December 23, 2018 marks 25 years since the release of one of the most iconic films ever produced in Malayalam cinema. Despite multiple attempts to remake the film in different languages, it is safe to say no one has come close to recreating the magic, fantasy and drama of Manichitrathazhu.
Here, we delve into some of the behind-the-scenes stories, as explained in Fazil's book Manichitrathazhum Mattu Ormakalum (published by Mathrubhumi books). We are republishing the passages with permission.
1. Madhu Muttam's link to the story: "How about doing something on "Chatheneru"? Madhu, the film's writer, asked Fazil one day. He had this idea about a chathan/ghost/witch who would scare people with little tricks. But it was all the handiwork of regular men, and this was linked to mental health issues. That was the first link to the story.
2. 'Meda' as a muse: Next to Muttam, writer Madhu Muttam's home, there is a Meda (mansion). During the time of the king, it was witness to a gruesome murder. Marumakkathayam was the tradition then but the Karanavar, Alummoottil Channar, decided to divide his money among his sons rather than his nephews. The nephews summoned people and slayed the Karanavar. The culprits were caught but the Karanavar's nephew claimed that he single-handedly killed him, making him a hero in those parts. With time, the sprawling bungalow turned into a ghost house. As a child, Madhu was fascinated by the Meda and the tales surrounding it. This triggered the story of Manichitrathazhu.
3. The first scene written was the first scene that was shot: Unnithan (Innocent) reaches Madampilly with Raghavan, reciting kathakali verses, and it later turns into a hilarious ghostly encounter. This scene, written by Madhu, was recreated verbatim on screen. "I was blown away by the purity of his humour. There couldn't be a better opening to a film that chronicles such a complex psychological issue," Fazil writes.
4. Shobana's iconic transformation scene: Shobana was extremely nervous before the shoot. She made Fazil recite the scene countless times. Not just that, she made Fazil enact that instance where she goes 'Innaikku Durgashtami…', and even observed how the director's fingers moved. But she wasn't sure about hauling the bed by herself. Once you transform into Nagavalli, you will be able to lift it with your little finger," Fazil assured her. And just as he predicted, she lifted the bed effortlessly only to realise that the director had planted his assistant Ali to lift it. "She was neither acting nor living in that scene, just shining," he writes.
5. The poem that helped facilitate the story: Madhu came in one day with a paper tucked in a magazine. That was the iconic song—"Varuvanillarumingoru Nalumee Vazhi…." Fazil recounts it thus—"I felt an unusual form of nostalgia creeping inside me. Isn't the story of Ganga what we have been searching for, hidden in this?," he asked Madhu. That night, Madhu weaved the tale of young Ganga, her grandmother, her Calcutta jaunt, her first psychic attack and her visit to Madampilly. MG Radhakrishnan composed the song without changing a word.
6. Cracking the climax: They were still contemplating the complexity of shooting the climax, without the aid of graphics, when Suresh Gopi paid a surprise visit. After a chat, as he was about to step out, Fazil told him about this issue. The actor put his hands on his chest, paused briefly and asked— "How about placing both on the plank and rolling it?"
7. When KPAC threw a fit: Do you recall that famous bathroom scene where Mohanlal and KPAC Lalitha stand on either side of the wall, engaged in a hilarious conversation? Did you know that she was not physically present there during the shoot? Fazil says, "It happened at the Chennai dubbing studio. I wasn't present that day. When she came to this scene, she was taken aback and asked: "When did you shoot this? I wasn't aware." What seemed like a joke soon turned serious as she got up and refused to dub. "Why wasn't I told about this? You avoided me and did this on the sly. Why should I dub for a scene in which I haven't acted. I should be paid extra for it." She fumed. That's when associate director Shaji intervened—"Isn't what the director did a good thing? He didn't include your bathing scene?" That broke the tension and Lalitha even admitted that she was upset she couldn't be part of such a great scene.
