Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Fazil’s Manjil Virinja Pookkal owes everything to Jerry Amaldev’s music and Mohanlal
Most mentions of Manjil Virinja Pookkal in public discussions come in the context of Mohanlal’s career. But the film had many other positive attributes: it was exquisitely shot, Fazil managed a beautifully brooding, atmospheric narrative from start to finish, and the music remains haunting.
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 6 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)
“Good evening, Mrs Prabha Narendran.”
With these five words and a twisted grin, Mohanlal walked into the narrative in 1980’s Manjil Virinja Pookkal and into the hearts of millions of Malayalam cine-goers. At that point, the actor had a single unreleased film to show on his CV, but after this one he no longer needed a CV – his name was introduction enough.
If I was a child living in Kerala when Manjil Virinja Pookkal was released, or if the north-India-based supposedly ‘national’ news media was not so insular and Hindi/Bollywood-centric, I might have known back then that this film was seen by many to signal the arrival of a New Wave in Malayalam cinema, shifting from clichéd sentimentalism and opting for a more realistic tone than was previously common. At the time though, I merely had a vague awareness that Manjil Virinja Pookkal was a megahit in Kerala, which is why it was being screened by a film club here in my home city, Delhi. I do not recall the exact year of the show – it was sometime in the early 1980s – but although I was very little, I did and do remember every tiny detail of the film from that experience.
Manjil Virinja Pookkal (Flowers That Bloomed In The Snow) is not great cinema. Truth be told, even as a child there were aspects of the film that I found tacky to the point of being laughable and my reaction has not changed with subsequent viewings. You may well ask then why I am including it in a series on Indian films that sparked the critic in me. The three-fold answer is that I loved other aspects of the film, that it is seared on my mind in its entirety because it gave me my first ever memory of watching a film in a theatre, and that I was enthralled that day in the 1980s by the power of the big screen and the romance of movie theatres.
The story of Manjil Virinja Pookkal opens with a young construction engineer called Prem Krishnan (played by Shankar) arriving at a hill station where he is to work on a building site. He is alone and lonely.
Prem meets Prabha (Poornima Jayaram, later Poornima Bhagyaraj), the only daughter of a local factory owner, Shivashankara Panicker, who he initially approaches because he needs the old man’s cooperation for his work. Panicker is confined to his bed and Prabha is his primary care-giver. Prem is immediately attracted to this quiet, enigmatic woman. He gets to visit their house routinely since her father has taken a liking to him. In time, he declares his feelings to her.
Prabha is hesitant, a recurrent nightmarish vision seems to hold her back, but Prem is persistent. After a while, she acknowledges that she reciprocates his feelings.
The couple’s happiness is palpable. And then one day, approximately 1 hour and 32 minutes into the running time of this two-and-half-hour long romantic thriller, a sinister creature (Mohanlal) slithers into their lives and stops her in the marketplace with the line: “Good evening, Mrs Prabha Narendran.”
Fazil made his directorial debut with Manjil Virinja Pookkal that he also wrote. In a career spanning over three decades, he delivered many landmark Malayalam films in addition to working in Telugu and Tamil. Ente Mammattikuttiyammakku (For My Mammattikuttiyamma, 1983), Nokketha Dhoorathu Kannum Nattu (Gazing As Far As The Eye Can See, 1984), Manichitrathazhu (1993), Aniyathipraavu (1997) and others have sealed his place as a storyteller in the annals of Indian cinema, but Manjil Virinja Pookkal is cited chiefly because it was a stupendous box-office success plus marked the now-legendary Mohanlal’s entry into cinema.
Lalettan, as he has since come to be known to fans worldwide, played Narendran in Manjil Virinja Pookkal – the film’s prime antagonist and a sadist. In later years when he became popular in lead roles, reams were written about how he was the most un-hero-like of heroes, or as a former employee of the production house Navodaya Studios put it rather unkindly in an interview to The New Indian Express’ Nidheesh M.K. in 2013 when describing her first encounter with Mohanlal, “I saw an ugly young man with full of pimples and hippy hairstyle, sitting far away from affable superhero Shankar. I asked Jijo Punoos, son of Appachan (the producer), who the new entrant was. He quipped that he was the one recruited for acting a rape scene with Poornima.” (sic) Setting aside the rather disturbing casualness in the ‘quip’ about rape, her statement highlights the tendency in Indian culture to openly and publicly diss people’s looks.
There was reportedly considerable disagreement over Mohanlal in the casting team. It is a measure of Fazil’s instincts and his luck that instead of succumbing to conventional notions of what constitutes prettiness, he picked Mohanlal anyway. The actor went on to make Narendran memorable and later, to make history.
The contrast between Lalettan’s charisma and Shankar’s absolute lack of it – though the latter perhaps conformed to that era’s accepted definition of desirable looks – is worth a separate essay. Narendran is meant to be slimy and comes across as such, but Prem is meant to be a nice guy yet he too comes across as creepy, most especially when he says, “I want you, I like you” to the heroine and at each instance when he seems to leer at her while making that weird gesture of sliding his hand across his face to indicate that he wants a kiss. Shudder!
