Director K. G. George and producer Henry were driving from Chennai at break neck speed trying to beat a deadline. They were carrying four prints of the film, ‘Yavanika’ that was slated for release the next day. After handing over the prints to theatres from Thiruvananthapuram to Kottayam, they sat through the first show at Changanasserry.
For the first week the response to ‘Yavanika’ was lukewarm. Perhaps this had something to do with George’s reputation as a new wave director, who had with his previous films like ‘Swapnadanam,’ ‘Mela’ and ‘Kolangal’ made a strong presence in the new cinema movement. But soon word spread like wildfire. Shedding off the sluggish start, ‘Yavanika’ went on to become a huge box office hit.
More than just another commercial hit ‘Yavanika’ was noted for its superior artistic merit. Out of the 117 films released in 1982, this stood out. A brilliant and thought provoking crime investigation, ‘Yavanika’ broke new ground, immortalised the detective theme so vividly that the rest who followed had a cinematically tough time to be effective.
In the form of a detective thriller the film explores the backstage drama of a travelling drama troupe. The plot is structured around the search for an unpopular tabla player of the troupe who suddenly disappears. It is later found that he is murdered. ‘Yavanika’ is the search for the truth.
“I was staying in Madras those days when I got a call from Henry. He told me he was interested in making a Malayalam film with me and asked me if I had any subjects in hand. This led to a meeting at hotel Taj Connemara where I told him about two subjects. This included ‘AdaminteVariyellu’ and ‘Yavanika.’ Henry was keen about ‘Yavanika’ and gave me the go ahead,” remembers George.
George had the screenplay ready but wanted someone with theatre experience to help him with the dialogues. “I first met K. T. Mohammed with this request. He agreed but for various reasons could not get to work on it. By then we had fixed the shooting dates. This had to be postponed as the dialogues were not ready. Then I took it to S. L. Puram Sadanandan who agreed to do it.”
That did the trick. The strength of ‘Yavanika’ was the travelling theatre group, its harassed, despotic owner Vakkachan and the array of interesting characters who make up the group. The whole film revolves around this world. “Every character in the film, including the minor ones, is round. They leave an impression. Out of these tabalist Ayyappan and Vakkachan, brilliantly portrayed by Gopy and Thilakan, stand out. For Gopi, who had just won the Naitonal award for best actor, this was his first negative role. And Thilakan, who was very active in theatre, simply fitted into the role. In fact, the red curtain we used in the film was brought by Thilakan from his troupe. Vakkachan was modelled on Chachappan of Changanassery Geedha. I was a regular at this troupe even working with them. The seed for ‘Yavanika’ was sown then.”
Bharat Gopy has fond memories of the film. “The moustache that my character, Ayyappan, sported was real. George made me pose for still photographs in the costumes of Ayyappan and that was it. The entire shoot was in the suburbs of Thiruvananthapuram (Vattiyoorkavu). The theatre, the house to which I bring Jalaja, were all located nearby. If my memory serves me right, the name of the studio was ‘Sreekrishna Studio.’ What was strange about the film was that almost all the scenes in which I was there were shot between 8 p.m. and 5.30 a.m. Ayyappan was a creature of the night. He was a drunkard and a womaniser. Even the theatre scenes where shot at night. I’m not a person who sleeps during the day. Those days, I used to stay in Karamana. So, a car used to come to fetch me at 6.30 p.m. and by 8.30 the shoot would begin. Most of the cast and crew were sleepy. The only people who were alert and awake were George, cinematographer Ramachandra Babu and me.”
Gopy’s role was, as George called it, that of a ‘sadist.’ It was negative but certainly Ayyappan was the protagonist. “I used to have a fan in the Chennai airport, a security officer, named Premalata. This was soon after the release of ‘Kodiyettam.’ She was very helpful. Those days, I had to travel to Chennai quite often. A month after the release of ‘Yavanika,’ when I travelled to Chennai I found, to my surprise, she completely ignored me. So, I approached her and asked her the reason for her strange behaviour. She told me: ‘Sankarankutty of Kodiyettam was such a simple and innocent man. But after doing a character like ‘Ayyappan’ I don’t ever even want to see you. He personifies evil.’ I felt every happy and thanked her for that proved that I had succeeded in my role.”
Mammootty, who is set to don the role of a police officer for the 25th time began with ‘Yavanika.’ His Jacob Eeraly was actually the role that propelled his career. Another interesting character in the film is the flirt, Balagopalan, brilliantly played by Nedumudi Venu. “This was a role that George specially created for me. I was quite busy those days but George insisted that I be part of the film. George was a film maker who went into every minute detail of each character in the film. Then, there was camaraderie among everyone in the team. In fact, for dubbing all of us were at the studio together. All this contributed to the success of the film. The biggest compliment I got for the film was from George. He told me that I had imparted a different dimension to the role,” says Nedumudi Venu.
‘Yavanika’ was not just a commercial hit, it received rave reviews from discerning critics too. There was one critic who compared the narrative style of the film to Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon.’ There was another who included this film among the world’s best in the detective genre. “I’m not sure if the film had similarities with ‘Rashomon.’ But on this count I think it resembled ‘Citizen Kane’ more, though I did not think about all this when I was doing this film,” says George.
‘Yavanika’ endures as a trendsetter. When the Metro Film Society thoughtfully decided to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of this landmark film with a special screening and honouring the director, one is reminded of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s words, “You cannot list all achievements. You can only savour it.”