8. How the music director cautioned Fazil about the film: When Fazil approached MG Radhakrishnan to compose the music, he said—"I know you from your mimicry days and out of affection I am warning you to not make this film. The common man will not be able to decipher this. It will be a huge flop." Finally, Fazil had to seek the help of his younger brother, singer MG Sreekumar, to convince him to take it up.
9. Man behind the title: It was lyricist Bichu Thirumala who came up with the title—Manichitrathazhu. Remember the Yesudas melody—"Pazhamtamizh Pattizhayum….Manichitrathazhinullilverutheynilavaramainamayangi…"
10. Shooting at Vasan house: Though most of the portions were filmed at the Padmanabhapuram Palace and The Hill Palace, the first song picturised on Shobana, 'Varuvanilla' was shot at Vasan House in Chennai. It was owned by SS Vasan, the owner of Gemini studios. It was the succession of ornate doors that was a clincher for Fazil. They also created the Karanavar's and Nagavalli's rooms inside it.
11. Superstition strikes: The first shot was rife with tension as Shobana arrived 30 minutes late. It was later discovered that her mother was unhappy about taking the first shot at Vasan house as none of the films which began its shoot there worked at the box office. Finally, the crew had to cajole the mother-daughter duo and convince them to shoot.
12. That comical scene with Bhasura and Unnithan: This scene where the former complains to Dasappan (Ganesh Kumar) that Unnithan isn't talking since morning was canned by Anandakuttan and directed by Siddique-Lal. It was to accommodate Thilakan and shoot that famous pre-climax scene between Mohanlal and Thilakan that Fazil decided to hand over the reigns to his shishyas. But not a word written by Madhu Muttam was altered. They simply transferred it to screen.
13. Sweating over the casting for dancer Ramanathan: They scouted the length and breadth of South India to find their Ramanathan. Finally, when Fazil asked Shobana's help, she was the one who suggested Kannada actor Sridhar.
14. Working with Sridhar: Fazil recalls an interesting anecdote—"It was the dialogue sequence where Dr Sunny is explaining Ganga's personality disorder to Ramanathan and Nakulan. That was Sridhar's first scene and he neither spoke nor smiled at me. Though unsure at first about his acting, I realised that he was doing exactly what was right. But it was a different man I saw on the day the dance scene (at the Navarathri Mandapam at Padmanabhapuram Palace) was to be filmed. He entered in all his ornamental finery, said namaste, touched my feet and the camera. That's when I realised that dance was his heart and soul. Acting came much later. That made me warm up to him.
15. The edit of the 'Thom Thom' song: Fazil wanted someone who understood the nuances of dance and music to edit the song and turned to Shobana for help. She did it beautifully. When they saw the final version at the editing table, Shobana quipped— "Sir, it's beautiful, thanks to me."
16. Dr Sunny explaining Ganga's complex mental health issue: When Mohanlal started reciting the dialogues, Fazil felt there was a lag. So he thought of it as a rehearsal before the actual scene. "Lal, I think there was a lag between the dialogues," Fazil told Mohanlal. "I don't remember anything. If you want, we will do it again." That astonished Fazil. How can an actor not remember what he just did? That's when Fazil realised his actor had already transformed into Dr Sunny.
17. The iconic climax scene: It was shot in ten days. "If I were to talk about Shobana's acting prowess, it might require another book." For that scene, where she is sitting on the kolam as Nagavalli, the shooting would stretch to midnight. She would recite dance stanzas, swinging her legs and Fazil instructed Shobana to repeat those mannerisms during the final scene, where she waits for Shankaran Thampi's arrival. During the re-recording, a gobsmacked music director Johnson, after watching this transformation, asked Fazil—"Is she waiting for the kill?"
18. An upset Ilaiyaraaja: After watching the film, the maestro was upset with Fazil for not calling him for the film—"Such films are a challenge to any musician. How long will I have to wait for something like this?"
19. Veena for horror: The only instrument used was the Veena to create an atmosphere of horror at Thekkini.
20. Promoting tourism at the palace: When award-winning author KR Meera visited The Padmanabhapuram Palace, instead of its history, she was briefed about the exact locations where Manichitrathazhu was shot. That tradition among guides continues to this day.