Makudathil Oru Vari Baki, the title of filmmaker Thoppil Ajayan’s biography, roughly translates to “the last mark left incomplete on the crown”. It’s a reference to the work of master sculptor Perumthachan, who intentionally left his statues incomplete because perfection was only for Gods to achieve. In Ajayan's life, the incompleteness was less intentional and more of a heartbreak. Makudathil Oru Vari Baki confides in the reader about a film Ajayan had dreamt of making since he was 10, a story that kept him alive but also destroyed him: “I never abandoned the dream to make Manikyakallu, even when doctors told me I had few years to live. Even now I haven’t…”.
Three weeks after he wrote this line, on December 13, 2018, Ajayan passed away and Malayalam cinema mourned the loss. There were condolence messages from everyone, including Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan. All this for a director with just one film in his filmography. In his 20-year career, Ajayan made just the National Award-winning Perumthachan (1991). When he died, he took with him all that remained of the greatest movie the world would never see: Manikyakallu (The Ruby).
Ajayan was 10 years old when he read Manikyakallu (The Ruby), the first book he completed after learning to read. Growing up as the great communist playwright Thoppil Bhasi’s son couldn’t have made for an easy childhood. The playwright was an active member of Kerala’s communist movement of the Forties and Fifties, and remained absent for long stretches, either because he had to go into hiding or because he had been imprisoned. Did the magical fantasy of Manikyakallu offer 10-year-old Ajayan the solace of escaping his monochrome reality? Or did he relate to the prince in the story who wanted to make his father proud?
Written by the revered MT Vasudevan Nair, under his pen name Sarala, Manikyakallu is about a prince and his minister, setting out of their kingdom for the first time for a grand adventure. On this journey, the prince comes across a deadly serpent with the mighty Manikyakallu attached to its hood. The powers of the ruby are such that its possessor can make rivers split and spring open hidden passageways that lead to lavish underwater palaces. A giant and a beautiful princess form a part of this journey too, as does the prince getting trapped in this underwater palace. In Makudathil Oru Vari Baki, when writing about how Manikyakallu awakened his world of imagination, Ajayan wrote, “It broke open a treasure trove of the brightest, most beautiful colours.”
The effect this fantasy had on the young boy is one few of us will never comprehend fully. In 1962, the film industry was transitioning from black and white to colour, and there was just one Malayalam movie in colour. Yet the young Ajayan had no trouble imagining the entire novel as a film, unfolding vividly and brought to life with a distinctive stark but magical imagery. He literally dreamt of the prince on horseback for years. “Right through school, college and my work as an assistant director, Manikyakallu kept pursuing me,” Ajayan wrote in his biography. “Rather, it’s more fitting to say that I had always been in search of Manikyakallu.”
It was the quest to make Manikyakallu that led Ajayan to choose photography for hobby class in college. It was the same pursuit that led Ajayan to Adyar Film Institute, where he became something of a legend. Writer-director Ranjan Pramod studied in the same institute many years later. “There was a halo that surrounded discussions about Ajayan, even decades after he passed out,” said Pramod about his super senior. “I remember one such chat with the Institute’s projectionist, who referred to Ajayan as my ‘genius oorukaaran’ (countryman). He even narrated the plot of Ajayan’s diploma film: It was about a man’s conflict when he’s burying a corpse. At the last second, he feels he saw the corpse blink. The rest is about what this doubt did to him.”
Ajayan graduated from the Institute with a gold medal. Armed with his degree, the young director started working towards realising his dream of making a film of Manikyakallu. The first step was to reach MT Vasudevan Nair. From early on, Ajayan knew only MT could write the screenplay for the film in Ajayan’s mind. As an advance to pay the writer, he had saved Rs. 5,000 from his scholarship. “Usually, when someone graduates from a film institute after being trained by big directors, they discuss scripts that can get them the dates of the biggest superstar of the time. But when Ajayan came to me, it was for a children’s fantasy. The idea immediately interested me,” wrote Nair in a note about Ajayan in Makudathil Oru Vari Baki. The two of them started working on adapting Nair’s novel into a screenplay.
In the biography, Ajayan remembers those days with Nair fondly. These visits were sometimes short but occasionally, Ajayan would do week-long stints. The writer, known for his meticulous research, discussed with Ajayan the possibilities of bringing fantastical elements to screen. They talked about bringing to life multiple magical creatures and an other-worldly underwater kingdom — visions that were beyond the technical scope of Indian cinema at the time and would stretch even Hollywood’s skills with computer generated images (CGI). We’re talking about a period in the 80’s when a film like Labyrinth (1986) was being celebrated for introducing the first-ever, CGI animal (an owl seen during the film’s opening credits). To use graphics to show a river splitting into two would have required the same technical wizardry (and money) that James Cameron needed to make The Abyss (1989), which created water using CGI for the first time. “The only way to do it was with digital graphics,” Ajayan concluded.
