Abhayam: A Lost Gem

Janaky Sreedharan


Seen movies may be memorable, but unseen movies may leave you inquisitive and pining for ever. After a brief hiatus, when I sit down again to unlock my reminiscences of a favourite film from the past, I feel desperately drawn to a film I’ve been searching for years. I’ve known of it only through hearsay. Particularly when such a buzz is created around the making of a film on the enigmatic Madhavikkutty with  speculations running high  around Vidya Balan’s demurral, Manju Warrier’s acceptance of the daunting role, and  her ability to capture the idiosyncratic icon on screen. But this is not the first time a movie is being dreamed around a woman writer. And that’s why I’ve been searching for ‘Abhayam,’ a 1971 film by none other than the redoubtable Ramu Kariat -- a film inspired by,   so the folklore goes , the elusive and tragic life and writings of Rajalakshmi, the author of extremely popular novels such as ‘Njaanenna Bhaavam,' ‘Makal,' ’Oru vazhiyum kure nizhalukalum,’ ‘Uchaveyilum ilam nilavum,’ and poems like ‘Njaan ninne snehikkunnu.’

Unfortunately, when anything can surface in the cyberspace with uncanny accuracy and timing today, seasoned artists and connoisseurs have been asking me to give up on my search as they are sure the print is lost. Films earlier than Abhayam are still available, but this one is not. Produced by Sobhana Parameswaran Nair, the film is interesting for more reasons. Perhaps it’s the only one in which almost all the foremost poets of the day are featured as  lyricists whose words evoke the myriad moods and emotions attributed to a writer going through extreme anguish on various counts. The list boasts literally of ‘who is who’ among the poets of the day and yore like G.Sankarakurup, Sugathakumari, Balamaniamma, Vayalar, Changampuzha, Kumaran Asan , Vallathol and P.Bhaskaran who find themselves liltingly set to music by V.Dakshinamoorthy and sung out by legends like K.J. Yesudas, P. Susheela, S.Janaki, P.Jayachandran, and P.Leela among many others. With 13 songs in the film, one can imagine the kind of musical sensation it must’ve been! Though I was just a kid, I still remember how the lyrics of the song  ‘Raavu Poyathariyaathe,ragamookayay, paavamoru paathirappoo paridathil vannu,” penned by P. Bhaskaran and meltingly rendered by Susheela used to be on the lips of many a young man and woman in the gatherings of the  seventies.


I got to know of Rajalakshmi’s stories and her reclusive life from my mother who bonded with the writer on many levels. Apart from the Palakkadan milieu, which my mother must’ve naturally identified with, the turbulence raging within the women of the times was so intensely imagined by Rajalakshmi that it struck a deep chord in many. It was my mother’s memories of reading Rajalakshmi’s stories and her fond recollections of a reader’s intimacy with the writerly imagination  that intrigued me.

The labyrinthine pathways of the Internet will take you to various cyberspaces associated with Rajalakshmi. They will tell you about how she grew up in Cherpulasseri and grew up to be a Lecturer in physics, but became more famous as a talented writer. They will also tell you about her sister T.A. Saraswathy Amma, who was a formidable mathematician and academician, internationally famous  for her path breaking work on ancient Indian mathematics. (This was a revelation to me and made me think of our negligence towards our own women in the area of science and mathematics and their sterling contributions to the field). 

They will also tell us about how stressed out and pressured Rajalakshmi was by her near and dear ones, as her stories were accused of an uncanny resemblance to the actual lives of people close to her. Her suicide drew a lot of conjecture and was traced alternately to writer’s depression and a terminal disease. She bid goodbye taking her own life in 1965 and many of her stories were later construed as prophetic suicide notes. The film starring Sheela, Madhu, Raghavan, Jose Prakash  and many other important actors of the day became a hit. Made under the Rupavani banner, the movie was based on the story ‘Abhayam’ written by Perumbadavam Sreedharan with the screen play by  S.L. Puram Sadanandan.


Ramu Kariat

My search for the film took me to interesting sites like MalayalaSangeetham which displayed scanned pages of the old Pattupusthakam of the film. The site not only passes on the antique feel of the songbook, but also stores the audio recordings of the songs which you can hear to your heart’s content and sense of loss. Because the more you hear, read and know, the more you want to see the film. And the fact that it’s totally beyond your reach makes you feel indignant and betrayed. Sheela was named ‘Sethulakshmi,’ and although none of the notes on the film talk about a direct connection with Rajalakshmi’s life, the incidents in the film and the parallels to the rumoured events in the writer’s life confirmed the audience intuition. I’ve seen writings drawing similarities between Sylvia Plath and Rajalakshmi in the critical attempts to draw similarities between the creative angst and depression allegedly experienced by both. As an enigma ,Rajalakshmi too birthed many biographies. And this film too would’ve been an invaluable record of how the Malayalee community engaged with the memories of a woman writer through cinema. Because cinema as a mass medium has its own conditionality, apart from its gendered contexts and histories of spectatorship.

It was a fictionalized reconstruction of a writer but there were close resemblances. Did it create a furor because of the likeness? That will demand more research. Kamal makes it plain that his film is anchored in the daunting persona of Kamala Das or many personae she donned. We’ve already begun to foresee the heated reception of the film. Malayalam cinema has toyed with diverse images of writers and has even had adolescent girls writing letters to Madhavikkutty as a sign of their creativity and sensitivity. But in spite of such a close bond between cinema and literary cultures, isn’t it disappointing that such a precious work is lost to us? Is there any way to recover this lost gem?