When in Kerala, if you hear someone talking about “Chemmeen”, they could be referring to two things. One could be delicious succulent prawns the coastline is so famous for. The other could be a technicolour film made in 1965. Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen is one of those landmark regional Indian films every movie buff has heard of, if not seen, at least once in their lives.
But there is a third variant of the word too. And you will only stumble upon it in Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere, a resort in the backwaters of Valayar in the Alleppey district of Kerala. The hotel, which is on the banks of the Lake Vembanad has a Chemmeen themed restaurant, called — you guessed it — Chemmeen. Life-size posters of the film adorn the walls of this speciality seafood restaurant. Housed in an open courtyard, at the centre of which stands a live grill, the eatery overlooks the palm-fringed lake and Chinese fishing nets. As I sat there, I couldn’t help thinking about the grainy Youtube print I had first watched Chemmeen the film on.
A love triangle set along the rugged coastline of Kerala, songs by Manna Dey, a renowned Indian playback singer, and simply the antiquity of the time it was set in — Chemmeen had the makings of a classic. Based on a novel, it was one of the first Malayalam films to be made in colour and won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Feature Film at the National Film Awards in 1965. About a community of fisherfolk, the movie got as much commercial success as it got critical acclaim, a rare combination of achievements which only a few films succeed in getting. The film was later dubbed in Hindi as Chemmeen Lehren, and in English as The Anger of the Sea.
The story is based on a very popular book by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. And that was probably why people held very high expectations for the film as well. But Ramu Kariat’s work was nothing short of a masterpiece, and Chemmeen is considered to be one of the most notable creative films in Malayalam. The team behind it had known names like Hrishikesh Mukherjee as editor, Marcus Bartley as cinematographer and Salil Chaudhury as music director.
The film has a very layered narrative: at one level it is a heart-wrenching love story about a woman, Karuthamma who is torn between two men, her lover (played by Madhu) and her husband (played by Sathyan), both from very different backgrounds. At another level, it’s about human greed. An ambitious fisherman whose only aim in life is to possess a boat and a net, an obsessive lover who is “reunited” with his beau only in death, and a frustrated husband, whose suspicions about his wife’s fidelity haunt him through his life. Human emotions and personal lives, societal constraints and communal ties — Chemmeen depicts it all wonderfully. What also contributed to Chemmeen’s resounding success (touted as one of the 100 greatest films by the IBN network) was it ensemble cast which consisted of veteran actors of the Malayalam film industry — Kottarakkara, Sathyan, Madhu, S.P. Pillai, Adoor Bhavani, Pankajam and so on. The popular Malayalam actress Sheela who plays Karuthamma gave a sterling performance. She was the typical voluptuous South Indian beauty, and holds a Guinness World Record for acting in no less than 410 movies, all in main roles.
At Vasundhara Resort, Chemmeen the restaurant is open only for dinner from 7 to 11 pm. The menu has a variety of seafood to choose from — fish, prawns, mussels, squid, crab — all grilled to perfection. Whether you want it in salty butter, or a spicy south Indian marinade, or even curried in North Indian style, the choice is yours. As I gorged on the catch of the day — a fleshy pomfret spiced with mustard seeds, curry leaves, tomatoes and turmeric — made fresh from the live grill counter, I had no qualms about saying that Vasundhara’s Chemmeen was a very fitting tribute to Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen.