In 1976, on a September night, a 10-year-old boy was running in the rain. His father had just died of tuberculosis, but that could not stop him from running to play the lead role in the prestigious drama festival held as part of the Onam festival in Vallachira, a suburb of Thrissur district. The boy, Priyanandanan, won the best actor prize that night.
Priyanandanan laughs as if there was nothing unusual in what that the 10-year-old did. “People have asked me this question before: what sort of a boy was I, who had just lost his father, and ran to act in dramas!” he says. “But they do not understand what the drama festival meant to us, the villagers of Vallachira. Who would miss an opportunity to play the lead in a drama competition?”
It was not just any ordinary drama festival, says Priyanandanan. “Scripts were used from world-class writers like Jean Genet, Ernest Hemingway and others,” he says. “Thanks to the special drama competition, I was able to come across the works of Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, not to mention a slew of Indian writers. A number of stalwarts in the Malayalam theatre, like Jos Chiramal and Suveeran, were regular visitors. So, it was a bridge for us village folks to the world of creativity outside.”
Thereafter, Priyanandanan acted in hundreds of plays and directed many. Later, he switched to films and did well. His directorial debut, Neythukkaran, won the Kerala State Government’s best debut director award in 2001 and in 2006, he won the best feature film award for his second film, Pulijanmam.
Incidentally, the people of Vallachira have been holding drama festivals as part of their Onam celebrations for 50 years now. In Vallachira, population 14,000, which consists mainly of daily wage workers, there are 30 arts and cultural clubs which doubles up as theater troupes during the Onam season. Finding time after their daily toil, these villagers have been sustaining the festival without any funds from outside.
Nevertheless, staging a play is an expensive proposition. “The budget for a single drama is between Rs 2 and 3 lakhs,” said director Sashidaran, whose latest play has been selected for the National School of Drama competition at Delhi. “For a club to win the overall Onam competition, you must make the members participate in traditional art forms like Ivarkali, Kolkali, Pulikali, Kummatti, and Viladichan Paattu. All this costs money. To rehearse takes a month. This might sound like hectic work for outsiders, but for the past 52 years, we cannot imagine an Onam without exploring the creative depth inside us.”
And this exploration has led to many artists, like Ashtamoorthi, Vidyadaran, and Mullanezhi, etching their names in the annals of Kerala’s theatre and film history.
Interestingly, a number of new generation Malayalam filmmakers, like Aashiq Abu and Amal Neerad, were ‘Shishyans’ to many of these villagers when they were in college. Because whenever drama festivals were held in the colleges in Kerala these villagers from Vallachira become ‘touring gurus’ to the college students.
Unusually, at a time when the new-gen filmmakers are creating waves in Kerala, the young generation of Vallachira are still charmed by theatre, firm in their intention to continue the legacy. The 14-year-old Ritwick Sreekumar got a break, after he acted in the play, Kizhavanum Kadalum, directed by Sasidharan, which won the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards. He has been signed up for two major Malayalam films.