THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: M K Nathan’s eyes scanned the roll of honours board listing the achievements of Modern Theatres. The first Malayalam movie with a sound track, ‘Balan’ (1932); the first Hollywood Collaboration in Tamil Nadu, ‘The Jungle’ (1952); the first Tamil cinema in colour, ‘Alibabavum Narpathu Tirudargalum’ (1956).
Yet, wasn’t something missing? The meticulous young man who had made a run-away hit with his first script, was quick to spot it – “Why not add to this the ‘first Malayalam film in colour’? T R Sundaram, the producer/director tycoon in South Indian film industry, greeted the suggestion with a bear hug and big nod. So on went Kanthimathinatha Pillai aka M K Nathan to the tale troves in Kerala, his adopted homeland.
He approached the authors of popular fiction of the time, Thakazhi, Muttathu Varkey and many others, seeking their willingness to collaborate with the venture.
“If they had a story fit for film adaptation, I would write a synopsis and send it to Madras. Finally, the one that was okayed was picked from a low profile writer, Mohammed Yosuf, in Kozhikode. We paid him ` 350 and bought the rights to the story. I did the translation of the story into Tamil and the transcription of K T Mohammed’s screenplay. And I was assistant director in the project which became ‘Kandam Becha Kottu’, the first full-length colour cinema in Malayalam. Released in 1961.”
Every detail is supplemented with records. He holds out cinema posters, song books and reply letters from Madras. Nathan’s penchant for filing documents was a mere chance aspect of his nature. But, these sepia-toned sheaves of paper are all that remain to testify to the role of this man in the story of Tamil and Malayalam cinema’s victory over the newly-sprung theatre-going crowd. Now 75 and fighting a debilitating hearing problem, Nathan, who walks with haltering steps, would seldom raise the suspicion that even a speck of glamour had ever laced his life.
Born to a Tamil family that had long settled in Thiruvananthapuram, he grew up in the house that stands in the busy market streets of Pazhayassala in Chalai. Writing stories came naturally to him and the days at the University College were marked by prolific penning of stories and scripts for dramas.
As the correspondent of Dinamalar daily, he continued to write. When the lower division clerk’s post with Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission beckoned, he knew it was Kodamabakkam that was inviting him.
“I would write stories and take them to producers and directors. None of it worked. That was when I got the opportunity to associate with Royal Studio, Madras. I worked as associate director in the movie ‘Deva Sundari’ in which Prem Nazir played the hero and Sathyan, the villain.”
The film was a super hit. And just when Nathan thought his film career had taken wings, Royal Studio closed down and he was again on the look out for a platform.
Luckily for him, T R Sundaram, who had floated the production house ‘Modern Theatres Ltd’, took a fancy to one of Nathan’s stories. He was asked to write the script and screenplay and the story was made into a movie of the same title, ‘Engal Kula Devi’ in 1958. Mainavati and Pandaribai played the female leads and Balaji, who was to become Mohanlal’s father-in-law in a later era, played the hero. A full-throttled melodrama, the film was an instant success and Nathan became the official scriptwriter of Modern Theatres.
‘Yar Manamakan’, ‘Pettaval Kanda Peru vazhvu’, ‘Marma Kai’ and many such box-office hits followed and Nathan soon rose to rub his shoulders with the other story writers on apprenticeship at Modern Theatres – M Karunanidhi and Murasoli Maran. The idea of the first Malayalam cinema in colour was perhaps his tit for tat reply to the Malayalam film industry which refused to take him seriously. Merryland Studio had given the cold shoulder to ‘Engal Kula Devi’ when he had narrated to them the story.
After the Nathan factor began creating magic in Tamil filmdom, Merryland invited him over to write for them and thus was born ‘Pen Pada’ (1975), for which veteran playwright Jagathy N K Achari had written the dialogues, and ‘Aana Valarthiya Vanampadiyude Makan’(1971).
Nathan’s friendship with N K Achari is a play within a play in the story of ‘Kandam Becha Kottu.’ “When the screenplay was done, it was slightly short in duration. I suggested that a scene be included where the characters watched a drama performance. Since I was a Malayalee, I was given the freedom to choose the drama and I suggested
N K Achari’s ‘Elayidathu Rani’. I was mesmerised by the power of Achari’s dialogues and I later invited him to pen the dialogues for ‘Pen Pada’.”
He also remembers that a young man, who was to be an assistant director in ‘Kandam Becha Kottu’, was a little unsettled when he found it difficult to communicate with the Tamil crew. The lad gladly left when he landed a plum project some days later. The young man was Ramu Karyat and the project that came his way was ‘Chemmeen’.
Quite soon, another aspiring film-maker joined the crew as assistant who went on to become another talented director, the J C Daniel award-winner K Sethumadhvan.
Destiny had a twist hidden in the script of Nathan’s life story. When his ailing parents and school-going daughter said they needed his presence back home in Thiruvananthapuram, he relented. Only to find himself meet with a scooter accident which permanently damaged his knee, making it difficult for him to travel.
Tinseltown is rumoured to harbour friendships only as long as they are handy. Thiruvananthapuram was way too far and Nathan soon fell out of focus.
The story-rich heart never allowed him to stay idle. Besides being the correspondent of Dinathanthi Tamil daily, Nathan writes stories and scripts for Tamil dramas. He has published 33 books so far and has the script for a comedy serial ready. If only the unknowing passers-by would stop and ask, bit by bit, so he can follow the lip movement, Nathan would unwind the reels of an eventful flashback.
For those exclamatory moments in between, he can supply you plenty of stuff, a letter from one of Malayalam cinema’s yesteryear superstars, asking for a loan of ` 10, for instance.