Shankar’s poor acting is primarily why Manjil Virinja Pookkal does not fully qualify as quality art. Fazil’s writing was not faultless either. While his concept and overall storytelling were good, that gesture allocated to the hero, for one, and the fellow’s irritating habit of constantly eating chocolates then leaving wrappers lying all over the place both emerged from a practice – now thankfully dated in Indian cinema – of assigning signature quirks to important characters.
A better actor may have made even such triteness look interesting. Shankar was not that person.
Poornima, for her part, was/is a solid actor. (Both she and Shankar made their Malayalam debuts with Manjil Virinja Pookkal.) The significance given to her role in the film was an indicator of the attention and primacy Fazil would give the women characters in his scripts for the rest of his career. In fact, Manjil Virinja Pookkal is not honoured often enough for taking a stand against intimate partner violence including marital rape in a country where, even today, the latter is not recognised as a crime, and for throwing light, even if briefly, on the questionability of consent when given by one who is too young to do so. It is a tragic irony that 40 years since this film was made, Malayalam cinema tends to casually normalise and even humourise rape and other forms of violence against female spouses, the most recent chilling examples being Aadya Rathri (2019) and Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2020).
Most mentions of Manjil Virinja Pookkal in public discussions come in the context of Mohanlal’s career. But Lalettan could not possibly have made the film as a whole impactful with such little screen time. The fact is, Manjil Virinja Pookkal had other positive attributes: it was exquisitely shot on a massive scale, Fazil managed to imbue his narrative with a beautifully brooding, atmospheric air from start to finish, and the music remains haunting.
Jerry Amaldev had studied and taught music in the United States and India and worked with Naushad in the Hindi film industry before being recruited for Manjil Virinja Pookkal. He composed three songs for the film (with evocative lyrics by Bichu Thirumala) that get repeat play, reprised to fit differing moods, throughout.
The slow-moving, ruminative Mizhiyoram must surely rank as one of the best there has ever been in Indian cinema, and has been sung separately by S. Janaki and K.J. Yesudas. Manjadi Kunnil is more sprightly, a duet between Vani Jairam and Yesudas. (In its picturisation, this song features a strangely politically incorrect interlude in which strains of Goan folk music play while Prem appears with his face painted black as a bridegroom to Prabha’s wedding-gown-attired bride.)
Manjani Kombil is sung when Prabha feels free of her shackles and celebrates her love for Prem, in a dream sequence that follows a night of exchanging “I love you”s on the phone. It also has a sad version. Both renditions are by S. Janaki. The shooting of the former take on this song reveals Fazil’s evident fascination for north Indian cinema since he shows a shy Prabha watching a lively avatar of herself dancing unfettered on the mountainside dressed in a Bollywood-style Rajasthani skirt, choli and head cover favoured by Hindi films of the time. The visuals are amusing in their incongruity, but the tune, like the other two, is stunning, as is the instrumentation with its seamless blend of Western and Indian influences.
Manjil Virinja Pookkal won half a dozen Kerala State Film Awards, including Best Film With Popular Appeal and Aesthetic Value, Best Actress for Poornima and Best Music Director for Amaldev. Thirty-eight years after its release, when Mohanlal’s son Pranav Mohanlal made his acting debut (as an adult) in Jeethu Joseph’s Aadhi, he played a musician who sings Mizhiyoram alongside the opening credits.
The most expansive tribute to Manjil Virinja Pookkal so far has arguably been V.K. Prakash’s Malayalam film Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla (Anchovy Is Not A Small Fish, 2013) in which Fazil’s son Fahadh Faasil plays Preman, the caretaker of a condominium in Ernakulam, and Narendran, a fictional character he writes in his spare time to vent his anger against residents of the building, including a woman called Prabha (Kamalini Mukherjee). Preman’s mother, we are told, went into labour when she was watching Manjil Virinja Pookkal on the 100th day of its release and she did not realise that her labour pains were a result of the unborn Preman applauding the film from her womb.
Manjil Virinja Pookkal is far from perfect, but the memory of my first reaction to it as a child taught me early on that my instinctive response to art – irrespective of whether it is a hit or a flop, a multiple award winner or barely noticed – is as important as the intellectual reasoning that ensues, and that sometimes an uneven work may well deliver elements of immense beauty. This week when I rewatched the film, I giggled relentlessly once again at Shankar’s performance, but this and other flaws notwithstanding, it was also impossible not to once again be drawn into Fazil’s world, to have empathy for Prabha, to fear Narendran, and be completely smitten by Amaldev’s soundtrack and Thirumala’s poetry.
“Manja” in Malayalam is used for both snow and dew, but the title apparently alludes to snow, the manjil virinja pookkal – flowers that bloomed in the snow – being Prem and Prabha’s love blossoming under adverse circumstances that ultimately destroy it. And there I go again, sighing deeply.
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