Ajayan and Nair emerged from their journeying into magical storytelling with a completed screenplay of Manikyakallu. It must have felt like a triumph to the young filmmaker. The script made his dream a step closer to becoming reality, especially when Seven Arts, a formidable production house of the time, expressed interest in the project. Nair’s trust in Ajayan gave the younger man a solid footing in the business, even if he was untested. As the son of Thoppil Bhasi and as the beloved associate of directors Bharathan and Padmarajan, there was a skewed logic in trusting a first-timer with the biggest ever budget for Malayalam cinema. However, when the conversation turned to the actual budgets that the film demanded, Seven Arts backed out. A real estate operator named Babu from Madras too came forward. Ajayan is said to have been approached by Superstar Mohanlal himself when news broke that Nair had written the screenplay for Manikyakallu. “This was a phase of Malayalam cinema when there was an ongoing joke that anyone could become a great director with MT’s script,” remembered Pramod. “No matter who directed, be it IV Sasi, Hariharan or Bharathan, the credit would go to the writing.”
Yet just as magically as the doors had started to open, Ajayan found them slowly shutting before him, one after another. The producer from Madras opted against the project when he met with an accident. Other producers felt the project was beyond business logic, with a misfire sure to shut them down. Just as the prince in the novel found himself trapped in the palace, Ajayan too found himself stuck in development purgatory.
Years passed and Ajayan dealt with his disappointment by turning to alcohol.“When I was working as an associate in movies, I drank to remember all the wonderful memories. But after a point, I began to drink to forget,” he wrote in his biography. Around 1990, a ray of hope came in the form of a producer named Jayakumar (same name as that of the prince), who came to Ajayan with the offer of a budget big enough for a less ambitious Malayalam film. Placing Manikyakallu on the back burner, Ajayan returned to Nair and asked if the writer would adapt the story of a master sculptor named Perumthachan, a character from folklore with a lot of dramatic possibility. It is also the story about ego, culminating with the sculptor killing his own son.
Nair obliged and the film was made with relative ease. Perumthachan (1991) snowballed into a big success, running for more than 100 days in theatres around Kerala. Critical acclaim and awards followed. The film got the relatively new Santosh Sivan his first National Award for cinematography and Ajayan won the National Award for best debut filmmaker, becoming the first Malayali to win the latter. Perumthachan was also nominated for the Golden Leopard prize at Locarno Film Festival, further cementing Ajayan’s debut as one of Malayalam cinema’s finest.
One of many who saw the film and were moved by it was a business tycoon named ‘Good Knight’ Mohan, who had made a fortune creating and then marketing mosquito repellents. Mohan had been in love with cinema since he was a child and in recent years, he’d ventured into film production and found success. With hits in Malayalam (Kilukkam,1991; Iyer The Great,1990) and later Hindi (Gardish,1993; Chandi Bar, 2001), he seemed perfectly suited to realising Ajayan’s vision for Manikyakallu. “Mohan watched an earlier cut of Perumthachan and became very interested in the idea of making Manikyakallu,” Ajayan wrote. “He said he would do anything to make it.”
Box office success, critical acclaim and international acceptance: It’s the holy trinity for a filmmaker to get just about any film made thereafter. Especially when the filmmaker’s paths cross with a producer who is riding high on a major hit. Flush with funds from the mega success of Priyadarshan-Mohanlal’s 1991 comedy Kilukkam, Mohan joined Ajayan in the quest to make Manikyakallu. Mohan too had strong feelings for the fantasy which he had also read as a schoolboy. The director-producer duo met Nair and in one of their earlier interactions, Mohan suggested a few changes to the screenplay. “I told MT that the fantasy begins with grand visuals of a serpent that can swallow two entire horses, yet it ends on a rather sober note,” Mohan says in his autobiography series Charithram Enniloode. “MT had written the original many years ago and he was open to the point I had put across. He even incorporated a few changes and I see it, that’s a sign of his greatness.”
Meanwhile, Ajayan continued to work on the film’s creative side, identifying Madhu Ambat as cinematographer. Ambat, the celebrated cinematographer of films like Vaishali (1989) and later Amaram (1992), had created a reputation for his ability to marry technology with art. He had also been the brain behind the sci-fi song ‘Vegam Vegam’ (inspired by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial, 1982) and ‘Rathri Nerathil’ in Mani Ratnam’s Anjali (1990). As Ajayan saw it, Manikyakallu was “MT’s dreamscape, Madhu Ambat’s technique and my frames.”
