttinteAtmavu (The soul of darkness, directed by P. Bhaskaran, 1965), and Asuravithu (directed by A. Vincent, 1968), and the two “city films”: Nagarame Nanni (Oh City, Thanks!, directed by A. Vincent, 1967) and Pakalkinavu (Daydream, directed by S.S. Rajan, 1966)—inaugurate the major themes of the writer’s oeuvre: the degenerating tharavads (ancestral homes); hopeless loves and conflicts within and between individuals, families, and communities; the lure of the city; and the futility of trying to settle scores with the past.
“MT’s heroes are all outsiders and loners, banished from their world, caught between the old and the new. ”
Enveloping these narratives were major ideas: the disintegration of the agrarian economy, the splintering of joint families, the struggle for survival of the new nuclear families, rising unemployment, and the uncertainties that urban migration engendered. The significant films of this period include, besides the ones mentioned above, Olavum Theeravum (Waves and the Shore, 1970), Nizhalattam (Shadow Play, 1970), Kuttiedathi (Kutty the Elder Sister, 1971), Vitthukal (Seeds, 1971), Kanyakumari (1974), Ekakini (Lone woman, 1978), and Neelathamara (The Blue Lotus, 1979). The two films he directed during this period, Nirmalyam and Bandhanam, were set in the same geographic and thematic terrains.
The 1980s were MT’s most creative and prolific years, when he made forays into urban landscapes, diverse milieus, and complex man-woman relationships. The films from this period include Idavazhiyile Poocha Mindapoocha (Alley cat, silent cat; 1979), Oppol (Elder sister, 1980), Vilkanundu Swapnangal (Dreams for Sale, 1980), Valarthumrigangal (Pets, 1981), Thrishna (Thirst, 1981), and Utharam (Answer, 1989), films which dealt with the emotional, sexual, intellectual, and social conflicts and compromises that engulfed Malayali middle-class lives.
From the 1990s onwards, MT’s narratives shifted to wider canvases and universal concerns, epic stories, and local legends. A certain tranquillity suffuses these narratives, as does a sense of destiny or acceptance. Films like Vaishali (1988), Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (A Northern Ballad of Valour, 1989), Perumthachan (The Master Carpenter, 1991), Parinayam (Wedding, 1994), Daya (Compassion, 1998), and Keralavarma Pazhassiraja (2019) draw inspiration from epics, ballads, legends, and history. While reinterpreting these narratives, they interrogate notions like heroism and victory and introspect on the entanglement between the individual and society.
Films like Sadayam (With mercy, 1992), Sukrutham (Good deed, 1994), and Theerthadanam (Pilgrimage, 2001) dwell on disease, ageing, and mortality, with men in the last lap of their lives pondering on the illusions that lured their lives and loves away. Conflict between man and woman, father and son, past and present persist pensively and darkly in these films.
In his long career, MT scripted films for the most illustrious directors of three generations: from the stalwarts of the 1960s such as A. Vincent, K.S. Sethumadhavan, P. Bhaskaran, and P.N. Menon, to the star directors of the 1980s and 1990s such as I.V. Sasi, Hariharan, and Bharathan, filmmakers of the next generation such as Harikumar and Prathap Pothen, and debutants such as Venu and Kannan.
- M.T. Vasudevan Nair, who turned 90 on July 15, straddles the twin worlds of Malayalam literature and cinema like a colossus.
- At 25, MT won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for his first novel, Nalukettu (1958). His other novels include Asuravithu (1962), Manju (1964), Kaalam (1969), Randamoozham (1984), and Varanasi (2002).
- In cinema, MT can neither be labelled a “commercial” nor an “art” filmmaker. He also has that rare ability to reinvent himself and always remain contemporary.
As a director, MT’s first venture, Nirmalyam, won the National Awards for Best Film and Best Actor (P.J. Antony). It is set around an oracle in a village temple who is struggling to make ends meet as the feudal economy crumbles. When his wife is forced to sell her body, he believes he has been betrayed by both his “goddesses”—at the temple and at home—and sacrifices himself at the temple’s altar. In an ultimate act of faith, as he performs his last dance, he spits blood on the deity before crumbling down. It was a daring and rebellious scene, unimaginable in these times when hurt sentiments and claims about imagined pasts dictate the terms of movies.
