Most pioneers rarely have it easy, and some are further doomed to suffer the ignominy of being trailblazers at a time and place where their efforts threaten life as we know it.
While Malayalam cinema is widely celebrated, few knew about the trials of PK Rosy, who featured as the lead in the language’s first talkie, Vighathakumaran (1928).
The Lost Heroine, a poignant translation of Vinu Abraham’s classic Malayalam novel, Nashtanaika, brings to life the incredible but forgotten story of the young woman who faced abuse and discrimination for acting in a film.
A Dalit Christian, Rosy understands the magnanimity of the action and the faith that the filmmaker has in her untapped talent, and as someone who never saw cinema and acted in village plays, gives her best to transform into a Nair girl.
She begins to picture a life where her reel fantasy would transform her reality and although life is not the same once the shooting ends, it’s unlike anything that Rosy had expected.
Translated by CS Venkiteswaran and Arathy Ashok, it is the first-ever translation of Abraham’s book. It infuses life into the world of early Malayalam cinema and presents the people that pioneered it and also offers an insight into the way society refused to come to terms with cinema, at least in its early days.
One can gauge the difficultly in a retelling of Rosy’s life as very little information is available about the actress. Few had heard of Rosy’s name.
Even her relatives reportedly had no idea about her film work and there is not even a photo available. Most of the blanks were filled via second-hand research.
At the time Rosy acted in the film, it was highly uncommon for women from any walk of life to be associated with films. People enjoyed films and plays but did not find it ironical to put the characters on a pedestal while ill-treating the people who brought them to life.
Rosy’s presence highlights both the caste as well as societal faultiness that were more prominent a century ago. This is where the volume scores as well as falter to some degree.
Rosy hailed from the Pulaya community and managed to transcend the social barriers thanks to her art. However, The Lost Heroine gives a sense as if the narrative focused more on the revolutionary sociopolitical aspect more as a result of what has happened in the recent past.
In 2019, psychology researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied 24 emotional concepts, such as anger, love and pride, across 2,474 languages and found the meaning of emotions differ across the languages.
This could be the reason why towards the end, The Lost Heroine falls short in capturing Rosy’s anguish. Maybe it is more of a trouble with the inability of words of a language to convey emotions with the same passion when translated from another.
The climax is a re-imagination but without diminishing the pain that Rosy experienced at the hands of people around her. The flashy purple patches render a great disservice.