Uninspired by the technological standards of Indian post-production, Ajayan decided only technicians from Hollywood had the know-how to make it happen. Convinced and armed with the contact of one such technician, Mohan, Ajayan and Ambat travelled to California in the early Nineties to gauge the feasibility of getting the visual effects done in America. Mohan had set up a meeting with a man named Richard Edlund (spelled Island* in Ajayan’s biography), one of the founders of Industrial Light And Magic (his partners were Spielberg and Cameron). When Mohan met Edlund, he was working on the VFX of Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger (1993), a sight that left the producer stunned.
In his version, Mohan hints that Edlund indicated the Indian team wasn’t fully prepared to pull off the challenges of a VFX spectacle. Ajayan’s takeaway from the same meetings was different. He sensed Mohan’s enthusiasm slip the moment the producer realised how expensive it would be to do what they’d dreamed of earlier. One night in California, following the team’s meeting with Edlund, the fate of Manikyakallu changed. “We went back to the hotel after meeting Edlund and Ajayan started speaking as though Edlund knew nothing. He said he could make better films and he had also been drinking heavily. The argument had got to such a point that I knew there was no way I could trust Ajayan to make this film,” said Mohan in the series.
Ajayan, on the other hand, wrote that he realised Mohan’s involvements threatened to dilute the film’s soul. “He wanted to make the film in five languages with the superstars in each industry playing the prince. In Hindi, he wanted Salman Khan for the role. This was a film about children and I could not agree with what Mohan wanted to do. He was thinking like a businessman,” he said in a video interview.
Matters got worse once they returned to India, which Ajayan realised when he attended ‘Good Knight’ Mohan’s party to celebrate Kilukkam. Mohan’s behaviour was cold and the curt ‘good night’ that the producer said to Ajayan would come to mean a lot more with each passing day. Ajayan went home that night to confess to his wife that Manikyakallu might not happen. It was also the first time that he experienced severe heart pain.
A film falling through after some initial meetings is not shocking in the fickle world of show business, but when Ajayan read about rumours that director Priyadarshan was taking over Manikyakallu, he felt betrayed. Having trusted Mohan, Ajayan had shared the original screenplay freely, which meant the producer had a script. Mohan had also pulled a move that left Ajayan vulnerable — he had bought the rights to make Manikyakallu in all other languages expect for Malayalam from Nair. “Something I curse myself about to this day,” Ajayan wrote.
Mohan concurs that he met Edlund again, this time with Priyadarshan. Priyadarshan too confirmed meeting Edlund, although he did not say if it was for Manikyakallu. When the blow landed on Ajayan finally, it came as a shock despite all the rumours. “One day, Mohan sent a boy to get some papers signed. It was to transfer my rights for the Malayalam version to him. Nowhere in that document was my name mentioned as director,” Ajayan says in this video interview. From sitting with Nair to turn the book Manikyakallu into a movie, to being given hope that he’d realise his vision, to losing all claims upon Manikyakallu was too much for the director. Just like how the ruby gets stolen from the prince in the tale, Ajayan’s Manikyakallu too had been snatched away.
“Call it megalomania but the movie business has a way of shattering you when you have to deal with failure,” said Pramod, referring to his own depression after the failure of his film Photographer (2006). “Until then, I had seen a lot of success as a writer. You feel you know best and you try to control all aspects of the movie. But when it doesn’t turn out the way it does, it breaks you.”
Director Mathukutty Xavier, who won the same National Award Ajayan won for his movie Helen (2019, remade in Hindi as the Disney+ Hotstar feature, Milli), feels a filmmaker today must have the strength to move on. “But the emotions are different when it comes to that one, special film,” he said. “It is to make that one film that most of us become a filmmaker in the first place; that’s the idea that gives people the strength to quit jobs, to take loans and to put everything on the line. As a director, you may be capable of making a movie, just for survival. But the absolute classics have been the result of a filmmaker’s lifelong obsession, that is often bigger to them than their life itself.”
Ajayan sank deeper into alcoholism, which had the unfortunate result of making other producers wary of him. No one came forward to take the risk of backing Ajayan’s dream project. At one point years later, Ajayan even considered directing a soap opera when Perunthachan’s producer returned with the best he could offer. The drones of admirers who kept asking Ajayan about his second film, didn’t amount to anything. Meanwhile, his health suffered. Doctors discovered blockages in his heart and said he had approximately five years to live.
Ajayan never got to make Manikyakallu, a dream that lasted 56 years. In Nair’s book, the prince’s best friend retrieves the ruby from enemy territory and saves the prince at the end of the fairy tale, but there was no one to rescue Ajayan. Even so, it was the impossible hope of making Manikyakallu that kept him alive for much longer than the doctors’ predictions. “The film is still playing in my head with images that continue to astonish me,” wrote Ajayan in the penultimate chapter of his biography, written three weeks before he passed away. “I can clearly see breathtaking visuals that could rival the quicksand scene of Lawrence Of Arabia. I can still hear the characters talking. I am the only audience of Manikyakallu.”