In Manju, a poetic film about love and longing, MT explores the story of a teacher in a hill town who waits endlessly for her lover. Tourist seasons come and go, but her eternal wait for love is neither fulfilled nor requited. The film was noted for its poetic and austere imagery, both visual and verbal.
Bandhanam was about a rootless young man, a lost soul condemned to drift in the city, forlorn and loveless. All his attempts to connect with the world through love and his past through his erstwhile family in the village turn out to be elusive. In the last fantasy sequence, we see him donning the attire of a judge in a court full of clowns, and condemning himself to lifelong solitude.
Varikkuzhi revolves around the life choices of an ambitious youth who, in order to achieve success in life, has to sell his soul and, in the end, finds himself trapped by the very means he thought would liberate him from his financial and sensual hungers.
Kadavu is set in a ferry in a river and revolves around two characters: the aged boatman who plies people across the river and Raju the adolescent who has run away from home and takes refuge there. The life moments and stories of several people converge and depart at the ferry, with Raju as silent witness. It is also the story of his coming of age, when he travels to the city to find his “love” but is driven back by the cruel reality of life. Like his mentor, he too is destined to ferry but not to cross.
Oru Cheru Punchiri (A Slender Smile, 2000) is one of the most tender films about ageing in Indian cinema. Revolving around the everyday life of an aged couple, the film is about love, longing, and belonging for and with one’s land, time, people, and nature: physical and social.
What made MT’s oeuvre unique was that his films were both commercially and artistically appealing. Rooted in their milieu, his characters were all psychologically complex. Certain themes persist—a disconnect with the world, the inability to find a place of one’s own, unrequited love, and the humiliation and struggle for survival that the system inflicts on the individual.
MT’s heroes are all outsiders and loners, banished from their world, caught between the old and the new. As a consequence, the families in MT’s screenplays are invariably incomplete, broken, damaged—absent fathers, mutual distrust, infidelity, and rivalry loom over them.
“MT was a true Nehruvian humanist who believed in democracy, secularism, and scientific temper. ”
Interestingly, while the men crack or compromise, the women fight, always trying to survive and carry on. The men are damaged within, haunted by the past and frustrated in the present. The women are anchored in space and time, seeking to find ways to come to terms with losses while always keeping alive their faith in life and love.
Like any successful filmmaker and scenarist, MT has had his successors and followers. Many filmmakers tried to imitate his dialogue style and milieus. There was a time when the Valluvanadan lingo that MT popularised and the tharavad milieu he iconised became the norm of commercial Malayalam cinema. Against the backdrop of the rise of communal politics after the 1990s, such narratives glorifying feudal pasts and the lives of powerful castes assumed diabolic resonances. Ironically, for MT’s heroes, the feudal tharavad milieus were haunted sites of humiliation and deprivation rather than pride and glory. It was a space and a time reigned over by patriarchs, marked by Oedipal conflicts, always evoking shame and hurt.
On occasions when MT’s heroes return to the past to settle scores, what they find are the ghosts of a bygone era who have lost all power and potency, making any act of revenge or retrieval meaningless. The films set in the “MT milieu”, so to speak, were in sharp contrast—in them, the past was a nostalgic refuge from the present, a glorified feudal era that the new heroes wanted to reinhabit, reinvent, and relive.
Another feature of MT’s films is their scepticism towards religion. MT was a true Nehruvian humanist who believed in democracy, secularism, and scientific temper. Religion and religious motifs in his films were present as social facts, as setting or personal choice, rather than as a value or belief system of the narrative. From his earliest films, MT’s attitude towards religion was critical, as is evident from Asuravithu, where the protagonist Govindankutty, raging against his community, converts to Islam, only to find himself doubly ostracised. He finally rejects both religions and declares himself human.
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It is impossible to summarise a career that spans more than six decades and 60 films. But the themes of existential, social, and spiritual crises that MT explored and elaborated on map the internal history of post-Independence Kerala. In both literature and cinema, he situates himself between generations and styles. While breaking away from the classical and realist traditions of the old generation, he does not follow aesthetic fads or “modernist” narrative styles.
In cinema, he can be labelled neither a “commercial” nor an “art” filmmaker as he has the rare ability to blend elements of both, to maintain aesthetic quality and popular appeal. Maintaining creative distance from all ideologies and dogmatisms, both political and aesthetic, MT remains a liberal and secular modernist. A critical insider with a deep emotional connect to his land, MT has the rare ability to reinvent himself and always remain contemporary.
C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary filmmaker based in Thiruvananthapuram.